When I get the chance to speak with Jose Luis Sanchez-Ronquillo while he is still in the U.S., he looks happy to have a visitor. He also looks weary. It’s a Sunday morning in late July 2017; for weeks he’s been holed up at a Monroe County Jail facility several miles outside of town, secluded amid back roads.
Inside the building’s lobby a scattering of people, mostly young women and kids, almost all speaking Spanish, wait on spartan benches. After several minutes a brusque female guard announces it’s time for the next visitation shift and that the next group should line up. But she says this only in English, and for several seconds the group looks around nervously.
The visitation room is a narrow space with three sets of pay phones behind a thick glass wall, each receiver connected to another on the opposite side of the glass. A woman from the previous group lingers too long; the guard warns that if she doesn’t leave she won’t be allowed back. The new group of detainees shuffles in, taking their places at the phones. Jose Luis is the last to appear: He’s short and slightly stocky with kind dark eyes and a crop of messy black hair, and wears a green and white jumpsuit, identical to the others.
As he approaches the phone, he offers a small smile. We’ve never met before; after a brief confusion, he gestures that he has to dial his end first so that I can pick up.
“¿Hola, Jose Luis?”
For 30 minutes I stumble through questions: “How are you holding up? What’s your routine like? What do you know about the case?”
Jose Luis is facing deportation to Mexico. He’s friendly but not particularly talkative. He’s doing OK, he says, but his expression seems solemn. Everyone is woken by the guards at 6 a.m., followed by breakfast at 7 a.m., after which sometimes, he goes back to sleep. In the afternoons, he spends time in Bible study, his favorite part of the day. During recreation hour, he usually just walks. At the last facility, in Louisiana, at least he could play soccer or basketball with the other men; here, the guards start yelling if anyone talks too loud.
He speaks about his family — his wife Guisela and their two sons, Jose Luis and Charlie — and his voice comes to life. He knows Jose Luis is starting high school soon, and that Charlie joined a soccer team. He tells me he knows how much his family and the community support him. This is what keeps him going. “Todo lo que hago, [es] por mis hijos,” he says. Everything I do is for my children.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he tells me. He’s optimistic, he says, because of his clean record and deep community ties, although often his mind does go to a dark place: “They’re alone. They need me. What’s going to happen to my kids?” Before the guard steps in, I ask if he ever imagines the moment when he’ll finally be released. “No pienso en esto,” he says quickly. I don’t think about this.
A month later, he had been deported and was living in Mexico City, working as a day laborer. The future of his Ann Arbor family was unclear.
In 1998, long before Congress debated the Dream Act or presidential candidates promised a massive border wall, an ambitious teenager from central Mexico decided to make the trip north. Jose Luis Sanchez-Ronquillo grew up in Puebla, a picturesque city southeast of Mexico City. Like so many of his countrymen, he was hungry for opportunity. An older cousin had established a life in Michigan and agreed to help him cross. After traveling 20 hours from Puebla, Jose Luis crossed the border at Piedras Negras and began walking through the southwest Texas desert. He traveled to Michigan, where, with the help of his cousin, he established a new life, finding work at a restaurant. He was 16.
Not long after, Guisela Anguiano made her own trip north. She was in her early 20s, and also from Puebla. She made her way to San Francisco and began working as a seamstress in a factory. A couple years later, she got a call out of the blue from a kid she used to know in Puebla. “¡Ven para acá!” Jose Luis implored her. Come here!
Guisela had been eager to see a different part of the country and planned to vacation with Jose Luis for a couple weeks. But when she saw Jose Luis, she realized he wasn’t the same kid from Puebla: he was taller, and despite his age, acted less like a teenager than like a man — he was respectful, attentive, kind. Guisela liked that Michigan was different from California. She was also falling in love. At a party hosted by some Mexican friends, Jose Luis brought up a new subject.
“¿Te gustaría ser mi esposa?” Would you like to be my wife?
“¿Me estás bromeando, verdad?” You’re joking me, right?
He wasn’t. Guisela stayed, and the following October, she gave birth to Jose Luis Jr.; four years later, Charlie was born. The family settled into a tiny apartment and into their new life in Ann Arbor. Jose Luis kept steady work at the restaurant; he was treated well and had a close relationship with his boss. The family became active with St. Mary Student Parish. As the kids got older they enrolled at Bach, a close-knit elementary school on the city’s west side. Guisela often reached out to new Latino families, helping with errands or offering advice on where to find the right foods.
The issue of the family’s documentation never came up.
“It’s not something you really ask people,” says Leticia Valdez, whose son Felix entered kindergarten with Charlie. “They were just like any other family at Bach.”
On a cloudy June afternoon in 2009, the Sanchez-Ronquillos’ table was set for dinner when there was a loud knock on the door. It was a female U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, who abruptly thrust her foot inside of the door to jam it open, according to Guisela. She was holding a document and a photo of Jose Luis.
“Jose Luis Sanchez-Ronquillo?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“You’re under arrest.”
Two weeks earlier, Jose Luis had been at Papio’s, a restaurant and salsa club in Ypsilanti, when he got into an argument at the bar with three other men. According to a police report, the argument resumed in the parking lot, where the men were inside a Chevy Tahoe. One man tried to strike Jose Luis in the head with a beer bottle, and Jose Luis kicked the front passenger side of the Tahoe, scuffing it. He was later arrested and taken into custody.
Charges were never filed, but the Sanchez-Ronquillos’ life in America was effectively changed forever. The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office determined that Jose Luis was undocumented, and passed his information along to ICE, who began a deportation case. In August 2012, a judge ordered his removal. Sanchez-Ronquillo appealed, but a judge upheld the decision; in February 2014, he learned he was facing an imminent deportation.
Guisela called the church in a panic. The Bach Parent Teacher Organization also mobilized. Soon multiple organizations, including the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Michigan United, and the Dream Activists, contributed to what became a frenetic campaign: Bach school was plastered with flyers and supporters were directed to call politicians and immigration officials.
The idea was to prove to ICE that removing Jose Luis would create an extreme hardship for his family. “It’s an extremely high standard that’s reserved for a very small portion of the population,” Sanchez-Ronquillo’s lawyer Tamara French told MLive.
In a matter of days, the campaign expanded into a remarkable community-wide effort. John Hieftje, Ann Arbor’s mayor, signed a letter of support. ICE was flooded with calls. But the family was spiraling into a panic: Jose Luis Jr., then a sixth-grader, was diagnosed with severe depression. Charlie, normally a bright and engaged second-grader, was having nightmares and refused to do schoolwork.
Jose Luis’s departing flight was scheduled for Feb. 10. Supporters scrambled to pull together a Feb. 5 rally at the Bach school gym — a last-ditch effort to draw attention to the case.
On Wednesday morning, Jose Luis got an unexpected call.
“Sí, soy yo.”
It was an ICE representative. The deportation had been suspended.
That afternoon, Jose Luis walked into the Bach school gym wearing a black leather jacket and Detroit Tigers hat. Some 200 families and community members burst into cheers. The principal gave a short speech. So did Jose Luis Jr., whose face was visibly relieved. When Guisela addressed the crowd she began rattling off a long list of everyone the family wished to thank. She could barely get the words out between tears.
But Sanchez-Ronquillo hadn’t actually won any new residency status. ICE had granted a one-year reprieve, to be followed by annual check-ins. As long as he maintained his clean record, it seemed near impossible the government would pursue removal again.
The family settled back into their lives: Jose Luis working at the restaurant, the kids focusing on school. Weekends were reserved for soccer, church, and visits to favorite restaurants, including La Familia in southwest Detroit, where Jose Luis ordered his beloved ceviche.
Sanchez-Ronquillo’s first check-in with ICE, in 2015, lasted about 10 minutes. So did the second, in early 2016. To celebrate Charlie’s birthday, the family took a trip to Florida. They paced around Universal Orlando, pausing in front of the Incredible Hulk roller coaster. Only Charlie and Guisela ended up riding. “My brother and my dad chickened out,” Charlie told me later.
Around the same time, then candidate Trump was promising a new vision for America, with a dramatically harsher immigration protocol. In 2014, President Obama issued an executive order that ICE prioritize convicted felons for deportation. Now, Trump was promising to deport all undocumented residents.
A month after he was inaugurated, Trump issued a landmark executive order: Officials were directed to enforce immigration code “to the maximum extent permitted by law.” Instead of focusing on felons, ICE was free to pursue even old cases that had been effectively stalled. One longtime Ann Arbor family man, Jordanian national Yousef Ajin, had already been detained.
At his first check-in of 2017, Sanchez-Ronquillo was asked for his Mexican passport, which he didn’t have. “Do you know that I can arrest you if I want?” an agent told him, according to Guisela, “but I’m not going to, because you have a good record.” The family was confident that as long as Jose Luis kept following directions he would be spared. He was told to return to ICE’s Detroit office on April 19.
Early that morning, Jose Luis hugged his kids before they went to school, then drove 45 minutes to downtown Detroit. He parked on a side street and walked to the Rosa Parks Federal Building, on Jefferson Avenue, where he met up with French.
Jose Luis’ name was called, and they were directed to a different room. An ICE agent asked him to present a plane ticket to Mexico. When Sanchez-Ronquillo failed to present one, he was promptly handcuffed. Before he was taken into custody, Jose Luis was allowed to call Guisela. “They arrested me,” he told his wife. Guisela was in shock. “Pero cómo?” — But how? “They never told us there was any risk. How is this possible?”
Guisela called the church, Valdez, Bach school, WICIR. She was practically in hysterics when she met with a small group of supporters inside the principal’s office. The group was trying to determine a course of action: There was a chance that Jose Luis might be able to avoid detention if Guisela presented the agency with a one-way airline ticket for him to voluntarily leave the same day. Frantic calls revealed it was impossible to make a same-day flight; would ICE honor that deal if the flight left tomorrow? And what if the supposed deal was really just a ruse to entrap Guisela? What would happen to Jose Luis if he was kept in custody? What did Guisela want to do?
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” she repeated.
The group decided to buy a refundable ticket that left the next morning. Guisela would drive to Detroit, accompanied by two friends, to present the ticket and fetch Jose Luis’ car. Bach’s principal called Charlie into the office. Guisela calmly told her youngest son that his father had been arrested. In a tiny voice, Charlie asked when he was coming back.
“Not for a long time.”
“I don’t know.”
Charlie went to Valdez’s house to play with Felix and a couple other classmates while Guisela traveled to Detroit, where she arrived at an ICE office that had just closed. It was around six when she pulled back up to her house. From the doorway, the boys watched their mother walk up alone.
“Mami,” they said, “¿dónde está Papi?” Where’s Dad?
Even after dozens of cities across the country — Ann Arbor among them — passed resolutions vowing to resist a federal policy they considered inhumane, immigration arrests soared. And despite Trump’s promise to go after “bad hombres,” the raids were frequently netting those who had committed no violations.
Under the Obama rules, French told me, non-criminal undoc-umented immigrants “lived in zero fear … and now the Trump policy is, ‘arrest everyone you can.’ ”
The tactics used also marked a seismic shift. In Los Angeles, agents pulled over and arrested a man who was driving his 13-year-old daughter to school; in Ann Arbor, agents ate breakfast at Sava’s restaurant, then arrested three workers from the kitchen.
Charlie’s First Communion had been scheduled for April 23, the Sunday after his dad was detained. The family had been anticipating the moment for years. On Sunday morning, Guisela walked into Charlie’s room. “Are you ready?” Charlie could barely get out of bed. “No, Mami,” he answered. “I can’t do it without my dad.”
Both kids again spiraled into emotional problems. For several days Jose Luis Jr. and Charlie couldn’t sleep at night; when it was time to eat, they refused. They didn’t know if their dad was eating, they protested, so they wouldn’t, either.
That night Guisela’s sons told her that if their dad didn’t come back they wanted to die. The words shook Guisela like nothing else had. “It’s not possible,” she thought. “Mi vida, mi familia. [My life, my family.] They’re destroying my family.”
Jose Luis had been transported to the St. Clair County jail, in Port Huron, where on a phone call with Guisela, he told her that rather than accept deportation, he now wanted to stay and fight, to do everything he could to stay with his kids.
Friends started another furious campaign. Ann Arbor mayor Christopher Taylor called, Bach school sent out a notice.
Within days, supporters were in touch with the group Stop Trump Ann Arbor, who helped facilitate a connection with lawyers from BAMN (By Any Mean Necessary), who agreed to take the case. But ICE had indicated Sanchez-Ronquillo could be deported as early as the following Tuesday. Supporters put together an emergency rally for Monday afternoon, outside of the Rosa Parks Federal Building.
While attorney Monica Smith filed a petition for a habeas corpus writ — a legal objection to someone’s detention — some two dozen Sanchez-Ronquillo supporters marched and chanted.
By Wednesday, Sanchez-Ronquillo had been moved to another ICE detention center in rural Louisiana. Early the following week, federal judge David Lawson granted the request for an emergency stay, temporarily delaying any removal. It was a big victory, but the legal battle was just beginning.
Judge Lawson agreed to hold a hearing Tuesday, May 16, the day before Sanchez-Ronquillo was supposed to be deported. Some 200 supporters showed up, including two busloads of Pioneer High School classmates of Jose Luis Jr. Lawson indicated that he would likely issue a ruling that day. Shanta Driver, an attorney with BAMN who had taken up Sanchez-Ronquillo’s case, assumed that meant bad news. She was outside the courthouse speaking with reporters when she found out Lawson had decided not to rule on the matter yet after all — another victory. Supporters erupted.
“This is so blatantly and obviously unfair and unnecessary to tear apart this family,” Driver told me later. “I think that was really underscored by having a couple hundred people outside of the court.”
Soon, there was more good news. In early June, Jose Luis called Guisela from Louisiana to say he was being transported to Monroe, Mich. He would be just an hour’s drive from his family — and 2,000 miles from the Mexican border.
“Really?” Guisela responded. “!Qué bueno!” How great!
The relocation added to a growing optimism. The fact that Sanchez-Ronquillo had been brought to Monroe seemed to indicate the government was conceding that its removal effort was stalled. “I think he’s in Monroe until they release him,” Driver told me last summer. “That is our hope.”
The evening of June 17, supporters headed to Monroe to rally outside the ICE facility. Charlie and Jose Luis Jr. traveled with a family friend. From inside the facility, Jose Luis saw the commotion; speaking to his kids on the phone, he was excited to confirm he had seen the car they were riding in. “But I couldn’t see them,” Sanchez-Ronquillo told me later.
On a hot July afternoon, Guisela and the boys had gathered inside their living room, surrounded by family photos and a whirring fish tank. The mood was buoyant. Charlie, after ordering a pizza, told me that he missed his dad but he wasn’t crying anymore, “because I know he’s coming back.” Guisela beamed when I asked about her plans for when her husband came home. She emphasized that she and the kids didn’t really understand why the government wanted to deport her husband: “And they’re asking, ‘why? If my dad is good, if my dad didn’t do anything, he only works, he only takes us to school, takes us to sports, takes us everywhere, then why?’ ”
But still, she had insisted, she was optimistic the fight would pay off. “More than anything, I have faith. He’s going to come back.”
The night of Tuesday, Aug. 8, Guisela was up late, waiting for her phone to ring. Jose Luis had been scheduled to be moved to Texas and was supposed to call once he arrived, just like he always had. Around 1 a.m., the phone finally rang. But Jose Luis wasn’t in Texas, he was in Mexico, just across the border in Nuevo Laredo.
Guisela was in disbelief. Jose Luis Jr. and Charlie had been up waiting, too. They quickly understood what had happened and broke into tears. Jose Luis talked to his family for about 10 minutes before he had to hang up.
The day before, on Monday, August 7, Judge Lawson had denied the habeas corpus petition, citing a lack of jurisdiction. “Sanchez-Ronquillo has identified some very good reasons why he should not be deported, despite his illegal status” he wrote in the decision. “Unfortunately, however, the federal district courts are not the place for him to present his claims.” The Sixth Circuit Appeal was still under way — it was denied a few weeks later — but the government had decided not to wait for the decision.
The removal was devastating, but the family lost little of its resolve. Guisela texted me in September. “I want to keep fighting.”
By December the family’s future was still unclear. Jose Luis was living in Mexico City installing windows or picking up painting jobs. Guisela was working as a house cleaner. The boys were trying to stay busy with school and sports. Jose Luis called every day, but there was no pending plan to reunite. Guisela was still in a kind of limbo, she told me, waiting for legal advice. The family was getting by. “You’re never going to be OK,” she told me. “But you try to find strength to continue with life. Because you have keep working. You have to pay rent. You have to pay bills. So you endure.”