Juan (left) and Kirsten (center) De La Cruz with their children
Juan De La Cruz runs his own farm in Vergennes, is involved in his community, works a full-time job and is raising a family with his wife, Kirsten.
But the undocumented immigrant, who has no criminal record, had previously been deported in 2005 after crossing into the United States from Mexico. Because of new enforcement orders from President Donald Trump’s administration, Juan must leave the country again, on July 6.
Though many people were deported during president Barack Obama’s terms, the removals targeted criminals, Juan’s attorney, Matthew Kolken, told Seven Days. That’s all changed under Trump, said Kolken, who is based in Buffalo, N.Y.
“When individuals are found inside the United States after having been previously removed — even if they’ve been here many, many years and have established substantial ties to the country — rather than giving them an opportunity to request relief from removal, they are just reinstating the previous deportation order … and basically destroying a family in the process,” Kolken said.
Juan said he first came to the U.S. in 2003 and settled in New York. But he was caught by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2005 and deported. He returned, undocumented, that same year and settled in Panton, where he met Kirsten Lee, an American citizen. They married in 2009. She had four children from a previous marriage; the couple also have two young children together.
Courtesy: Kirsten De La Cruz
Juan De La Cruz with his sheep
Early in their relationship, the couple contacted an immigration attorney to work on getting Juan a green card, according to Kirsten. But the process dragged on. They tried another lawyer, who encouraged them to lay low and await immigration action from then-president Obama.
In 2014, ICE ordered Juan to its St. Albans office, where officials detained him and took his fingerprints.
“I thought they were going to send me back then,” Juan said.
But the Obama administration “did not want to split up families,” Kirsten said. Instead, ICE allowed Juan to stay in the country under an “order of supervision,” which gave him authorization to work and live in the country — as long as he followed the laws and continued to check in with authorities each year — without fear of deportation.
“He has a driver’s license; he pays taxes,” Kirsten said. “Every year he goes in for his check-in. They basically ask if we live in the same location, how things are going and that’s it.”
That all changed during Juan’s June 6 visit to ICE in St. Albans.
“We were sitting in the waiting room and the officer came out, looked at my husband and said, ‘Give all your belongings to your wife; we have orders to detain you.’ And I just lost it and begged them to do something,” Kirsten said.
The couple’s 18-year-old son was to graduate from high school that week and Kirsten asked for more time. The officers relented, she said, and allowed Juan 30 days to get his affairs in order.
“I told them I’ve been trying to do the right thing — I have a family, a farm I run, a community that supports me,” said Juan. “I don't know what else I can do. I’ve been here 14 years and now everything is coming down in 30 days.”
An ICE spokesman confirmed Juan must return to Mexico.
“Should he fail to leave the country by the required date, he will be considered an immigration fugitive,” public affairs officer Shawn Neudauer said in a statement.
The family has since worked with Kolken to find any avenue of relief. Vermont’s congressional delegation sent a letter — signed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) — to the ICE regional director in Massachusetts asking him to reconsider.
The family learned Thursday that their request for relief had been denied.
“We’ve been grasping at straws since the first time he was required to check in,” Kolken said. “But it’s pretty dire right now.”
Kirsten said she depends on Juan’s income and help around the house. She runs a daycare, while he tends their herd of 70 sheep and their chickens. He also works as a meat cutter at Green Pasture Meats in New Haven.
Their just-graduated son had planned to go to the Netherlands June 20 for a 10-week internship, Kirsten said, but delayed it because he felt “he has to be the man of the family” and help earn money.
It’s been confusing and heartbreaking for all the children, but especially the youngest, Kirsten said.
“Our daughter, who is 5, says, ‘Papa has to go to Mexico because he’s Mexican?’ Then she looks at her own skin and says, ‘But I’m Mexican too! Do I have to go?’” Kirsten said. “She doesn’t understand.”
Moving the family to Mexico is likely out of the question, Kirsten said. She fears for their safety there, and said it would be difficult to earn a living.
Kirsten said the entire Vergennes community has rallied to help the family. A GoFundMe page has raised nearly $15,000 as of Thursday morning for legal expenses. And people have continually called or dropped in, asking how they can help, she said.
“The community support has been awesome,” Kirsten said. “People have been reaching out to us who we don’t even know. I’m not the type of person who asks for help — I’m usually the giver — so it’s been very difficult. It doesn’t come naturally for me to ask for anything.”
Juan agreed that the community support has been fantastic. But he remains frustrated by a system that doesn't consider the person — just their status.
“I don’t know why I can’t get a second chance,” he said. “I know I screwed up when I got deported from New York, but I didn’t do any crime. They sent me back because I’m illegal, because I didn’t have documents. As far as I know, that’s not a crime.”