By Susana Jurado
OAKLAND – After more than three years, a Salvadorian immigrant detainee still remains in custody, despite previous legal rulings in favor of his release.
Recently, the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office has expressed its disdain and publicly called the case to attention, filing a federal lawsuit insisting that the Salvadoran man be released immediately.
“The way immigration authorities have handled this case is obscene,” said Raha Jorjani, managing attorney of the Public Defender’s Immigration Unit, which filed the suit on behalf of a 30-year-old asylum-seeker named Walter Cruz-Zavala. “At a minimum, the government should release Walter while he waits for his case to wind through the courts,” Jorjani added.
The habeas corpus written petition and lawsuit outlined the serious issues revolved around his immigration detention, and specifically indicated they were excessive and punitive in violation of his Constitutional rights.
Under the Trump Administration, restraining immigration laws have grown in excess, often allowing the government complete control over the custody of many immigrants, including those with already won immigration cases in the courtroom, like Cruz-Zavala.
Unfortunately, the government must appeal the detention in order for the detained individuals to gain their freedom, and that is not always the case. The case of Cruz-Zavala is a clear indication of this injustice, and to this day he remains in custody because of his current immigration status, not a crime he’s committed or a sentence he is serving for one.
The experiences Cruz-Zavala has witnessed and been exposed to since he was a child have been filled with abuse and assault. Before he came to the U.S. at the age of 14, he endured sexual abuse, physical assaults, and was maliciously robbed by gang members in his home country, El Salvador.
Since his father had already previously arrived in the United States, Cruz-Zavala took the long journey from El Salvador as a teenager to the U.S. all by himself. Unlike his current status, his immediate family like his mother, father, sister, and brother are all U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents of the United States.
Since he left El Salvador, he has chosen to stay in the U.S. and has made no plans to return.
Cruz-Zavala had a history of being a member of MS 13, a well-known Salvadorian gang growing across the U.S., when he was a teenager staying in the United States. However, during that time, he struck a deal with a U.S. government informant who convinced him to get two gang-related tattoos.
Later on, a federal criminal case was charged against him where prosecutors used those same tattoos as evidence of his guilt. Despite all the struggles he endured with the U.S. criminal system, Cruz-Zavala was acquitted of all charges by a federal jury.
Yet, those same tattoos continue to be a problem in his life, often incriminating him and endangering his life each day.
“An individual acting on the government’s behalf gave 18-year-old Walter the very tattoo that makes it likely he’ll be tortured in El Salvador, and now that same government will stop at nothing to deport him there,” Jorjani said.
Back in 2017, Cruz-Zavala first encountered immigration authorities and was detained in July because of charges involved in carrying concealed firearms and 5 DUI, with prosecutors working to deport him back to El Salvador.
Nonetheless, an immigration judge ruled against his deportation in May 2018 on the basis of threats against his life, as he would likely be tortured and/or killed.
This led to the government appealing his case twice, as he continually had to go to court to fight his case again. And won.
These constant appeals gained the attention of the appellate court, an agency falling under William Barr’s Department of Justice, and ordered that the case be assessed again by a new immigration judge based on this irregular behavior of the court.
Even so, the court still could not find any errors with any of the original rulings and were led to confirm that the likelihood of his torture and possible killing in El Salvador was a fact.
“In over 15 years of practicing deportation defense, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Jorjani said. “The appellate court has basically erased the last nearly three years that Walter has waited in detention for a resolution in his case. It has effectively sentenced him to indefinite detention with no fixed end date.”
On the basis of his release, Cruz-Zavala would check into a residential alcohol treatment program where he would receive counseling to address some of his most traumatic experiences during his childhood.
Law enforcement officers placed on duty to supervise Cruz-Zavala during his probation have also agreed with the proposed plan to rehabilitate Cruz-Zavala. To emphasize their approval, they have offered themselves to provide twice the supervision required by law in direct response to the refusal of immigration authorities to release him.
Cruz-Zavala’s attorneys argued against the extended and prolonged detention he unfairly received in the lawsuit filing provided to the court. They also detailed specific issues with the additional detention with the prospect of years, noting that this added detention times have negatively left an impact on him.
“We see this over and over again; immigrants like Walter giving up strong legal claims to end the suffering they are experiencing in ICE custody,” Jorjani said. “The government is fully aware of the legal advantage it gains by detaining people who are fighting deportation. They repeatedly remind Walter that he can end his detention at any time by giving up his case and returning to El Salvador.”
Cruz-Zavala currently remains in custody at the Mesa Verde Detention Center, a private prison run by the Geogroup, a controversial place that has been the center of many lawsuits over the years because of substandard, inhuman conditions.
The lack of commitment to the health and safety of the detainees inside has led to a COVID-19 outbreak that impacted dozens of individuals who contracted the virus as a result.
One of the victims of this crisis was Cruz-Zavala himself who is a survivor of COVID-19 and has since recovered.
The Alameda County Public Defender’s Office is breaking records as it is one of the first offices in California to offer services that provide public defender clients deportation defense representation.
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