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One Strike, You're Out: Portland Man's Immigration Case Illustrates Pitfalls Pre-Trump

Illustration by Terrence Nowicki.

The knock came at around 6 am.

Luis Garcia-Campos was still asleep in his Southeast Portland apartment, so his partner, Sean Sexton, opened the door.

In front of him that Nov. 15 morning were five or six armed and uniformed agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who were there to arrest Garcia-Campos, a legal U.S. resident, and ferry him to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash. There, he would await deportation to Venezuela, his native country.

Three months earlier, a Washington County jury had found Garcia-Campos, a hospice nurse, guilty of possessing methamphetamine. The first-time felony conviction sprang from an incident in Cedar Mill in March 2016, when Garcia-Campos says he was attempting to dispose of a drug stash from his then-husband, Ron Toney. Garcia-Campos maintains he is innocent.

Whether that's true is largely irrelevant. Under federal immigration law, there are rarely second chances for immigrants—legal or illegal—found guilty of felony drug charges. Rose Richeson, a spokeswoman for ICE, says the federal government prioritizes deportation proceedings against felons alongside national security threats. That's true today under President Barack Obama, and President-elect Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric suggests such deportations will only accelerate.

"President Obama has really focused on deporting people with criminal convictions, and I don't think that's going to change," says Juliet Stumpf, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School who specializes in immigration matters. "The real difference is President Trump can take the already existing mechanisms for deportation and ramp them up."

Garcia-Campos' case, illustrates two punitive aspects of federal immigration law. The first is how easily someone can go from lawful immigrant to criminal alien under the current U.S. system. Before his conviction, Garcia-Campos was eligible to become a U.S. citizen. The second is how toothless many feel-good local policies are. Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett said last month his agency wouldn't aid federal immigration authorities, but that didn't help Garcia-Campos. Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler has declared Portland a "sanctuary city," and Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese has taken a position similar to Garrett's.

None of that matters, however, if federal officials want to deport somebody.

Tim Warden-Hertz, an immigration lawyer in Washington state, calls declarations such as Wheeler's "important statements." But they have limits. "Just because you live in a sanctuary city doesn't mean you're safe," he says. "ICE is still in those cities and can go out and pick you up."

Garcia-Campos, 32, came to the United States on a tourist visa 15 years ago right after high school, landing first in Florida, Sexton says. He eventually moved to California, securing a student visa to attend nursing school at City College of San Francisco. He also met his future husband, Ron Toney, then moved to Oregon around 2009, when Toney's employer transferred him. They married in Washington in 2013.

But Garcia-Campos ran into problems in 2014 when husband Toney lost his job and plunged into drug abuse, Sexton says. Toney fell off a cliff, Sexton says, adding: "Luis could see that cliff coming."

Garcia-Campos, who has also abused drugs according to court records, entered rehab, but he couldn't stop Toney. Records show Garcia-Campos called 911 on March 6 from their Cedar Mill home to report his husband. "Ron beat him," Sexton says. "It was a big fight."

Washington County sheriff's deputies arrested Toney for possession of a controlled substance. But two weeks later—it's still not entirely clear why—a sheriff's deputy asked Garcia-Campos to meet. On March 22, he was arrested for possession as well. Court records show Garcia-Campos admitted to grabbing his husband's drugs out of his bedroom safe, but his criminal attorney argued unsuccessfully in court that his contact with the drugs was so "minimal in duration" that it was not criminal.

Toney and Garcia-Campos split up, and Garcia-Campos started dating Sexton. Toney died in September.

If Garcia-Campos had been a U.S. citizen, his story would have ended there.

Washington County Circuit Judge Eric Butterfield sentenced Garcia-Campos to 18 months' probation. He kept his job. Garcia-Campos' license shows no disciplinary action by the Oregon State Board of Nursing for drug abuse.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has asked local law enforcement officials to cooperate with deportation proceedings by holding convicted criminals in their jails until they can be transferred to federal detention. Even if local sheriffs refuse, as they have in Washington and Multnomah counties, that refusal doesn't matter, as Garcia-Campos' case shows. Federal agents simply picked him up at home.

Garcia-Campos was still in his pajamas when agents knocked. "It was stunning," Sexton says.

Compounding Garcia-Campos' troubles is the fact that he is HIV-positive. He and advocates for his release, including Basic Rights Oregon, say he will not receive adequate medical care in Venezuela, where the economy is in shambles.

"Sadly, his story is not uncommon," says Diane Goodwin, a spokeswoman for BRO. "Now he may be sent back to a country that may not welcome him."

David Shamloo, Garcia-Campos' immigration attorney, declined to comment.

Garcia-Campos, speaking briefly by phone from detention in Washington, says he fears he will be a target in Venezuela as a gay man with HIV who sought a better life in the U.S.

"If you've done everything by the book for 15 years," he says, "there should be a second chance."