Victor Peñafiel: Uncertainty Comes Every Thursday

Victor Peñafiel – Ecuador from Distant Relatives Project on Vimeo.

By Jose Bayona and Jonathan Camhi

Every Thursday afternoon Victor Peñafiel has an appointment at the Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) office in downtown Manhattan. Peñafiel, who is an undocumented immigrant, has an active deportation order from ICE, but he hasn’t been told to leave the country yet.

Every Thursday he wonders if it will be his last visit to the ICE office. His wife and three children – all U.S. citizens – hope that it is not.

Peñafiel, 32, came to the United States from Ecuador in 2000 and has been working construction since then. In the summer of 2004 he volunteered to go to work in Vermont, where he was pulled over by the police for a routine traffic stop.

They asked him for his license and his immigration documents. He told the police he was undocumented and they arrested him. The Vermont Police Department transferred him to ICE custody and the next day he was sent to an immigration detention facility near the Canadian border. Two days later he was released and told to appear in immigration court in Connecticut.

“I never showed up at the immigration court,” Peñafiel said. “I didn’t have the money to pay for a lawyer to go with me.”

With the help of a non-profit immigration assistance organization in New York, Peñafiel hired a pro-bono lawyer and tried to get his case moved to an immigration court in Manhattan. He was unsuccessful, and the Connecticut court issued a deportation order.

“In December last year, ICE officers knocked on my apartment’s door in Queens at 5:45 in the morning. They showed me an arresting order and took me to 26 Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan,” Peñafiel said. “At that time, my wife was eight months pregnant with our third child.”

ICE released him later that day without any explanation, Peñafiel said. At the moment of his release, an ICE officer realized Peñafiel’s passport was expired and asked him to bring a valid passport in the next few days. In the meantime, ICE installed an electronic surveillance device around his ankle, he said.

“A week later I brought them a new passport and they took the bracelet off my ankle,” he said.

Peñafiel currently has a pro bono lawyer working on his case with the help of Make the Road New York, a community-based organization that offers a range of assistance for immigrants and others. He is trying to get a stay on his deportation order, but his chances are slim, he said.

“I have no idea what I would do back in Ecuador,” Peñafiel said. “My only family there is a brother, who I lost contact with years ago.”

Peñafiel still works in construction to support his wife and three children, ages 7, 3 and 3 months. If he is deported back to Ecuador, he said, his wife and children would most likely stay here.

“I want them to have a better education and a better future,” Peñafiel said.

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