EL PASO — Luis Orozco Morales had made the trip many times between his home in Hobbs N.M. and El Paso. But this time, when he tried to pass through a remote Border Patrol checkpoint, he was arrested and detained by the Border Patrol, despite having paperwork that showed he was allowed to remain in the United States.
Orozco, 47, said he agreed to help a friend transport auto parts from El Paso to Hobbs last week. The trouble started when Orozco, an undocumented immigrant from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, gave Border Patrol agents his paperwork that showed a federal judge had closed his immigration case in 2014.
His attorney, Eduardo Beckett, said Border Patrol agents rejected Orozco's paperwork, mocked him and detained him for nearly a week. His wife and sister-in-law were not allowed to visit him in detention, Beckett said.
“I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong, the whole time I was [acting] within the law, but they asked me to exit the car and said my papers weren’t valid,” Orozco said last week from Beckett's office.
Orozco, who was caught entering the United States illegally in 2010 but later released, doesn’t have a green card or a work permit, but what he does have is paperwork signed by a federal immigration judge who in 2014 closed Orozco’s immigration case through a process called administrative closure — which puts an immigrant's case on indefinite hold and takes them off the court's docket.
It’s a tool that federal immigration agencies have used for cases they consider low priority and not worth expending time and resources. It's also used when the immigrant has a pending issue with another agency, such as a visa application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Administrative closure was widely used under the Obama administration, said Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, a Dallas-based immigration attorney and member of the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association.
“They were taking really the low priority cases … and taking them off the docket and giving them administrative closure,” she said.
As of January 2018, about 350,000 immigration cases had been administratively closed, according to the American Bar Association. But the practice has become rare under the Trump administration. A rule issued in May 2018 by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions overruled a court decision that allowed judges to administratively close a case.
Beckett said his client’s court order is still valid and a rogue Border Patrol agent single-handedly overruled the judge’s order.
Orozco said that when he pulled up to the checkpoint, the Border Patrol agent told him the judge didn’t know what he was doing when he signed the documents.
“[He] said you’re a Mexican, you don’t need to be here," Orozco said. "They told me, ‘This paper the judge gave you isn’t valid. He doesn’t know the laws.’”
Becket said Orozco is exactly the type of immigrant who should receive administrative closure: Beckett said Orozco has never been in trouble with local police or charged with a state crime, and he's the primary caretaker for his wife, a U.S. citizen battling fibromyalgia and other medical issues. He also posted a $5,000 bond when he was released that hasn’t been revoked.
“He hasn’t violated any law, he hasn’t violated any of the conditions of his court-ordered administrative closure,” which could lead to his case being reopened and brought back before a judge, Beckett said. “But more importantly he has not violated any terms or conditions of the bond."
Lisa R. Donaldson, an attorney for the El Paso office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, didn’t respond to requests for comment on Orozco’s case or respond to Beckett's allegations. But she told Beckett in an email that Border Patrol considers Orozco’s case pending because a formal decision has not been rendered.
“Even if an alien’s removal proceedings have been administratively closed, [Border Patrol] will still apprehend, and then coordinate with ICE to determine if there is camp space and if ICE intends to file a motion to re-calendar the administratively closed case,” she said.
An administratively closed case can always be reopened, at the request of the immigrant — typically when they want to adjust their legal status — or by the Department of Homeland Security when it seeks to remove a person from the country. Beckett said Border Patrol agents in the field aren't authorized to make that decision.
“I think that the concept that a Border Patrol agent can by himself, without any authority, without going to a judge, just overturn an order, to me that goes against the rule of law, it goes against procedure,” Beckett said.
Orozco was released after four days in detention, ordered to wear an ankle monitor and told to report to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Midland on Oct. 10. Beckett said he fears his client's case will be placed back on the immigration court docket and he could be deported.
As of August 2019, more than 1 million pending cases are sitting on immigration judges' dockets, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
“The push is, or has been, through the Trump administration that they should proactively reopen all those cases so that they can bring them all to completion,” said Saenz-Rodriguez, the Dallas immigration attorney. “Which we see as the part of the big, mass-deportation machine.”
As Orozco awaits his fate, he says he worries about other people in a similar situation who have presented administrative clearance papers at checkpoints.
“My advice is, do not go through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint because they are not respecting the rule of law,” he said.