Family of veteran detained by ICE pleads for his release

Wife: ‘It’s just not right’

Emelia Baltazar holds a picture of her son Edgar Baltazar as family members speak at the law offices of Garcia and Garcia on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Edgar Baltazar’s 5-year-old daughter thinks the reason he hasn’t picked her up from the bus stop for nearly a month is because she did something wrong, her mother said.

Jennifer Garcia, Baltazar’s wife, struggles to explain to their daughter and 11-year-old son why their father is being held at the Port Isabel Detention Center.

Baltazar, 37, was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers Feb. 1 as he attempted to drive back into the United States via the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge after visiting family in Mexico.

Although a lawful permanent resident who has lived in the U.S. since age 14, Baltazar was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and placed in deportation proceedings because of his criminal history. He was convicted in 2018 of a third-degree felony continuous family violence charge stemming from a 2016 arrest, according to Hidalgo County court records, and sentenced to six years probation and deferred adjudication.

Baltazar’s case is emblematic of what his attorney Carlos M. Garcia called “the biggest type of family separation we have in the Rio Grande Valley.”

“It’s families being separated because of the immigration laws we have in place,” the attorney said. “It doesn’t get a lot of attention because it’s not as sympathetic — I would say — as a refugee from a different country, but it’s the reality in South Texas for us.”

He and Baltazar’s family are asking ICE to release Baltazar from custody while his immigration case plays out in court, which could take between three to four months.

A military photo of Edgar Baltazar is displayed as family members speak at the law offices of Garcia and Garcia on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Baltazar, an Army veteran who was deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2005, was diagnosed with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury, for which he is receiving treatment from a local Veterans Affairs hospital, his wife said.

“I too am an Army veteran, and I know how difficult it is to be deployed and the tolls that it takes on us soldiers,” Jennifer Garcia said.

Because Baltazar was detained at a port of entry, an immigration judge does not have jurisdiction to release him on bond. Only ICE has the authority to do so, and the agency has yet to respond to a Feb. 12 request for release his attorney sent the federal agency.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.

Baltazar didn’t think he would have any problem crossing back into the country after he went to Mexico for a few hours earlier this month, his wife said. He last traveled to Mexico two years ago and had no problems.

But anyone who is not a U.S. citizen and has a criminal history “is subject to inspection and detention if the crime that they have been convicted of makes them inadmissible,” Carlos Garcia said.

Jennifer Garcia speaks about her husband Edgar Baltazar at the law offices of Garcia and Garcia on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

These crimes range from serious violent offenses like murder to low-level property theft and small amounts of drug possession.

While many lawful permanent residents may have traveled to Mexico a few dozen times without incident, most were lucky, the attorney said, because it’s only a matter of time before customs officers stationed at the port of entries will eventually run their background checks.

“I do believe that more and more CBP is checking the backgrounds of people who are coming back into the country, whether they be lawful permanent residents or people with visas,” Garcia said of changing immigration practices under the Trump administration. “These hits come up, and if that happens they’re subject to detention under the law.”

Since pleading guilty to the family violence charge, Baltazar has successfully participated in the county’s Veterans Treatment Court and has abided by the terms of his probation, his attorney noted, adding a district court judge found it appropriate to sentence his client to probation as opposed to jail time, an assessment Garcia said was made based on Baltazar’s “risk of danger to the community.”

Baltazar renewed his permanent residency last year and wanted to begin the naturalization process, Jennifer Garcia said. Both she and his three children are U.S. citizens.

“It’s just not right as a veteran to be slapped around the face and detained,” she said. “He’s brave enough to come and serve this country and for him to be detained, it’s not right. There are a lot of other people out here who are U.S. citizens and they don’t even have the bravery he does to serve our country.”