Local 983’s Jose Molina turned his life around, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement may deport the family man for a 20-year-old conviction.
By DIANE S. WILLIAMS
Loud pounding at 5:30 a.m. on a cold January morning in 2013 jolted Jose Molina and his family from their sleep. Molina’s wife, Jennifer, opened the door of their Bronx apartment. In the hallway stood five armed men.
Within minutes, they were knocking over furniture and spilling out dresser drawers. The commotion frightened the Molina children, then ages 11 and 9, who began to cry as the strangers confined them to their bedrooms, out of the reassuring reach of their parents.
The men surrounded Jose and Jennifer in their living room. She begged for an explanation. Then the men, officers of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), handcuffed Jose and led him away as his crying family watched.
Since that cold, terrifying morning, life for the Molina family has been a nightmare.
Molina, an Associate Parks Service Worker (APSW) who has been a lawful permanent U.S. resident since coming here as an infant, was held by ICE for two months at a detention center as the government began legal proceedings to deport him for a mistake he made two decades ago.
On June 8, Jose Molina will appear before a federal immigration court judge and may face mandatory deportation to Panama, his birthplace, but a country he has never known.
More face deportation
“We have received increased calls from members with immigration questions since Trump’s election, and Mr. Molina’s situation is typical of the kinds of problems that members and their families are facing,” said Joan Beranbaum, director and chief counsel of DC 37 Municipal Employees Legal Services.
Although Molina was initially detained during the Obama administration, the current climate of fear and intimidation has been fueled by President Trump’s anti-immigration rants and policies. The overextended court system is where cases drag on for years, leaving immigrants like Molina uncertain about the future and in knots emotionally.
Like Molina, many tax-paying immigrants stand to lose everything: their families, their homes and their employment, if deported.
Across the nation, New York and other cities have declared themselves sanctuary cities to protect undocumented immigrants from ICE deportation.
Molina has a green card that permits him to live and work here legally; he is neither illegal nor undocumented.
“The only home I know is New York City, the United States,” said Molina, now 39. “My wife and children who I love are here, my job is here. I have no connection to Panama.”
The Molina family thought their troubles were over in late 2013, when an immigration court judge terminated the case favorably on a technicality. But the Board of Immigration Appeals overturned the judge’s dismissal – though the appeal didn’t introduce any new evidence as required by law.
“Jose is a perfect example of our unjust immigration system. He faces deportation for a crime he was convicted of over 20 years ago,” said his lawyer Jessica Swensen, supervising immigration attorney at The Bronx Defenders, one of three service providers that represent detained noncitizens in removal proceedings through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project.
“It would break up my family”
“I really don’t know what we would do if I am deported,” Molina said. “It would break up my family. They are my life.”
Molina’s voice trembles as he speaks of his children: “My daughter is 15 and in her first year of high school. She wants to one day become a lawyer. My son is 13 and in middle school. He is great at sports.” Molina has received a Head Start Volunteer Award and coaches little league baseball.
He and his wife Jennifer, a U.S. citizen, are determined to give their kids the loving childhood Jose didn’t have growing up.
His mother left Panama when she married a U.S. citizen. Her new husband adopted Jose, who was 18 months old when he came to New York City as a lawful permanent resident almost four decades ago.
The couple divorced when Molina was just 10 years old, after years of physical and verbal abuse. Jose lived in Brooklyn in the 1990s where, he said, neighborhood toughs bullied him. At 14, a classmate slashed his face. Molina needed 30 stitches to close the wound.
Life grew more difficult so he left home and quit high school. At 18, Molina was arrested for felony assault after an altercation with someone who had a reputation for being armed.
Jose served 2 1/2 years of a maximum five-year prison sentence when the state released him at age 22.
“I went to jail and I served my time. I turned my life around,” said Molina, who thought his offense was behind him. “I never imagined serious consequences would arise decades later.”
In 2007, the Dept. of Parks and Recreation hired him as a seasonal Gardener. In 2015, he became a permanent civil servant as an APSW.
“Jose’s work ethic, amiability, and reserved temperament make him a pleasure to work with,” Dennis Burton, a Parks administrative horticulturalist, told the Immigrant Defense Project, a nonprofit that has taken on Molina’s case and created a website where people can sign letters of support for Molina.
“His camaraderie with others on staff is always cordial and friendly,” Burton said. “His disposition makes him ideal for working around and interacting with the public. He takes his responsibility toward the park seriously.”
The Parks Dept. recently promoted Molina to operate heavy-duty machinery as he repairs and maintains baseball fields. He drives backhoes, dump trucks and operates jackhammers. In his decade working for the city, Molina has become an asset.
The life Jose Molina has built in America, the only home he’s ever known, could vanish June 8, just days before he and Jennifer celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary.
As Molina’s immigration case wends through the complex court system, an application for a gubernatorial pardon of his criminal conviction is being prepared pro bono by a law firm, Swensen said.
A pardon from Governor Cuomo could exempt Jose Molina from mandatory deportation. Until then, Molina and his family live with the daily fear of being torn apart.
The DC 37 Municipal Employees Legal Services handles citizenship cases (when a person with a green card desires to become a citizen) for MELS-eligible members and dependents. MELS also makes referrals in other immigration matters. For information call 212-815-1111.
To join Local 983 President Joe Puleo and support DC 37 member Jose Molina, please sign a letter of support.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Public Employee Press.