Immigration laws changing, but Crystal Lake man slipped through the cracks
President Joe Biden and Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently changed immigration policies to better protect undocumented families. But that’s come too late for this father of five.
From the family photos on the refrigerator to the chalk drawings in the driveway, the family scene is exactly what you might expect on a summer day.
Except one person is missing: Dad.
When Elizarraraz’s phone rings, his heart skips a beat. It’s a call from the McHenry County Jail. His brother — Kristin’s fiancé and the father of her five children — is on the line. And he could be deported at any moment.
Cesar Mauricio Elizarraraz, a Mexico-born, longtime Crystal Lake resident, had been in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and detained at the McHenry County Jail since December 2019.
In late May, the 40-year-old was denied an emergency stay of removal. The judge didn’t give a reason for the denial, leaving the family wondering whether it was because of a criminal conviction for a fight after Elizarraraz faced racial slurs.
“Teenagers make mistakes,” Glauner said. “I’ve made mistakes. Everybody’s made mistakes. Me being a citizen, my mistakes aren’t coming back to haunt me. Him? Not. His mistakes have come back to haunt him. But he should not be defined for those mistakes he made over 20 years ago.”
Elizarraraz’s case comes at a time when legislators have made national and statewide changes to immigration enforcement policies in the months since President Donald Trump left office.
President Joe Biden promised to reset immigration policy for the United States the day he took office. In a Feb. 4 email to ICE officials, then-acting ICE director Tae Johnson said people with criminal convictions more than a decade old generally would not be prioritized for deportation.
The city of Chicago passed an updated sanctuary city ordinance in February banning local police and other agencies from working with ICE.
At the state level, a bill that would effectively close all detention centers in Illinois and limit the way law enforcement interacts with ICE is expected to be signed into law by Governor J.B. Pritzker.
For Illinois immigrants like Elizarraraz, though, these changes might be too late.
Cesar Mauricio Elizarraraz came to the United States from Mexico in 1993 as a 13-year-old with his two younger brothers, Arturo, then 9, and Ernesto, 11. Elizarraraz’s father, who was living in Crystal Lake, had paved a way for his family’s U.S. residency by applying for legal permanent status under President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. The wait to receive a green card was up to 10 years. Wanting his sons to get an American education before then, Elizarraraz’s father arranged for a family friend to bring the young boys into the country to Crystal Lake, leaving behind their mother and three younger siblings at the family’s home in Morelia.
Arturo Elizarraraz remembers the move as traumatic for all three of them but especially for Cesar.
“Even though we had my dad, and we had aunts and uncles here, it just wasn’t the same,” he said. “Cesar was already sort of rebellious in Mexico in a way . . . When we got here, he didn’t have my mom. He just got with the wrong crowd right away.”
Elizarraraz got involved with gangs to try to find safety from bullying. In February 1996, Elizarraraz’s family home in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood known as The Manor was targeted in a gang-affiliated drive-by shooting.
Elizarraraz and his family were at home that night when gunshots hit the house. A bullet grazed his uncle’s head, missing him by just 2 inches as he sat in the living room.
The McHenry County sheriff’s office investigated, but no one was charged.
In 1998, Elizarraraz got involved in a fight that started with racial slurs yelled at him and ended with him being charged with aggravated battery.
Working as a painter then and living with friends, Elizarraraz yielded a paint scraper during the fight that was found in court to be a weapon. After being assigned an assistant public defender, he pleaded guilty to an aggravated felony. Elizarraraz was 18.
“They put him on probation, and he was doing good, and then I had gotten pregnant ,and our baby had died halfway through the pregnancy,” Glauner said. “I took it bad. He took it bad — real bad. And his probation was revoked due to him smoking weed to cope with it.”
In 1999 — the year the rest of the Elizarraraz family received amnesty under IRCA — Elizarraraz was sentenced to serve his remaining probation time in prison for violating his probation. After that, instead of being released, Elizarraraz said he was brought to a detention center in DuPage County and told by an ICE officer that an immigration judge would never side with him because of his aggravated battery conviction. He voluntarily self-deported to Mexico on March 15, 2000 — the year the rest of his immediate family came to the United States
“He had nobody [in Mexico],” Arturo Elizarraraz said. “The moment that we were supposed to be a big happy family was the moment that he was gone.”
After spending time separated from his loved ones, Elizarraraz rejoined Glauner and his family in the United States in 2001.
“But after he was deported in 2000, that’s when he changed,” Glauner said. “He realized what a couple of years of him screwing up had made him lose.”
A year after his return, Elizarraraz and Glauner had their first child, and the family continued to grow over the years. Glauner bought a two-story brick house across the street from her childhood home with the help of her brother-in-law. Elizarraraz got a job working in shipping and receiving at a distribution company five minutes from the house and often stopped by to spend lunch breaks at home with the family.
In September 2019, Elizarraraz, then 40, was arrested by the Crystal Lake police on charges of possessing a fraudulent I.D., theft by deception and running an unlicensed car dealership. While trying to make extra money buying, fixing and reselling used cars, Elizarraraz was accused of misrepresenting the condition of a vehicle in an online listing and rolling back the mileage on the odometer, according to police records. Elizarraraz denies these accusations.
After refunding the money for the vehicle he sold, Elizarraraz’s charges of possessing a fraudulent I.D. and theft by deception were dropped. He pleaded guilty to the unlicensed car dealership charge and was sentenced to supervision for a year and 30 hours of community service. Despite not receiving prison time, Elizarraraz wasn’t released to his family after sentencing. Instead, he was transferred to immigration detention on Dec. 27, 2019.
“We waited outside the McHenry County Jail for two hours, and he never came out,” Glauner said. “The lawyer was, like, ‘OK, he should be out, you guys are good to go,’ and ICE had picked him up. He was given right over to them.”
Elizarraraz said that after being processed to be released, he was told to wait and was approached by an ICE officer and taken into immigration custody.
According to an ICE spokesperson, immigration authorities “encountered” Elizarraraz a day after he was arrested by Crystal Lake police in September. They reinstated his previous order of removal from two decades prior.
It’s unclear how Elizarraraz was transferred into ICE custody. According to Chief James Black, the Crystal Lake police department does not ask for or check the immigration status of people officers have contact with.
“There is nothing in the report that indicates we called ICE, interacted with ICE on the date of arrest, initiated any type of ICE detainer or even asked Mr. Elizarraraz what his immigration status was at the time of the arrest,” Black said.
But the McHenry County Jail — which has a contract to serve as a detention center for ICE — doesn’t have the same safeguards between law enforcement and the federal agency.
McHenry County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Byrnes confirmed ICE was notified by the county jail almost immediately after Elizarraraz was arrested and jailed in September 2019. Byrnes also confirmed that notifying ICE of an inmate’s outstanding immigration case is standard procedure at the McHenry County Jail. Such a procedure would likely be illegal under the pending Illinois Way Forward law.
Most of Elizarraraz’s detainment came when ICE was trying to reduce its population in response to the coronavirus pandemic because of outbreaks at detention centers. As of July 22, the McHenry County detention center had 23 COVID-19 cases since early March 2020, according to data reported by ICE.
New hope with new administration
On Jan. 20, a little over a year after Elizarraraz was detained by ICE, Biden was sworn into office. He called for the Department of Homeland Security to reexamine immigration policies and implement new policies that “safeguard the dignity and well-being of all families and communities.”
“We were hoping that they were able to maybe take individual cases like mine and just look at them a little deeper and say, ‘Man, this guy needs a chance to be with his family . . . while we await the adjudication of his case.’ That’s not just me but other cases as well,” Elizarraraz said.
Then-acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske also issued a memorandum offering new interim guidelines for the department on Jan. 20. In addition to implementing an immediate 100-day pause on certain deportations, it limited enforcement to “priority” cases defined as immigrants who pose a threat to national security, border security and public safety — that is, cases with people suspected of terrorism, those apprehended at the border and people convicted of an aggravated felony.
Despite these policy changes, immigration legal experts like Lena Graber, a senior staff attorney with the Immigrant Law Resource Center, said the recent guidelines, in effect, criminalize non-citizens.
“Although it is a significant relief and a big improvement over the last administration, the Biden administration has really already dug in on this idea that immigrants could present some kind of threat to national security or public safety,” Graber said.
A Feb. 18 memo from Tae Johnson, then-acting ICE director, said people would be considered a threat to public safety — and therefore a priority for law enforcement — if they were convicted of an aggravated felony or affiliated with gang activity. Johnson’s February guidance is in effect until new guidance is issued by acting ICE director Alejandro Mayorkas.
How recently a conviction occurred is a factor for immigration authorities to consider when prioritizing cases, according to the memo. But some question how long those charges should still be applicable to deportation cases like Elizarraraz’s.
“There are many, many people in the same situation as Cesar, who are facing deportation very often for mistakes … in the past,” said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “And so we need to question to what extent it’s even fair to be imposing this additional punishment on individuals who’ve done their time, who’ve built lives since their release and who are trying to live their lives in the States.”
Despite his initial actions, the Biden administration’s stance toward immigration hasn’t drastically changed from that of Trump. In her first trip abroad as vice president, Kamala Harris made clear that the current administration won’t welcome undocumented migrants with open arms.
“Do not come,” Harris said.
On June 25, on a trip to El Paso, Texas, she said the administration instead wants to focus on improving conditions in countries with high immigration traffic, such as Guatemala, to reduce the number of undocumented people wanting to travel into the United States.
Though detention numbers initially declined under Biden, with 15,104 people detained nationwide in January , they have increased to 27,067 as of July 16.
And Congress is considering an immigration reform policy known as the New Way Forward Act that would disrupt the prison-to-deportation pipeline, though the legislation is unlikely to be signed into law.
Chicago and Illinois recently passed measures limiting the way local agencies interact with ICE.
In February, the city issued an update to its Welcoming City ordinance prohibiting Chicago law enforcement agencies from participating in immigration enforcement operations and cooperating with ICE. Had this policy been implemented in the suburbs, ICE might not ever have been made aware of Elizarraraz’s recent conviction in Crystal Lake.
A bill known as the Illinois Way Forward Act is awaiting approval from Gov. J.B. Pritzker under which cities and counties would be prohibited from contracting with ICE to house immigrants in jails. The law also would limit law enforcement’s ability to collaborate with the immigration enforcement agency.
According to ICE, Elizarraraz filed an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals that was dismissed on April 19.
Elizarraraz also pursued other steps, including seeking a so-called U-visa — a type of visa that protects immigrant victims of crimes who cooperate with law enforcement. He was potentially eligible for the visa because of the drive-by shooting that happened in his youth, but he ultimately could not apply for one because the McHenry County sheriff’s office refused to sign the certification.
Community rallies in support
On May 18, the McHenry County Board met to vote on canceling the county’s contract with ICE, which paid the county jail to detain people like Elizarraraz in ICE custody. Even though canceling the contract could mean that her husband would be transferred to another facility, Glauner and her eldest son Isaiah still spoke in favor of closing the detention center.
“For the last 20 months, I have been living a nightmare I don’t wish upon anyone,” Glauner said at the meeting. “Our county should not be supporting these practices and profiting off the misery of those that are being detained or the family of those detained. These detainees are more than just $95 a day. They are someone’s spouse, mother, father, son, daughter, aunt, uncle, neighbor or friend.”
Before the meeting, a rally organized by the Coalition to Cancel the ICE Contract in McHenry County and other activist groups was held outside the jail.
“It’s easy to lose hope in a place like that, but then, when you start seeing things like … the rally outside the organizations … you can just sense the hope that, ‘I’m not going to give up.’ There’s people out there that care about us,” Elizarraraz said.
The county ultimately voted to maintain its contract with ICE, which will stand until the Illinois Way Forward bill is signed into law and takes effect Jan. 1.
Three weeks after the McHenry County Board meeting, about 25 people gathered outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in downtown Chicago to push for Elizarraraz’s release.
“We need to see an immigration system that does not use criminalization of our people to excuse their actions, that criminal convictions don’t lead to automatic deportations,” Xanat Sobrevilla, who helped organize the gathering and a news conference, said later. “Cesar and his family demonstrate the detrimental consequences of that.”
At the news conference, 11-year-old Jocelyn held a large sign in front of cameras with the words “I MISS MY DAD.”
“Please allow him to continue fighting his case at home with his family,” Glauner said at the gathering. “Cesar should be seen as the loving adult that he is today versus the teenager he was once 20-plus years ago.”
On June 16, Elizarraraz’s brother, Arturo, called the Mexican consulate to ask whether his brother was scheduled to be deported. The consulate confirmed Elizarraraz was on the list to be deported June 18.
A day later, Elizarraraz was denied the prosecutorial discretion his lawyer, Maria Baldini-Potermin ,asked the Chicago ICE office to use June 7.
As news began to spread of his scheduled deportation, social media posts calling for his release circulated and organizers rushed to raise money for the family.
Elizarraraz and his family began preparing their goodbyes. On June 17, his extended family was scheduled to make nine video calls with him before being deported.
Before his first call, though, Elizarraraz found out from Glauner that immigration authorities had granted him a temporary stay of removal.
On June 18, the day of his scheduled deportation, Elizarraraz was released to his family and put under electronic supervision. They were finally reunited one day short of 21 months of separation.
The family still doesn’t know why the stay was granted or who granted it. But Baldini-Potermin said the public campaigns on his behalf appear to have helped.
“There’s no measurement to describe the amount of happiness, the amount of joy that we’re having,” Elizarraraz said. “Just being here with the kids, with Kristen — I’m still in shock. I’m still not believing it. It’s the best gift I could have ever gotten — to be home with my family for Father’s Day, for [Kristin’s] birthday.”
At home, Elizarraraz wears an electronic ankle monitor as he sits at the dining room table holding Glauner’s hand. The kids play in the backyard, sticking their faces into the window every now and then to ask their dad when he’s coming back outside.
In the short time he’s been back, Elizarraraz has gone back to family bike rides, late movie nights and ice cream runs to the nearby CVS.
“For all the help that every single last person did out there for me, for the signatures, for the calls and for whoever ultimately made the decision to allow me to be here with my family, I just want to thank them from the bottom of my heart,” he said.
Organizers say they will continue fighting for the right of Elizarraraz and others like him to stay.
It’s unclear whether Elizarraraz will be allowed to stay in the United States.
“Mostly, I’ll just be spending time with family, taking one day at a time,” he said. “The fight’s not over yet.”
Adriana Rezal reports for Borderless Magazine, a nonprofit news outlet covering immigration. Go to www.borderlessmag.org/newsletter to sign up for their weekly newsletter and download a free comic book about a fight for environmental justice led by Latinx youth in Chicago.