The same day a federal judge put the deportation of Hector García Mendoza on hold to accommodate his lawsuit against ICE, the agency deported him to a dangerous Mexican border town — and now, no one knows where he is.
One of his attorneys, Joelle Eliza Lingat, said Judge Brian R. Martinotti had verbally granted the temporary restraining order blocking the deportation of their 30-year-old client on May 19 at a hearing that ended at 5:50 p.m. ET, citing the written order. However, García Mendoza's attorneys said he was deported at 6:20 p.m., and that they were told by Mexican immigration authorities he had crossed the border in the city of Nuevo Laredo around 6:42 p.m., almost an hour after the order was issued.
Attorneys said they only found out he had been deported hours after the fact, when Rep. Joaquin Castro's office asked for information on the case. García Mendoza's deportation was first reported by Law360.
ICE said in a statement that there was no "judicial impediment in place" when they deported García Mendoza to Mexico. When presented with the deportation time given by García Mendoza's attorneys, ICE said it stood by its original statement.
The last time his attorneys spoke to García Mendoza was when he was still being held at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey about a week and a half ago.
Since his deportation, lawyers and family members haven't been able to reach him and worry he’s been harmed.
Their fears are not unfounded: Nuevo Laredo has earned a reputation for being a city where immigrants are easily kidnapped, extorted, and assaulted by cartels. Deportees could also be targets if they're perceived as having access to family or friends with money in the US, Lingat said.
"That's why we started a very urgent search as soon as we found out he was in fact in Mexico," Lingat told BuzzFeed News. "Hector experienced an extreme injustice through our immigration system and that injustice needs to be corrected."
In a statement, ICE said García Mendoza had been ordered deported by an immigration judge on May 4 and had waived his right to appeal the decision.
Lingat said García Mendoza was not represented by an attorney and didn't realize what he was agreeing to during his last hearing. Before he was deported, Lingat and other attorneys had planned on appealing his deportation.
"In conversations with the attorney, Mr. García Mendoza explained that he was unsure of what had happened during his immigration hearings, but that he feared persecution and torture upon removal to Mexico," according to court documents.
Four days before being deported, García Mendoza had been a plaintiff in a case against ICE, DHS officials, and a CoreCivic warden. CoreCivic is one of the largest private prison company in the US, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, that operates the Elizabeth Detention Center under contract.
The lawsuit called for the release of all immigrants detained at the Elizabeth Detention Center, citing the risk of contracting COVID-19 inside the facility. The complaint said immigrants were held in confined, dirty conditions that were ripe for the disease to spread.
At least two immigrants detained by ICE have died of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
At the Elizabeth, New Jersey, facility where García Mendoza had been detained, 18 people tested positive for COVID-19. In total, 1,327 immigrants in ICE detention out of 2,620 have tested positive.
García Mendoza suffers from asthma. Lingat said her client was refused adequate treatment when he experienced chest pain and shortness of breath at the facility.
García Mendoza was born in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. As a child, he was abandoned by his parents and raised by his paternal grandparents. In 2010, García Mendoza fled "violent and unstable" conditions in Mexico and immigrated to New Jersey, according to court documents.
In a letter sent to the Department of Homeland Security and ICE last week, 18 members of Congress called the timeline of his deportation "questionable" and said they were concerned that his removal from the US may have been an act of retaliation.
For now, Lingat said attorneys are pursuing the case in good faith without accusing ICE of retaliating against García Mendoza, and that once their client is found, immigration authorities will allow him to continue fighting his claim from within the US.
"But to the common person it doesn't take much to connect the dots, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against an entire facility was deported to one of the most dangerous places when there were other options," Lingat said.