Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco should have graduated from high school in Des Moines, Iowa, last month. The oldest of four siblings should have walked across a stage in a cap and gown to become a proud symbol to his sister and brothers of the rewards of hard work and education.
Instead, Manuel died a brutal death alone in a foreign land, a symbol of gang supremacy in a country plagued by violent drug cartels. It happened three weeks after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned him to Mexico, a country he had left at age 3 when his parents brought him here without a visa.
The fact that America was the only home he has known made Manuel eligible to apply for and be granted “DACA status” under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program initiated by former President Obama. It exempted from deportation certain young people, referred to as DREAMers, who were brought to the U.S. without papers as children.
But that status didn’t protect Manuel when he came to immigration authorities’ attention after being stopped for speeding last fall. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson said in a statement that a federal immigration judge terminated his DACA status because of two misdemeanor convictions.
The statement from Shawn Neudauer, ICE public affairs officer, also said Manuel wasn’t technically deported, but was returned to Mexico under escort by ICE deportation officers under a voluntary departure process that doesn’t carry the penalties of a formal deportation. But for all practical purposes, the impact was the same: Manuel had no choice but to go back there.
ICE officers visited him in jail in April 2017, and arrested him there after his conviction on a misdemeanor drug charge. About this same time, Cano Pacheco was also convicted on a separate misdemeanor charge in Polk County.
ICE issued Cano Pacheco a notice to appear before a federal immigration judge,” wrote Neudauer. “Based on his criminal convictions, his DACA status was terminated making him amenable to deportation.”
He was released on bond while awaiting a hearing in immigration court, Neudauer wrote. Cano Pacheco was convicted in Iowa of two more misdemeanors, including for driving under the influence. On April 10, 2018, Cano Pacheco requested and was granted voluntary departure, “under safeguards,” by a federal immigration judge. He returned to Mexico at the border in Laredo, Texas under ICE escort April 24.
At a small memorial service for Manuel on June 3 in Des Moines’ Trinity Las Americas church, Juan Verduzco, 20, recalled the friend he made freshman year at East. Manuel was always smiling and upbeat, and never had an unkind word for anyone, Verduzco said in an interview. “He was never a person you would feel bad for,” he said.
But that happiness had given way to depression after Manuel’s father was sent to prison for drug offenses two or three years ago, according to Verduzco. “He got into really bad depression,” he said.
Noting some bad habits Manuel was sinking into like drinking, Verduzco said, “Things were going downhill. I didn’t know what to do about it.”
It wasn’t just that Manuel had lost his role model in the father he always looked up to, but that he now felt responsible for being the man of the family. That meant helping to support the family, which meant transferring from East to Scavo, which he could work into his schedule while being employed installing floors. In the midst of all that upheaval, Manuel’s girlfriend had his baby, now a year-old boy.
Both Verduzco and Manuel’s mother said Manuel was passionate for car mechanics and was attending a course on that at Des Moines’ Central Campus. “He told me he had a scholarship to a college in Chicago for mechanics,” Verduzco said. Instead, a Go Fund Me account recently helped pay for his funeral in Mexico.
In Zacatecas, Manuel had gone out to get food with an acquaintance of his cousin’s, who apparently was known to the killers, Verduzco said. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Both were killed. Manuel’s throat was slit.
The northwestern Mexican state of Zacatecas, where Manuel’s family came from, has reportedly become a deadly place, especially for youth. Last August, the bodies of 14 people were discovered buried in a mass grave there. The growing number of drug-war deaths make Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Between January and May of 2017, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office reported 12,238 homicides.
What’s more, according to The Dallas Morning News, deportees are especially targeted by gangs in certain border areas. They are held by their captors unless their relatives in the U.S. pay thousands of dollars for their release. Between January and June 2017, the U.S. deported more than 31,000 Mexicans through two of the most dangerous crossing points, according to Mexico’s immigration service.
Verduzco’s relatives from Mexico have said it is dangerous to go out at night in Zacatecas.
Do federal authorities take any of those dangers into consideration when deporting people who were raised here? Neudauer, the ICE spokesman, said deportees to Mexico are turned over to Mexican authorities. “Once turned over they are the responsibility of their own government,” he said.
But clearly that government is incapable of keeping them safe.
Yes, Manuel was responsible for his own actions when he broke the law during a traumatic time by driving under the influence. “I think most of this is because of his dad,” Verduzco said. “That’s when his college stuff, his dreams went down the drain.”
No one should put others at risk by driving under the influence, though some very prominent Iowans have done so without having it derail their futures. Manuel had paid his dues for it.
More than anything, his brief life and gruesome death are yet another reminder of the heartlessness and counter-productiveness of our immigration policies and practices, which cry out for reform.
“I kind of don’t believe it still,” Verduzco said of the loss of his friend, who was more like a brother. “It still hasn’t hit me … I don’t understand.”
Nor should any of us understand or accept it. We should advocate for the system to be revamped.
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