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Deportation to Guatemala looms as Gabriel-Tomas’ fate

WORTHINGTON -- Today is the day Jacobo Gabriel-Tomas will depart on a long, lonely drive through Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico to his native country of Guatemala, a nation he hasn't called home in nearly 25 years.

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Jacobo Gabriel-Tomas (back left) is pictured with his wife, Maria Isabel Agustin, and children Beatriz, Elvin, and Daisy. Missing in the photo is their oldest son, Darryel. (Special to The Globe)

WORTHINGTON - Today is the day Jacobo Gabriel-Tomas will depart on a long, lonely drive through Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico to his native country of Guatemala, a nation he hasn’t called home in nearly 25 years.

Gabriel-Tomas fled Guatemala at age 16, seeking to escape a violent civil war and genocidal government, and arrived in the U.S. in 1992. With his recent deportation from the U.S., he’ll be forced to leave behind his longtime job at a local pig farm, his friends at St. Mary’s Church, his home on 13th Street and - most importantly - his wife, Isabel, and four children, Beatriz, Elvin, Daisy and Darryel.

“It will be like a new home for me,” Gabriel-Tomas said. “That’s why I don’t want to take my family, because everything would be new for them. They would be poor, and it’s a dangerous place … they would not have as good a life as they have here.”

Gabriel-Tomas on Friday held out some hope for a miracle, but understood the odds were against him. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Monday denied a stay of deportation request from his attorney, Kathy Klos of the Immigrant Law Center.

The isn’t the first legal battle Gabriel-Tomas has fought and lost. His status in the U.S. has changed many times over the course of two decades and multiple administrations, causing constant stress on he and his family.

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Gabriel-Tomas had a pending case for asylum when he first entered the U.S., thus granting him a work permit and permission to stay. But the case was not addressed for years, and in December 1996, members of warring factions in Guatemala signed a peace treaty, concluding a civil war of 30 years and ending Gabriel-Tomas’s case for asylum.

In the fall of 2002, he was given 30 days to leave the country. In what he called one of the most difficult decisions of his life, Gabriel-Tomas decided to stay in the country illegally, to provide his wife and two kids - with a third on the way - with a better life.

Gabriel-Tomas went off the radar until a 2013 traffic stop, after which he was detained and jailed for the deportation order issued 11 years prior. He fought the case in court and lost.

He was ready to leave on a plane to Guatemala when his attorney - Klos - told him to stay. In a stroke of luck, just two weeks later, President Barack Obama announced his decision to refocus deportations on convicted felons. Under new orders, ICE granted Gabriel-Tomas prosecutorial discretion, temporarily protecting him from deportation.

After Donald Trump was elected president, the pendulum swung back once again. New guidelines had ICE reopening deportation cases, and Gabriel-Tomas was once again under pressure to leave the country.

“It’s been really stressful,” Gabriel-Tomas said. “So many times, we didn’t know if I could stay, if I had to leave my family.”

ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said in a statement Friday that “in a further exercise of discretion, ICE chose not to place [Gabriel-Tomas] in custody, allowing him the chance to depart the United States by a previously agreed upon date, in accordance with his order.”

With his oldest child still a young teenager, Gabriel-Tomas is unsure of how his family will do without him.

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“It’s really hard to tell because it’s better to have the family together - for them to have a father to support them,” Gabriel-Tomas said. “To take them to school, be there for them, pay rent, buy food … everything a dad does.”

Still, Gabriel-Tomas said he was hopeful neighbors and church members would be able to help.

“There’s a lot of people that have a big heart to help us,” Gabriel-Tomas said.

Though it apparently didn’t move the needle enough, Gabriel-Tomas got a groundswell of support from the Worthington area. ICE received more than 200 phone calls in support of Gabriel-Tomas on Monday alone.

Throughout the week, staff members for Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tim Walz met with immigration and homeland security officials to plead his case. Local leaders such as District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton and Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle also expressed support for Gabriel-Tomas.

“It’s a shame,” Kuhle said. “To disrupt a family, to ship away a hard-working man who owns a home, pays taxes and has a good job … what’s wrong with this picture? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Hamilton, a Republican from Mountain Lake, called the news of the deportation “devastating.”

“I always stress the importance of family, and the difference between people like Jacobo, who are valued members of the community, and the hard-line criminals that we all want to get rid of,” Hamilton said. “I have heard nothing but good things about him - we need more people like him in our communities.”

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Kuhle, whose focus is always on the city’s economic development, said deportations of non-violent, gainfully-employed immigrants not only harm families, but damage the many local businesses that are always short on workers.

“Our unemployment is virtually nill - you’ve got businesses up and down the street looking for people,” Kuhle said. “We need workers. People like him, they’re not taking away jobs from anybody, not in the Worthington area.”

Gabriel-Tomas is one of many undocumented immigrants without a path to citizenship. One of Klos’s arguments for Gabriel-Tomas to stay was that he would be covered under the DREAM Act of 2017, a proposal currently awaiting action in Congress. Current DACA protections shield only those who entered the country before their 16th birthday, but the DREAM Act would raise the age limit to 18.

The more conservative SUCCEED Act, on the other hand, would not be of any help to the longtime Worthington resident.

“The reality is, there are hardworking people who don’t have a path forward to citizenship based on their situation,” Kuhle said. “Well, the federal government’s gotta fix that.”

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Jacobo Gabriel-Tomas (right) poses with his wife, Maria Isabel Agustin, and kids Beatriz, Elvin, Daisy and Darryel. (Special to The Globe)

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