Matt Driscoll

A surprise from the Northwest Detention Center: immigrant father avoids deportation

Leobel Bonilla Gomez, finally home with his family after more than two months detained, answered succinctly this week.

“It changes everything,” he said via email and through an interpreter, when asked what it all meant.

It wasn’t hyperbole.

Last week at this time, as attentive readers might recall, Bonilla Gomez was an undocumented immigrant facing the very real prospect of being deported to Guatemala, a country he left more than a decade ago. He had been locked up at the Northwest Detention Center since late October when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials pounced on him in the parking lot of his children’s dentist office.

Being forced to leave the United States would mean relocating his family to a country his wife and children had never known, or worse, separating them.

Thankfully — at least for those sympathetic to Bonilla Gomez’s story, and his family’s supporters — those fears never materialized. While immigration cases across the country have been put on hold because of the government shutdown, cases continue to be heard inside the NWDC, and late last week a judge presiding over Bonilla Gomez’s case ruled in the family’s favor.

Bonilla Gomez will be allowed to stay in the United States as a lawful permanent resident, the judge decided.

Soon, a green card will provide the security Bonilla Gomez has not known in this country, serving as documented proof of his right to be here.

The judge’s decision — which Bonilla Gomez’s attorney shared with The News Tribune with his client’s permission — means no more fear, no more uncertainty and no more hiding.

“This opportunity was the best that I could have hoped for in my life,” Bonilla Gomez said. “I can come out from under the shadow where I had been living as an undocumented person. I can now give my children, my family a better life. … We can see things differently now.”

Officials with ICE couldn’t be immediately reached for comment, likely a result of the ongoing government shutdown.

When I spoke to her last week, Maria Bonilla, Leobel’s wife, said the possibility of her husband’s deportation wasn’t something she was allowing herself to think about. The stakes were too high, the emotions too raw, she said.

Still, it had clearly crossed her mind. The couple has five children — three from a previous relationship Maria had with a man who drowned in 2010, and twins, 3-year-old Joshua and Samantha, who were born prematurely and deal with developmental issues.

In Guatemala or Mexico, she feared, her young children wouldn’t have access to the medical care they depend on. Maria’s older children, meanwhile, likely wouldn’t be able to pursue their dreams. Her 16-year-old daughter, Guadalupe, is looking forward to college and dreams of studying medicine, or perhaps the law.

Admittedly, as a columnist and outside observer, the likelihood of Bonilla Gomez’s deportation crossed my mind as well.

That’s because his attorney, Diego Aranda Teixeira, explained the case he would need to make on behalf of Bonilla Gomez. He said it would involve demonstrating the “exceptional and extremely unusual” hardship the family would endure if Bonilla Gomez was removed from the country and convincing the judge of his client’s “good moral character.”

The first part, at least, seemed straightforward. Given the size and needs of Bonilla Gomez’s family, removing him from the country and potentially forcing his wife and children to follow appeared to have a decent chance of meeting the high threshold of the court.

The second part was complicated — which is why I was drawn to Bonilla Gomez’s story.

Bonilla Gomez is a family man and a hardworking breadwinner. He’s also a flawed human being, like most of us. He has a history of alcohol abuse that has led to two DUIs and a dismissed domestic violence charge marring his record.

Would an immigration judge — even when presented with Bonilla Gomez’s contrition, the acknowledgment of his alcohol problem and evidence of the steps he’s taken to get and stay sober, which date back more than a year — be convinced he was a good candidate to stay?

Would readers be able to appreciate the humanity of Bonilla Gomez’s story, aware of the incredibly high standards we require of others to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities we often take for granted.

The chances seemed precarious at best, and at worst, hopeless.

Then, last Friday arrived, and with it the news I can now say I wasn’t expecting. Rarely have I been so pleased to be wrong.

I asked Aranda Teixeira if the judge’s decision represented a win not just for his client but for society?

“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation, noting that his client will have to avoid a long list of serious criminal offenses to take advantage of his second chance, and one mistake could see it all taken away.

More importantly, the attorney said that while people often search for model citizens, “nuclear scientists or geniuses” to make the case for what immigration adds to this country, there’s potentially just as much weight in what a story like Bonilla Gomez’s can teach us.

“There’s a value in regret, and there’s a value in turning one’s life around, because that’s facing obstacles and then proving one’s self,” Aranda Teixeira said. “In this case, we have a family that now gets to stay together.”

Yes, we do. And while arguments will undoubtedly be made to the contrary, it’s hard for me to see how that’s a bad thing.

As to what that family does next, Bonilla Gomez, who sobbed tears of relief when the judge’s decision was rendered, was once again succinct.

“Our family can now live our American dream,” he said.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.