A Houston Activist Invited ICE to a Community Meeting. Now, He Faces Deportation.
Posted September 10, 2019 2:13 p.m. EDT
Updated September 11, 2019 4:37 p.m. EDT
In August, Roland Gramajo, a Houston businessman and celebrated advocate in the local Guatemalan community, helped organize a town-hall meeting to quell fears about recent federal immigration raids.
He invited community activists from across the country. He also invited members of Congress. He even invited officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to talk about what rights people had and did not have if they were confronted by authorities.
But three weeks after the meeting, it is Gramajo who faces deportation. He was arrested near his home Thursday, a move that has stunned his family and rekindled concerns that the Trump administration is targeting advocates as part of its crackdown on illegal immigration.
Gramajo had been staying in the country illegally — raising his five children, running a business in Houston and helping fellow immigrants with translations — without contact from ICE for about 15 years. Last year, the Houston City Council formally commended Gramajo for being an “outstanding leader."
Now, many are wondering if it wasn’t Gramajo’s entreaty to ICE that drew the agency’s scrutiny.
“This is the problem with the policies of this administration,” said Raed Gonzalez, Gramajo’s lawyer. “No discretion. Why are you not targeting traffickers? Drug dealers? It just doesn’t make any sense to get this guy that is working and paying taxes and has a family.”
The case was first reported by The Houston Chronicle.
Adding an unusual twist to Gramajo’s case were reports from the Aug. 18 community meeting that three men who seemed out of place took pictures of Gramajo, raising suspicions that ICE had, in fact, secretly attended.
ICE said in a statement Sunday that its agents did not attend the meeting in August “in any capacity — official or unofficial.”
The agency rebutted that it targeted Gramajo after he reached out, saying instead that it received an “anonymous tip that he was residing in Houston.” The agency noted that he had been convicted of a misdemeanor 20 years ago and had been deported in 2004.
“To portray him in one-sided media reports — based on vague and unsubstantiated allegations — as a victim of some ‘covert’ law enforcement operation is an affront to public safety; and it does a great disservice to the thousands of law enforcement officers who risk their lives daily to protect our communities, and our country,” the agency said in the statement.
The Trump administration, in pledging to more aggressively enforce the country’s immigration laws, has said it is expanding the scope of who it targets for deportations. For example, President Barack Obama had directed agents to focus proceedings on immigrants convicted of serious crimes, but Trump scrapped that practice, and this summer the administration said it would step up its efforts to deport families of migrants in the country illegally.
Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, said it was not surprising that Gramajo was targeted because of his deportation history and his misdemeanor conviction.
But Capps said the case added more evidence that community leaders, particularly those fighting on behalf of immigrants, were being targeted. He pointed to the detention in New York last year of Ravi Ragbir, an immigration rights activist.
“The disturbing thing about this is there’s a pattern,” Capps said.
ICE said in a statement Monday that it “does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make.”
Gramajo, who was born in Guatemala, first came to the United States in 1994 on a tourist visa, his lawyer, Gonzalez, said. He overstayed his visa.
In December 1998, Gramajo pleaded guilty to a charge of burglary of a vehicle, a Class A misdemeanor, Gonzalez said. He was sentenced to 20 days in prison, Gonzalez said.
Katherine Gramajo, Gramajo’s daughter, said in an interview that the episode stemmed from a practical joke Gramajo had played on a friend. The friend had wanted to drop the charges, she said, but the case proceeded anyway.
Immigration officials began deportation proceedings against Gramajo, and he was deported in June 2004. He crossed back into the United States illegally months later to be with his family, Gonzalez said.
He was a businessman who worked as a notary and helped residents get loans, Gonzalez said.
Katherine Gramajo said her father would gather bicycles and toys to donate to families in need. As part of his business, he helped immigrants who couldn’t speak English translate important documents and secure loans. He also organized mental health outreach services, Gonzalez said.
“We never thought this would happen to us,” Katherine Gramajo said. “My dad has never done anything bad. He was always helping the community. We’re devastated. This shouldn’t have been happening.” In January 2018, the Houston City Council said in a resolution that he “is a very well-known community activist whose qualities represent a true leader with an exceptional drive to improve the quality of life throughout the diversity community in Houston and he is an extremely positive role model who is dedicated to serving and inspiring the community to get involved.”
Gramajo organized the August town-hall meeting with Nelvin Adriatico, a real estate broker in Houston who is running for City Council in a part of the city with sizable Asian American and Hispanic immigrant populations.
Adriatico said he had met ICE officials weeks earlier and they were open to the idea of a meeting with the community. Adriatico said he gave Gramajo a contact at ICE.
“I told him not to,” Katherine Gramajo said. “He just wanted to get the word across to the Latino community that they’re not all bad people.”