With two immigration agents hovering nearby, Jorge Garcia pulled his family close for one final hug by security gates at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. His wife and 15-year-old daughter sobbed in his arms. His 12-year-old son stood stoically. Garcia was silent.
Soon after, the 39-year-old landscaper from Lincoln Park, Michigan, boarded a plane bound for Mexico, deported to his home country on Monday after three decades of living, working and raising a family in the United States.
Garcia was brought to the country with an undocumented relative when he was 10 years old, according to the Detroit Free Press. He had been facing a removal order from immigration courts since 2009, but his deportation was stayed during the Obama administration as his family looked for ways to get him legal status. Under President Donald Trump, that was no longer an option.
"It's just a nightmare," his wife, Cindy Garcia, told the Detroit News, after watching her husband walk through the airport scanners. "You can't even put it into words how it feels."
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comment Tuesday morning.
Jorge Garcia's deportation turned him into the latest public face of what many of President Trump's critics have called a cruel and excessive crackdown on undocumented immigrants by the administration. Under the Obama administration, people in Garcia's position were rarely targeted for deportation.
Early last year, Trump issued an executive order expanding deportation priorities and rendering all categories of "removable aliens" subject to enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The president and Department of Homeland Security officials say such measures are necessary to protect the public and national security.
Overall, deportations dropped from 2016 to 2017, but immigrant arrests rose. The fastest growing group of arrests, as of September 2017, was made up of people like Garcia who were facing no criminal charges. ICE arrested more than 28,000 "non-criminal immigration violators" in the first seven months of Trump's term, a nearly threefold increase over the same period in 2016, The Washington Post's Nick Miroff has reported.
Garcia and his wife, an American citizen and retired autoworker, met in Detroit and got married 15 years ago. When they tried to get him legal status in 2005, they wound up in deportation proceedings, she told ABC News. She added that he checked in regularly with ICE officials, never traveling outside their town without permission. He appears to have no criminal record in the United States.
Garcia received multiple stays of removal during President Barack Obama's two terms, but was too old to qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the policy created by the Obama administration to protect children of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Immigrants who were 31 or younger as of June 15, 2012, can qualify for DACA status. Anyone older is exempt.
Another Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, sought to protect undocumented adult immigrants like Garcia with children who were American citizens or lawful permanent residents. The policy was blocked by federal courts.
In November, after his last check-in, immigration agents told Garcia that he would have to leave the country, according to local media. The Garcias said they asked ICE if they could hold off on deporting him to see if Congress and the White House work out a deal to pass DACA legislation. Garcia could remain through the holidays, immigration agents reportedly told him, but he had to return to Mexico by Jan. 15.
Niraj Warikoo tweeted "'Stop Separating Families,' read signs from supporters of Jorge as he prepares to board flight for Mexico in a deportation by ICE, part of crackdown by Trump administration"
"We did not want to put up a Christmas tree because it was way too sad to even get to that point," Cindy Garcia told The Detroit News. "It was rough because we knew he was going to leave eventually. All we could do is make memories."
The night before he was ordered to leave, Garcia's friends held a farewell party for him in southwest Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press. "I feel kind of sad," he told the newspaper. "I got to leave my family behind, knowing that they're probably going to have a hard time adjusting. Me not being there for them for who knows how long. It's just hard."
At the airport on Monday morning, a group of friends and supporters from UAW 600 and the advocacy group Michigan United turned out with Garcia and his family, some carrying signs reading "Stop Separating Families." They watched quietly as the family said their goodbyes. Video of the tearful scene was shared widely on social media.
"I don't see the justice in this," AJ Freer of UAW 600 told the Detroit News. "For a man who cares deeply and supports his family, obeys the law, pays taxes and has a history of helping others, I think ICE and the federal government of the United States acted cruelly to this family."
Garcia could be barred for 10 years or more, but his wife said she would fight to bring her husband back before then.
Speaking with CNN's Chris Cuomo, Cindy Garcia said Monday night that she wants the president to know Jorge "is not a criminal."
"His case needs to be looked at individually because he deserves to be here in a country that he's known, not Mexico," she said, adding that there are other families in similar situations.