Jesús Contreras slowly drove a mud-splattered feeding machine through a dimly lit shed, dispensing a glob of food atop each wire cage in the mink shed on a recent January day.
A mixture of snow and muck covered the saturated ground between the rows of wood-framed buildings that house the 2,600 animals at B6 Farms in Lehi. Sleet fell as Contreras, wearing jeans, work boots and a hoodie pulled over his head that hid most of his hair but not his salt-and-pepper mustache, made his way to a barn to repair some pressboard boxes the mink had chewed through.
Besides feeding the animals, he cleans their pens, administers vaccines and tackles whatever else needs to be done around the farm. He arrives each morning at 7:18 a.m., has a cup of coffee in the work shed and punches in at 8 a.m. As the ranch has shrunk in size over the years, Contreras, who turns 63 this month, remains its only full-time employee.
“He knows what to do before I do,” says Brent Beckstead, whose family started the business about 45 years ago.
Contreras has worked at the ranch from almost the day he arrived in Utah from Mexico on a snowy April 1, 1980. It was the first time he had seen snow. He shakes his head at how much has fallen this winter.
But for 40 years, rain or shine, Contreras has faithfully tended to his duties — except for the 40 months he spent back in Mexico after being wrongfully deported.
Poor legal advice and fierce resistance from the immigration bureaucracy to correct some mistakes cast him into a prolonged legal battle to regain what he had lost.
Now, more than a decade after becoming a symbol of the need for immigration reform in a precedent-setting court case, Contreras will take the U.S. citizenship oath on Thursday.
“I am so excited. I am happy to be in the United States. Now I have the opportunity to be with my kids and now I can see my grandkids grow up,” said the father of five and grandfather of six.
Contreras’ legal case was part of a national movement aimed at getting courts to hear the appeals of immigrants who had been deported.
The U.S. government took the position that if an immigrant was no longer in the country, then the courts didn’t have to hear their arguments. But it created an incentive for the government to quickly deport people so their cases couldn’t be heard on appeal.
During his more than three-year banishment, attorneys Chris Keen and Ed Carter pursued legal remedies that eventually established an important precedent for immigrants to be heard in court even after being deported. Keen called the Contreras case “exceptional.”
“It made it so that everybody after him, even if they were deported, they still get their day in court. A deportation can’t cause a dismissal of their case as (the government) tried to say in this case here,” Keen said.
Contreras experienced the “byzantine” bureaucracy of the U.S. immigration system at its worst, and yet he persevered, Keen said. He said the case represents positive contributions made by immigrants to the United States and the importance of immigration advocacy.
Coming to America
Contreras first came to the United States in 1974. He rode a bus from his hometown near San Luis Potosí in central Mexico to Laredo, Texas. He and six other guys walked the 160 miles from Laredo to San Antonio to find work. He did seasonal jobs in fields and orchards. He was 14.
In 1980, friends told him to come to Utah for work. He has been at the mink farm ever since. The Beckstead family can’t recall a day that Contreras did not show up for work. In a letter to the court after he was deported, the Becksteads extolled his loyalty and dedication. They consider him not just an employee but part of their family.
“I’ll put him up against any 20-year-old, with shoveling manure, working, whatever it is. He never complains. He’ll do whatever I ask him,” Beckstead said recently.
Seven years after taking the job, the government granted Contreras temporary permanent resident status under a special agricultural worker program. Two years later, he became a lawful permanent resident or green card holder.
Contreras was living in Midvale with a roommate in 1991 when Salt Lake metro narcotics agents knocked on the door. He was in the shower. He said his roommate went out the window. Detectives found five grams of cocaine in the house.
Contreras was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance. He pleaded guilty to a reduced class A misdemeanor for attempted possession of cocaine. A judge ordered him to 12 months in jail but suspended the sentence. (The record was expunged in 2006.)
The drugs weren’t his, Contreras said, but “I’m the one who paid for it.” He said his roommate was never charged and ultimately died of an overdose. Contreras said his attorney at the time never told him he might get deported if he pleaded guilty.
And he didn’t — at least not right away.
Flagged in L.A.
For the next 13 years, Contreras traveled to Mexico every year to spend a week or so with his parents without a problem. But on a return flight to Salt Lake City through Los Angeles in January 2004, the Department of Homeland Security flagged his long-forgotten drug conviction. The government placed him in removal proceedings on the grounds that he was inadmissible to the United States.
From there, the legal wheels turned slowly.
In 2006, he paid an attorney $1,500 to represent him in Immigration Court. His lawyer filed a cancellation of removal petition and had Contreras’ criminal record expunged. But he didn’t properly serve the cancellation of removal paperwork on the government’s attorney.
A judge could never have granted the cancellation because it required Contreras to be a resident of the U.S. for seven years. The clock stopped on his residency after his 1991 conviction, giving him less than two years since he had obtained his green card.
In November 2007, the judge denied the application based on that reason and ordered Contreras deported. His attorney filed a notice of appeal within the 30-day requirement but failed to file a brief to support it. It took nearly two years for the Board of Immigration Appeals to dismiss the appeal without a written or oral argument from Contreras’ lawyer on March 30, 2009.
A few days later, immigration agents were at the mink ranch. They showed Contreras a photo of a man they were looking for. It was Contreras himself. He was confined to the Utah County Jail in Spanish Fork. On April 9, 2009, he was on his way back to Mexico.
The day before he left, one of Contreras’ daughters contacted Keen. The attorney visited Contreras in jail and reviewed the case. He quickly discovered that Contreras’ lawyer had “imprudently” filed the wrong application, according to a court affidavit.
Keen said the lawyer should have sought a waiver from deportation under a different section of the law before the Immigration Court, which judges routinely granted and for which he was eligible.
“You win those all day long. They were given out like candy,” he said.
Back in Mexico
The deportation flight from Salt Lake City flew to El Paso, Texas. Contreras said he didn’t eat for 36 hours. He walked across the border to Ciudad Juárez under the watchful eye of border agents. He then rode a bus for hours to his hometown near San Luis Potosí. He thought he had zero chance of returning to Utah.
“I was thinking I’m not coming back. I’m going to stay here forever,” he said.
Contreras worked in the fields and raised cows in La Palma Salinas, a tiny town of 1,500 people. He worried about his children and grandchildren in Utah. He talked to them on the telephone, but calls were expensive. One of the two phones in town was at a small grocery store. Someone at the store would go find him when he had a call from his family or Keen.
One good thing that came from his time in Mexico was being there when his father died. His mother died a year later after he had returned to Utah.
Keen, meantime, filed a motion with the Board of Immigration Appeals to reopen Contreras’ case. The board rejected the motion, citing lack of jurisdiction because Contreras was no longer in the country.
Rule and law in conflict
Dating back to 1952, immigration regulations have included a “departure bar” — an administrative rule that attempts to bar a person from pursuing a motion to reopen or a motion to reconsider after he or she has departed the United States, according to a paper by immigration attorneys Beth Werlin and Trina Realmuto, who supported Keen and Carter in Contreras’ case.
Relying on that rule, the Board of Immigration Appeals and the Immigration Courts refused to hear motions filed by individuals who had been deported from the United States.
Even after Congress codified the right to file one motion to reopen an immigration case as an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Board of Immigration Appeals continued to contend it lacked jurisdiction to consider motions filed by people who had already left the country.
That put the administrative rule and the law passed by Congress at odds.
Resolving the contradiction
As cases on the departure bar made their way through the judicial system, appeals courts around the country were initially split on the issue. Keen said it was unclear which way the decisions were going to fall. As he and Carter litigated Contreras’ case, appeals courts began to invalidate the departure bar.
Still, a three-judge panel at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver sided with the government in Contreras’ case — as the court had previously done in another immigrant’s case.
But Keen and Carter sought and were granted an en banc hearing before all 11 active judges in the 10th Circuit, including now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
In his argument, Carter emphasized the “fundamental” unfairness of Contreras not being allowed a hearing on the reasons why he was eligible to stay in the U.S. on a deportation waiver. He also contended the immigration court attempted to assert its own jurisdiction despite a lack of congressional authority.
The court overturned the decision in January 2012, finding the law “plainly guarantees each noncitizen the right to file a motion to reopen, regardless of whether they have departed the United States. Because the post-departure bar regulation contravenes this right, it is not a valid exercise of the attorney general’s rulemaking authority.”
The ruling gave Contreras his day in court.
“He was just never listened to, until after the (10th Circuit) decision,” Carter said.
Keen called the case groundbreaking. “It fixed a wrong,” he said.
“How many other people before him were deported where they had good, strong claims but their appeals were dismissed because they were out of the country?” Keen said. “I’ve had a few, and (there are) probably thousands and thousands who might have won if this rule was interpreted appropriately.”
Six months after the 10th Circuit ruling, the immigration appeals board granted the deportation waiver. Keen said Contreras’ former lawyer should have filed it in the first place. That allowed Contreras to return to the country, which Keen said is “extremely rare.”
As part of the appeal, Keen had to file a complaint with the Utah State Bar against Contreras’ former lawyer, alleging he provided ineffective counsel. Though it was uncomfortable to call out a fellow attorney, Keen said the board would have ignored Contreras’ case without it.
“It’s to dissuade people from getting their day in court,” he said.
Keen said he’ll never forget the day he called Contreras in Mexico.
“I could hear chickens in the background as I waited for him to get on the phone,” he said. “He was unusually calm as I tearfully shared the good news.”
Keen said he wasn’t sure Contreras believed him or if the news sunk in.
Contreras simply says he was “excited” to be able to return, especially to be reunited with his children and grandchildren.
Beckstead, who contributed about $5,000 toward Contreras’ legal fees, immediately gave him his old job back at the mink ranch where he continues to work with no plans to retire. Contreras said he doesn’t feel good about not working and would die if he retired.
It took another five years before the Immigration Court in Salt Lake City granted Contreras the waiver Keen said his previous attorney should have filed to begin with. He also had his green card restored in 2017.
Now, he will become a U.S. citizen. He’ll obtain a U.S. passport. Contreras says he will be able to travel more freely and without fear of deportation. And if he does retire one day, he can stay in Mexico as long as he likes and come back whenever he wants.
Looking back, Contreras has a hard time summing up the last two decades.
“I don’t know how I can. It takes a long time, just be patient, I guess,” he said. “(It’s) hard to be patient. Lucky me, I’m back.”