Jon Tevlin
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Jacobo Gabriel-Tomas is no bad hombre. He is beloved by his family, his church, his employer and what he considers his hometown of Worthington, Minn.

But Tuesday morning, Jacobo crossed the border from Mexico into Guatemala, leaving behind his wife, Isabel, and his children: Darryel, 16; Beatriz, 14; Elvin, 13; and Daisy, 9.

Jacobo missed Elvin’s birthday Friday while he was driving south. He lingered at the Mexican border, hoping that politicians would give him another chance to stay in the U.S., then he left the country, perhaps for good.

“He called his wife from the Mexican border and kept telling her how much he loved her,” said the Rev. Jim Callahan, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Worthington. “That was very, very emotional.”

Jacobo and his family became the latest of thousands of victims of political optics in America.

President Donald Trump wants a wall, a beautiful wall that has nothing to do with protecting us or protecting jobs and everything to do with symbolism. Last month, Trump again dangled security in front of so-called “dreamers” in a meeting with Democratic leaders. Had the legislation they discussed been enacted, Jacobo would be able to stay with his family. Then Trump changed his mind and held the deal hostage in order to get his wall and other draconian immigration policies.

So Jacobo had to make the hardest decision of his life: Bring his wife and children to a violent, poverty-stricken country, or walk away from them. Under law, he cannot come back to the U.S. for at least 10 years.

“He’s banished,” said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

Under the Obama administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) focused largely on deporting criminals and gang members. Trump has wavered on his policies almost daily. At one point, he said he was only looking to get rid of “bad hombres.” Instead, ICE has been deporting people like Jacobo, who has been a solid citizen, working and paying taxes for more than two decades.

“He’s a pretty amazing guy,” said Keller. “I think this ‘no discretion, no-tolerance’ attitude is definitely coming from the president and from Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions. He’s an unfortunate person caught up in the lack of compassion for immigrants.”

Jacobo came to this country when he was just over 16. He applied for asylum but was denied, even though Guatemalans were being killed or “disappeared” in large numbers during the early 1990s.

Jacobo got a job on a hog farm near Worthington and worked his way up by being reliable and putting in long hours.

“His employer would have done anything to help him,” said Keller.

In fact, Jacobo had been at the farm longer than the current owner. Both the current and former owners wrote moving letters in Jacobo’s favor, as did the town’s mayor and Republican legislator. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tim Walz also tried to intervene.

In the past few weeks, “conversations have been really hard,” said Keller. “A lot of his decision-making was trying to balance what is in his family’s best interest and hoping he can come back some day. They were awful conversations.”

“The irony is that the DREAM Act, as written, would have protected Jacobo,” said Keller. “It was painful and bittersweet to be amid hundreds of people, many of them dreamers, who marched through [Worthington] on Sunday. In my 19 years, I’ve never had a client who had so much support, from neighbors, schools, employers and public officials. It’s pretty remarkable that a whole town and a whole state wanted him to stay, but it was turned aside without much thought.”

Kathy Klos, Jacobo’s attorney, has known the family for at least five years. She took the oldest kids on trips to Guatemala to see the place where they would have grown up. “They are just amazing kids,” said Klos.

When they learned their father would be sent back to Guatemala, the kids who had been there wanted to stay in the U.S., while the younger kids wanted to go with dad. Tellingly, the trips to Guatemala have ended because it’s too dangerous. The U.S. State Department calls the violence level in the country “critical.”

Klos said Jacobo was the “right-hand man” of the farmer. It was a good living for the immigrant, who bought a small home and later traded up to a larger one near the high school.

Jacobo said he was particularly worried because his kids are at a difficult age. “With them being teenagers, he said he was worried that he couldn’t support them from [Guatemala],” said Klos.

“I think it has been very tough on the family,” Klos added. “We had a going-away party earlier this year, we knew the time was coming. Jacobo knew the future is here, and that maybe some day they’ll be united.

“Money is a big concern. Isabel works a couple of jobs, but he was the main bread winner. They have such strong support from their church, and they’ve said they will make sure the family is supported.”

The church has already said it would give the youngest, Daisy, a scholarship to private school.

The uncertainty over immigration policy under Trump is having an impact in Worthington, Callahan said. “It’s unbelievable. Since the Trump administration, people are living in absolute fear and it’s showing in physical and emotional ways,” he said.

In Jacobo, Trump has another symbol of his disdain for immigrants. But Jacobo’s family, his employer, his city and this state will suffer for it.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702 @jontevlin