The shackled man standing before immigration Judge Kristin Olmanson could make a case to stay in the United States. It helped that his in-laws, his ex-wife, his ex-mother-in-law and his son — all U.S. citizens — had turned out at the Fort Snelling courtroom to vouch for him.
But Miguel Ceja-Virgen also had a domestic assault charge pending against him. That, Olmanson said, placed him in a "Catch-22 situation," along with a rising number of immigrants in Minnesota: They could qualify for a reprieve from deportation, or in rarer cases even legal status, if they resolve criminal charges against them. But that's hard to do while behind bars in immigration custody.
Since taking office in January, the Trump administration has redoubled efforts to round up immigrants with pending criminal charges. At the same time, attorneys say, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is taking a harder line on granting bonds, which, like bail, allow detainees to be released from federal custody while they await hearings.
Supporters of stronger immigration enforcement have heralded this tougher stance.
They praise the administration's steps to end "catch and release" — the practice of freeing immigrants while their cases drag on in backlogged immigration courts.
Immigrant advocates say the shift is a threat to due process: deporting people before their day in criminal court.
For Olmanson, that shift sometimes makes for gnarlier rulings.
"The person is in the middle of their criminal case, and I have to decide what to do," she said during the hearing. "It happens so often, and it's very frustrating."
As immigration arrests have picked up, so has the number of immigrants asking a judge to review ICE's position on bonds: Such hearings at Fort Snelling have doubled since January, to 130 a month. About 730 people are in ICE detention in the five-state area covered by the agency's St. Paul office, including 550 with criminal convictions.
No lawyer to help
Ceja-Virgen, who is in the U.S. illegally, was arrested in March and charged with assaulting his wife, Julie. She later asked the courts to drop the misdemeanor charge and a no-contact order.
By then, ICE had taken him into custody. ICE denied bond; so did an immigration judge, who urged him to resolve the assault charge.
"We just don't know how to do that," Julie Ceja said in an interview.
Without an attorney, she didn't know how to apply for a brief release so her husband could attend his criminal court hearing.
He missed it, and a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
Such arrests have increased since a Trump executive order made immigrants with pending criminal charges a high priority for detention, according to Linus Chan, executive director of the Detainee Rights Clinic at the University of Minnesota.
Denying more bonds
The Hennepin County public defender's office has noticed.
There, attorney Kathy Moccio says some immigrants are picked up by immigration authorities at local jails before charges are filed and never assigned a public defender.
Meanwhile, ICE appears to be denying bonds more often or setting higher bond amounts, said Misti Binsfeld, who chairs the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).
Immigration inmates can apply for a habeas writ, permission to be transported to court hearings.
But the process is daunting, and ICE does not have to honor a writ. Detainees can also ask two local immigration judges to review ICE's decision. But a backlogged court means inmates wait three weeks on average for such a hearing, AILA says, and often miss their criminal court appearances.
On a recent afternoon, Judge Ryan Wood faced a string of detainees seeking review of ICE's bond decisions.
He balked at one case in which the attorney said her client deserved bond so he could help a lawyer defend him against a stalking charge.
Wood was more sympathetic to the case of Ramiro Lopez Martinez, a Mexican national who had been released from jail on $200 bail after a traffic arrest.
ICE picked him up and set bond at $33,000, based in part on older convictions for domestic assault and driving under the influence.
Now, after a 26-day wait for a hearing, attorney Abigail Wahl argued that her client was neither a danger nor a flight risk: Another court had granted him sole custody of sons, both U.S. citizens.
And Martinez, a construction worker, was their sole provider. Wood reduced the bond to $5,000.
At Ceja-Virgen's hearing, Olmanson listened as his ex-wife and his mother-in-law described him juggling two jobs to help support his son and send money to his parents and a daughter in Mexico. Between previous convictions for drunken driving and theft and his latest brush with the law, she noted, he had stayed out of trouble for almost 15 years.
If he could document his wife's and son's medical conditions, Olmanson would decide if his deportation would cause extreme hardship — grounds to block his removal.
She told Ceja-Virgen to ask her again to grant him bond.
Gaming the system?
ICE attorney Kenneth Knapp objected, saying that defendants like Ceja-Virgen are gaming the system. Because the court gives priority to immigrants in detention, if Ceja-Virgen is released on bond, his case would go to the back of a long line and "sit there until hell freezes over." Meanwhile, he gets permission to work legally.
Knapp said the prosecutor in Ceja-Virgen's criminal case doesn't plan to drop the charge; asking his wife to compile documents to bolster his immigration case smacks of pressing a victim to help an alleged abuser.
But Olmanson said freeing Ceja-Virgen will make it easier for him to address the charge and prepare for his immigration case.
She asked each side what an appropriate bond amount would be.
"As high as possible," Knapp said.
"$2,000," Ceja-Virgen said.
Olmanson set bond at $2,000.
'I could breathe again'
To former immigration judge Andrew Arthur, moving quickly to deport people who have broken immigration laws and run afoul of criminal laws is good for taxpayers and public safety — even if it occurs before their criminal cases are decided.
Arthur, now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports reducing immigration, said such defendants have a high no-show rate for immigration hearings. "The president spoke against catch-and-release," he said. "A big part of ending catch-and-release is setting appropriate bonds."
ICE says it weighs the immigrant's criminal history and community ties in setting bond, placing a priority on holding those who pose a threat to public safety and national security.
Moccio, at the Hennepin County public defender's office, says many clients could qualify for immigration relief — but struggle to pursue it if they land in detention before they can resolve a criminal charge.
Deporting people with pending criminal charges denies closure not just to them, but to victims as well, she said.
Some detained immigrants daunted by the prospect of fighting a criminal charge volunteer to go home. Binsfeld said ICE denied bond recently to a client facing a drunken driving charge. He had been released from jail without bail and had no prior criminal history. He paid for his plane ticket to Guatemala.
Twin Cities advocates are training more volunteer lawyers to handle bond hearings and raising money for bonds.
Today Ceja-Virgen, out on bond, is preparing for his criminal hearing in August. He says the moment Olmanson granted him bond will stay with him a long time.
"My heart opened up," he said. "I could breathe again."
Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781