Aurelia Sicha had no idea that her husband was soon bound for a Central Virginia detention center when the Dumfries-area couple drove to meet with immigration officers on June 28.
Juan Gutierrez-Palomino isn’t in the country legally — like so many other immigrants, he overstayed a one-year visa after he first traveled here from Peru in 2002 — but he wasn’t hiding from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents either.
Sicha says her husband was arrested on trespassing charges in 2011, and while those were ultimately dismissed, the trip to the county jail alerted immigration agents to his undocumented status. Since 2012, he had traveled to an ICE office in Fairfax once a year for a quick check-in.
Accordingly, the couple’s visit to the ICE building last month seemed positively routine. But when agents escorted Gutierrez-Palomino into a back room and away from his wife, she started to suspect something was amiss.
“They were telling me, ‘We’re going to take your husband because I need his fingerprints,’” Sicha said. “‘Don’t worry, your husband is coming back,’ they said. They took my husband inside, and he never came back.”
Now, Gutierrez-Palomino is being held in Farmville awaiting deportation back to a country he hasn’t called home in roughly 15 years. Sicha and the couple’s three children are left hoping for some sort of legal salvation, holding a vigil at their home outside Dumfries on July 22 in a bid to draw attention to Gutierrez-Palomino’s case.
“Maybe the president hears it, looks it up, and some family like me maybe has an opportunity to live with their whole family together,” Sicha said. “Maybe someone will listen to us and it helps.”
ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell confirmed many of the details of Sicha’s account, noting that an immigration judge issued a “final order of removal” for Gutierrez-Palomino in January 2012. She wouldn’t detail why ICE agents chose to take Gutierrez-Palomino into custody on June 28, pointing only to policies laid out by President Donald Trump’s administration to guide ICE agents as they weigh deportation proceedings.
“ICE prioritizes the arrest and removal of national security and public safety threats,” Cutrell wrote in an email. “However, no class or category of alien in the United States is exempt from arrest or removal.”
Sicha believes her husband certainly doesn’t qualify as a threat of any kind — she says he never received so much as a traffic ticket before the 2011 trespassing incident. He even serves as pastor at the small church the couple founded shortly after they moved near Dumfries four years ago, the Evangelical Association of the Israelite Mission of the New Universal Pact.
“He fears God; he’s a preacher, he always listens to all the families [in our church] to help them have a good life,” Sicha said. “It’s affected my whole family, especially my daughter. She doesn’t understand why this is happening. I’m an American citizen, my daughter is an American citizen, her brother is serving in the military. But he doesn’t have a chance.”
Sicha says the couple’s daughter is just 13-years-old, while they have a son currently serving in the U.S. Air Force and another who once served in the Marine Corps. Sicha earned her citizenship in 2014, but she says her husband’s legal troubles prevented him from following the same path.
That means Gutierrez-Palomino might not have any recourse to avoid deportation, according to Jennifer Varughese, an immigration attorney who practices in Prince William County. Since the Dumfries pastor doesn’t have a green card and a judge has already ordered his removal, Varughese suspects he’ll soon be sent back to Peru.
“When one reports to ICE, that reporting period will eventually come to an end,” Varughese wrote in an email. “Eventually, ICE decides it’s time to move forward with the case.”
Cutrell didn’t address when ICE might remove Gutierrez-Palomino from the country, but online ICE records show he’s still being held in Farmville, for now.
In a bid for some kind of intervention, Sicha has tried telling her husband’s story to her local elected officials and politicians, inviting several to last weekend’s vigil.
State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th District, says his legislative aide was able to attend, as was Elizabeth Guzman, the Democratic candidate for the 31st District House of Delegates seat, which includes Gutierrez-Palomino’s home. The family’s current House representative, Republican Del. Scott Lingamfelter, didn’t respond to a request for comment on the case.
“The president has made it pretty clear that he wants to be more aggressive on immigration, including booting somebody out of this country who has a spouse and children here,” Surovell said. “It seems pretty heartless to me…It’s not really clear what purpose deporting him serves, other than to try and inject more fear into the Latino community.”
Guzman also lamented in a statement that Gutierrez-Palomino’s family “is being ripped apart, despite his service to our community,” but Surovell notes that there isn’t much any politician on the state level can do to help the family.
“All we can do is raise awareness and try and provide support and validation that he’s an asset to the community,” Surovell said. “And we can try to bring this to the attention of our federal elected officials, which I’ve been encouraging people to do.”
Surovell hopes people in the community will contact the area’s representative in Congress: Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st District. Greg Lemon, a spokesman for Wittman, says the congressman’s district staffers are currently looking into the matter.
The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy — an advocacy group that works on behalf of immigrant families — has also started working to share Gutierrez-Palomino’s story among the state’s faith communities, according to staffer Lana Heath De Martinez.
Sicha says she’s been heartened by the support, particularly at the vigil, which attracted around 20 people in all. She was even able to get her husband on the phone during the gathering, so he could offer his own thanks to all in attendance.
But Sicha fears what Gutierrez-Palomino’s deportation would mean for her family. She only works part-time as a teacher’s assistant in special needs classes at Arlington County Public Schools and largely depended on her husband’s work at a series of odd jobs to pay the bills.
Sicha also wonders how her husband might adjust if he has to start a new life in Peru. She doesn’t have much in the way of family left in the country, and Gutierrez-Palomino only has his 80-year-old mother to turn to for help.
“He’s almost 57-years-old, he had an accident with his job and he has back pain, and he has asthma,” Sicha said. “With that age, he doesn’t have a chance to have a job. And we don’t have a house over there, only here. So that’s really difficult for us.”
At this point, all Sicha can rely on is the very thing that bonded her to Gutierrez-Palomino all these years: faith.
“Right now, I’m really praying to God,” Sicha said. “Maybe God will open some way.”