When Houston immigration activist Roland Gramajo Reyes invited U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to a public meeting for people worried about being arrested due to their immigration status, he didn’t think he’d end up behind bars.
He was wrong.
Gramajo’s longtime advocacy on behalf of Houston’s immigrant and Latino communities, family, attorney, and allies said, make them seriously doubt that the timing of his apprehension was an accident.
Now, Gramajo, 40, is caught in a tug-of-war between law enforcement agencies seeking to either deport him after 25 cumulative years in the United States, or to first incarcerate him for improper entry into the United States, a charge that could land him in prison.
“His bond was denied Monday by a federal judge, so he will remain in detention while his illegal reentry charges are resolved,” Raed Gonzalez, Gramajo’s attorney, told The Daily Beast. “We are trying to reopen his immigration case… Many hurdles await us, but we are trying our best.”
Gramajo, a father of five and grandfather of two, was born in Retalhuleu, Guatemala in 1979, and first moved to Houston at age 15. Since then, he has made the improvement of the Guatemalan community and his adopted hometown his life’s mission.
He founded the Centro Organizativo Guatemalteco, which raises funds for humanitarian causes in Guatemala, as well as the Southwest American Systems Chamber of Commerce, which helps minority children participate in sports and beauty pageants. After Hurricane Harvey devastated the city in 2017, he took weeks off work to organize community efforts in helping those affected by the storm’s flooding that caused an estimated $125 billion in damage. For his work, Gramajo has received commendations from a host of state and local organizations, including the Alief Independent School District, Houston Community College, the Golden Eagle Society, and the Houston City Council.
Only days before his apprehension by ICE, Gramajo had organized a “know your rights” seminar for undocumented immigrants and their families in the city—the seminar to which he had invited immigration agents to participate. That invitation, Gramajo’s defenders believe, may have unintentionally goaded ICE into looking into Gramajo’s immigration status, a charge ICE has called “baseless.”
“To be abundantly clear, ICE personnel did not attend this Immigration Forum in any capacity—official or unofficial,” the agency released in a statement last week, saying that Gramajo became a target after ICE received an anonymous tip about his status. “To portray him in one-sided media reports… as a victim of some ‘covert’ law enforcement operation is an insulting affront to public safety.”
“We’re not gonna be able to comment any further on the anonymous tip” that led to Gramajo’s apprehension, ICE spokesperson Tim Oberle told The Daily Beast when asked about the timing of the tip that lead to his arrest, “because it’s anonymous, obviously.”
At the heart of ICE’s deportation case is Gramajo’s 1998 guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of burglary of a vehicle, for which he was sentenced to 20 days in prison. Gramajo’s family told reporters in Houston that the charge was the result of a practical joke that he had played on a friend, the vehicle’s owner.
After his plea, immigration authorities commenced deportation proceedings against Gramajo, culminating in his deportation to Guatemala in summer 2004. Gramajo returned months later to be with his family in Houston—including his wife and children—and has remained ever since.
It’s that 2004 illegal entry for which Gramajo will stand trial. If he is found guilty, he could face a six-month prison sentence before his potential deportation.
“My sons, they are texting me asking how is their father, and that’s what hurts the most,” Magaly Quicano, Gramajo’s wife, told reporters in Houston last week. “I’ve been praying, praying praying that he will win this immigration battle.”
Gramajo’s defenders, who count members of Houston’s political establishment among their members, told The Daily Beast that the potential deportation of the father of five is disgraceful.
“The prospect of deporting Mr. Gramajo is outrageous,” Mayor pro tem Ellen Cohen, a member of the Houston City Council, told The Daily Beast. Last year, the city council commended Gramajo as “dedicated to serving and inspiring the community,” and whose “qualities represent a true leader with an exceptional drive to improve the quality of life” throughout the city.
“His so-called ‘crime’ of coming back to this country—his country—after his 2004 deportation is a result of unjust laws. If I were in his shoes, I would have tried to find a way back to my spouse and children too,” Cohen added, noting that she has called upon ICE to immediately release him. “He is an asset to Houston and there is no legitimate public safety-related reason to deport him again. If ICE’s concern is public safety, they should be focusing their limited resources on those who are bringing violence, drugs, and human trafficking in to our communities.”
Houston City Council member Steve Le, who brought forth a successful proposal last year to name May 17, 2018 as “Roland Omar Gramajo Reyes Day” in the city, called Gramajo “a good person and community leader” whose presence in the city makes it a better place to live.
“Our office appreciates everything he has done for the community and recognized him with a Mayoral Proclamation for his achievements,” Le told The Daily Beast. “We were surprised by his arrest and hope the court will take into account all the great contributions he has made when determining his sentencing. We look forward to a favorable outcome for his family and our community.”
But after a judge denied his bond in a hearing on Monday, Gramajo will remain in federal detention until trial. Even if he wins his criminal case, his presence in the United States is far from assured—if deported, Gramajo will be barred from entering the United States for 20 years.
“I don’t know what the verdict will be, but I leave everything in the hands of God and wait,” Quicano said tearfully. “No more.”