Sheriff’s office deputies in a progressive Florida county earlier this year encountered a man from Guatemala, running down a tree-lined street.
What happened next shows the effects of a new conservative immigration policy that’s playing out not in the state capitol but at the street level. A hit-and-run incident in a quiet Newberry neighborhood, which snowballed into a federal court case, has illuminated the stepped-up enforcement against illegal immigration in Alachua County and across Florida.
The case also brings into vivid reality for the public the debate over what local law enforcement’s role should be in the nation’s immigration policy.
It began with a two-car fender bender on Aug. 3, when an undocumented immigrant ran from deputies after they said he fled the scene.
A black pickup truck that morning backed into another vehicle on Northwest 251st Street in Newberry, and two Hispanic males were seen leaving the accident, according to an Alachua County Sheriff’s Office arrest report. One drove away in the truck.
The other took off on foot.
Deputies searched the area and found Kenny Velasquez walking away from the black pickup truck, according to the report.
He was told several times to stop, but Velasquez told them, “No,” and continued running.
It was Deputy Shon McGuigan’s stun gun that stopped Velasquez. Video footage from the deputy’s front dash camera does not show the interaction, but the audio captures the sound of its voltage sparks.
After the apprehension, the video shows McGuigan and his colleagues discussing their thoughts on the incident and also the current political climate immigrants face in the U.S.
“I get it, but I don’t get it. It’s a Catch-22,” McGuigan said, throwing his hands up in frustration. “They’re willing to work and be a respectful citizen, but now they’re in fear for their lives because of the crap that’s going on.”
Before he was taken to the Alachua County Jail, Velasquez sat handcuffed in the backseat of McGuigan’s car, where the deputy continued to share his thoughts.
“After this is all done, man, don’t ever run from the cops. I don’t care where you come from, OK?” McGuigan said. “I don’t think you’re a bad person. I think you made a bad decision.”
Fingerprints later revealed that Kenny Velasquez was not actually Kenny Velasquez, according to the report.
Domingo Paez-Bautista, 26, was then charged with giving false identification to police and resisting an officer without violence. The Guatemalan native had months prior illegally crossed the U.S. border before making his way to Alachua County.
And it was not the first time, according to federal immigration records.
A month after the arrest, Alachua County Jail officials notified U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that the state charges against Paez-Bautista were resolved. The following day, he was transferred to the ICE office in Jacksonville, where immigration service computer checks showed Paez-Bautista was previously deported from the United States to Guatemala in August 2017.
Paez-Bautista the following day then admitted to an ICE deportation officer that he, in fact, was a Guatemalan citizen who re-entered the country without permission, according to ICE records. In April, he crossed the New Mexico border on foot.
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Paez-Bautista’s interaction with deputies during the hit-and-run incident occurred about two months after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a statewide ban on sanctuary cities. Senate Bill 168, signed June 14, requires that “local entities and law enforcement agencies cooperate with federal government officials to enforce, and not obstruct, immigration laws.”
Deemed “one of the strictest bans in the U.S.,” local officials with custody of immigrants here illegally must “comply with requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement” or face the risk of “potential removal and possible litigation by the state attorney general,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
The law took effect July 1.
Since June, the Sheriff’s Office has notified ICE of 87 undocumented immigrants in its custody, according to a log of such notifications obtained by public record request. Fourteen of these immigrants, including Paez-Bautista, were subsequently released to ICE.
In the first five months of 2019, none of the 110 undocumented immigrants of which ICE was notified were released to the federal agency.
The number of undocumented immigrants released to ICE from the county’s custody increased almost five-fold following the signing of the new Florida law as compared to this point in 2018, when three had been turned over.
Sheriff Sadie Darnell, who is running for reelection to a fourth full term in 2020, has remained mum on the arrest of Velasquez, the accelerating number of immigrants being released to ICE and what it all means for her office and deputies. She did not respond to requests for an interview or a prepared statement after two phone calls and an email to her office.
In 2017, the same year Paez-Bautista was deported, Darnell spoke at a news conference about the Sheriff’s Office immigration procedures after the Department of Homeland Security released an ICE Declined Detainer Report, according to Tampa television station WTSP. The report listed Alachua as one of the top 10 U.S. counties for non-cooperation of declined detainers.
“According to the ICE, Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell will only honor an ICE detainer with a judicial order or criminal warrant,” WTSP reported.
“We have asked repeatedly for someone from the federal side to explain to us how the report is filed, on what basis,” Darnell said then. “No one has replied.”
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Paez-Bautista is now facing a federal court case with charges of re-entry of deported aliens and fraud and misuse of visa and permits. During his initial appearance in October at the U.S. Northern District Courthouse of Florida in downtown Gainesville, Paez-Bautista was arraigned and pleaded not guilty before Magistrate Judge Gary R. Jones.
His public defender, Darren Johnson, did not respond to a list of emailed questions sent to the United States Attorney’s Office at their request.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Elsey, the prosecutor in the case, also did not respond to two calls to his office phone number (which had a full voicemail) and an e-mail providing the opportunity to comment.
Paez-Bautista currently remains in the custody of the U.S. Marshal’s Service, according to ICE records. His federal jury trial was scheduled for Tuesday in front of Judge Allen Winsor.
Paez-Bautista instead decided to plead guilty this week and in January will be sentenced. He will likely again be deported.
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About an hour and a half before Paez-Bautista’s Oct. 9 arraignment, his listed Newberry residence remained still and peaceful.
Only the occasional bird chirping interrupted the silence.
Knocks on two different doors of the duplex at his listed address were unsuccessful. A reporter left a note under a brick of concrete on the front porch in an attempt to reach family or friends.
The next-door neighbor, a middle-aged woman with dark hair who sat on her front porch on the opposite side of the building, communicated via Google Translate. She recently moved to the neighborhood and had yet to talk to the people who shared a wall with her, she said.
The neighbor, who did not identify herself, walked to the front of the building to differentiate whose doors were whose.
Within that five-minute conversation, someone had taken the note left under the brick of concrete.
Through the duplex’s windows, there were sounds of chatter and movement.
• • •
Reina Saco, a local civil rights attorney, works directly with the immigrant community. Most of her clients are undocumented, she said.
“Fear of deportation is always at the back of their mind,” Saco, 29, said. “Everything they do.”
Although undocumented immigrants are not obligated to share their address, nationality or immigration status when encountering law enforcement officials, they are obligated to share their real name, she said.
“We tell people, ‘Do not lie,’” Saco said. “When you lie about (your name) or if you provide a false document, then you’re in a criminal area, and there it’s much harder to backtrack.”
The Cuban native said she’s unsure how to improve the immigration system, but that it is currently “inefficient” and “outright cruel.” She sobbed on the night a year ago when DeSantis was elected into office, knowing it portended trouble for Florida’s immigrant community.
“And here I am a year later, and I was right,” she said.
Republican state Sen. Joe Gruters voiced his support for the new state law at its signing ceremony alongside DeSantis.
“This is not about illegal aliens who are here trying to provide for their families,” he said. “This is about criminal illegal aliens who have broken additional laws while they’re here.”
Florida Democrats have begun to make an effort to overturn DeSantis’ ban, but bills from representatives Cindy Polo, Anna Eskamani and Evan Jenne are unlikely to get a hearing in the Republican-controlled state House.