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Seeking legal status in America, immigrant grabbed in Philly by ICE and jailed

The married couple was in the middle of an immigration interview when ICE agents showed up, locked Nunez in handcuffs and took him away.

At the William Way LGBT Community Center, Paul Frame holds photographs from his wedding day. He wept as he spoke of his husband being detained by ICE in Philadelphia.
At the William Way LGBT Community Center, Paul Frame holds photographs from his wedding day. He wept as he spoke of his husband being detained by ICE in Philadelphia.Read moreJAMES BLOCKER / Staff Photographer

Paul Frame says his husband, Jose "Ivan" Nunez, was doing exactly what immigration critics always demand — "getting in line," filing papers "the right way" so he could live in America legally.

Three weeks ago, the married couple were in the middle of an interview with officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in West Philadelphia, Frame and his supporters say, when ICE agents showed up, locked Nunez in handcuffs, and took him away.

He is now in custody at the York County Detention Center, where federal authorities frequently hold undocumented immigrants.

"We thought we were going to be in and out in a half-hour," a tearful Frame said Monday at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Center City, where he was accompanied by gay and Latino advocates who demanded Nunez's release. "I said, 'Let's become legal, then we have no worries.'"

Frame is a U.S. citizen. Nunez entered the country illegally from Mexico almost eight years ago.

The couple's attorney, Gonzalo Peralta, said Nunez has neither a criminal record nor pending criminal charges.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said in a statement that Nunez had been previously removed from the United States in August 2010. People who reenter the U.S. after being removed or deported can be charged with a felony offense — although that can be rare. Nunez, for instance, was never charged.

What occurred in his case, his supporters said, is what commonly happens at the Mexico-U.S. border: Nunez was stopped when he attempted to enter the country, briefly detained, then quickly sent back. It's common enough that people who are returned to Mexico often don't even realize the U.S. government may consider them to have been deported.  Many of them attempt to return within a day or so — as Nunez did, and succeeded.

ICE officials said in their statement that while the agency focuses on people who pose a threat, "all of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States."

On Monday, leaders of advocate groups including Juntos and GALAEI, a social-justice agency that supports gay Latinos, said immigrants, gays and minorities must stand together to resist President Trump. A petition to support Nunez quickly gathered more than 700 signatures.

Frame and Nunez met at a wedding in 2014, and were married in Chester County on April 9, 2016.

"He is the love of my life," Frame said.

On Jan. 31, he said, the two were in the USCIS office in the process of petitioning for what is called an I-130 Form. That's for U.S. citizens or permanent residents who want to help a family member — in this case, a spouse — legally immigrate to the U.S.

The interview was held to confirm the validity of the couple's marriage, a routine step in the process.

Frame said he was asked to step outside for a moment; he thought government officials wanted to question Nunez alone. He was soon told that ICE had taken away his husband.

Peralta, the attorney, said Nunez and Frame were subsequently approved for their I-130. So, he said, one government agency is approving Nunez's immigration while another agency is taking it away.

Officials at USCIS said it's standard practice for the agency to notify ICE when people who come to the office have warrants of deportation or are in proceedings.  The agency's policy is "to fully cooperate with law enforcement partners in the performance of their duties," a spokesperson said.

Nunez also passed his "reasonable fear" interview, conducted by government officials to determine whether someone has a legitimate fear of being persecuted or tortured if returned to their homeland. Nunez feared he would be harmed for being gay if he were sent back to Mexico, his supporters said.

Under the Trump administration, the priorities for arresting undocumented immigrants have expanded, continuing to include those with criminal convictions but adding anyone who can lawfully be charged and arrested for being here without papers. The number of "collateral arrests" — that is, the arrest of undocumented immigrants who happen to be present when ICE agents move on a target — has surged.

Frame described himself as scared and nervous over his husband's fate. He can understand, he said, how people here without legal documents would be afraid to try to become citizens.

"I'm mad," he said, "because we were trying to do the right thing."