A South Florida woman wanted to see her accused rapist go to prison.
Instead, one day after Werner Orozco was arrested in Coral Gables on a sexual battery charge, federal immigration agents whisked him away from a Miami-Dade County jail. Thirteen days later, Orozco, an undocumented immigrant, was deported to his native Guatemala.
Today, he is free, presumably in Central America, without ever having faced a jury in Miami-Dade state court.
“I was in shock. He’s still free. He didn’t get in trouble for anything,” the woman, who asked not to be identified because she was a victim of a sex attack, told the Miami Herald. “It didn’t make me feel better. It made me feel worse.”
The case underscores how the federal government’s aggressive detention and deportation policies under President Donald Trump can sometimes disrupt Miami-Dade’s criminal-justice system. Similar conflicts have happened in state courts across the nation.
In South Florida, witnesses and sometimes victims have periodically been scooped up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. In one death-penalty case involving the murder of a 12-year-old girl, Miami-Dade prosecutors and defense lawyers are so worried about the deportation of a key witness that in July, they agreed to video record his testimony for a trial that’s years away.
But more often, it’s the defendants themselves who have been detained or deported before their cases have concluded, which critics say robs the state of Florida of its due-process rights — and also squashes any chance wrongfully accused people have to defend themselves in court.
“It’s about innocent before being proven guilty. That’s a fundamental American principle that the public subscribes to,” said Amien Kacou, a staff attorney with Miami’s American Civil Liberties Union, who has researched the issue as part of legal actions against ICE. “It’s problematic not just for the defendant, but for the credibility of the local public courts system.”
For its part, ICE says it reviews each case, and tries to work with prosecutors, usually if they reach out to ensure defendants are not prematurely detained or shipped out of the country. Michael Meade, ICE’s field operations director for enforcement and removal operations, said his supervisors weigh whether the public is at risk when an illegal immigrant is released from a local jail to await trial.
“It’s a risk assessment we do on every case, especially on a case in which someone has been arrested on a serious, violent crime,” Meade said. “It’s a balancing act. We are very cognizant of victims’ rights.”
Citing federal privacy laws, ICE would not speak about specific cases. Still, Meade said, most of the cases in which defendants get detained before their state cases conclude end up being accused of relatively minor offenses, such as traffic cases.
Deportations of criminal defendants are far from new. But under previous administrations, immigration agents generally prioritized deporting criminal defendants back to their home country after they were convicted.
The Trump administration’s eager pursuit of pretrial deportations has become an issue in other states.
Last year, the Massachusetts ACLU filed a lawsuit after a Guatemalan man named Julio Ramirez was detained on behalf of ICE, leaving him unable to fight his drunk-driving charge in state court.
After the ACLU intervened, Ramirez was allowed to return to a Boston state court to contest the DUI — and he was acquitted. The lawsuit led to an agreement this year between ICE, local jailers and the court system to bring defendants back to state court to be able to attend hearings.
In Florida, it’s unclear just how many state court defendants have been detained by ICE, or deported, without ever resolving their state criminal cases. But the Miami Herald has identified over a dozen cases in South Florida alone in which ICE detained or deported someone while their state court case was still pending.
Statewide, there are likely hundreds more. According to ICE statistics, 1,337 people deported from Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands during the fiscal year ending in 2018 had “pending criminal cases.” The agency’s annual report does not include any details about the suspected crimes.
The Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office says that it has recorded at least 100 clients designated as immigration “holds” who have had bench warrants issued against them for skipping court dates. But Public Defender Carlos Martinez says his lawyers have no way of knowing for sure whether the bench warrants were issued because ICE detained or deported their clients, leaving them unable to fight their charges in court.
No state agency, not even the court system, tracks the issue in a central way. And while ICE requests the Miami-Dade jail place “detainer” holds for those who face possible deportation, the federal government forbids the county from releasing their names, making it difficult to gauge who has been whisked away prior to trial.
Miami-Dade stopped accepting ICE detainer requests in 2013 after adopting a policy that restricted them to people accused of serious crimes and requiring payment of extra incarceration costs by Washington, which refused to pay. The county reversed course days after Donald Trump became president in January 2017 and threatened to withhold federal funding from so-called “sanctuary communities” that did not cooperate with immigration authorities.
Since then, more than 3,100 inmates have been designated immigration “holds,” according to jail records, and nearly 2,000 have been turned over to ICE.
Among those picked up at jail and later deported before Florida could take them to trial or cut a plea deal: a Greek South Beach hotel clerk accused of killing a beloved neighborhood cat with a crossbow; three men accused of cocaine trafficking in Hialeah in separate cases; a man accused of felony battery for allegedly punching his girlfriend in the head; and a man suspected of robbing another man at knifepoint in Allapattah.
Like Orozco, each of them qualified for immediate deportation, either because they had already been identified as illegal aliens in the past, had pending deportation orders, or had overstayed their visas, which technically meant they could be booted from the United States right away.
But the federal actions also left the criminal cases in judicial limbo.
“It’s really troubling. The federal government is clearly not communicating with its local partners,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said. “The state of Florida, the victims, deserve their day in court. It’s really throwing a wrench into the administration of justice.”
Miami lawyer Joel Defabio was upset that Jorge Salinas, who got arrested in one of the Hialeah cocaine trafficking cases, was deported to Venezuela not long after his arraignment. Salinas never got to prove his innocence, the lawyer said.
“And an equally troubling aspect is that a guilty person who is here illegally and is facing a very serious prison sentence gets a free pass — while a U.S. citizen with the same charge ends up in prison,” Defabio said.
President Trump has made tough enforcement of immigration laws a centerpiece of his administration, and drawn on imagery of an “invasion” of criminals from Latin American countries.
According to ICE statistics, during the 2018 fiscal year, the agency deported 256,086 undocumented immigrants nationwide, with 57 percent labeled as “convicted criminals.” The number of deportations was a jump of 13 percent from the year before.
In Miami-Dade, when an inmate accused of a state crime posts a bond, the corrections department notifies ICE, which has up to 48 hours to pick up the person at the jail before he or she is released.
Meade, the ICE field operations director in South Florida, said a supervisor reviews each case before agents are sent to a local jail to pick up an inmate. He said it is important that undocumented criminals, even those whose cases are still pending in state court, don’t hit the streets.
“Unfortunately, the finger of blame is generally pointed at the federal government when the offender re-offends,” Meade said.
Proponents of hard-line immigration enforcement say that deporting a defendant before trial, especially for minor offenses, is not always a bad thing. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the deportations can save taxpayers the costs of prosecutions and incarceration, even if defendants haven’t had a chance to take their state cases to trial.
“It boils down to the same thing: No illegal immigrant has any grounds to complain that he’s being removed from the United States,” he said.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, who heads the criminal division, acknowledged that “in some situations, the defendant is picked up by ICE while they are out of custody pending conclusion of their case.”
“We handle these situations on a case-by-case basis, and we often rely on the lawyers for updates on the defendant’s immigration case. As always, we do what we can to resolve a case as efficiently as possible within the boundaries of the law and due process, and with the input and consideration of all parties involved,” Sayfie said in a statement in response to a Miami Herald inquiry.
Some of those lawyers are not happy.
Jessin Portillo-Mejia, 25, was arrested in September 2018 on a cocaine trafficking charge out of Hialeah. His defense attorney, Richard Gregg, said he worked hard to convince a judge to lower Portillo-Mejia’s bond, hopeful that the Honduran would be able to prove he was nothing more than a driver who unwittingly tagged along on a staged cocaine deal.
But Portillo-Mejia, it turned out, had been caught in the country illegally once before. After his family paid $5,000 bond a couple of months ago, ICE agents picked him up from a Miami-Dade jail and put him into detention. He was soon deported — and the family lost the bond money.
“It was a complete waste of judicial resources,” Gregg said of several hearings held to lower Portillo-Mejilla’s bond.
The possibility of a defendant posting a bond, but immediately getting fast tracked for deportation, is not lost on Miami-Dade prosecutors.
Earlier this year, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office went to court to ask a judge to keep Bruce Allet, an infamous French con man, behind bars. He’s accused of cashing over $50,000 in worthless checks at five Miami-Dade banks.
His lawyer wanted him out of jail to await trial. But Allet had been in South Florida on an expired visa, meaning he faced immediate deportation. Prosecutors told a Miami-Dade judge that they worried that ICE would deport him before the victims could get justice.
An immigration officer, Julio Castro, was even called to the witness stand. He confirmed that if Allet posted bond, ICE would take him from the jail to a detention center and then he would be “removed to France.”
“Yes, he’s going to get picked up, because he’s a high-profile case for us,” Castro told the judge during a February hearing, according to a transcript. “It’s a media case interest.”
The judge kept Allet behind bars, where he remains while awaiting trial.
In the case of Orozco, the accused rapist from Coral Gables, police, prosecutors and the victim said they had no idea he was going to be taken into ICE custody.
Orozco, 41, had been deported from the United States once before, after a 2011 arrest for domestic battery, a case that was dropped by prosecutors. He returned to South Florida illegally, and eventually worked his way up to become the general manager at a swank Coral Gables restaurant;
Gables police arrested him in September 2018 after the victim told police he pinned her to a kitchen counter and raped her after a “night out,” according to a police report. The two, she told the Herald, were longtime co-workers and nothing more.
The woman called Orozco — and with Gables detectives secretly recording — he “repeatedly apologized for having intercourse with the victim against her will,” the report said.
Orozco was charged with sexual battery with no great harm, a charge for which he was entitled to a bond. He immediately put up the money — but one day later, ICE agents took him from the jail. Miami-Dade prosecutors did not find out about his detention until they filed formal charges weeks later at the arraignment.
“We were kind of blindsided. One day he was in custody, the next thing you know he was gone,” Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak said. “The victim deserves to have him held accountable. She was extremely cooperative. It was a strong case.”
She told the Miami Herald that she has struggled to find work since the attack, and his freedom has left her fearing for her safety because he might slip back into the country.
The woman said she hopes state authorities can one day have him extradited back to a Miami-Dade jail. “Every day, I think about it,” she said of his alleged crime. “I think he has the capability and networking to do it again.”