PHOENIX (CN) – A U.S. federal judge found Thursday that a former Mexican official should be released from immigration custody on a $20,000 bond while he pursues asylum due to political persecution.
Carlos Villalobos Organista, ex-treasurer for the Mexican state of Sonora, was arrested April in Scottsdale, Arizona, after his visa expired in January.
Villalobos entered the United States from Mexico through the Nogales, Arizona, port of entry in July 2016 as a nonimmigrant visa holder. He is fleeing persecution by the Mexican government, his attorney says, and has applied for asylum.
The former treasurer is a member of Mexico’s longtime opposition party, the conservative National Action Party. Mexico is currently ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has been in power for most of the last century.
An immigration judge initially ordered Villalobos’ release on Nov. 22 on a $20,000 bond, but immigration officials placed an “automatic stay” on the order to stop his release.
Jesse Evans-Schroeder, an attorney for Villalobos, said during a hearing Thursday morning that Villalobos has now been in custody for eight months.
“There is a substantial body of law … that reminds us that liberty is the norm,” Evans-Schroeder said.
U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow agreed, finding the stay issued by Homeland Security amounted to a violation of Villalobos’ due process rights.
“In this case, petitioner received a hearing, where the (immigration judge) set bond at $20,000 and, thereafter, a non-neutral decision maker subverted the process,” Snow wrote in an order Thursday afternoon.
Snow indicated during the hearing that he may find for Villalobos.
“I don’t have the jurisdiction or the discretion” to second guess the immigration judge, Snow said.
The Department of Homeland Security argued it had the right to place a 90-day stay on the bond to determine Villalobos’ flight risk. It also filed an appeal of the bond with the Board of Immigration Appeals, a decision Villalobos’ attorney says will likely take several more months.
“He was given a bond hearing,” said Peter Lantka, an assistant U.S. attorney, during the hearing.
Lantka cited Rodriguez v. Robbins, a 2015 Ninth Circuit decision finding that individuals held by Homeland Security longer than six months must be afforded a bond hearing where the government must produce evidence that they are a danger or a flight risk to deny bond.
“Rodriguez did not remove that ability of DHS to appeal the bond decision,” Lantka said.
Snow cited the same ruling in his decision, finding that accepting the federal government’s argument would render Rodriguez meaningless.
“This cannot be, particularly in this case where a neutral decision-maker has made a finding that petitioner, a non-criminal alien, is entitled to release on bond and his family stands ready to post it,” Snow wrote.
Homeland Security claimed two Mexican arrest warrants issued for Villalobos in 2016 accused him and several co-defendants of misuse of power, for making more than $78 million in illegal payments while he was treasurer of Sonora.
Evans-Schroeder told the court there are no current warrants out for Villalobos, however, nor are there any extradition orders.
“There has been no contention that Mr. Villalobos Organista has been a danger,” Evans-Schroeder said.
Villalobos served under Guillermo Padrés Elias, governor of Sonora from 2009 through 2015.
According to Mexican news reports, Padrés, who was imprisoned on organized crime and money laundering charges, may be released from prison in January. He still faces tax fraud charges.
Under Snow’s order, Villalobos must be permitted to post bond within five days.