About a dozen people walk out of the Merced County Superior Courthouse. They huddle under an awning over the main doors. They’re smiling and embracing each other. The sky is grey and a few drops of rain start to fall. But in a matter of minutes, the weather changes.
“It’s pouring cats and dogs right now,” says ACLU attorney Michael Mehr. “The heavens have opened up and this is a joyous day in the Valley.”
Mehr is elated because his client, Navy Veteran Joaquin Antonio Sotelo Tarin, won’t get immediately deported. He served five years in the Middle East before he was honorably discharged in 2006.
Sotelo Tarin went to prison for domestic violence crimes in 2013 and 2014, and his plea deal resulted in automatic deportation proceedings.
But Mehr says that’s because his former attorney, Dominic Falasco, made mistakes.
“The past attorney admitted on the stand that he never even inquired whether he was a citizen or a non-citizen and that’s something that he usually says he inquires, but he made a mistake,” Mehr says. “That mistake cost Mr. Sotelo a chance to try and get a sentence that would not cause mandatory deportation.”
On this day, the court remedied that mistake by lowering Sotelo Tarin’s past prison sentences.
“That allows him to now fight for naturalization and fight to stay in the country,” Mehr says.
Judge Jeanne Schechter ruled Sotelo Tarin didn’t know he would land in automatic deportation proceedings when he took a plea deal in 2014.
In the courtroom, Schechter said she was happy Mehr and the district attorney's office were able to come to a consensus in this "extraordinary situation." She thanked Sotelo for his service and said she hopes the federal government can work to improve the immigration system with respect to veterans in similar situations.
Mehr says there are also questions as to whether Falasco was under the influence of methamphetamine while he was Sotelo Tarin’s attorney. Falasco denied that in court, but Mehr says he has a checkered past with the drug.
Several years ago, Falasco agreed to what is called a Deferred Entry of Judgment, a counseling program for drug offenders, for possession of methamphetamine. Falasco will plead guilty to his charges but not until he goes through the program.
Falasco did not respond to a request for comment.
During the court proceedings, two men dressed in plain clothes from Homeland Security sat in the courtroom. Mehr says it's “very unusual.”
“I've never seen ICE officers in court to testify and actually they said they were just there to observe and not to testify,” Mehr says.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not reply to a request for comment. Kimberly Lewis, the Merced County District Attorney, did not reply to questions from Valley Public Radio about why the two men from Homeland Security were there and if that’s common.
Although Sotelo Tarin won’t be deported for his domestic abuse crimes, he still has to fight his immigration case so there is a chance he could still be deported. Mehr says Judge Schechter's ruling makes it less likely.
In the meantime, Sotelo Tarin says he’s still reeling from recent events.
“I need to seek physical and mental help because of these traumatizing events,” Sotelo Tarin says. “I need to go back to the VA and get support because I don’t feel comfortable after all this stuff in my life. It’s been horrible. It’s been too much.”
But along with the many immigration advocates who have rallied around him, his wife has also been supportive. Araceli Martinez says they can now take a break from the worrying.
“We’re going to pick up our kids and probably have dinner, cook a nice, good meal at home since it's raining,” Martinez says. “We have little ones, so yes, we’re going to do that today and we’re going to start our healing today.”
The rain comes down strong and big puddles start to form. But, Sotelo Tarin and his family keep smiling even as they walk to their car without an umbrella.