ST. PAUL—Wearing tan pants and a dark-colored sweatshirt with shackles on his hands and feet, a teary-eyed Julio Estrada Escobar admitted that he's made mistakes but he wants a different life for his children.
"They need to be raised and taught good moral values," Escobar said, glancing a look at his two children, Julio, 13, and Candis, 11. "I want to teach them to be good."
Escobar, who lives in Evansville in central Minnesota with his wife and two children, is an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in July after he was pulled over in Otter Tail County.
On Tuesday, Nov. 7, Escobar took the stand seeking to prove that his fear of going back to Guatemala is credible. His case was heard before Immigration Judge Ryan Wood at the Bloomington Immigration Court.
Two other people — Evansville Mayor Terry Aasness and Escobar's employer Tim Anderson — were scheduled to testify at the hearing, but time ran out. Another hearing has been set for Wednesday, Dec. 13, at 3 p.m. for them to give their testimonies and before Wood decides whether Escobar will be deported.
Escobar will remain in the Carver County Jail in Chaska for another month and have to spend Thanksgiving without his family.
'A vow we took'
Escobar's wife, Nancy Estrada, also took the stand. They both answered questions from Escobar's lawyer, Jason Nielson, a partner at Igbanugo Partners, an international law firm in the Twin Cities, and Luke Nelson, assistant chief counsel for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement St. Paul Field Office. Judge Wood also asked the husband and wife of 13 years questions throughout the hearing.
After learning that Estrada and the children would move to Guatemala with Escobar, Wood questioned why they would go with him.
He asked because during both their testimonies, Escobar and Estrada talked about their son's medical conditions, including autism and recently diagnosed clinical depression. They both repeatedly said that going back to Guatemala would be detrimental to their son. Escobar stated that the family would be ostracized because of their son's autism.
"I am having a hard time understanding this. Why would you bring him (their son) there then?" Wood asked Estrada.
"It's a vow we took," Estrada explained through her tears. "He's my husband. He's my everything. I met him when I was 17. He's my best friend. He's the father of our children. We are a family. Why wouldn't I?"
Hearing went well, says lawyer
Escobar's attorney said Wednesday in an email statement that he believes Tuesday's hearing went well.
"Julio was Julio, a sincere and honest individual who cares deeply for his family and community," Nielson said. "That was also evident by the amount of people who traveled and took their own time to come and support him."
Eleven people attended Escobar's hearing, also including his best friend, his employer, the Evansville mayor, his in-laws and three other friends. Nielson said that doesn't happen often. He said it's rare for non-citizens to have family with them, let alone people from the community.
"That speaks volumes about Julio's character," Nielson said.
Escobar's side of the story
Escobar fled Guatemala in 2001, coming into the United States illegally, with false documents that he had purchased.
His mother had fallen ill and he borrowed money from a loan shark to pay for her mounting bills.
"We couldn't figure out what to do. We had to save her life," he told the judge. "We had to get money."
The family was not able to pay, but the man never came looking for his money. However, Escobar said he believes he sent his men to do it for him.
While at a park one day playing soccer with three of his cousins, Escobar said a couple of men on motorcycles with pistols on their waist were asking about the Escobar family. He and his cousins scattered.
When asked what would have happened if he was caught, Escobar replied, "They would have killed me or tortured me. We had to run and so we ran. I was afraid they would do something."
He was asked why he believed that and Escobar said because he had not paid back any money yet, and he was the one responsible for getting the money. He also said at that time, he did not have a way to pay back the money.
Escobar said he realized he had to flee the country.
Escobar was also asked about why he didn't go to the police. He said that in Guatemala, when things happen, the police don't always help and that he believed that the police were associated with the man who loaned the money.
Escobar was asked about his three cousins and he explained that all of them were dead. They were killed — in 2005, 2008 and 2012. Although he had no proof or evidence, Escobar believes all three were murdered by associates of the loan shark.
"That's the only reason, because of the money," he told the judge and lawyers. "Because they were part of the Escobar family."
Escobar also explained that his father has reportedly been contacted numerous times and has also been threatened. The last call his father received was in 2016, he said, when he was told that if his son came back to Guatemala, they would find him.
Escobar was asked numerous times if he feared going back to Guatemala and why. His answer was similar every time, "I might be killed or tortured. Ugly things would happen to me."
Entering illegally — twice
Escobar first entered the United States in 2001. At that time, he had a Mexican identification card with a different name on it.
In 2003, he was pulled over for a traffic violation and detained by immigration officials. At that time, he claimed to be from Puerto Rico. He explained in the courtroom Tuesday that he never claimed to be a U.S. citizen.
However, the government's attorney asked Escobar, "Do you know that you have a conviction of falsely being a U.S. citizen?"
Escobar said, "But I didn't claim to be from the U.S."
Although not addressed during the hearing, people from Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens.
Escobar explained that he first said he was from Puerto Rico and then from Mexico because he said the authorities at that time didn't believe him that he was from Puerto Rico. He claims they were the ones who said he was from Mexico.
"They said I was not from Guatemala or Puerto Rico. They said my accent sounded like I was from Mexico," Escobar explained.
Eventually, Escobar was deported to Mexico after entering a guilty plea.
Judge Wood repeatedly asked questions about this incident. Escobar apologized for not being able to remember details. Escobar's lawyer then asked him what was going through his mind back then. Escobar replied, "The only thing I thought about was that I didn't want to go back. I was frightened. I had a lot on my mind."
Within a month of that deportation, Escobar crossed back over to the United States. This time, he got another fake ID card, but he did use his real name — Julio Estrada Escobar. He told the lawyers and judge that it was like a green card with his picture on it. That card, he said, was presented to the Border Patrol when he crossed over from Mexico into the U.S.
He crossed over with his wife, who at the time was just his girlfriend, along with her parents. Since then Escobar and Estrada, who is a legal U.S. citizen, have been living in the United States. They lived in several different places before settling in Evansville in 2013.