ICE’s arrest of landscaper on 1999 deportation order devastates family, employer

Justino Vixtha’s May 22 detainment by ICE has been rough on his wife, Melissa Vixtha, and the couple’s three daughters. Melissa poses for a portrait with Rubi, 14, left, and Priscilla, 10. Korrina, 15, wasn’t available. “I just want him home,” Melissa said. “I want our family back, our life back. My kids were happy. We were happy. This has put us straight through hell.” Photo © Michelle Gabel.

It was bad enough, Carol Watson said, that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested the head of her landscaping crew in May, the busiest time of year at her greenhouse near Syracuse, New York.

But what two ICE officers said when they told her they had arrested Justino Vixtha made it worse.

“They told me they didn’t have to arrest him,” Watson said. “He has legitimate documentation. They said it was just ‘their call.’ ”

Vixtha, 44, has been in the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia since May 22. He learned Sept. 5 that he is going to be deported to his native Mexico, barring a successful appeal.

Vixtha has worked for Carol Watson Greenhouse in LaFayette since 1999. He and his wife, Melissa Vixtha, a U.S. citizen, have three daughters, all born in the United States. They have lived in the same Syracuse apartment for 15 years.

Carol Watson of Carol Watson Greenhouse in LaFayette, NY, routinely had coffee with employees Justino Vixtha and Jose Garcia in the early mornings before they went out to landscape jobs. Vixtha, 44, a landscape crew leader, has worked for Watson for 20 years. “He is irreplaceable,” said Watson. Photo © Michelle Gabel.

Vixtha has a Social Security card “valid for work only.” His arrest apparently stems from a deportation order in 1999, when he was 23 years old and was briefly detained after a dispute with the mother of his son, now 21. Charges related to that case were dismissed in 2000.

“There’s not one negative factor about Justino,” said Vixtha’s attorney, Jose Perez. “There’s no excuse to hold him.”

In an affidavit, Vixtha said he never received a letter ordering him to leave the United States, and was unaware of a deportation order until 2017, when he retained Perez to apply for permanent residency.

In that process, Vixtha and his wife were interviewed at a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office, and were led to believe his petition to receive a green card would be approved.

But on May 22, a gray truck followed Vixtha from Syracuse’s North Side to Interstate 81, where a van began following until Vixtha pulled over after exiting the highway. ICE also arrested one of Vixtha’s passengers, undocumented co-worker, Jose Garcia, 31, who is in Cayuga County jail awaiting a hearing.

ICE has yet to respond to an Aug. 20 Freedom of Information Act request. On Sept. 10, a deportation officer in Syracuse referred questions to an ICE regional spokesperson, who did not immediately return phone calls.

In the past two weeks, Vixtha’s request for release from detention has been denied, along with a request to clear his deportation case so that he can renew his application for permanent residency. On Sept. 5, he was told he will be deported.

Melissa Vixtha said if her husband is deported, she and their daughters, ages 15, 14 and 10, will join him in Mexico.

Melissa Vixtha works at a laundromat and makes deliveries for a restaurant to try to make up for her husband’s lost income. Since Justino Vixtha has been in detention, he has missed his own birthday, his two older daughters’ graduations and semi-formals, and Father’s Day.

Melissa laundromat 2
Melissa Vixtha works two jobs, including at a laundromat in Syracuse. Her husband calls her every day from the federal detention center in Batavia, NY. Melissa looks forward to talking to him, but the calls take an emotional toll, like this one on Sept. 2. Photo © Michelle Gabel.

Melissa Vixtha and her daughters have made trips to Batavia, but the visits are especially difficult for the girls — they have to talk to their father by phone, separated by a pane of glass.

“The sad part is, they can’t hug their dad,” Melissa Vixtha said.

While they wait for legal maneuvers to play out, the Vixthas’ family, friends and supporters are rallying around them.

A GoFundMe campaign started by Watson’s daughter has raised more than $3,100, but most of that has been spent. Numerous greenhouse customers have written testimonials supporting Vixtha and Garcia.

“My customers have been stellar,” Watson said. “Everyone who walks into the greenhouse, I talk to them. Some have given an incredible amount of money. They love the guy, and also hate the principle of treating people this way.”

That group includes Jacqueline Cappello and her 4-year-old son, Quill, regular customers at the greenhouse. The first time they met Vixtha, he invited Quill to sit with him during his lunch break.

Vixtha gave Quill a small pair of “work” gloves, which he treasures, his mother said. When Cappello told her son what had happened to Vixtha, he burst into tears. “I told him, ‘You may be sad, but imagine how sad his children are,'” Cappello said.

Quill Jacqueline
Many of Carol Watson’s customers, including Jacqueline Cappello, have written in support of Vixtha and Garcia. The first time Cappello and her 4-year-old son Quill met Vixtha, he invited Quill to sit with him during his lunch break. He also gave Quill a pair of “work” gloves to wear when he visits the greenhouse. When he learned about the arrest of the two men, Quill burst into tears. Photo © Michelle Gabel.
Four-year-old Quill wears the “work” gloves given to him by Justino Vixtha at the Carol Watson Greenhouse. Photo © Michelle Gabel.

Other advocates aren’t holding back their disgust with the current U.S. treatment of undocumented immigrants who are contributing members of their communities.

“Starting in 2017, the prejudice and racism has escalated to where we were back in the 1960s,” said Perez, Vixtha’s attorney.

Deportations have more than doubled since fiscal year 2016, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, but still remain below 2005 and 2006, peak deportation years of the George W. Bush administration.

From September 2016 through December 2018, according to TRAC, total ICE detainees increased by 22 percent and detained immigrants who “had never been convicted of even a minor violation shot up by 39 percent.”

Desiree Perry, who is Melissa Vixtha’s niece, said the arrest of Justino Vixtha is yet another family separation that makes no sense.

“They’ve taken a family of five with a provider who pays taxes, and turned them into a family of four needing public assistance,” she said.

Undocumented immigrants have long been an integral part of the Central New York agricultural economy, working seasonally on farms and apple orchards, and as painters and landscapers.

They aren’t taking jobs from people born in the United States, Perry said.

“Are you going to sleep overnight in an apple orchard to make sure the crop doesn’t freeze?” she asked. “Are you going to mow lawns in 104-degree heat? I’m not. They don’t take away any job that I’d do. They just want to work.”

Carol Watson’s business, which her mother, Claire, started in 1981, has suffered without Vixtha and Garcia. Watson said she told the ICE officers who came to the greenhouse, “This is brilliant. You’re taking them the busiest week of the year. What does that say about what my business is worth? It’s much harder than it’s ever been … I’m getting complaints and putting out fires.”

Carol Watson 2
Carol Watson’s business, which her mother, Claire, started in 1981, has suffered without Vixtha and Garcia. Watson said she told the ICE officers who came to the greenhouse, “This is brilliant. You’re taking them the busiest week of the year. What does that say about what my business is worth? It’s much harder than it’s ever been … I’m getting complaints and putting out fires.”  Photo © Michelle Gabel.

Watson may have to shut down her landscaping operation without Vixtha to depend on. She said people need to wake up to what is happening in their communities, to their neighbors.

“A lot of people see things on television and Central New Yorkers think, ‘That’s at the border, so whatever happens there is no big deal to us,’ ” Watson said. “But it is a big deal to us! It’s happening right here at our farms, at our apple orchards, they’re ripping dairy farm workers away … I said this to ICE, when they finally came to to my place, ‘I thought you were supposed to be picking up criminals. Spend your time and energy picking up criminals.’ ”


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