LYNN — When advocates for immigrants rallied to halt the deportation of Justo Barrios in June, they thought the case was a slam dunk. He came to America at age 16. The nuns at the convent on Green Street adore him. He plays Jesus in the church play.
His friends and supporters flooded federal immigration officials with letters and phone calls urging his release — all tactics that had worked in the past. But almost two months later, the 24-year-old construction worker from Lynn sat in Plymouth County jail — the same one housing gangster James “Whitey” Bulger — fighting deportation to Guatemala.
“It seems so unjust,” Sister Elsa Narvaez, a member of the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Word, said in Spanish from the convent where Barrios is a youth leader, weeks after he was caught with an outstanding deportation order during a traffic stop in New Hampshire. “These are people who risk their lives to come here. . . . They treat them like criminals.”
Days after the Globe interviewed Barrios in custody, US immigration officers released him last Wednesday without explanation, but his case is among a string of deportation cases that have troubled advocates for immigrants and some US senators in recent weeks. Advocates say the Obama administration is still deporting immigrants who are not criminals or other top priorities and who might soon apply for legal residency if Congress changes the law.
“Honestly, when we took this case we were like, ‘This is going to be a piece of cake,’ ” said Conrado Santos, campaign coordinator for the Student Immigrant Movement, a Boston-based group that advocates for immigrant youth. He added later that the detention of immigrants such as Barrios “makes us wonder if the administration is really as committed to reform as they say they are.”
Two US senators, both Democrats, have also raised concerns about deportations. Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut personally urged immigration officials to halt two other deportations in recent weeks. Both serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee that held hearings on an immigration bill that passed in June and would allow millions of immigrants to apply for legal residency.
Blumenthal said in a phone interview he acted because an immigrant from his state “in no way fit the profile for the categories of people that ICE has publicly said that it wants to prioritize for deportation.”
Others say immigration agents should enforce the existing law, adding that there is no guarantee Congress will pass an immigration overhaul. House leaders have said they would not take up the Senate bill and instead have focused on their piecemeal measures.
“The advocates are trying to create this sense of inevitability that just doesn’t exist,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that favors stricter enforcement. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
In 2011, the director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency would focus on deporting criminals and other flagrant violators and set aside less pressing cases to use their resources more effectively. Since then, the Obama administration has halted more than 20,000 deportations in the immigration courts, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research center at Syracuse University. But the closures reflect less than 10 percent of the court caseload and officials deported thousands of immigrants without criminal records last year.
Among the Massachusetts immigrants deported in recent weeks are Roger Tabora, 33, and married to a US citizen in Springfield, and Julio Yupa, 26, a roofer from Framingham whose references included his church pastor and a mayor from New Jersey, where he had also lived. Both were deported in May, Tabora to Honduras, and Yupa to Ecuador.
Another man, Josue Martinez, a 28-year-old father of five from Fitchburg, is in jail awaiting deportation to El Salvador.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Tabora, Yupa, and Martinez did not meet the criteria to have their cases set aside. Though advocates said they did not have criminal records, immigration officials said they were fugitives who had been ordered deported by an immigration judge and never left.
“ICE is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens and egregious immigration law violators,” said ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls.
Until Wednesday, Barrios was detained because he had been a fugitive, too.
He was smuggled from Guatemala through Mexico in hidden compartments under buses, his legs pressed against the sides so he wouldn’t fall into the wheel. Federal agents caught him crossing the southwest border into the United States in 2006 and an immigration judge ordered him deported. At the time, he was 16 and on his own. As a minor, he could have applied for legal residency, but Barrios said he did not know that until it was too late.
His hopes lifted last year when President Obama granted legal residency to immigrants who came here as children, but then he realized that he missed the age cutoff — he had to arrive before he turned 16.
In an interview before his release, Barrios said he disobeyed the deportation order for the same reason he had crossed the border illegally — to help his family. Barrios is one of 12 children who lived in a two-room adobe house in rural San Marcos in Guatemala. His father farmed potatoes and his mother often went without food so that every child could eat.
Barrios dropped out of middle school and fixed cars for less than $5 a day. He soon realized what many in the village knew: He could earn more than that in an hour in the United States.
His father begged him not to go, but Barrios insisted.
“I wanted to give him something,” Barrios said, in tears. “I wanted to take us out of this.”
Barrios joined his sister in Lynn and for years took every job he could, fixing cars or laying carpet. He sent $200 a month home to his parents, which pays for his father’s diabetes medicine and helps after the house in Guatemala sustained heavy damage from a powerful earthquake last year.
Then, in December, he hit a telephone pole while driving to work without a license. A Newburyport District Court clerk said he paid a fine and the charges were dismissed.
The accident did not land him in immigration detention, but it didn’t help in June when a police officer in New Hampshire stopped the van he was a passenger in and turned him over to immigration officials.
Advocates argued that immigration officials should have released Barrios because he did not match their priorities for deportation, but he remained jailed in New Hampshire and then in Massachusetts.
Then, on Wednesday, they released him with a monitoring device attached to his ankle. Barrios could still be deported, said his lawyer, Matt Cameron.
For now, Barrios is waiting to see what Congress will do.Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti