As U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a major shift in immigration policy Tuesday morning, a small group of people gathered in downtown Billings to protest the federal government’s decision last month to deport a Mexican national they say is being arbitrarily detained by immigration authorities.

Audemio Orozco-Ramirez is being held in a Denver-area facility after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, charged him with living in the country illegally in 2013. A group of Billings residents have questioned the timing of his arrest last month, pointing to his history as a non-violent undocumented immigrant to the U.S., who until recently was the sole income provider for his wife and seven children. His family still lives in the Billings area.

During a brief demonstration organized by Billings First Congregational Church pastor Mike Mulberry and several others, a dozen people joined hands in prayer at the intersection of Fourth Avenue North and North 29th Street, where the local ICE office is located.

The group is seeking Orozco-Ramirez’s release from a detention facility in the Denver area and hoped their protest would elicit a response from the federal agency, which has remained silent on the reasons for the undocumented immigrant’s sudden arrest on Aug. 2.

Orozco-Ramirez also made headlines last December when he won a $125,000 settlement from Jefferson County, which he claimed was responsible for his alleged rape in the county jail by several other inmates after his 2013 arrest as a passenger during a traffic stop.

He was later released under an order of supervision, which allowed him to continue working and living in the community as long as he completed monthly check-ins with ICE agents in Billings. During those check-ins, Mulberry said he and other members of the group would frequently accompany him to act as interpreters and advocates for Orozco-Ramirez. But his August check-in was rescheduled at the last minute, said Mulberry, who believes it was part of the agency’s plan to shake Orozco-Ramirez’s supporters and avoid a messy arrest.

“Here we thought we were acting in good faith with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement was acting with deceit and dishonesty,” Mulberry said Tuesday. He added, “It’s a scary time. Right now, we’re just picking off the most vulnerable people.”

Agency spokesman Carl Rusnok declined to specify why Orozco-Ramirez’s order of supervision was revoked during his most recent check-in, but provided an emailed statement Tuesday in response to questions from the Gazette.

“Audemio Orozco-Ramirez is an illegal alien who ignored immigration laws for years,” the statement read, noting that an order of supervision “gives the alien time to prepare for their departure from the United States.”

He also noted that Orozco-Ramirez had been deported to Mexico repeatedly in the years preceding his most recent arrest, and added that those convicted of illegally re-entering the U.S. can face up to 20 years in federal prison, depending on their criminal history.

Orozco-Ramirez’s lawyer, Shahid Haque, is challenging the government’s argument that his client should be tried in the federal appeals court that covers Denver, rather than the 9th District Court of Appeals, where his arrest took place. He said a ruling on the venue could come in the next two months, but a final determination on his client’s immigration status could drag on for at least another year.

“During that time, we still think that it makes the most sense for ICE to just release him from custody and to his family,” Haque said Tuesday. “We just can’t see how it makes any sense to have him detained and keep him in federal custody for years as this process works itself out.”

While he hasn’t received any indication that the federal agency would consider releasing his client, Haque said he hopes public pressure could prompt ICE to consider releasing Orozco-Ramirez.

Peggy Contreraz, a Billings resident who had previously accompanied Orozco-Ramirez to the agency’s local office, attended the Tuesday morning protest to offer her support for the detained immigrant. She hadn’t known about the Aug. 2 arrest until she showed up later that morning, she said, but upon finding out had felt “horror, and extreme anger, and a tremendous amount of guilt that I wasn’t there.”

Contreraz was a long-time friend of the Mexican national, and said she previously allowed him to stay at her place in Billings and brought him to Spanish-language services at her church. Her daughter, Amy Aguirre, added that she’s kept in contact with Orozco-Ramirez’s family.

For the last month, the ranch at which he was employed has continued to house his wife and children on the property, she said. But his employer has said that arrangement can’t continue indefinitely.

“If Audemio is released, life will go on as normal, but if not, the family will have to move,” Aguirre said. Orozco-Ramirez’s eldest son just moved away to start college, she noted, while the other six children are enrolled in public school and can’t work enough to maintain their living situation.

“The family is living on borrowed time over there,” she said.

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