Paraplegic 6-year-old’s ‘Daddy’ faces deportation
Yancarlos Mendez, a dual citizen of Spain and the Dominican Republic living illegally in the United States, was stopped for driving without a license, his second such offense. Sam Greene/The Enquirer
CINCINNATI — A 27-year-old auto mechanic is stopped by police for driving, for a second time, without a driver's license.
The man, who is living in the United States illegally, is sentenced to 30 days in the Butler County, Ohio, jail and then turned over to federal immigration authorities, who begin the deportation process.
His lawyer appeals to allow him to stay.
It would appear to be a commonplace deportation case, except that the future of a 6-year-old boy hangs in the balance. The fact is, it's an example of the complicated, messy, no-win, real-life situations that U.S. immigration policy must untangle.
The mechanic, Yancarlos Mendez, is the sole supporter and one of two trained caregivers for the boy — a paraplegic U.S. citizen, severely injured in a car crash, who will need around-the-clock attention and treatment for the rest of his life.
At the heart of the immigration case is this child, Ricky Solis, born in November 2011 at University of Cincinnati Medical Center to an undocumented Guatemalan national.
Ricky's personality sparkles despite his injuries, chronic pain and challenging long-term prognosis. He speaks softly and knows three languages — English, Spanish and Mam, one of many indigenous tongues of Guatemala — sometimes moving from one to another mid-sentence. He smiles and says one of his Christmas gifts was a toothbrush. At the end of an interview with his mother and the family's lawyer, Ricky gives this reporter a fist-bump.
He brings a clear plastic bag filled with miniature cars and fidget spinners to his daily three-hour session at Cincinnati Children's Liberty Campus.
"Where do you spin those?"
"Everywhere," he says.
Ricky was riding in a booster seat in the back seat of the car driven by his mother, Sandra Mendoza, 24, when they were hit broadside in February 2017 on Dixie Highway in Fairfield.
Mendoza, who'd been working in a pizza restaurant, sustained a broken arm and leg and other serious injuries.
Ricky's injuries were life-threatening. He was rushed Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. There, doctors treated him and began to catalog the long list of severe harm done to his little body. He fractured two vertebrae and suffered spinal cord bleeding, leading to permanent paralysis from the waist down. His bowel and bladder were ruptured and his colon torn. He had multiple facial bone fractures and traumatic brain injury. He is dependent on a tracheostomy that requires acute management. As a citizen, his medical expenses are covered by Medicaid.
At the time of the auto accident, the boy and his mother had been living for two years with Mendez, who has dual citizenship in Spain and the Dominican Republic but had moved to the United States to find higher-paying work.
Mendoza was brought to the United States illegally by her parents. She has twice been denied temporary permission to stay through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, otherwise known as DACA.
The couple had talked about marriage. Ricky's birth father left the picture years ago, after Mendoza reported the man for beating and emotionally abusing her. She has a pending application for a U Visa, which grants legal residency to victims of serious crime who cooperate with law enforcement. Mendez is "Daddy" to Ricky.
"We were both working" before the accident, Mendoza says during an interview Wednesday at Children's Liberty Campus. "We needed no help from nobody."
As her injuries healed, she and Mendez moved into Ricky's hospital room, making it their home and being instructed by medical staff on how to care for Ricky. Before the boy could be discharged, though, the couple had to prove they could handle his complex needs during a supervised 24-hour surveillance period.
Mendoza had to quit her job to stay with Ricky. Mendez kept working as a mechanic, paying for food, utilities and the $565 monthly rent on their apartment in Springdale, Ohio.
Mendoza worried Mendez would leave them because of Ricky's life-altering injuries. Instead, he proposed marriage.
"The day Ricky got hurt, I wanted to die," she says. "Yancarlos was so strong. He loves me. He loves Ricky like he's his own child."
Attorney Nazly Mamedova has applied for a stay of deportation to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, giving the reason as, "Medical condition of the child. Ricky, who is paraplegic and (in) need of special care 24/7, which only Yancarlos and mother can provide, because they are trained specially by Children's Hospital."
"Our plea is for ICE to exercise favorable discretion and allow Yancarlos to come home," Mamedova says.
The application cost $155, paid on her behalf to the Columbus, Ohio, ICE office by the Central Ohio Worker Center, an immigrant and worker rights non-profit.
The Enquirer contacted ICE officials in Detroit on Wednesday about the case. On Thursday morning, a federal immigration caseworker contacted Mamedova to request more information on the case, asking specifically if Mendez is Ricky's biological father.
The filing included character references from the child care center Ricky attended before the car crash. Owner Amber Brown of Imagination Creation Childcare in Forest Park wrote that Mendez "is mature beyond his years and never left this child's side."
The ministers of the church the family attends in Lincoln Heights, Life Ministry Center, wrote that the couple is of "good faith, loving, helpful, and hardworking."
The threshold for federal immigration officials to grant the suspension of deportation is if it "would result in extreme hardship to you or your United States citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse, parent, or unmarried child under 21 years of age."
In the meantime, as Ricky and his mother wait to see what ICE will decide, they take life one hour at a time.
Ricky, who weighs 58 pounds, has to be moved from his wheelchair by his 110-pound mother. Mendez used to handle these physical challenges, including giving Ricky his shower.
"He is so heavy and the bathtub so slippery that I am afraid I will drop him," Mendoza says.
Ricky is in kindergarten at Sharonville Elementary School in the Princeton City School District. He likes school, he says. Despite the brain injury and educational challenges spelled out by the hospital, he is learning, his mother says.
The man he knows as Daddy is always on his mind.
"Ricky asks where Daddy is," Mendoza says. "I tell him, 'He will be home soon.'"
Ricky cried in the courtroom Nov. 29 guards when took Mendez to the Butler County Jail for his 30-day sentence for driving without a license. Under the direction of Butler County's anti-immigration hard-line sheriff, Richard Jones, ICE was alerted, and federal officers took possession of Mendez at the end of his county sentence. He switched from the jail's black prisoner uniform to a yellow-and-white jumpsuit issued by ICE and moved to a jail several hours away, north of Columbus.
Meanwhile, Mendoza waits. She prays.
Mendoza takes a call from a transportation service that will pick them up at Children's for the ride back to Springdale. Ricky looks out the large glass window into the clear winter sky. He frequently rests his chin in the palm of his hand, making sure to avoid his white tracheal tube. He rubs the corners of his mouth, like an adult, with thumb and index finger of the same hand.
Mendoza hangs up her phone and starts to weep.
"We know we were breaking the law, but we were just trying to live and take care of ourselves," she says. "Yancarlos has never done anything else bad. He is a good man. We want him to come home."
She looks at Ricky, who wears a blue sweatsuit and matching stocking cap.
"I pray every day," she says in a voice barely above a whisper. "I hope I will see him walking. I trust God. They've been telling me he has no chance. But I know I am going to see him walk. He wasn't born like this. He was born strong."
Ricky turns back to his mother when he hears her cry. He speaks to her in Mam. He wants her to tell the reporter that he has a Christmas gift at home for his dad.
"Can you tell us what it is?"
"It's a surprise," Ricky says.
Follow Mark Curnutte on Twitter: @MarkCurnutte