A trip to Denali’s imposing 20,308-foot peak is a risky endeavor for any mountaineer. But for amateur climber Ibrahim Cetindemir, the scariest part of his expedition was coming home.
On June 24, after successfully summiting both Denali and Mount Rainier, in Alaska and Washington, respectively, Cetindemir was pulled off his train and detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents in Malta, Montana, while making his way back home to Williston, North Dakota, where he works as a server and part-time photographer. Cetindemir, 28, who with his family fled threats of violence in Guatemala to come to the United States 15 years ago, is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that grants undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children temporary reprieve from deportation, along with work permits and the ability to apply for a Social Security number.
Centindemir says that two CBP agents boarded the train and asked each passenger for their citizenship status. He told them that he’s a DACA recipient and presented documentation, including his driver’s license and work permit. “I just don’t think that they were too sure of what DACA was to begin with,” he says. “And I just knew I was going to get stopped at the following station.”
The agents disembarked, and Cetindemir continued on the train for an hour or so, but at the next stop, four to six CBP agents boarded his car and escorted him off, he says. “I really wasn’t worried at all, because I knew I had my DACA and that it was valid,” Cetindemir says. “I knew for a fact I didn’t have any criminal activity and my record was clean. So I just thought it was going to be an inconvenience. I assumed that they were going to take me to their office or their station, verify that my DACA is valid, and just let me go.”
But instead, the agents looked through their databases and found a deportation order from 2014, issued after Cetindemir’s family members overstayed their visas and were twice denied requests for asylum. Cetindemir chose to remain in the country illegally, and was granted DACA status in 2016. “I said, ‘Well, if you actually do have that, my DACA should supersede the deportation order.’ And that’s when they said, ‘We’re 99 percent sure that DACA doesn’t work like that, and more than likely you will be deported.’ I thought that sounded a bit sketchy, and I that’s when I started to get worried.”
According to Helena, Montana, immigration attorney Shahid Haque, Cetindemir’s gut was right. The 2012 DACA memo issued by the Department of Homeland Security states that even individuals who have received a final order of deportation are eligible for DACA status. Haque says that in the wake of the illegal-immigration crackdown, however, people with final removal orders have become “easy pickings” for the CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents looking to comply with stricter policies, and in Cetindemir’s case, they appeared confused by federal directives and the DACA process. “It seems like he got caught up in an issue where Border Patrol and ICE believed they could try to strip him of his DACA status for apparently no reason other than that he had a prior deportation,” Haque says. “That would seem an egregious overreach.” (A CBP spokesperson declined to comment on these specific accusations.)
Questioning Cetindemir about his citizenship status, however, was well within CPB’s purview. A 1953 addendum to the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes Border Patrol officers to conduct immigration checks on “any railcar, aircraft, conveyance, or vehicle” within 100 air miles of the U.S. border, including oceans. According to the ACLU, about two-thirds of the nation’s population lives within this geographic zone, thanks to the concentration of large coastal cities. Such searches have been happening long before the recent immigration crackdown: a 2013 report from the legal-aid organization Families for Freedom—part of New York University’s law school—details hundreds of mistaken arrests of immigrants with legal status resulting from CBP checks, including 12 U.S. citizens.
Additionally, the legality of stripping someone of their DACA status is murky. While Haque notes that DACA is “discretionary” and there is technically no law delineating the reason someone can have their DACA removed, he points to a 2018 ruling by a federal court in California that set a precedent; it says that any decision to revoke DACA needs to be governed by the standards with which it was issued in the first place—for example, that the recipient maintains a clean criminal record. Cetindemir claims he disclosed his final removal order on his DACA application, meaning that once his status was granted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, his deportation order should no longer have been an issue.
Around the time Cetindemir was told he would be deported, the CBP gave him access to his phone. He began calling friends and started a post on Reddit detailing his ordeal and asking for help. Soon a slew of people and organizations, from immigrants-rights groups to local journalists, rallied around him. “Everyone started making phone calls,” he says. “My cell was right by the front desk, and I could hear the phone ringing throughout the night. People were asking, ‘Where’s Ibra? Where is he going to go next?’ And I think that definitely helped.”
After spending the night at a CPB station in Malta, Cetindemir was transferred into ICE custody and brought to the Cascade County Jail in Great Falls, Montana, where he was put in an overcrowded cell. “I think that was one of the scariest parts of the experience,” he says. “I had never been to jail before, so I didn’t know what to expect. The moment I walked through the door, I heard someone in the back yelling, ‘Here comes some fresh ass.’ And I was like, Oh man, I don’t know what this is.” That night he slept on the floor about two feet from the toilets, but overall, he says, he didn’t mind the conditions. “It’s all relative, right? I was just coming off Denali, sleeping in a tent in temperatures in the negatives. For me, it wasn’t that bad, because I’m used to doing things that make me uncomfortable.”
His bigger concern was losing his gear. “I was traveling with four different bags full of climbing and photography gear. Border Patrol told me I was only allowed to take one 40-pound bag [when being transferred into ICE custody].That was honestly the most stressful thing. I worked really hard to buy all my climbing gear, I wasn’t going to lose it.” While Cetindemir did not have access to his bag while in custody, it would be all he’d be allowed to carry with him if deported. “If I actually did get deported, I knew I would still be climbing somewhere and was going to need it. So I packed my 8,000-meter boots, my tent, all the relevant and most essential items I would need for climbing again.”
Finally, after about 40 hours in custody, Cetindemir—along with his gear—was released. “They told me, ‘You’ve got a clean record, and we’re going to set you loose. Sorry for the inconvenience.’”
Despite recent reports of misconduct by CPB and ICE agents, Centindemir notes that he was treated with kindness and respect by the individuals handling his case for the duration of his detention. “Both CBP and ICE agents treated me well,” he says. “They acted professionally and responded to my questions. They provided me with food and water, and I was allowed to sort out my gear and repack my bag.”
Haque says there’s not a clear explanation as to why Cetindemir was held for as long as he was. “If [they were trying to check on his immigration status] I don’t see why it couldn’t have been confirmed quicker, or why they were even trying to engage in that exercise.”
A CBP spokesperson sent Outside the following statement: “On Monday, June 24, 2019, Ibrahim Cetindemir was encountered during a transportation check on an Amtrak train and removed for processing. Records indicated that he was previously ordered to be removed from the country and that he was not eligible for DACA relief. He was processed and turned over to ICE/ERO (Enforcement and Removal Operations) for removal. ICE/ERO checked additional systems and determined that Cetindemir was eligible for DACA status and was released from their custody.”
Despite his ordeal, Cetindemir says he won’t be deterred from doing the two things he loves most: traveling and climbing. “I’m not going to be intimidated and don’t feel like I should be afraid. As long as my DACA is still valid, I should be able to travel freely within the country,” he says. “I’m still going to take the train again at some point. They won’t keep me from doing it.” Still, Cetindemir admits that his immigration status has kept him from achieving his biggest ambitions. His dream was always to become part of an elite Rangers unit in the U.S. Army, but DACA recipients are ineligible for military service. And he imagines leading expeditions up 8,000-meter Himalayan peaks, but if he travels outside the country, he won’t be allowed to reenter.
“I’ve got a whole list of peaks I want to climb, but there really isn’t a way for us to change our status,” Cetindemir says. “We’re stuck in a legal limbo.”