A judge denied bond Monday for Roland Gramajo, a community activist who was arrested by immigration agents weeks after hosting a forum to quell concerns about immigration raids.
The 40-year-old father of five, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who has been living in the US for 25 years, has been an outspoken activist for immigrants in Houston, Texas, the place he calls home.
He was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents earlier this month, ICE said.
The agency says the arrest was part of a routine operation based on an anonymous tip to remove Gramajo, who had re-entered the US illegally in 2004.
Family and friends say they believe Gramajo's activism made him a target of ICE, as the Trump administration pursues a hardline agenda on immigration. Weeks before his arrest, Gramajo had invited ICE to a forum he hosted to help ease fears about ICE raids, but the agency declined, the activist and his lawyer said.
"We want to believe these are coincidences, unfortunately the more and more we see them, the more we feel that some people who are speaking out against the administration or ICE are being targeted by those same agencies," said Cesar Espinosa with FIEL Houston, an immigrant rights organization.
Gramajo is being held by US Marshals because the federal government wants to convict him for illegal reentry, something that could result in prison time before he is deported.
The judge's decision to deny bond clears the way for the government to prosecute him for the illegal reentry charge.
The judge said if Gramajo was released to ICE, he could be deported before that case could be tried.
Gramajo was deported in 2004
Gramajo was convicted of burglary of a vehicle -- a misdemeanor -- in 1999 when he was 19 years old, according to court documents read by a judge Monday. Because he was in the US illegally, he faced deportation.
Gramajo's appeal of the ruling was denied in 2001.
He was deported on June 21, 2004, ICE said.
Gramajo returned to the US a few months later, according to his lawyer Raed Gonzalez, and ever since has been living in Houston, where he became a community activist known for helping other immigrants. Last year, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner named May 17 "Roland Gramajo Day."
ICE told CNN it received an anonymous tip in July that Gramajo was in the country illegally. The source provided Gramajo's address, business address and information on his car.
A month later, Gramajo hosted the community forum and an ICE officer was given the assignment to check out the tip. Gramajo was pulled over and arrested on September 5, ICE said.
ICE officials told CNN the agency "does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make."
"To be abundantly clear, ICE personnel did not attend this Immigration Forum in any capacity -- official or unofficial," the agency said in a statement.
The agency said Gramajo was arrested because his "repeated actions have demonstrated that he has no regard for US laws."
Gramajo's wife and attorney say he's not a criminal
Gramajo returned to the US after his deportation to support his family, Gonzalez said.
"This is one of the good guys, this is one of the good hombres that we should not be deporting, according to this administration," Gonzalez said. "We believe that at some point he may have been singled out because he was an activist."
Gramajo's family says he didn't apply for legal status because his illegal reentry would have made approval nearly impossible. Gonzalez said his client didn't know he could reenter the country legally at the time. His wife, Magaly Quicano, is a permanent resident and his five children are US citizens.
"I'm a single mother now with five children in my house and there are too many questions to answer, it's a lot of stress," Quicano said, adding that her greatest fear is that her husband will stay in prison.
If Gramajo is deported, Gonzalez said, he wouldn't be eligible to return to the US for 20 years. He'd be in his early 60s.
"Just imagine being separated from a loved one for 20 years," Gonzalez said. "This is going to be really tragic for this family."