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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Mexican man who spent a decade in South Dakota arrested at Spokane Intermodal Center

Juan Santos-Bonilla works in his woodshop in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as part of an instructional video he posted to YouTube in July. The 39-year-old, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, was arrested Sunday evening at the Spokane Intermodal Center and could face deportation. (YouTube)

A Mexican man who had lived for more than a decade in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents shortly after boarding a Greyhound bus in Spokane on Sunday evening, his family said.

The arrest of 39-year-old Juan Santos-Bonilla adds to a growing list of undocumented immigrants who have been apprehended at the Spokane Intermodal Center – nearly 200 since the start of fiscal 2013, according to Border Patrol data recently provided to The Spokesman-Review.

His wife, Chantel Sieh, an American citizen since birth, fears Santos-Bonilla will soon be deported.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she said. “I’m just beside myself. I just keep imagining him sitting there by himself.”

The couple had been in the Seattle area, where Sieh recently secured a new job, and Santos-Bonilla had been traveling home to Sioux Falls when he was arrested at the Spokane Intermodal Center, which houses a Greyhound bus depot as well as the downtown police precinct.

He might have simply stayed in Sioux Falls while Sieh went to Seattle, but he felt more comfortable accompanying his wife on the 22-hour drive, she said.

“He didn’t want me to drive over here alone in case anything happened with the car,” she said Tuesday in a phone call from Seattle.

Leaving his wife with the car in Seattle, he boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Spokane. At the Intermodal Center on Sunday evening, he boarded another bus to begin the next leg of his trip.

Sieh said her phone rang around 5:15 p.m.

“He called me and said, ‘The Border Patrol or somebody is on the bus. What should I do?’ ”

With no proof of citizenship to show the agents, Santos-Bonilla was promptly arrested and removed from the idling bus, Sieh said. She said she heard an agent take his phone and end the call.

For some reason, she said, Santos-Bonilla was taken to Colville, where the Border Patrol has an office, and then back to Spokane that same night.

Bill Kingsford, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Spokane sector, which spans from the east side of the Cascade Mountains to Glacier National Park in Montana, said in an email Wednesday: “I can confirm that Mr. Santos was arrested on Sunday. It appears he does have a prior deportation in 2004 and was processed this time as a reinstatement of that deportation. I do not have and therefore will not be able to provide any background information regarding this arrest.”

Online records show Santos-Bonilla was booked into the Spokane County Jail at 12:42 a.m. Monday, and into the Yakima County Corrections Center at 5:50 p.m. Monday. Sieh and her father, Bob Rygg, who lives in Bellevue, said they drove across the state to visit Santos-Bonilla at both facilities, but were only allowed to see him for about 20 minutes.

Both county jails have contracts to hold inmates on behalf of federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and they often serve as stopping points for immigrants who are arrested in Spokane and transported to ICE’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Sieh said Santos-Bonilla grew up in Huitzilan, a small municipality in Mexico’s Puebla state, in a ramshackle home without running water. His parents split when he was 9, she said, and from then on he provided for his mother, brother and four sisters.

“Juan was pretty much the one that did everything for his family,” Sieh said. “He had it pretty tough in Mexico.”

He first came to the United States in 1999 and spent some time in New York before he was deported in 2004. Sieh said he put his carpentry skills to good use while back in his hometown.

“He went back down there so he could build a little place for his mother,” she said. “He just tried to make it better for her and the kids.”

He crossed the border again to find work in 2007, Sieh said. He asked her on a date the following year, while both were working at a plant nursery in Sioux Falls.

She said she never cared that he was undocumented. She described him as “mellow” and “easygoing,” adding that “he never committed any crimes.”

They married in 2015, and at times they tried to find a lawyer who could help him achieve some kind of legal status in the United States. But it was an expensive and burdensome process with no guaranteed outcome. They figured they would get around to it, sooner or later.

Meanwhile, Santos-Bonilla turned the garage into a woodshop, where he built doors, a storage shed, picture frames and intricate boxes, among other items, which he sometimes sold to friends and neighbors. He enjoyed filming and explaining the process, in Spanish, to make instructional YouTube videos. He posted the last one just three weeks ago.

Before his arrest, the couple had been pondering their next move. Maybe they would stay in Seattle, they thought, but more likely they would look for a place in Oregon, where it’s cheaper to live.

Sieh said she wishes Americans would show more empathy for immigrants who come to the United States, legally or otherwise, in search of work or to escape danger or poverty.

“I just think if they had to live in the situation, they would do the same thing,” she said.

The practice of arresting immigrants at the Spokane Intermodal Center has drawn scrutiny from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and from City Council President Ben Stuckart, who has suggested Greyhound is in violation of Spokane’s anti-discrimination laws by permitting federal agents on its buses.

In a statement Tuesday, Greyhound spokeswoman Lanesha Gipson said the company has been in talks with immigration authorities “to see how we can balance the enforcement of federal law with the dignity and privacy of our customers, as we understand their practice of transportation checks sometimes negatively impacts our riders.”

“We are required to comply with the law by allowing Border Patrol agents to board our buses when they ask to do so,” Gipson said. “However, we do not support or coordinate these searches, nor are we happy about them.”

Current law permits Border Patrol agents to conduct warrantless searches within 100 miles of the border, and the Intermodal Center falls just within that zone. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., recently introduced a bill that would shrink the buffer to 25 miles.

Spokane officials, meanwhile, have cited Border Patrol activity as a reason for abandoning plans to establish an integrated social services center at the Intermodal Center.

The Border Patrol has defended its presence at the bus depot, saying transit hubs are used by human traffickers, drug smugglers and undocumented immigrants traveling toward the interior of the country. The agency announced in May it would hire 30 new agents to staff its Spokane office.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 8, 2018, to include a statement from a Border Patrol spokesman. His statement was provided after the story was originally published on Aug. 7, 2018.