Luis Blanco, a father of six who had lived in Plant City for 20 years, was deported Thursday to Mexico, according to federal officials.
The Rev. Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg said Blanco was dropped off at the border, even though he'll be living in Veracruz, a city about 600 miles to the south and along the Gulf of Mexico.
"Our immigration system thrives and survives on treating certain people inhumanely," Oliver said.
Blanco, 41, came to the attention of immigration authorities after a 2014 traffic offense out of state, but he was given a humanitarian stay, which he had to renew annually. He had been his family's sole provider, working in construction.
This year, because of President Donald Trump's efforts to more tightly enforce immigration rules, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained Blanco in late January.
On Wednesday, at the Krome Detention Center in Miami, Blanco told the Tampa Bay Times that he hoped someone would intervene on his behalf.
If he could, he said, he would ask the president to "open his heart" and keep families together.
Blanco said he had never caused any problems in the United States and spent his days happily working or with his family.
"An immigrant comes here to work, to get ahead and to contribute to this country," he said in Spanish. "This is a beautiful country, a beautiful country."
Blanco said he left Mexico to escape poverty and violence, and he worried about going back to a place that now feels unfamiliar.
"I have nothing against Mexico, it's just that I live better here," he said. "I feel like this is my country, too, because I've been here a long time."
In America, Blanco said he worked harvesting tobacco and fruits, like strawberries and oranges, and also in construction.
He worries that his family won't be able to cover expenses and that his daughters will be forced to abandon their educations. He didn't want them to be laborers.
He said, again and again, that he was turning to his faith.
"I have God in my heart, and he guides me and gives me strength," he said.
ICE released a statement about Blanco on Friday, noting the agency's obligation to enforce the nation's laws and its intent to do so "fairly and efficiently."
"ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security," the statement said. "However, as acting ICE Director Thomas Homan made clear, ICE will not exempt classes or categories of aliens not lawfully present in the Unites States from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of U.S. immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and removal."
Blanco had been deported before, in 1998, but made his way back into the United States and stayed under the radar until the traffic offense.
His children were born in this country, and he and his wife, Lourdes Medrano, are expecting a seventh child. Medrano, 35, is in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, allowing children brought to the United States illegally to remain here under certain conditions. Her status expires next January.
Trump has said he will rescind DACA, and Congress has not yet come up with a legislative solution.
Three dozen demonstrators — including the Rev. Oliver — gathered outside the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in Ybor City Friday to protest a new contract arrangement in which local sheriff's offices will hold immigrants for ICE.
Oliver said his church will continue to provide emotional and financial support to Blanco's family, "who are going through severe trauma."
Correspondent Andres Leiva contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tmarrerotimes