It started over a minor drug charge and a fight with his dad. Now, a Utah family fears their son may be deported to Haiti.

(Rachel Molenda | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joseph Ernst Montfleury, left, and Micheline Montfleury, right, attend a hearing about their son, Mackenley Montfleury, in Orem Justice Court on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018.

Orem • Christmas for the Montfleurys is usually a party.

The family, all of whom have come to Utah from Haiti over the years, is close — and big. All the aunts, uncles and cousins get together. They laugh, they dance.

But this year, the family had no celebration.

It didn’t feel right. Not without Mackenley there.

For the past four months, 27-year-old Mackenley Montfleury has been locked up in an immigration detention center after he pleaded no contest to a marijuana and a domestic violence charge.

And while he is a lawful permanent resident in the United States, these low-level convictions could result in his deportation back to Haiti — a country he hasn’t been to since he was 10.

But Mackenley didn’t know when he took a plea deal in September that it could affect his immigration status. His public defender never discussed it.

On Monday, more than a dozen of Mackenley’s family members filled an Orem courtroom as his new attorney, Jonathan Paz, asked the justice court judge to let his client withdraw his pleas.

“I need my son back home,” Micheline Montfleury said in tears.

From Haiti to Utah

Mackenley’s father, Joseph Ernst Montfleury, first came to the United States in 2002. He was involved in politics, and ran to be a congressman in Haiti. But after the election, his family home was bombed.

“We tried to resist for two years,” the father said. “The situation got worse and worse and worse. That’s why I decided to leave.”

The elder Montfleury asked for political asylum. He first brought his daughter to the United States, then his two sons and wife came later that year.

“We follow the rules,” the father said. “We don’t give any problems.”

The Montfleurys raised their family in Orem. Everyone in the family eventually became U.S. citizens except for Mackenley, who has a green card that does not expire until 2026.

The father said the family held off on applying for citizenship for Mackenley because, at that time, he was a teenager who had started getting into some trouble. The kind of trouble that’s typical of many teenagers — sneaking out of the house, smoking marijuana. They worried then he could be denied citizenship because of it.

And then, last Thanksgiving, Mackenley got into a fight with his father.

“We have rules and he didn’t follow the rules,” the father said of the altercation. “He became aggressive with me. He hit me in the eye.”

The police were called. And despite the father’s objections, prosecutors filed an assault charge against his youngest son. Montfleury later wrote a letter to the judge asking that the case be dropped, but it didn’t work.

Mackenley pleaded no contest in September and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Grant Nagamatsu, his public defender, later wrote in a court affidavit that he never discussed the possible ramifications a conviction for even low-level crimes could have on Mackenley’s immigration status.

“I was unaware [he] was not an American citizen,” the attorney wrote. “I made no personal observation that would indicate he was not born in the United States.”

‘They will deport him’

When Mackenley got to the Utah County jail to serve his sentence, immigration officials were notified. He was then sent to an immigration detention center in Colorado.

Paz said he first told Mackenley’s family to wait.

“They don’t have to deport him,” Paz said. “He’s a lawful permanent resident. They’ll look at the charges and they’ll see they’re pretty low-level and they won’t try to deport him. But now it’s 2019, and we’re in the current administration we’re in, and now with those kind of charges, they will deport him.”

On Monday, Paz asked Orem Justice Court Judge Reed Parkin — the judge who heard Mackenley’s case months ago — to let the young man take back his pleas.

(Photo courtesy of the Montfleury family) Mackenley Montfleury, left, is pictured with his cousins Laetitia Bastian, cente,r and Ethiell Jonathan Mathuriu, right.

Mackenley is expected to go before a Colorado immigration judge Wednesday and request that he be allowed to post bond and be released. If he were allowed to take back his pleas, Paz said, there would be no conviction to hold him on.

Defendants are supposed to be advised of such consequences by their attorney, but Orem Prosecutor DJ Summers argued in court that Mackenley signed plea agreement documents that briefly explained his convictions could affect his citizenship.

“Those are signed by his own hand,” the prosecutor argued.

Judge Parkin, however, ultimately wouldn’t hear the issue, saying the request should have been filed at the district court level, not with him at the justice court. Even as Paz pleaded with him several times to hear the case, the judge wouldn’t budge.

“What the court effectively has done has made it so Mackenley absolutely cannot get out,” Paz argued as the judge made his ruling. “He will be subject to mandatory detention. He will be subject to deportation hearings.”

Parkin’s decision to not hear the case was devastating to Mackenley’s family.

His aunts cried after the hearing, worrying that their nephew would be killed if he were sent to Haiti. His father said they worry he could be targeted for political reasons and said there’s no real family left in the country that Mackenley could turn to for help.

Paz said he’ll still ask the immigration judge later this week to set a bond for Mackenley so he might be released — but it will be more difficult than if Parkin would have let his client take his plea back.

The attorney said cases like Mackenley’s show a dramatic shift in immigration policies under President Donald Trump’s administration. Several years ago, he said it was unlikely someone would be deported for such small crimes.

Now, deportations for misdemeanors are becoming more common.

“Mackenley didn’t rape anyone. He didn’t kill anyone,” Paz said. “He didn’t sell drugs. He possessed marijuana in a small quantity. The only violent offense is a fight with his father — who hired me, who’s been in court all day with us, who’s been calling me nonstop trying to get his son out, who sent a letter to the court saying do not convict him of this assault. This was a mistake.”