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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Flat tire throws Manchester family's world off course

September 08. 2017 10:01PM
Maria Cubias, right, gathers her sons, from left, Dennis, 10, Giovanni, 9, Josue, 17, and Dylan, 3. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

For most of us, a flat tire means a visit from a tow truck.

For Eleazar Lopez Ayala, it could mean a one-way airplane trip to the murder capital of the world.

A Honduran by birth, Ayala entered the country illegally at the age of 17 through Mexico. Like millions of illegal immigrants, he did his best to stay out of trouble, dodge Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and make a life for himself. Four years ago, he moved his family from New Jersey to Manchester, seeking safe schools, work opportunities and low taxes.

But that life unraveled on Aug. 4. Ayala, who is 40, got a flat tire in Deerfield, when he and a co-worker took a lunch break and drove to a nearby store for sodas, according to his wife, Maria Cubias.

They couldn’t call for help because cellphone reception was poor. They knocked on a door, explained their situation and asked to use the telephone. Once they left, the homeowner called police.

When police pulled up and asked for IDs, Ayala provided a Honduran passport, and his co-worker provided a Mexican federal ID card.

“That seemed a little out of place,” said Deerfield Police Chief Gary Duquette. When an 8-year-old DWI warrant came back for Ayala’s co-worker, Duquette arrested him. He brought them both to the station and called ICE. In Manchester that day, Cubias was leaving the grocery store with her three younger sons, ages 10, 9 and 3. She checked her phone and listened to Ayala’s voicemail. ICE had picked him up.

She started crying. Her children asked her what was wrong, but they had an idea. Parents such as Ayala and Cubias prepare their kids ahead of time, said Josue Chavez, Cubias’ oldest son and Ayala’s stepson, who translated because of her rough English.

Maria Cubias’ wedding photo with her husband, Eleazar Lopez Ayala. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

“He’s not a criminal; he shouldn’t be locked up,” said Giovanni, Ayala’s oldest son, who is 10. “He has kids. My mom has four kids. How’s she going to do this all on her own?”

Cubias is an El Salvadoran, here on temporary protected status, a designation for people from countries where armed conflict or natural disasters prevent their safe return.

Cubias said Ayala brought in $700 every week, much more than the $450 she makes every two weeks working part-time as a dishwasher at IHOP. The family doesn’t get welfare, housing or food stamps, she said. They are on Medicaid.

If Ayala is deported, Cubias expects she will have to move to a smaller apartment and apply for welfare.

Today, Ayala sits in an ICE detention room in Massachusetts. His lawyer has filed papers in a New Jersey immigration court, which had ordered his deportation years ago.

Border Patrol caught him when he illegally crossed the border at 17 but released him to relatives on the condition he appear at immigration court. He never showed up for subsequent hearings. His attorney, Paulo Moura of Malden, Mass., said minors shouldn’t be held responsible for missing court appointments and his client may have a chance.

He’s also hopeful that Ayala’s young family, his nearly clean record — he has one previous charge for driving without a license — and support from his church will work in his favor, Moura said.

“Better a Northeast court than a Texas court. Texas is so inundated with these requests,” he said.

According to ICE, Ayala stayed off their radar until he was arrested in Deerfield. 

“He will remain in agency custody pending the outcome of immigration proceedings,” said ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls in an email.

Walls said immigration officials consider a person’s immigration history, criminal records and humanitarian issues. But he added that ICE exempts no one from deportation.

Ayala’s bad luck wasn’t the flat tire. It was where the tire went flat.

Had it happened in Manchester, ICE wouldn’t be called, according to Police Chief Nick Willard. Manchester police policy prohibits police from asking about a person’s immigration status, he said. Immigration advocates say that similar policies exist in Nashua, Concord and Keene. The Attorney General’s Office is working with New Hampshire State Police to develop a policy for troopers, said Col. Christopher Wagner.

“In a situation like that, we wouldn’t necessarily suspect they were illegal,” Willard said. “You treat everyone the same, equally.”

Manchester police would probably have just given Ayala a ticket for driving without a license and sent him on his way, Willard said.

Typically, Manchester police notify ICE when a suspect’s fingerprints are put into the system and ICE has a hold on them, Willard said.

That doesn’t make Manchester a sanctuary city, if you go by the definition of the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent nonprofit research group. The Center said sanctuary cities take Manchester’s policy one step further by prohibiting local police from contacting ICE even when a red flag shows up.

In Deerfield, Duquette said the whole thing was a first for him. Nothing would have happened if the Browns Mill Road resident hadn’t called police. 

“This is Deerfield, N.H.,” he said. “We don’t qualify as a sanctuary anything.”

Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader. He can be reached at

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