MARCH 4, 2017
Roxana Orellana Santos, 37, has filed a civil rights lawsuit claiming she was racially profiled at the time of her arrest in 2008.
There are a little more than two weeks between Juan, an electrician in the Bronx, and the date he cannot forget: March 21, 2017, at 8 a.m., when the federal government has told him to report for deportation.
Two weeks to decide: Avoid it, and try to preserve the American life he has built for a little longer, even as a fugitive. Go, and lose it all: his wife and son, his job, his apartment, his world.
“I would feel like an animal if I stay here and hide,” said Juan, 29, who asked that his last name not be used. “I want to prove that I can follow the laws. I want to make my case at this meeting, but I know that if I go, they’re going to deport me.”
In an immigration system mottled with escape hatches and hobbled by scant resources, Juan, who fled Colombia six years ago, is one of nearly a million people who have managed to linger in the United States despite having been ordered out of the country by an immigration judge — some of them more than a decade ago.
|RHINO'S AND PROGRESSIVES CALLING OUR U.S. LAWS ON IMMIGRATION IRRATIONAL!!! TALK ABOUT COMING OUT OF THE SHADOWS!!!|
“People who have been ordered deported and who are still here are the low-hanging fruit,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University. “Trump has said he has wanted to deport more people. The easiest way to get those numbers up are to take those people who’ve been ordered deported and go after them.”
President Trump’s immigration agency has already offered what looks like a preview: Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents recently deported to Mexico an Arizona mother who had been ordered out of the country four years ago.
But the follow-up will be complicated. The backlog of what the government calls “fugitive aliens” has persisted through Republican and Democratic administrations, inflamed conservatives who oppose illegal immigration, and resisted the immigration authorities’ attempts at enforcement.
Since 2006, even as the overall total of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has dipped, the number facing outstanding deportation orders has grown by more than half, to around 962,000 people from 632,726. More than half of them come from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras. (Another 13,200 or so, as of early February, were already in the custody of customs officials.)
Despite the Bush and Obama administrations’ oft-stated commitments to focus on expelling those who pose a serious danger to their communities, slightly less than one in five people facing deportation has been convicted of a crime in the United States.
The causes for delays can vary.
Deportations have been deferred for humanitarian reasons — like allowing mothers to stay with sick children in the United States — or they have been frozen while an appeal is mounted. The Obama administration put off deportations for thousands of immigrants it did not consider priorities, including Juan, the Bronx electrician, and Guadalupe García de Rayos, the Arizona mother, often law-abiding people with strong ties to their communities.
“Felons, not families; criminals, not children,” President Barack Obama said in 2014, describing the kinds of people he wanted deported.
The government also postponed deportations for people who were likely to face torture if they were sent back.
Some deportations are simply impossible to carry out: About a quarter of the immigrants with outstanding deportation orders come from countries that refuse to take back deportees, including China, Haiti, Brazil and India.
Mr. Trump has threatened to stop issuing visas to people from these countries. In the past, diplomats have urged caution on this front, not wanting to disrupt international relationships over the issue of deportees.
And many people under final orders have slipped through gaping cracks in the immigration system.
Court notices — either mailed to outdated addresses or illegible to Spanish speakers — are routinely missed, leaving judges to issue deportation orders for people who miss their chance to argue their case. Nearly a quarter of judges’ decisions rendered in 2015, for example, involved cases where the immigrant in question was absent.
The months and, sometimes, years it takes for immigration and asylum cases to wind through a clogged court system can cause the authorities to lose track of immigrants living and working in the country, because they have fled or simply moved.
The White House has sought to make it harder for immigrants to be remain free inside the United States while their requests for asylum plod through the courts. They will be detained more often, or asked to wait in Mexico until a judge can rule.
“There are all kinds of things in the system that weren’t built to maximize compliance,” said David A. Martin, a professor of immigration law at the University of Virginia and a former immigration official in the Obama and Clinton administrations. It led to a climate, he said, that has prompted many people to not consider a deportation order a serious matter. “And that’s one of the attitudes that sometimes infuriates, with some justification, people who voted for Donald Trump.”
In a significant break from his predecessor, Mr. Trump is directing immigration agents to go after virtually anyone who is in the United States illegally, ending the reprieve for people who had not been considered priorities. “Ensure that aliens ordered removed from the United States are promptly removed,” one line of Mr. Trump’s executive order on immigration reads, with the crispness of a traffic sign.
“What has been lacking, up until a month ago, is a willingness and a commitment on the part of the administration to actually do it,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports stricter immigration controls. “Nothing is easy,” he said, but going after people who already have deportation orders “will be the easiest part of enforcing the president’s removal priorities.”
President George W. Bush’s administration dented the backlog by deploying fugitive teams that were supposed to track down unauthorized immigrants with deportation orders and criminal records. But the strategy drew a backlash when the raids began snaring undocumented immigrants who were not targets.
“That was something that caused a lot of controversy and a lot of anxiety in immigrant communities, because it meant these officers could stop anyone at any time,” said Randy Capps, the director of research at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
Mr. Capps added that while the Obama administration narrowed the scope of such raids, he expected the Trump administration to return to the Bush model.
There is, of course, an easier way to find some people with final orders: Wait for them to walk into ICE offices for their scheduled appointments. Ms. Rayos was driven across the border within hours of her check-in in Phoenix, and her deportation has haunted immigrants with coming appointments ever since.
But the Trump administration has yet to show a consistent hand.
Roxana Orellana Santos, 37, was allowed to walk out of her appointment in Baltimore last week. Ms. Santos, who said she had fled domestic abuse in El Salvador, was arrested in 2008 while eating lunch outdoors, her lawyers say, leading to a civil rights lawsuit that claimed she had been racially profiled.
She had been ordered deported two years before that arrest, after she missed an immigration court hearing. Her lawyers said she could not read the notice, which was in English.
Ms. Santos’s next appointment is in August. “I don’t feel assured of what the outcome’s going to be next time,” she said, adding that she had asked her brother to help her husband care for her four children if she was deported.
In the case of Juan, the electrician, nothing remains to stop the government from acting on the deportation order he first received in 2013. Juan had requested asylum after paramilitary forces in Colombia tried to kill him, he said, but he lost his final appeal the month Mr. Trump was elected president.
“I feel hopeless,” Juan said. “My wife is here, my son is here, they are my world. I have nowhere else to run to. I’ve run out of options. I don’t know what to do.”