How to Stop a Deportation

Steve Li embraces his mother after a news conference in 2010. Li’s friends and professors mobilized a fierce campaign to halt his deportation after his unexpected arrest. Credit: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma.

On an overcast September morning that seemed like any other, twenty-year-old Steve Li woke up early and began getting ready for his classes at the City College of San Francisco.

He ignored the unexpected ringing of the doorbell, until it was replaced by an urgent pounding at the door. Moments later, as he stood in the bathroom, he heard his mother’s voice as she answered the door.

What happened next is a nightmare familiar to some 11 million undocumented people who reside in the United States, many of whom live day to day with uncertainty.

Deportations are on the rise. According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, last year they hit a record high of nearly 410,000, a rate double what it had been over the previous ten years. And that number doesn’t include “voluntary returns”—mostly people who are picked up by border patrol and forced to leave. Under the two Obama administrations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has deported more people than during Bush’s presidency. Nearly half of those deported in fiscal year 2012 had no criminal record, like Steve Li. Of those with criminal convictions, most were convicted of low-level offenses such as forgery, driving without a license, or drinking in public.

Too often, individuals facing deportation have endured this process in isolation, sometimes further isolated by feelings of shame. But with increasing frequency, communities—often those with the fewest legal rights—are organizing to expose and resist the violence of deportation.

It is an understatement to say that it is difficult to stop a deportation. Legal codes regulating immigration and deportation can be arcane and esoteric, and are described as among the most complicated of U.S. laws. Nevertheless, victories are possible. One ad hoc defense group convinced a state senator to intervene in a deportation. Another campaign halted a seemingly irreversible final removal order at the eleventh hour—the procedural equivalent of slamming the brakes on a train and watching it come to a screeching halt at the edge of a cliff. Other times, victory manifests in meaningful but less measurable forms: a box full of letters, an extension granted in an appeals process, or a packed room full of supporters.

The Arrest and Detention of Steve Li

While Li showered, five ICE officers searched his family’s small San Francisco apartment.

Li, known for his ready smile and happy-go-lucky attitude, had lived in the United States since he was eleven. He had not realized that he was undocumented until that moment—emerging from his shower in a pair of sweats and a T-shirt—when the agents handcuffed him. The agents told Li that he would be deported back to Peru, his place of birth.

Handcuffed, he started crying.

“I didn’t know what to think,” he said later. “Just the thought of me going back to a country I no longer know, and I have really no memory of… I just went through the movements.”

Li’s parents, Chinese nationals, hadn’t realized their visas had expired. They had lived legally in the country for decades and hadn’t realized that anything had changed. They thought they were in the process of applying for asylum, Li said. Both had driver’s licenses and work permits.

The ICE agents, clad in dark blue and black, interrogated the lanky, bespectacled youth. They wanted to know where his father, a small business owner, worked.

“They said they were going to help me if I cooperated with them,” recalled Li, whose normally cheerful expression flickered with the memory. “They told me, ‘You won’t have to get deported if you tell me where your dad is.’”

“I was just shocked,” he remembered. “I just kept saying, ‘I don’t know.’ But once they found my dad, the ICE officers told me: ‘You’re done. You lied to me. You’re going to get deported now, and we’ll do everything we can to deport you.’”

Li and his mother were loaded up into separate black vans. They were not allowed to talk. Steve watched through the windows as the vehicles traced the familiar route to his father’s shop. He wondered if he would make it to school today.

After the ICE agents picked up his father, Li and his parents were shackled and seated separately on a bus with about fifty others and driven to the Sacramento Country Jail. They endured long waits before being processed and were forced to sleep on dirty floors in overcrowded holding tanks. Once processed, Li was not eligible to see a judge or to consult a lawyer. All he knew was that he had a final deportation order and that he would be deported to Peru as soon as possible.

Once a person is in removal proceedings, chances of winning are bleak. People fighting their cases in immigration court must pay for their own lawyers. As a result, almost 70 percent of people detained don’t have legal counsel, said immigration lawyer Sin Yen Ling, who would eventually become Li’s attorney. Even with a lawyer, the path to freedom is fraught with bureaucratic obstacles.

“The legal options to stay in the United States are narrow in scope and not everyone fits within the confines of what the law requires,” Ling said. “Compounding that problem is a legal system—immigration court—that operates and functions with a purpose of removing people as fast as the court can without recognizing people’s due process rights.”

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