'Removable aliens' fear routine check-in could speed deportation

Wanessa Castro, an undocumented immigrant from Brazil, meets with her attorney John Vandenberg

Some of them panic before their appointments and think about skipping out. Others sob in the waiting room, bracing for the worst. All have reason to worry.

They are immigrants who entered the country illegally and were nabbed -- quickly by the border patrol, or later, sometimes years later, by immigration enforcement agents. Based on a low risk of flight, they qualify for in-person check-ins, instead of detention. But there is a price: growing anxiety kindled by two recent high-profile cases in which people checked in, only to be whisked away and swiftly deported.

“I feel what everyone who has to check in feels now: fright,” said Wanessa Castro, 37. “I have thought about not [checking in]. However, I know that if I don’t, they will come after me, and I do not want to be a fugitive. I do not want to run away.”

Born in Brazil, Castro flew to Mexico in 2005, slipped illegally into the United States, and made her way to Philadelphia to clean houses and assist her husband, a Portuguese-speaking pastor, with weekly services at Philadelphia First Church of the Nazarene in Rhawnhurst.

For almost a decade, she managed to live beneath the radar of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That changed when she decided to return to Brazil in 2013 to retrieve the daughter she left behind with grandparents. In July 2014, she and the girl, 11 at the time, were caught sneaking across the Mexican border.

For Castro, that second crossing put her in ICE's sights, and made her a priority for deportation.

Last year, she lost her case in immigration court and was ordered to depart voluntarily, or be removed. Through her attorney, she asked ICE to consider a thick dossier of letters from clergy and community leaders attesting to her positive family values. The agency could administratively close the case, allowing her and her daughter to stay.

With that last-ditch plea pending, Castro is required to check in every two months at the Center City office of Behavioral Interventions (BI), a Colorado company under contract with ICE to run a probation-style supervision program. Nationwide, 25,000 to 40,000 “removable aliens” are on its rolls.

With President Trump intent on sweeping up people such as Castro, they are what Cornell University law professor Stephen Yale-Loehr has called “low-hanging fruit.”  They have exhausted their legal options and can be plucked at any time.  

The two recent cases, both in Arizona, make the point:

At a regularly scheduled check-in with ICE officials in Phoenix in February, a married mother with 20 years in the United States, two children who are U.S. citizens, and a 2009 conviction for using a fake Social Security number was unexpectedly arrested. Within hours, she was deposited back in Mexico.

In March, a single father of three, who reentered illegally after previous deportations, went to a meeting with ICE officials in Phoenix and didn’t come out. A day later, he called from Mexico to tell his children he had been deported.

While those may be exceptions, lawyers tell clients that noncompliance is measured in degrees. One missed appointment might be tolerated, depending on the reason, but the threat of arrest is ever-present. 

Philadelphia lawyer John Vandenberg, who represents Castro and a dozen other clients who check in, said he has responded to the Trump administration's crackdown with a new drill.

“What time are you going in?” he asks his clients under supervision. “If I don’t hear from you in two hours, I’ll assume you were detained, and start looking for you in the system.”

ICE officials won’t divulge the number of immigrants monitored at BI’s 1401 Arch St. office, but said in a general statement that those eligible for alternatives to detention are monitored with GPS-enabled ankle bands, telephone voice-recognition software, and face-to-face interviews, depending on their flight risk. Castro started out wearing an ankle monitor, but no longer must.

In addition to the group monitored by BI, an unspecified number of people with final orders of deportation are supervised through periodic check-ins at ICE’s enforcement and removal field offices. In Philadelphia, that office is at 1600 Callowhill St.

Immigration lawyer David Bennion, who has as many as 10 clients under supervision, noticed in January that BI had begun referring people to the ICE office on Callowhill. He took that as “a red flag,” he said, because “if BI sends them over to ICE, to me that means maybe ICE is going to detain them.”

ICE has not responded to repeated requests for data on check-ins that result in arrests, or for a statement on what some immigrants have described as a new sense of vulnerability at their appointments.

Philadelphia immigration lawyer Ricky Palladino, a former liaison between the ICE-Philadelphia office and the Philadelphia chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said he has not heard of any check-ins at BI’s Philadelphia office turning into arrests.

Nonetheless, he said, “I probably get one call a day from clients who are scared.”

Many times, he said, clients are under supervision because their native countries won’t issue travel documents to take them back -- another piece of the status quo that the Trump administration wants to change.

Palladino said he has clients in that category from Guinea, Mali, and Mauritania. “Some have been [under supervision] for 10 years,” he said. “All of a sudden they are worried.”

More concerning to immigration lawyers and advocates, he said, are arrests that are taking place at traditional probation departments in the city and surrounding counties, which he described as “one of the main nets ICE is using to catch people.” Usually, he said, it’s someone checking in for “a low-level offense, mostly DUIs.”

Back at her lawyer’s office, Castro is trying to balance hope and fear.

While praying for a stay of removal, she is steeling herself, sensing that her days in America may truly be numbered now.

“My fear is that one day when I go to check in … they come and get me,” she said, “and I don’t have time to psychologically and physically prepare.”