BATESVILLE, Miss. – Rita still felt sore from giving birth a few days earlier. But in the early morning on March 28, she rose to make breakfast for her husband and children. She did not know they were all being watched.
Adjusting to the arrival of a new baby girl made for a hectic morning. Rita’s 9-year-old son missed the bus; her husband Jorge planned to drive him to school. At about 7:25 a.m., she rushed the two out the door of the family’s double-wide trailer, then went to the bathroom. When she returned to the kitchen, she found her son standing there, alone.
“Some police are looking around in the trucks outside,” the boy said. From the window, she saw her husband standing near his work trucks, surrounded by men wearing vests emblazoned with “Police” across the backs. Rita sent her son, a U.S. citizen, back outside to ask what was happening.
Moments later, he returned with an answer: “They’re not just checking the trucks. They’re checking Papa.”
Rita watched as the men handcuffed her husband and took him away. She didn’t know exactly who they were. She could see no uniforms other than the “Police” vests, and there wasn’t a squad car in sight. But, after several panicked hours, it became clear that they were U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Her husband had been taken to the LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, La., nearly 300 miles away.
His last border-crossing was 12 years ago. Until he was detained in March, he worked as a roofer, and a good one, in a county where a tradesman with a specialty can make $850 in a week.
Now, for Rita and her family, the income is gone. Three children – the 3-month-old girl and two others, all U.S. citizens – stand to lose their father, maybe once and for all, if he’s sent to Mexico in the coming days.
The “bad hombres?”
During his campaign, President Donald Trump suggested he would focus on deporting the “bad hombres.”
Jorge is not one of them.
As a younger man, he crossed the U.S. border with Mexico several times without authorization. The fact of the matter is that living in the United States without documentation is a civil infraction, not a crime.
But Trump’s immigration dragnet effectively criminalizes people like Jorge, whose real name is being withheld to protect his family. (Rita is not her real name, either.)
Now, any immigrant without proper documentation who is charged with or convicted of any offense, or even suspected of a crime, is an enforcement priority – no matter how minor the offense and no matter if the person has paid their debt to society. And the “crimes” of many immigrants stem directly from their immigration status. Jorge’s was returning to the United States after being deported.
Immigrants who have regular contact with a court, school or government agency are now in danger of being arrested – even if they are victims of crime. In El Paso, Texas, for example, agents detained a woman inside a courthouse just after she received a protective order against an abusive boyfriend.
U.S. officials can exercise their prosecutorial discretion to stop the threat of harm to children like those who will be impoverished if Jorge is deported. But they repeatedly do not, thanks in part to the Trump administration’s new policies.
“Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly has made it clear that ICE will no longer exempt any class of individuals from removal proceedings if they are found to be in the country illegally,” a May 17 public statement from ICE reads. The agency’s newfound zeal has already caused the number of arrests of noncriminal immigrants to soar. Between Jan. 22 and April 29, they increased by nearly 160 percent over the same period last year, according to ICE.
Even though the Obama administration deported more people than any previous administration, Trump’s orders are far more aggressive than President Barack Obama’s directives. Under Obama, immigrants associated with serious crimes were targeted as higher priorities for deportation, while others were allowed some relief.
A “soft target”
After the stunning, early-morning raid at Rita’s home, she knew she needed help. She found it from several friends and neighbors, including Father Michael McAndrew, an enthusiastic 70-year-old Catholic priest living in Greenwood, Miss.
McAndrew has worked with migrant communities since 1991. He was once an avid athlete in the mold of a small, fast soccer forward, running circles around larger opponents – and he still pulls for the underdog. As a member of the Catholic Redemptorist order of priests, he serves the “most abandoned,” often society’s outcasts. His primary work, he said, is the spiritual care of the Spanish-speaking residents of rural Mississippi. For the past eight months, the priest has spent more and more time making calls, organizing letter-writing and visiting families like Rita’s.
“He’s a soft target,” McAndrew said of Jorge. “ICE is abusing the soft target.”
Among three families of such “soft targets” in Mississippi who are in touch with McAndrew, there are 13 children – all American citizens except for one – who stand to lose their basic needs: shelter, food, clothing, education, mental health services and more because of the detention or imminent deportation of their fathers.
McAndrew’s cases show just how far this region’s ICE agents will go to see even innocent immigrants deported. Since Trump’s mandates were issued, for example, immigration officials have continued to imprison a man in Jena’s LaSalle Detention Facility even after he won his case and have resisted scores of personal pleas for compassion – including at least one from a U.S. senator – on behalf of detainees, according to interviews and documents collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I’m on a crusade right now to deal with this,” McAndrew told the SPLC recently. “What’s happening to Jorge [and Rita] has happened to so many other people.”
In one of the two other cases McAndrew is handling, a father who has been detained since Oct. 3, 2016, recently won his case for a deportation cancellation.
But more than two months later, he is still locked up at LaSalle as U.S. officials prepare an appeal. Meanwhile, private prison company Geo Group bills the Department of Homeland Security $76.94 for each of the first 1,170 detainees per day and $28.38 per day for each one after that threshold is met.
In late May, the SPLC interviewed members of the detainee’s family at their home near Oxford, Miss., a short drive from Batesville. His detention has brought profound troubles not just to the family’s finances but also to their mental health. A daughter lapsed into depression and expressed suicidal thoughts after ICE took her father.
With their primary breadwinner gone, the family has watched its money drain away. Juliana, the detainee’s partner, whose real name is being withheld to protect her family, will sometimes make $200 a week cleaning houses. She needs far more to clothe and feed their five children, one of whom is just 3. She also has to find the money to pay for counseling for her daughter – all while managing her own grief.
At her most desperate moment since her partner was detained, Juliana said, her mind turned to a collection of guns owned by someone she knew through work. She thought about taking her own life. Then she thought of her children and how they need her, adding that she feels stronger these days.
“They just have me,” Juliana said of her children.
She finds it impossible to explain to her 3-year-old daughter, the youngest, where her father is. The best explanation the girl can find is that her father, a construction worker, is hiding in the eggshell-blue walls of the house he built himself, Juliana said. The girl scampered happily around the room during an interview.
The knowledge that comes from age doesn’t offer much clarity in this case. Juliana’s whip-smart oldest child, a 14-year-old daughter, could recite the particulars of her father’s legal strategy – basically, prove that his deportation would lead to “extremely unusual hardship” for the family – but was at a loss when asked why she thinks ICE won’t release him now that he has won the case.
“We won,” she said. “But there’s something missing.”
Leaving the country
After the time in jail at LaSalle, after the hearings end and the immigration court cases close, families often must face the last measure of humiliation in the U.S. immigration system: packing their things and leaving the country. In Greenwood, Miss., just over an hour’s drive south of Batesville, McAndrew introduced the SPLC to Martin Duron, a father of four, who was in such a position. During an interview at Duron’s $216,000 home, the family’s belongings sat in boxes lining the walls. Duron and his wife were preparing to leave one of Greenwood’s best neighborhoods, where homes are framed by the canopies of magnolia trees, for a completely unknown future in Mexico.
An expert at maintaining irrigation systems in the heavily agricultural Mississippi Delta, Duron was detained in 2010 and adjudicated for deportation. For years, thanks to local farmers’ need for his services and his stature in the community, an ICE agent based in Mississippi relied on his own discretion to let Duron stay there, subject to regular monitoring.
Duron made the most of the opportunity. He started his own company and became a highly sought-after resource for farmers. “When I drive into their fields, I can see the happiness in their face, because they know that day they’re going to get water into their fields,” Duron said. He joined his local Catholic parish council, bought his house, and made friends of seemingly everyone in Greenwood. His life appeared stable. He did everything ICE asked of him.
But in March, the ICE agent with whom he had been dealing suddenly had a change of heart. He was told to leave the country by June 1.
Since he had already been adjudicated for deportation once before, Duron wasn’t allowed another hearing. As the news of the order made its way around Greenwood, community members inundated the ICE agent with pleas to offer Duron another stay. One of the state’s two Republican senators, Thad Cochran, wrote Duron a letter of support, saying he had “again contacted the proper ICE officials on your behalf.” McAndrew and an attorney for Catholic Charities argued directly to the agent that Martin’s removal would result in a tremendous loss of financial, academic and medical support for his children.
The agent was unmoved. “I can’t help you,” he said in a terse call to McAndrew last month. “It’s the law.”
Duron left the United States, his whole family in tow, earlier this month.
Back in Batesville, Rita can only guess what will become of Jorge after he was taken away by ICE in the early-morning hours.
In an interview with the SPLC, she wondered aloud why ICE arrested him when her family was at its most vulnerable – just home from the hospital with a baby only five days old. Indeed, Jorge had told ICE about the baby. Still, the agents left Rita alone with her three children and without so much as a call to local domestic support agencies, which is routine for local police.
“Throughout this case, I have been upset that ICE could pick up a person and not address the care of a five-day-old child,” McAndrew wrote in late May to U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the area’s Democratic congressman and one of the federal lawmakers tasked with overseeing ICE. “I call what they did child endangerment.”
The danger now comes from impending poverty. Rita recently turned to her single brother – her last lifeline – to buy food for her children and help with the $600 rent.
Rita’s landlord doesn’t ask questions about her legal status so long as she pays on time. When the cash flow stops, however, that arrangement is likely to change, Rita said. Food for her, the baby, her son and her eldest daughter costs $160 a week. On top of everything else, Rita paid $2,500 to a lawyer out of Memphis to help with her husband’s case. The lawyer never met with Jorge in Jena. It’s unclear why.
Much of the money she and her husband saved up since he began coming to the U.S. for work in 1998 is tied up in assets like a half-built house on a site near where Juliana lives, held under her husband’s name. Rita estimated that between $60,000 and $80,000 is just out of her reach, so long as Jorge remains detained. While he’s in jail, Rita has no income.
At some point in the next two months, the money will run out.
Jorge had been deported once before, years ago. So like Martin Duron, he won’t get a new hearing this time. His only remaining avenue now is through McAndrew, who has prodded Congressman Thompson’s office into inquiring about Jorge’s case to ICE – as he did for Duron and Juliana’s partner.
McAndrew believes ICE has obstructed that inquiry. The priest grew suspicious after a privacy waiver – signed by Jorge and required by the congressional office in order to begin investigating his case – never arrived in Washington, D.C.
“I suspect that it was never allowed to be sent,” McAndrew wrote in an email to the congressman’s staff. What happened to the correspondence Jorge sent from LaSalle is unclear, and McAndrew said it should be investigated.
But McAndrew knows the risk for Jorge. “What [ICE] will do is they will ship him out. If word comes down that someone is challenging what they’re doing, he will be in Mexico before he even has a chance to be seen,” he said.
On May 1, U.S. officials decided Jorge should be deported. For now, though, he remains in detention at LaSalle. The reason is unclear.
McAndrew has several immigration and civil rights lawyers around the South discussing Jorge’s case in a last-ditch effort to place a hold on the deportation. But success is unlikely. Arrayed against Jorge, Rita and their children is the force of the federal government, embodied by agents impervious to appeals for decency and seemingly determined to drive the family into poverty – or, at least, out of the country.
Photo Credit: Miki McCurdy
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