Deportations Before Reform: Anatomy of an Immigration Bust

The men and women who knock on illegal immigrants’ doors and take them away in handcuffs are members of what are called fugitive operations teams. They often meet up before dawn in some dim parking lot near the homes of the immigrants they're looking for.

The job of fugitive operations teams is to find and arrest "fugitive aliens," or people who've officially been told to leave the U.S., but have not. As lawmakers continue to debate immigration reform, President Barack Obama is pushing for a path to citizenship for people who are here illegally. But at the same time, the Department of Homeland Security is deporting more immigrants than ever –- around 400,000 a year. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says its priority is to deport those who’ve committed serious crimes. But more than half of the immigrants arrested do not have convictions. And among those who do, many of the crimes are minor. Critics say the government is breaking up families for crimes that should be forgivable and that people should be given a chance to make amends.

On a Tuesday morning earlier this year, Fugitive Operations supervisor Darren Williams met his colleagues from the New York office at a Queens diner. By 5:30 a.m., they were gathered around team leader Raul Concha to get briefed on the plan.

"All right, this morning we’re going to be going after three targets," Concha told the team. First on the list: a Moroccan couple living in East Elmhurst, Queens, Abe and Fatima (they asked that WNYC leave out their last names for fear that talking to the media would somehow count against them in immigration court). Concha told the group that Abe and Fatima were both convicted felons. Their crime: immigration fraud.

As Darren Williams leads half a dozen fugitive operations vehicles toward Abe and Fatima’s apartment building, he prepares to meet the individuals behind the case descriptions. "Everyone has a story," Williams says. "Everyone has their own individual story that’s unique to them. And I listen. I’m not going to say I believe every story. But I do listen to the stories.”

Abe and Fatima’s story has many layers, but we’ll start with their crime: marriage fraud. When Fatima moved to the U.S. to be with Abe, he was working legally and waiting for a green card, but the green card fell through. By that time Fatima was pregnant with their first child. The two had been married in a mosque, but there was no official record. So when an American friend offered to get Fatima a green card by becoming her legal husband, they went for it. And they got caught: Fatima, for the fake marriage, Abe for paying off the friend.

When it was time to begin court proceedings, the couple had a one-month old baby. The prosecutors offered what Abe thought was a pretty good deal. He says they told him, “the deal is plead guilty, no jail time.” So they did. What they didn’t know was that marriage fraud is a felony and under current immigration law, a conviction means an automatic order of deportation, regardless of the circumstances. “Every lawyer we go to, they say, 'you know it was a big mistake to plead guilty,'” Abe says.

After two years on probation, the two were officially told to leave the U.S. By that time they already had two American children, and they chose to stay. And that’s how, almost a decade later, Abe and Fatima ended up a target of a fugitive operations team.

Last spring, at six in the morning, the agents gather in front of their building. The landlord lets them in, they head upstairs, press the bell on the couple’s apartment and Fatima appears. She's wearing jeans, a white sweatshirt and a tangle of morning hair.

”So, six o’clock in the morning, I’m trying to do my breakfast, I open,” Fatima says. She says she’d been expecting this day for years. “I say good morning, come on in!”

She went immediately to wake Abe up. “I told her, so we’re leaving? She told me, yes, I think we’re leaving,“ Abe says.

That morning, the two were are calm. But, to Abe and Fatima, the idea of going back to Morocco is horrifying. This next layer of their story will give you an idea why. Fatima says she grew up in a lower class, traditional family in Morocco, under the rule of her father and six brothers. She couldn’t choose her own clothes, watch television or listen to music. When she tried to learn guitar, she says her father came in and broke it. “Because I have no right,” she says. “He told me, 'why? You gonna go play in the bars?'”

When she was in her 20s, Fatima moved to France, but she was under her brother’s strict command. She says she dreamed of coming to the U.S. "For me it’s freedom," Fatima says. She believed it's a place where a woman "can have all her rights, she can do whatever she wants.”

Abe was already living in the U.S. at the time. He was separated from his first wife –- a Haitian-American –- and he says he was longing to start a family with someone more like him. So when his cousin in France told him about Fatima, he courted her over the phone.

Fatima says the first time she talked to Abe, he told her he trusted the cousin who’d said good things about her. And Abe remembers telling her, “Listen, I’m not trying to have a girlfriend, or pass time with you. If you are willing to put your hand in my hand and walk together, I would love to get married with you and run a family together.”

Fatima’s recalls thinking, “Wow, that’s the perfect man for me! I’m going to go to America. I’m going to be free and I’m going to raise my kids different than I was raised in Morocco.”

On the pretense of visiting family friends, Fatima made two secret trips to see Abe. And on the second, they got married on the way home from the airport. When Abe told his family, they disapproved of his choice, so he cut off ties with them. And when Fatima called her brother, she says he was very upset. “He threatened me,” she says. She says he told her if he saw her again, he would kill her. Being from Morocco himself, Abe says he knows how it is. “For them it’s like a black spot on the family honor.”

Before immigration agents entered Abe and Fatima’s home, they didn’t know the couple had children. After 10 minutes of explaining to the couple what’s going on, team leader Raul Concha comes out to the stairs to explain to Williams that there are two girls in the apartment, ages 9 and 12.

“We’re going to leave the mother here,” Concha says. “And I’m going to bring the husband with us.” They take Abe downstairs –- away from his family –- before they handcuff him.

"We try to make it as smooth as possible for everyone concerned,” Williams whispers.

As her husband is led out the building’s front door, Fatima follows him to the bend in the stairs, finally losing hold of her calm and letting tears pour down her cheeks. As he leads Abe out into the morning, Concha assures her he’ll be fine.

“It’s a tough job,” Concha says later, “But we enjoy it. It’s our daily routine.”

In the car on the way back to immigration headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza, Williams says there are stories that move him. “I’m human,” he says. “There are situations that are heart-wrenching. Anytime you deal with kids it’s touching. Anytime.”

But when asked whether he thinks it’s unfair, as advocates charge, to deport people who’ve been here 10 or 20 years, paying taxes and raising American children, Williams argues that there are wait-lists across the world for would-be immigrants to come to the U.S. legally.

Fugitive Operations Officer Darren Williams (Photo by Marianne McCune)

"Is it fair to have individuals who are here illegally jump over those folks who’ve been waiting all this time?” Williams says “I don’t think so! What would you tell all those family members out there that are waiting?”

At 26 Federal Plaza, Abe is fingerprinted and photographed, but Williams has discretion over whether or not to detain him. And because Abe is the sole-breadwinner and does not seem likely to runaway Williams sends him home. However, he’ll have to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and report weekly to immigration officials. Fatima has only to report once a month.

Sitting on their couch some weeks later, the two say they’re making a last-ditch effort to re-open their cases, anything to delay being sent home to Morocco.

"I do this mistake. It’s a big mistake,” Fatima admits. “It’s a crime! So I’m paying for it.” But she says she cannot go back to Morocco.

Until now, the couple had never told their children they were here illegally. But the older daughter, Selma, says she figured it out when she heard them say deportation in Arabic. “Because sometimes, to be honest, I eavesdrop on what they’re saying on the phone in Arabic,” she says. When she heard the word "deportation," she says she ran to look it up in the dictionary. “I just kept it to myself until they told us.”

Selma says she hasn’t told a single friend. “I’m 12. I don’t know about this stuff yet,” she says. “I’m not old enough to go through this yet. So it’s a little weird.”

All their lives, Abe says, these girls have been asking about Morocco: "What is our family? Who we have in our family? What is Morocco, how is Morocco?"

Now Selma says, “I don’t think I have any family in Morocco. So we don’t know who we’re going to live with and we don’t know who’s going to take care of us.”

"Where is home? Back home where?” Abe asks repeatedly. “Those girls have a right to a life, a basic life, that they will not have at all back home.”

There are many more layers to this story, but under current immigration law, none are relevant. Abe and Fatima are fugitive aliens. They lost their right to stay in the U.S. when they were convicted of immigration fraud. And as lawmakers debate immigration reform, some are likely to push for more discretion for immigration judges, especially when American children are involved.

As things stand, Abe and Fatima are likely to be deported. And they’ll have to decide whether or not to take their American daughters with them.