Deportations Before Reform: Anatomy of an Immigration Bust

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

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.


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Comments [19]

sg from nyc

just heard this story replayed for the pledge drive today, the daughter on air sounded pretty articulate, any chance of them attending boarding school in the US? most of the wealthier schools have substantial endowments and might be able to help

sad that many of your commentators have no clue as to how hard it is to get a green card, my sons' nanny travelled overland from el salvador to ny seeking a better life, she travelled with a 12 year old daughter and left her two sons behind because they were too young for the took 5 years and a lot of legal expenses to "legalize" her and bring her sons to ny.I don't know too many "Americans" who would make that sacrifice to improve their families' situation.

Oct. 23 2011 11:46 AM

surely there is another way

Nov. 01 2010 11:45 AM
D J IN NYC from nyc

100 percent of the deportees are convicted criminals. They ALL have violated imigration law!!! My antecedents came here legally, there is no reason why everyone else can't do the same.

Aug. 12 2010 10:21 AM
said from PA

VAYES, my response was to your first comment that those who were deported from Morocco were guilty and deserved deportation. My only point was how can you say they deserved it when there was no evidence presented that they committed any crime and they were not given due process. So for you to say they were guilty is not possible.

I agree with you that the US is built on immigrants and that we need continue to allow immigrants to enter our country. But to accept illegal immigration is not the solution. We need to expel illegal immigrants and reward immigrants who go through the legal process to come and work here.

Aug. 06 2010 06:18 PM

For "Said PA" if you think the Moroccan law should be same the USA law and procedures I think you misunderstood and confused the case subject of this article. it's country has it's own constitution, laws that should be respected. I won't compare the freedom in USA to the one in Morocco!!! Of course, however Morocco deported those people according to the moroccans procedures and standards not the American way. So if anything different than the American policies it's wrong unlawful!! Come on we have to look at those immigrants as an assets, yes. would u work as cleaning guy? Don't u think most of construction workforce don't have "papers"?
It's funny when someone make comparison between USA and other countries just to justify hatred and racism against immigrants. Come on people !!America was built by immigrants and immigrants still building it.
I am for secured borders and immigration reform. Why? More we ignore this, more immigrants will cross borders,fugitives and drug Cartels... those millions of immigrants here without "papers" r not competing us on jobs with health and other beneficits;they working jobs that most americains don't like to do and that's why they r an asset.
We r America and we r the dream country , we won't act like Some Europeans countries they deport immigrants within 24 hours and what due process u r talking about!!!! So it's inappropriate to compare the country of freedom to other countries when it comes to this sensitive issue"immigrants in USA"

Aug. 06 2010 08:44 AM
landless from Brooklyn

Fraud is fraud. If I loaned my health insurance card so an injured friend could get medical care, I would be in the hoosegow.Everyone has a story; and the way we avoid playing favorites and falling back on prejudices to defend decisions, is to follow the LAW for everyone. I don't know if we need immigration reform, but we do need immigration enforcement. Fifty percent of the young black men in NYC are unemployed. Where is the sympathy for them?

Aug. 05 2010 11:49 PM
landless from Brooklyn

Fraud is fraud. If I loaned my health insurance card so an injured friend could get medical care, I would be in the hoosegow.Everyone has a story; and the way we avoid playing favorites and falling back on prejudices to defend decisions, is to follow the LAW for everyone. I don't know if we need immigration reform, but we do need immigration enforcement. Fifty percent of the young black men in NYC are unemployed. Where is the sympathy for them?

Aug. 05 2010 11:48 PM
said from PA

"VAYES from USA" you are correct that legal residents can be deported IF THEY ARE CONVICTED OF BREAKING THE LAW. But the over 100 foreigners deported from Morocco never had their day in court but were expelled without any due process, unlike this Moroccan couple int he article. Most of them were given 48 hours to leave the country and given no opportunity to defend any accusations made against them.

So VAYES, unless you have some proof of the crimes these people committed and can give them their day court, don't even try to compare the USA and it's freedoms and due process to Morocco's.

Aug. 05 2010 10:04 PM

The bottom line is the what is legal and when you talk about fair I agree with the officer. What about all the people patiently waiting in line when these people jump ahead of them. They know the consequences of their actions and its the government's fault for being so lax and letting them escape for so long, but they broke the law, they're not above the law and now they have to pay.

Aug. 05 2010 08:13 PM
Bentley from Montclair

How can we help this family? This is a heartbreaking story.

Aug. 05 2010 07:27 PM
Dan from Newark

To ignore that some "felonies" are far more serious than others and to concentrate on what is "fair" completely misses the point that more and more Americans seem to be missing these days. The question here is and always should be, "what is humane in these situations?" Abe and Fatima's marriage fraud hurt nobody...and the fact that she, in particular, could be sent back to Morocco to her obscenely oppressive family is the real crime. I'm proud of an America that is a beacon for the oppressed of the world...and if people have to "break" immigration laws sometimes to make a real life for their family, who am I or any other NPR listeners to judge them?

Aug. 05 2010 06:07 PM
Lewis from ICE and CBP from NY, NY

I have seen people come from India after waiting 15 years to immigrate to the United States. What would you do if you were waiting online for an hour and some guy just jumped in front of you? You would probably punch him. There are laws, which will not allow people from cutting the line. We need to stop looking at these people as non-criminals and criminals and just realize they have broken our laws. The statistic is also wrong. CBP arrests people that are typically non-criminals and ICE has to house them mandatorilly by statute. ICE arrests that are detained are typically about 70-80%. FUGOPS only goes after those with criminal convictions. This couple commited fraud, so did Bernard Madoff. Should we just forgive him and let him out? It is a forgiveable offense and we are ripping apart his family. In addition, the point that immigration enforcement caused the housing industry to collapse is a crock. The housing industry collapsed due to cheap loans with no background checks. Get real! these

Aug. 05 2010 04:50 PM

So what do we just throw away all laws?
If I were to go buy guns and bring them to NYC and sell them on the street I would have broken innumerable laws. Such as fraudulently obtaining weapons and selling them without a license in a place where it was illegal to do so. However, since I didn't steal anything and didn't hurt anyone, so I should go free right? These people broke the law. I am a USC and if I commit a serious crime, I will do jail time. I will pay a fine. I will face the consequences. The first act that many of these people did in order to get into this country is to break the law. As our leaders always say, "this is a nation of laws".
On the forms they filled out to purpetrate their marriage fraud there is a disclaimer specifically stating the criminal acts and consequences of committing such fraud. Then they disobeyed a court order to leave, they should face felony contempt charges too! Had they left when they were ordered to leave they would have been eligible to come back years ago LEGALLY!

Aug. 05 2010 12:28 PM
David Nichols from Gilbert Az.

The decision to Deport Illegal Immigrants, even away from their "Legal" Citizen Children, and the Mass Exodus of Immigrants that began in Mid 2007, is responsible in full for triggering the "Banking Forclosure Crisis" in America, it has left States with massive excess dwellings, and Government Services both State and Federal, it has cost millions of American jobs, and when the massive excesses of Government are finally reduced to match the now smaller Hard Working "Human" Tax Base, we will have un-beleivable rates of un-employment!

In short the lack of Responsible Immigration Reform in 2007 has Crashed America, however far worse it has caused a resurgence of Racism and Hate as never before seen in America!

A very wise 1840's French Historian said: "Ameria is great because it is good, when it ceases to be good, it ceases to be great."

The HARD Labor these Immigrants gladly did was the Foundation/Backbone of our Total Economy!

Every Bail out, Stimulus, Cash for Clunkers, jobs bill, ect, have been since the Deportations began and have been by two Presidents, they have only been "Treating the Symtoms!

January 2008 = Start of the E-verify Law, and the I.C.E. Deportation/Incarceration Programs.

January 2008 = Start of "The Worst Recession in U.S. History!"

This is no co-incidence!

These Hard Labor jobs support All other American jobs!

We used to call this an Economy?

To: Good and Brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.

Aug. 05 2010 11:15 AM

I disagree with said PA comments. Here in USA legal resident can also be subject to deportation if they r convicted of breaking the law,felony. So Morocco acted to crime/felony committed by those people and their deportation was lawful. Returning to the real subject: illegal immigrants here in USA been used daily as cheap workforce and they r millions. Why r they still here? Cz they get paid cheaper with no beneficits, majority of them work hard and do work legal residents don't like to do it. Let's be honest, we didn't do enough to secure borders , we keep postponing immigration reform, we keep separating families. America is built by immigrants, America is country of freedom, tolerance,liberty... We need immigration reform and secured borders . But be sure immigration is big problem but at least we can reduce illegal immigration after reform and secured borders.

Aug. 05 2010 10:39 AM
Not Amused from NYC

Everyone wants to justify violating the law, but they're not willing to pay the penalty for that violation. Those individuals usually burden the government with the question of what will become of my U.S. citizen children, if I am deported? Well, that burden belongs to the individual alone and not the government. Those individuals made the conscious decision to bring children into the equation; knowing well their immigration status was in doubt. "They're using those children as a means to remain in this country."

Aug. 05 2010 10:23 AM

I found the follow up to be poorly worded - they reported that only 1/3 of one half of those deported were convicted of crimes. They further went on to say that 46% of those were class 2 crimes that included traffic violations as well as drug crimes. So the casual listener could be excused for coming away with the impression that 46% of those deported had some criminal history, when in fact it is 46% of 16% - or something slightly more than 7.3% (if my quick calculations are correct). The reporter went on to clarify the opacity of the crime conviction category - I wonder why they did not simply make the statement that only 7% of deportees had any crime (and that category seems to me to be deliberately broad to hide the probably quite low numbers of serious crimes undocumented taxpayers engage in)

Aug. 05 2010 08:56 AM
said from PA

I agree with this immigration official that there are many people trying to legally enter the country why should the US give any favors to those who have come here illegally. They need to be sent back and go through legal channels. The pain they face is of their own doing and not the US governments. I feel sorry for the children but it's the parent's fault not the US immigration's fault. Thank you Mr. Williams for doing your job!!!! Don't feel guilty.

I find it very ironic that here is a Moroccan couple living comfortably in the US for at least 12 years as illegal felons when Morocco over the past 4 months has deported from their country over 100 legally resident foreigners. This story is a good illustration of the contrast between living in free countries like the US and oppressive one's like Morocco. Let's not allow the freedoms of the US to dissolve away. It's still the greatest country in the world to enjoy freedom but at times I feel it is slipping away.

Aug. 05 2010 08:28 AM
Sharon from New York

Surely there is another way to deal with this.

Aug. 05 2010 06:49 AM

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