NEW YORK, NEW YORK — Katherine Hadjimichael’s voice broke as she stood beside her daughter Frances Joseph at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field office in Lower Manhattan last month.
“This is my daughter,” she pleaded with the clerk on the other side of a glass pane, tears rattling her composure. “She has two kids who are now without their father.”
In July 2017, Joseph, then pregnant with her second child, was headed with her husband Llukan Buta and their firstborn daughter to a regularly scheduled check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Like many of the appointments he had attended with ICE since he was placed on supervised release in 2012, Buta expected nothing more than a routine hello and goodbye. When they arrived at the field office, ICE employees ushered Buta upstairs, preventing Joseph from accompanying her husband as she had done on prior check-ins.
“We got there and out of nowhere they separate the spouse,” Joseph told ThinkProgress. “They never did that before. They always took us into the room together.”
Agents only relented when Buta insisted on bringing his nearly two-year-old daughter Valentina alongside him. Joseph was told to bide her time in a waiting area on a different floor.
“Valentina was with Llukan because she wanted to be with her father,” she recalled. “They said to him, ‘What did you bring your daughter for? Do you think we’re going to feel sorry for you?’”
The next time Joseph saw her husband he was behind bars in ICE detention, awaiting deportation to Albania, a country his family fled when he was a child — and one he hadn’t seen for more than half his life.
In 1998, 11-year-old Buta was brought to the United States by his parents, Albanian migrants seeking refuge from civil war that was unraveling the Baltics. The Buta family applied for asylum soon after arriving only to have their claim denied by an immigration judge in 2000. It was then that an order of deportation was issued for Buta and his family, though they were allowed to remain in the country as they appealed their case.
During this time, Buta dropped out of high school and worked various jobs to help his mother pay the bills. When his parents divorced and his father left the family, Buta’s mother became the sole caretaker for Buta and his sister.
“What did you bring your daughter for? Do you think we’re going to feel sorry for you?”
“My mom was working two jobs to support the both of us,” he told ThinkProgress via phone from Albania. “My mom stayed to raise us [so we could have] a better life.”
In 2002, the Board of Immigration Appeals declined to overturn the asylum judge’s ruling, leaving the family with few, if any, options to delay the order of deportation as they contemplated what to do next. After a series of unsuccessful attempts to have his case reopened, then-18-year-old Buta faced the real prospect of having to return to a country he only knew from childhood.
A family torn apart
It was in 2014 that Joseph and Buta first met. As she tells it, they first caught each other’s eye when Buta’s friend approached her and her friends at Astoria Park, inviting them to hang out one day at the beach. Buta never showed, but he arranged for everyone to meet again soon. At a breakfast gathering shortly afterward, Joseph and Buta began their courtship.
“I knew he had an order of supervision. I didn’t know that he also had [an order of] deportation on his back,” Joseph said. “I was pissed. I was upset. I kind of resent him for a lot of things he didn’t inform me on.”
The deportation has exacted a heavy toll on Buta. He despairs at having missed the birth of Isabella, his second daughter, and for not being able to provide for his family. “I was crying [and had] depression,” Buta confessed. “You think about committing suicide.”
The consequences, both financial and emotional, of Buta being absent are dire for Joseph, who is also battling multiple sclerosis. While she recently started a new treatment that keeps most of her symptoms in check, the stress not only exacerbates the exhaustion and weakness that accompany the disease, but it also imperils her ability to raise two young kids on her own.
“Just fatigue, everyday fatigue,” Joseph said. “I haven’t had any inflammations. I think that’s also because [this new] treatment keeps [the MS] asleep. As far as tiredness, fatigue? Every day. I could sleep at any moment. I could just knock out.”
Joseph has had to turn to public assistance for help paying the bills. The irony of the situation is not lost on her, as she administered public benefits for New York City before going on medical leave to care for her newborn children. The couple’s legal consultant, Zachary Slapsys, finds the deportation especially hypocritical considering the Trump administration’s dubious crackdown on the use of government assistance by immigrants.
“They were nowhere near public assistance when [Buta] was here,” Slapsys told ThinkProgress. “He was working at a family-owned business lawfully, paying taxes. Because of his financial and practical support to the family, she was able to work with her medical condition. She could balance that because they were a family and they functioned together. If you leave him in Albania, then you’re adding another [U.S. citizen to public assistance].”
Buta spent the majority of his life putting down roots in the Queens community from which he was torn. In 2012, after years of uncertainty, supervised release with ICE granted him some measure of lawful presence. During this time, he obtained a GED at LaGuardia Community College and worked diligently at his mother’s Greek bakery.
When he first caught Joseph’s eye at Astoria Park in 2014, Buta charmed his way into a fast courtship that quickly snowballed into a full-fledged romance. After many months of dating, pregnancy catalyzed their decision to make formal what was already true for them. Soon after Valentina’s birth, the pair went to city hall and got married.
Buta continued to build out a life for himself and his family under supervised release, which enabled him to get a work permit, pay taxes, and continue employment at the bakery. The couple moved into the basement apartment of a townhouse owned by Joseph’s mother, who lived upstairs and received rent from Buta that went toward the monthly mortgage payments.
In 2017, Buta felt it was time to obtain a more permanent immigration status. He was an ideal candidate for a marriage-based green card, which provides lawful permanent residency to spouses of U.S. citizens. These applications are largely routine – hundreds of thousands of spouses are admitted under this program every year – as long as the applicant has a genuine familial connection to the United States, which Buta undoubtedly does.
Before applying for a green card, he had to file what’s known as an I-130, essentially a document certifying that his marriage is authentic. USCIS, the immigration and citizenship agency, reviews and signs off on these documents so they can be used as a basis for a subsequent green card application. For spouses with children and a marriage predating the application by years, the process should be little more than a formality, according to Slapsys.
Buta filed the I-130 and accompanying paperwork on July 11, 2017. On July 25, exactly two weeks after taking his first steps toward permanent residency, Buta was taken from his wife and daughter during the routine ICE check-in and deported to Albania.
“Immigration normally, before this administration, would at least keep a deportation on hold until [the I-130] was resolved,” Slapsys said. “Knowing that he had that pending, they deported him anyway. It’s almost like there’s no respect for their own process.”
Everyone’s a priority
ICE deports tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants every year, and a deportation in a case like Buta’s, especially under the Trump administration, is always possible. In fiscal year 2017, ICE executed orders of removal on 81,603 undocumented immigrants. The overwhelming majority — 83 percent — of those deported had prior criminal convictions, according to ICE data. Individuals who have committed crimes have historically been the primary focus for ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, though immigration lawyers have begun to see a shift in the way non-criminals are prioritized for deportation.
“The policies of this administration are very clear and straightforward. They are not hiding what they’re doing. They’re saying, ‘We want to deport everyone,’” Slapsys argued. “People with no crimes, with U.S.-citizen family, with ties to this country, basically people we want here, they weren’t priorities. Now they are because everyone’s a priority.”
During the Obama administration, then-assistant secretary of ICE John Morton issued a memorandum overhauling the way ICE treated undocumented immigrants in the midst of obtaining legal status. The 2010 memo directed the agency to drop removal proceedings against immigrants otherwise prone to deportation if they had applications pending before USCIS that would provide them lawful status. This policy change followed a 2009 report which found 17,000 deportation proceedings where the immigrant had a pending I-130 petition.
Sui Chung, vice chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s National ICE Committee, noted that while relief from removal in these circumstances was no guarantee under the Obama administration, “at least there was nuance.”
“If there was a pathway or a means [toward legal status,] then they would permit that opportunity to work it out,” she said. “So long as people didn’t have serious crimes, they were allowing people to work it out.”
ICE did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.
“I was crying [and had] depression … You think about committing suicide.”
The problem of Buta’s I-130 application has spiraled out of control since his removal. The average processing time for I-130 forms was a little over seven months in 2017, when Buta’s application was filed. For the specific processing center where Buta’s I-130 was sent for adjudication, the majority of cases are resolved within eight months. As of January 2019, Buta and his family have been waiting 18 months for USCIS to approve their application. (USCIS did not respond to a request for comment.)
The harm done at this point may prove difficult, if not impossible, to undo. When ICE decided to deport Buta while he was in the midst of obtaining permanent legal status, the removal automatically added a 10-year bar on his readmission into the United States. To be eligible to reunite with his family, Buta must first apply to waive the 10-year penalty on the grounds that his absence has caused his family undue hardship.
The most Slapsys and Joseph can do in the meantime is request meeting after meeting with immigration agents in New York, appealing to their humanity in order to hurry along approval of the I-130. Scrawled at the bottom of a piece of paper handed to agents during one such meeting is the following plea:
“Please expedite interview. Beneficiary/husband has been deported to Albania and I-130 adjudication is necessary to file the hardship waiver. U.S. [citizen] wife has two small children and suffers from MS. Thank you.”
Asher Stockler is a freelance reporter and researcher currently residing in New York.