Oscar Hernández and his wife María Eugenia Hernández waited three years for their marriage interview last week with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). But by mid-interview, the Hernándezes were separated and Oscar was on his way to an immigration detention facility, according to the Miami Herald.
USCIS conducts marriage interviews to ensure that marriages are legitimate and that immigrants like Oscar are eligible to have their immigration status legalized.
The Hernándezes brought with them to the interview a small album of wedding and family photos, their marriage certificate, and a statement from their joint bank account. Oscar is the primary wage-earner in the household.
The couple has been together for four years and married for three. Neither anticipated what ultimately happened to them.
“I went to the immigration appointment with a lot of confidence because it was an interview. I never imagined they would take my husband away under arrest,” Maria told the Miami Herald. “We are trying to do the right thing.”
During the interview with USCIS, Maria was asked to step of the office. Twenty minutes later, she was told that Oscar had an order of deportation from years ago and as a result, was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Oscar, a 42-year-old born in Nicaragua, had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without papers in 2004. At the time, he was arrested, processed, and released by border patrol and was sent a letter ordering him to appear before an immigration judge. Maria claims he never received the letter because he had moved to Florida. When Oscar missed his court date and an order of deportation was issued.
Months before their interview with USCIS, the couple applied for a waiver as part of the process to legalize Oscar’s immigration status through marriage. Coincidentally, three weeks ago the Hernándezes received the notification for the interview at which Oscar was arrested.
As ThinkProgress has previously reported, USCIS and ICE agents have been working in concert to coordinate the interviews and arrests of immigrants applying for citizenship through marriage.
According to emails obtained by the Boston Globe between employees at the two agencies, ICE asked USCIS officials to space out the meetings so that the public wouldn’t catch on and draw “negative media interests.”
“As far as scheduling goes, I would prefer not to do them all at one time as it is [not] only a strain on our ability to transport and process several arrests at once, but it also has the potential to be a trigger for negative media interests, as we have seen in the past,” Andrew Graham, an ICE officer, wrote to a USCIS employee in an email in October.
“In my opinion, it makes sense for us to arrest aliens with final removal orders as they represent the end of the line in the removal process,” Graham said in a separate email from January. “They are typically the easiest to remove…and at the end of the day we are in the removal business and it’s our job to locate and arrest them.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen over the arrests, describing the coordinated meetings as “traps.”
The plaintiff in the case is Lilian Calderon, a 30-year-old Guatemalan-born mother of two who was brought to the United States when she was just two years old. Calderon and her husband visited the USCIS office in Rhode Island in January, when she was arrested by ICE and transported to a detention facility in Boston after completing a “successful interview.”
Thankfully, Calderon was finally released by ICE in February, after Federal Judge Mark Wolf barred ICE officials from deporting her while the lawsuit was pending.
But Calderon’s story is too familiar to many immigrants living in the U.S.
An NBC News report found that arrests of non-criminal undocumented immigrants have tripled under the Trump administration. In the first 14 months of Trump’s presidency, 58,010 undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions were arrested, many of them without warrants.
In one example previously highlighted by ThinkProgress, an undocumented mother who had been awarded a temporary work visa was detained by ICE during a routine check-in. According to her daughter, she was deported to Colombia, after having lived in the United States for 13 years.