New York couple set to be deported to different countries, tearing apart family before Thanksgiving

"The idea that my parents could be gone, like my dad not being here for Thanksgiving... it breaks me."

The Villacis family. CREDIT: Family photo
The Villacis family. CREDIT: Family photo

Last week, Liany Villacis, a 22-year-old New York resident, accompanied her parents as they both went in for an annual check-in with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Her father Juan Villacis didn’t come back home with her. Federal immigration agents detained him during the visit, later transferring him to the Bergen County Jail, a detention center in New Jersey for deportation proceedings.

ICE agents told Liany that her father may be deported to Ecuador, his home country, within two weeks. Meanwhile, the agency gave her mother Liany Guerrero Lopez, who has the same first name, until January 15, 2018 to voluntarily leave the country or risk deportation. If deported, she would be sent to her home country of Colombia.

Since 2012, the federal government has granted Villacis a one-year stay of removal as part of his routine check-in for his asylum application, allowing him more time to stay in the country, work, pay taxes, and wait for a decision.

The shock of potentially losing both parents to deportation months apart to two separate countries has weighed heavily on Liany and her sister Maria. Liany has slept in her parents’ room because she hasn’t been able to get over her father’s sudden detention. She also has been unable to look at her father’s drum set and saxophone sitting in the corner of a room without tearing up.

“We normally just break down whenever we get home because he always used to be there.”

“We normally just break down whenever we get home because he always used to be there,” Liany told ThinkProgress in a phone interview on Tuesday. “As soon as you walk in the house, there would be the drums and saxophone that he would play on every Saturday and Sunday night. And at the same time, you have to think of Mom. All we know is that Mom has to present herself on November 28 and by January she has to be gone.”

With her husband in detention, the elder Liany has to abide by an “intensive check-in” schedule and be at the house every week when a federal agent shows up at the house unannounced.

Juan’s detention stems from a lengthy immigration process, during which time the family has unsuccessfully tried to legalize their status. After the Villacis family arrived in the United States on a tourist visa in 2001, the elder Liany filed an application for asylum based on a fear of returning to Colombia where her political activism and her family’s history of holding political office allegedly put them in harm’s way. An immigration judge found her claims “credible” and “consistent,” but denied the asylum application because of “ineffective assistance of prior counsel,” according to a case summary prepared by the family’s lawyer Jillian Hopman.

Villacis’ mother, a U.S. citizen, submitted a petition for alien relative to help them legalize their statuses in 2010, but that application is still in process. The family again filed for asylum as circumstances changed and their fear of returning to their home countries increased exponentially. In one case, the elder Liany’s brother was removed from office in Colombia due to scandal and corruption. Most recently, Liany came out as a lesbian and married her long-time U.S. citizen partner, an event that rocked her Roman Catholic family and brought about a wave of threats and backlash from Colombians.

Now that Liany’s father is in detention, she is partially in charge of adult responsibilities that she hadn’t had to consider before. Liany just got a new job that requires her to travel often and be at work from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. at night. Maria is set to graduate soon, a “dream” that her father had wished to see. Liany’s mother — who is more concerned about her husband’s deportation orders than her own — has complex cysts found in her breast that requires surgery and treatment. And her grandmother and aunt are both suffering from ailing illnesses and entirely dependent on the family to take care of them.

“My father has been an absolutely amazing son — he makes sure [his mother’s] laundry is done, he bathes her every morning. These are responsibilities that fall into his hands,” Liany said. “The idea that my parents could be gone, like my dad not being here for Thanksgiving and my mom probably not being here next year, it breaks me.”

“This is something nobody should have to experience– hugging your father the day beforehand and knowing you won’t be able to see him for a long, long time,” Liany explained. “[My mom] spends every moment of her life with my father. I’m beyond grateful for being so fortunate to have the family that I have. I wake up every morning and I wish I could see them. I’m sleeping in my mom’s bedroom to console her every night.”

Juan Villacis (left) and his wife Liany Guerrero Lopez (right). CREDIT: Family photo
Juan Villacis (left) and his wife Liany Guerrero Lopez (right). CREDIT: Family photo

Liany was struck by her father’s selflessness as she spoke with him recently at the detention center. Villacis, a physical therapist by trade, never got a chance to tell his clients that he would be detained.

“What struck us so much was that one of the first calls we had, he was worried about his 16 patients he had to see the next day,” Liany said. “After everything, after assuring that me, my sister, and my mom are okay, that’s where he was at.”

Both parents are effectively in deportation proceedings, but the family has an additional concern down the line that they haven’t let themselves think about. Liany’s status may be safe, but her sister is still a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants temporary work authorization and deportation relief. The Trump administration began phasing out the program in September, so it’s unclear what could happen to Maria down the line.

While the family keeps reliving Villacis’ detention, they also come back to one strange fact. The ICE agency had told him to come in for an appointment one day after his stay of removal had expired on November 14.

“I experienced all of my dread in slow motion.”

“When we checked in on Wednesday the 15th, even before we walked into 26 Federal Plaza [the location of the New York City ICE office], I asked them, ‘are you sure you want to go here?'” Jillian Hopman, an immigration lawyer for the family and based in New York City, recounted to ThinkProgress on Tuesday. “I experienced all of my dread in slow motion. They called Juan, the first time they’ve ever called the family separately.”

“The only thing they cared about is that his passport expires on December 17, 2017,” Hopman continued. “When you get a stay of removal, in exchange of them letting you stay here, you have to give them your passport. The one way anyone can actually remove you is with a valid passport or travel document. Their choice was to wait and let him get a new passport and let him stay or to deport him now.”

“When I asked why they denied these stays…all they kept saying was, ‘well we’re denying this because he has an order of removal,'” Hopman said, explaining how she went through Trump’s executive actions on immigration to outline why Villacis shouldn’t be subject to deportation based on those policies. “I said, ‘I understand that, but I want to know the reason why it doesn’t meet the criteria for humanitarian considerations on temporary relief. Juan fully supports his disabled mother and she’ll never get to say goodbye to her son unless some miracle is pulled off.'”

Hopman said the ICE officer she spoke with was nice, but she added that “things have changed” with Trump’s immigration policies.

Since Trump took office, a number of minor violations have made immigrants subject to deportation. Advocates have observed a sharp uptick in the number of immigrants detained at their routine check-ins, leading to the detention of so-called “low-hanging fruit,” or low-priority immigrants who wouldn’t otherwise be considered dangerous to national security or public safety.

The Villacis family. (CREDIT: Family photo)
The Villacis family. (CREDIT: Family photo)

Hopman — who has practiced immigration law since the Obama administration when the ICE agency’s top priority was to detain immigrants who commit serious offenses — now sees the calculated risk that agents take to decide to detain someone. She suspects that Trump’s desire to see big deportation numbers plays a big factor into the decision by agents.

“They keep targeting families, but then families hire lawyers and we’re looking at three to five years of court proceedings,” Hopman continued. “So rather than targeting the drug dealers and aggravated felons that the Obama administration targeted… [the agents] are just going after everybody and taking years.”

“I never had a client actually physically removed and they are the last immigrants in the United States who deserve this,” Hopman said. “They’re the type that would bring my little brother a Christmas present every year and drop off snacks. They’re just good, nice people so it’s just heartbreakingly sad. The worst part is they’re being removed to two different countries.”

Hopman’s point about “good, nice people” who get deported likely resonates with many immigrant families who fear they could be next. As of 2014, roughly 66 percent of undocumented immigrants are considered long-term residents, having lived in the United States for a decade. It’s become increasingly common for the Trump administration to detain immigrants during routine check-ins, but also for them to detain mothers and fathers in the interior of the United States.

The Villacis family has been in contact with Democratic lawmakers in New York and New Jersey, including Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-NY). 

“Somebody in authority has the ability to make a phone call to stop this,” Hopman said. “It’s so unnecessarily cruel and they’re extremely frustrated by it.”