Suit says feds using immigration marriage interviews as trap

Alyse Sanchez and her husband, Elmer, pose in June in Sandy Spring. The Sanchezes and five other couples have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Maryland arguing U.S. immigration authorities are luring couples to marriage interviews only to detain the immigrant spouses.

BALTIMORE — Alyse and Elmer Sanchez were thrilled when they survived their “green card” interview, a crucial step in obtaining lawful status in the United States. She texted her family from the immigration office as relief washed over her: The officer had agreed that their marriage is legitimate.

Moments later, Elmer was in shackles, detained pending deportation to his native Honduras, leaving her alone with their two little boys.

“We feel it was a trap, a trick, to get us there,” Alyse said.

The Sanchezes have joined five other couples in a class action accusing federal agents of luring families to marriage interviews in Baltimore, only to detain the immigrant spouse for deportation.

Federal regulations allow U.S. citizens like Alyse to try to legalize the status of spouses like Elmer, who has been living in the country illegally. Thousands of families are doing it: Records show the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved 23,253 provisional unlawful presence waivers, the final documents spouses, children or parents of citizens need before leaving the country and applying to rejoin their families legally.

But the American Civil Liberties Union says a growing number of officers have “cruelly twisted” the rules by detaining immigrant spouses following marriage interviews. The ACLU is pursuing a similar complaint in Massachusetts and says dozens of detentions have also happened at field offices in New York, Virginia, Florida, Illinois and California.

The Maryland case is assigned to U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel, who already reversed the deportation of a Chinese man detained after a successful marriage interview in Baltimore. Ruling just before Wanrong Lin landed in Shanghai last November, Hazel said the government can’t use the process “as a honeypot to trap undocumented immigrants who seek to take advantage of its protections.”

Alyse told The Associated Press her family’s life “just seemed so perfect.”

She and Elmer, now 31 and 41, began dating in 2013, after he learned she was selling her car and showed up at her door. He bought it, and they married that year. They have two sons, 4 and 2, and live in Kensington, where he owns a home-remodeling company. She works at a veterinary clinic in nearby Sandy Spring.

“Everyone has their ups and downs in their relationships, but ours has been pretty smooth. ... He’s been there for every important event in my life. He’s been the most important event in my life,” she said.”

Court records show Elmer had been ordered in absentia to be deported in September 2005, after missing an immigration hearing he said he was never notified of. After consulting with lawyers, Alyse submitted paperwork to get her husband a green card in September 2018. Their notice for the May 7 appointment said the required interview was “solely to confirm the bona fides of the couple’s marriage,” according to the lawsuit.

Obama-era regulations provide for this, even for people with deportation orders. The monthslong process typically requires couples to demonstrate the legitimacy of their marriage as part of the first step. If the couples pass the interview and earn other approvals, immigrant spouses eventually must travel abroad for a visa interview at a U.S. consulate. Only if they receive a visa can they return to the U.S. legally.

It’s unclear how many people have successfully become permanent U.S. residents through the process. It facilitates a proper record for families with mixed citizenship, and it’s meant “to avoid the grievous consequences of forcing a spouse or parent to leave” the U.S. for years while trying to build a lawful immigration case from their home countries, the ACLU says.

Now, the plaintiffs say, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is unlawfully using the process as bait. ACLU of Maryland attorney Nick Steiner said it began in 2017 and seems to happen randomly nationwide.

“Previous practice would allow immigration lawyers to bring their clients to their interviews without fear of arrest because there was an understanding that they were trying to receive Green Cards, notwithstanding the removal orders, and there’s also longstanding guidance that USCIS should be following, that prohibits arrests at interviews,” he said in an email.

The Homeland Security agencies — through Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Shawn Neudauer and Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Jane Cowley — said they don’t comment on pending litigation. But depositions and emails released in the Massachusetts case suggest federal officials were coordinating to target immigrant spouses at their marriage interviews.

“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,” wrote Andrew Graham, a Boston-based ICE officer. “They are typically the easiest to remove, they have the shortest average length of stay, and at the end of the day we are in the removal business and it’s our job to locate and arrest them.”

The government in its response to the complaint filed in Maryland argued the case should be dismissed because the court lacks jurisdiction and the plaintiffs’ “claims are not likely to be successful.” It also argued Elmer was “personally served” with a notice for his deportation hearing and that it showed a date, time and place.

The Sanchezes were nervous but hopeful as they told their interviewer how they met and answered questions. At the officer’s request, Alyse spoke with her husband in Spanish, on camera. The interviewer confirmed their bona fides — Alyse would get the formal approval in the mail the next day — but said his supervisor “had to come and authenticate the case,” according to the lawsuit.

Alyse was told to leave the room. Minutes later, their lawyer told her that Elmer had been detained, leaving her sobbing in the hallway.

Six chaotic weeks followed. Elmer was shuffled around detention facilities while Alyse sought counseling and tried to console their 4-year-old, who constantly asked about his dad.

Their attempt to reopen Elmer’s case was denied June 3. He began to lose hope in a Louisiana detention center.

“The treatment is so bad that they know that you cannot last there for a long time,” he said. “The food is very bad, the light, the icy air. It’s like a psychological war that you are put in so that you sign your deportation.”

Elmer was released June 19 after the ACLU sought an emergency order to prevent imminent deportation.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(10) comments

sue1955

These are the immigration laws, pre-President Trump. I dated a man back in 2004, who had a son who married a woman from the Philippines. She was required to have a sponsor.

KellyAlzan

What happened that ur not with him anymore?

KellyAlzan

Lawsuits. Lawsuits. Lawsuits.

Now, do you see why settlements are often sealed??

BunnyLou

What do laws mean to the left? I’ll tell you, nothing. This is a feel good story about love, so immediately we must bend the rules so there are no consequences. That is why this country is in the shape it is. We are a nation of laws.

Samanthapowers

more hilarity from bunni loo hoo.

KellyAlzan

You really really should read up on the matter. To avoid embarrassing yourself.

Samanthapowers

she'd have nothing to do, k.

phydeaux994

BunnyLou & sue1955, how about ILLEGAL AMERICAN EMPLOYERS who hire illegal aliens? What do those laws mean to the RRR(RadicalRightRepublicans)? I’ll tell you, nothing. So immediately we must bend the rules so there are no consequences. That is why this country is in the shape it is. We are a nation of laws. Think ladies, THINK.

The reason the Country is in the shape it is, has been unfolding right in front of you for the past 4 years. Open your eyes.🙄🙄

Samanthapowers

more lowlife tactics from the goons at dhs. their slime boss at 1600 cut them loose and they more than happy to oblige. chumpy trumpkins may be upset he did not think of that.

DickD

What purpose is served by deporting a man, with a business, two children - born in the U.S., married to a U.S. citizen. There must be many others that should be deported 1st. .And can't he immediately apply for citizenship, if deported...Another question is who will now support the children. This is bad all around. Because it was started in 2017 it is likely to be part of Trump's campaign against immigrants.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Engage ideas. This forum is for the exchange of ideas, insights and experiences, not personal attacks. Ad hominen criticisms are not allowed. Focus on ideas instead.
TURN OFF CAPS LOCK.
Don't threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
No trolls. Off-topic comments and comments that bait others are not allowed.
No spamming. This is not the place to sell miracle cures.
Say it once. No repeat or repetitive posts, please.
Help us. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.