There is no norm in deportation proceedings for immigrants without a criminal record. Before President Donald Trump, Barack Obama’s US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency mainly focused on detaining and deporting offenders of violent crimes.
That has changed.
A mandate from Trump’s Washington has brought a significant rise in detentions of noncriminal offenders in Massachusetts in six short months.
Many arrests are happening at ICE check-ins, which are short meetings that immigrants in removal or asylum proceedings must go to in order to remain in good standing.
The case of Francisco Rodriguez, a 43-year-old MIT janitor, is particularly unusual. Rodriguez was detained during an immigration check-in on July 13.
At a mid-June check-in, Rodriguez was denied an extension of his stay of removal, presenting a possibility that he would be deported. ICE had previously granted him four stays since 2009. According to Rodriguez’s attorney, Matt Cameron, it is an issue of deception. Rodriguez was initially told that his next ICE meeting date, after June, would be in December. That was changed suddenly though a phone call, where he was told that he must show proof of a planned departure, without a specific date specified.
Cameron said, “The premise was that if he showed up at a check-in with it [a ticket to El Salvador], he would not be detained.”
They arrived at the check-in on July 13 with a ticket to El Salvador and a group of two dozen community supporters. Cameron went on, “We wanted to be sure we were complying. My question to ICE is, how can you ever expect anyone to voluntarily check in again if the conditions aren’t going to be honored?”
Khaalid Walls, the Northeast regional communications director for ICE, told DigBoston that Rodriguez reported to his check-in in June and that “after reviewing his case and in a further exercise of discretion, ICE chose not to place him in custody, allowing him to make timely departure arrangements.”
Rodriguez and his attorney bought a ticket to El Salvador for Sept 18 and showed up to his check-in on July 13 with the information, believing he would be granted another stay in light of his child being due for delivery on Aug 3.
Despite having the ticket, ICE holds that Rodriguez did not comply with their orders—even though he was not given a date to exit the country. Walls told DigBoston in a statement, “after he failed to do so [comply by making ‘timely departure arrangements’], he was placed into ICE custody, where he’ll remain pending the outcome of his immigration case.”
According to paperwork shown to DigBoston, ICE planned to arrest Rodriguez and then have him moved to Louisiana before being deported to El Salvador on July 20. Attorneys filed to have him released.
With the news of Rodriguez’s detention, Goodwin Procter, the law firm MIT arranged to help the cause, filed a lawsuit on Francisco’s behalf against the US government seeking an emergency order to stop the deportation.
But on July 20, Mass District Court Judge Richard Stearns denied the motion for a temporary restraining order against ICE, allowing the government to continue to keep Rodriguez in custody.
“Judge Stearns reiterated in his written decision that he believes Francisco is a candidate to be released on bond, and we continue to pursue all avenues to win his release while the case moves forward,” said Cameron.
Rodriguez’s case will be heard before the Board of Immigration Appeals at an unknown date. In the meantime, he continues to be detained at the Suffolk County House of Correction while his attorney and supporters have organized a political pressure campaign to have him released. The MIT administration and students alike have voiced strong opposition to his deportation, as have Rodriguez’s fellow union members at SEIU Local 32BJ, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and Congressman Mike Capuano.
Last week, MIT Director of Campus Services and Chief of Police John DiFava spoke in support of Rodriguez at a campus rally organized by the SEIU, as did MIT Undergraduate Association representative Ashti Shah ’20 and one of Francisco’s coworkers. Chief DiFava also requested a personal meeting with ICE.
Rodriguez is originally from El Salvador, where he worked in engineering and operated a car wash. He fled the country in 2006 when a colleague was murdered, allegedly fearing for his own life.
In a letter published in the Boston Globe, Rodriguez said he has never been arrested for a crime and that his wife is pregnant.
“Now I do not know where I will be when our baby is born,” he wrote. “She and the baby are now in more danger because of the stress that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has made for us.”
According to an attorney, Rodriguez’s wife was hospitalized days before he was detained with bleeding during her pregnancy.
At a recent rally, Rodriguez’s 10-year-old daughter Mellanie Rodriguez asked for the Massachusetts government to step in on behalf of her father: “I want to tell Mr. Governor Baker to stop my father’s deportation to El Salvador because there are criminals who do dangerous things there … If he goes, I’m going with him.”
Mellanie and a group of supporters also delivered a petition with over 8,000 signatures to Gov. Baker’s office, where she handed it over to Constituent Services Director John Tapley, who promised to relay her message. She told DigBoston that she “feels hope that Mr. Baker is going to listen to us.”
Mellanie’s grandmother Jesus Guardado stood by silently throughout the rally, but spoke with Dig briefly. “His family needs him,” she said. “He’s a good son, and a good father.” Through tears, she explained that she had spoken to Rodriguez on the phone and that he was concerned about his wife’s condition. “It is a high-risk pregnancy,” Guardado added. “He’s worried he’s going to lose her [Rodriguez’s wife].”
Up to this point, Gov. Baker has avoided being involved in specific deportation cases, but his office did reply to reporters after Mellanie’s petition was dropped off on Thursday.
William Pitman, a spokesman for the Baker administration, released a statement saying, “I’ve said many times that I think the important mission for ICE is to focus on convicted and charged criminals—violent criminals here in the United States, and that’s what our State Police policy is all about. And I’ve heard DHS say on a number of occasions that that’s their focus as well and based on what I’ve read, I don’t think this gentleman meets this criteria.”
Baker has so far avoided blanket statements about ICE and DHS, instead choosing discretion on a case-by-case basis. In February, he penned a letter to DHS Secretary John Kelly about the economic ramifications to Massachusetts from Trump’s Immigration and Refugee Executive Order.
Meanwhile, Francisco Rodriguez remains imprisoned and his supporters frustrated. Cameron told DigBoston that he believes that the influx of arrests of noncriminals poses a threat to public safety and takes ICE agents away from more critical needs.
“For every Francisco you go after, you’re ignoring a gang member or a rapist,” he told DigBoston. ICE has not increased its regional officer numbers, but the Trump 2018 budget proposal includes a proposal to hire 10,000 more ICE officers, which would include new staff in New England.
Laura Rótolo, staff counsel at ACLU of Massachusetts, spoke to DigBoston about the changes that have come to the state.
“We are hearing anecdotally from immigration attorneys that people who were previously not deportation priorities are increasingly being arrested by ICE when they go in for their regular check-ins,” Rótolo said in an interview. She further explained that before the Trump administration, community support and media attention often pressured immigration judges to use their discretion in noncriminal cases and release the immigrant. But that has changed.
“It worked in many cases,” Rótolo said. “But it seems not to be working now.”
Rodriguez will have to wait for a response from the Board of Immigration Appeals and the federal court, which may respond within the week, according to Cameron.
Sarah is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal.