The Case of the 'Perfect' Undocumented Immigrant


Christopher San Martin, the tiny boy pedaling the miniature red car, turned six years old in November. It probably didn’t make sense to him that his father didn’t attend his birthday party.

It’s hard to know, because Christopher still communicates mostly by pointing or by using single words. When confronted with changes in his routine, he often throws tantrums. The physicians and therapists who work with him think he’s likely autistic.

So on a recent evening in suburban New Orleans, Christopher couldn’t express his anxieties. Instead, he intently pedaled his car back and forth behind his family’s apartment building.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Then he put his feet together and hopped with two feet, like a bunny. Back and forth.

His aunt and his grandmother stood in the apartment doorway and watched, their brows knitted with concern. For three months now, they have explained his father’s absence by telling Christopher that his father is at work. How could they possibly tell him that his father is being detained in an immigration facility?

It’s clear that their attempts to cover up the truth don’t make sense to Christopher. He stopped his red car near the apartment complex’s iron gate and pointed to his father’s car parked in the driveway. “Papi!” he said. “Papi!”

When his aunt pulled out a stack of snapshots of him with his father, Christopher came sprinting. “Papi! Papi!” he yelled, pointing at his father’s face in every photo.

He rushed to his red car, driving it as fast as he could, slamming into the brick wall at the end of the sidewalk. Bam. Though the little red car bounced back, Christopher crumpled, as if the wall had fallen on top of him.

Papi has been gone for two months now.

These sudden absences are now commonplace, said Heather Prendergast, who chairs the Immigration Customs Enforcement Liaison Committee for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “What you’re seeing across the U.S. is people with really compelling stories, with longtime ties here, who are being told to go home.”

The case of Christopher’s father, Erlin San Martin, is about as compelling as it gets. Immigration lawyers here shake their head sadly when they hear the details. He has no criminal record. He has been a crime victim. And he has a sick, American-citizen child who relies heavily on him. None of that matters in the current political climate.

And the news just keeps getting worse and worse. On January 5, San Martin thought his time in the United States had finally run out. Earlier that week, ICE sent 32-year-old San Martin and dozens of fellow Hondurans to a staging facility by the airport in Alexandria, Louisiana.

But as they lined up to board, officials found that San Martin’s travel documents had expired, said his lawyer, Miriam Crespo. Every other Honduran got onto the aircraft. He stayed behind.

It was frighteningly close. “He was minutes away from getting on the flight,” said Crespo, who got a call soon afterward from her client. “The plane had left, but I could hear the despair in his voice.”

At this point, she said, many people simply concede to deportation. But not San Martin. His mind is focused on Christopher. “His son,” Crespo said. “He doesn’t know what will happen with his son.”

After Christopher’s parents split up, his mother kept him part of the time. Most often, his father would pick up Christopher at school with a big hug and a kiss.

Christopher’s mother, Karen Mejia, said her son especially flourished during time spent with his father. “Sometimes I feel even a bit jealous about it, because usually the mother is the one who feels indispensable,” she said.

His father was careful to maintain their routines. They often went together to the neighborhood park, then to the McDonald’s nearby. The two were a familiar sight, sitting together in a booth, with San Martin cutting a burger into bites and feeding it to Christopher, who still has trouble feeding himself.

Christopher came along if San Martin went to a meeting of the Congreso, or the Congress of Day Laborers—a New Orleans group founded by immigrant day laborers that serves as both a social club and a social-justice advocacy machine for its members. If San Martin had to work late, he warned Christopher in advance.

Still, in October, San Martin had no reason to alarm Christopher. He’d been going to the ICE office in downtown New Orleans for four years. His work authorization paperwork was valid until 2018. Usually, he just checked in with his immigration officer and left. But on October 10, San Martin’s immigration officer told him the rules were changing for immigrants who didn’t have valid documents in hand.

What about his pending legal petitions? San Martin asked. In April, he had been a victim of a brutal armed robbery in New Orleans and the New Orleans Police Department was in the process of certifying his application for a U-visa for crime victims because of his cooperation.

If the petition hadn’t been granted by then, it no longer mattered, the officer told him.

In New Orleans, San Martin was taken immediately into custody and put on a bus that took him on a three-hour ride ending at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Pine Prairie, LA, a private prison that was recently converted to a detention center that holds about 1,000 prisoners.

The Pine Prairie facility is strategically located an hour away from the Alexandria airport, which is known for its one-way flights to Central America. The tarmac, located in the sleepy, central-Louisiana town, is one of ICE Air Operation’s key flight hubs, along with Miami, San Antonio, and Mesa, AZ.

Upon his arrival in Pine Prairie, San Martin felt desperate. He knew that a flight to Honduras left Alexandria every week, usually on Friday. He was now on a direct path to deportation.

Though the Obama administration deported significant numbers of undocumented immigrants, its focus had narrowed over time, especially after the Department of Homeland Security revised its immigration policies a few years ago.

The new guidance, published in 2014, made clear that, instead of casting a wide net, ICE officers were meant to target terrorists, people who had committed serious crimes while in the United States, and recent border-crossers or violators: people who had entered or re-entered the United States without permission after January 2014 or had been ordered to leave on or after January 2014.

“Who actually thinks that a hardworking man with an autistic son is a ‘bad hombre’ who needs to leave the U.S.?”

Behind the priorities was a basic principle: The United States can’t afford to deport everyone who is undocumented.

To Prendergast, the 2014 priorities created a logical process that targeted people who posed the highest risk to public safety, mostly those with criminal convictions. “You understood how things worked,” she said. “So I could have explained to a client, ‘You have a conviction for domestic violence from 20 years ago. It’s an old conviction, but it makes you a Level 2 priority.’”

None of the 2014 priorities applied to San Martin who, though undocumented, had lived in the United States since 2006. So, a few years ago, if San Martin had been picked up, Crespo could have simply called ICE and explained that they had picked up someone who had no criminal record, who wasn’t a priority.

In San Martin’s case, she would have explained that, since he had been held up at gunpoint and was cooperating with the New Orleans Police Department in their investigation, he had filed an I-918 petition for a so-called U-visa, which is awarded to certain victims of serious crimes.

Those explanations didn’t work anymore, Crespo said.

The general public had shown support for deporting immigrants who commit crimes while in this country, Prendergast said, the people President Donald Trump referred to as “bad hombres.”

But over the past several months, ICE enforcement has broadened from its narrow focus to an almost willy-nilly approach to deportation, she said: “Who actually thinks that a hardworking man with an autistic son is a ‘bad hombre’ who needs to leave the U.S.?”

It’s hard to explain it all to the general public, because most Americans don’t know that today’s immigrants often have absolutely no route to citizenship, said Prendergast, recounting a recent conversation with her own dad. She had told him about a client who was facing a return to Indonesia after 20 years in the United States.

“My dad said, ‘If he’s been here 20 years, why didn’t he just become a citizen?’” The law didn’t allow that, she told her father.

“Technically, anyone who is encountered who is here illegally is a target.” —ICE spokesperson

Starting in May, Crespo began to hear stories from colleagues in other cities about how ICE officers were detaining people whom they usually hadn’t focused on, including people with children who were U.S. citizens and those with pending legal claims. She witnessed a shift in New Orleans starting around mid-July.

All of those changes stemmed from an executive order called “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” that Trump issued in January. About a month later, the Department of Homeland Security issued instructions telling its staff how to implement that order.

The narrowed priorities had expanded. No categories of immigrants were exempt from deportation except for DACA recipients, undocumented immigrants whose parents had brought them to the country as children. (Congress has been debating a bill that could give DACA recipients access to legal immigration status, green cards, and eventual citizenship. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has asked the Supreme Court to weigh in.)

The new guidance also hastened deportation, which doesn’t allow for people whose legal claims aren’t settled, and it limited prosecutorial discretion, which allowed immigration officials to make occasional allowances for people with sick children or victims of domestic violence.

The policies were tough. But it was unclear how far ICE officers would go to implement the new laws, since the agency still didn’t have enough resources to deport everyone who was undocumented. Even in recent weeks, ICE’s public position was that its officers were still implementing targeted enforcement. “We still prioritize people who have committed crimes, who pose the greatest threat to public safety,” said spokesman Tom Byrd from the ICE office in New Orleans.

So Crespo was shocked in October when San Martin was detained. “Erlin is that genuine person who tried to do everything right,” Crespo said. “In the past, he would have kept reporting, the U-visa would have been processed, and he would have been fine.”

A couple of years ago, ICE was even telling Prendergast’s work-authorized clients that they didn’t need to check in anymore. “Basically, ICE was saying, ‘We don’t even want to waste time to get you to check in—we’re not going to deport you,’” Prendergast said.

When asked about San Martin’s case, Byrd simply noted that the priorities weren’t absolute. “Technically, anyone who is encountered who is here illegally is a target,” he said.

At first, as Crespo tried to get San Martin released, ICE officials told her she could stop the deportation process if she obtained a document showing that her client was indeed eligible for a U-visa.

While that sounds like a logical request, it is a herculean task in the world of immigration paperwork. Because things move so slowly, immigration lawyers commonly track progress through a government-run site that shows the processing time for the Vermont Service Center, which processes I-918 petitions for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

A chart from December showed that the Vermont center was processing I-918 petitions that had been submitted in August 2014. So there was little chance that San Martin’s 2017 application would be processed anytime soon. “I’m being asked for the impossible,” Crespo said.

She still has moments of hope. In late December, USCIS asked her to get photos and fingerprint cards from San Martin as part of the U-visa process. Though that seemed like a positive sign, she has been unable to fulfill the request because she had no access to him while he was in the staging facility near the Alexandria airport. She worries that he might spend years in Honduras while his photos and prints make their way through USCIS.

Without Crespo, San Martin would likely already be in Honduras. She is a dogged, well-connected lawyer in New Orleans. As soon as San Martin was detained, Crespo explained the situation to consulate staff, asking them to keep an eye on the interview requests that ICE makes to the consulate. Every week, consulate officers interview detainees by video and then issue travel documents, confirming to ICE that each person is a Honduran citizen.

Friday marked the third time that San Martin has been placed on an interview list. In December, some Honduran flights were canceled because of widespread protests after the contested elections there, so the consulate had to re-issue some travel documents. But something fell through the cracks and no one replaced San Martin’s document, which expired December 27.

Though the consulate can’t halt a person’s deportation, Crespo feels fortunate simply to know that he made it onto a weekly list. “If the consulate wasn’t here, he’d be home and I wouldn’t even know until he called me from Honduras,” she said.

Several years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was used as a testing ground for federal immigration practices. After a series of local sweeps in 2012 and 2013, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and its Congreso found proof of an aggressive immigration-enforcement model called the Criminal Alien Removal Program. They found proof of it after San Martin was asked for identification and detained on his way to pick up Christopher from a babysitter.

As would become apparent later, the sweeps were designed to scour the city for undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Since San Martin had no record, he wasn’t detained for long.

But the ICE agent who stopped San Martin took him to a van outfitted with high-tech equipment. Others who were stopped and frisked during that time reported that agents, often accompanied by local law enforcement officers, used this equipment to do biometric record checks at known Latino gathering spots in the New Orleans area, including Bible studies, grocery stores, nightclubs, soccer fields, laundromats, even school bus stops.

Advocates and immigrant leaders in New Orleans were mystified. Lawyers from the Workers’ Center filed public-information requests about the arrests. In response to their request about San Martin, they received a file that also contained an errant ICE document, one not usually released. That document referred to San Martin’s arrest as part of a pilot program called the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, or CARI.

The Workers’ Center staged street protests. Immigration advocates across the country and pressured public officials for more information on this new program.

In response, ICE seemed to dismantle the pilot. Now there’s fear that something similar could be put into place in cities like New Orleans.

If so, many of those affected would be of Honduran descent, like San Martin. That’s because of historic immigration patterns dating back a century. By the 1930s, New Orleans was the headquarters for both United Fruit Company, now Chiquita, and Standard Fruit, now Dole. The two companies owned land, held considerable political sway in Honduras, and brought their fruit into the United States through the Port of New Orleans on “banana boats” that docked along the Mississippi River.

More than a half-century ago, New Orleans was competing with Houston and Miami to become the first stop for people coming into the country from Latin America. “New Orleans leaders from that time really imagined the city as the ‘gateway to the Americas,’” said Justin Wolfe, a Tulane University professor who specializes in Central American social and cultural history. “They presented this notion that New Orleans and Central America had a shared culture: that Latin Americans were comfortable here and we were comfortable there.”

Travel between the two places was common on direct flights. New Orleanians—dockworkers, carpenters, and administrators—traveled to and from Honduras for work. Fruit-company executives sent their families to New Orleans so that children could be educated in the Catholic city’s schools and in its universities. The now-sizeable Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans was founded in the early 1940s as a “healthcare destination for Latin Americans,” Wolfe said.

By the 1970s or so, the stream of new immigrants had slowed considerably, Wolfe said. The Honduran community in New Orleans—centered in Jefferson Parish, the suburban county where San Martin lives—was generally older and conservative, more settled, apt to travel home mostly for the holidays or for funerals.

Then came Katrina.

While construction workers with roots in Mexico and other Latin American countries also came by the thousands to help rebuild the devastated city, many left when the work slowed.

Hondurans like San Martin were more likely to stay. “I think Katrina in many ways reconnected the two places,” Wolfe said. “Because Hondurans were much more likely to have a family connection in New Orleans or, at the very least, a connection from the barrio or from your same small town.”

And now it looks like Louisiana may the last stop in the United States for undocumented Hondurans.

During fiscal year 2017, ICE Air deported more than 29,000 people from the airport in Alexandria on nearly 600 flights, according to data provided by ICE. Though the agency could not provide data showing how many of those people flew to Honduras, a report about ICE Air operations by Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General included a map showing that Hondurans deported from more northern cities are usually transferred south, then flown directly home from coastal airports.

The state once imagined as a gateway into the country is now the last stop for people being pushed out.

Immigration spokesmen were unable to provide exact numbers of flights to Honduras from the airport in Alexandria. But the Friday flight is known to be a constant by local Hondurans. Each Friday, up to 135 people in handcuffs and shackles board a plane at the Alexandria airport and fly to San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

The state once imagined as a gateway into the country is now the last stop for people being pushed out.

After the CARI scare in 2013, Crespo focused on San Martin and others who had been detained and help them to earn work authorizations. San Martin, like the others, had been released on an order of supervision that required regular check-ins with ICE.

“He never missed a single reporting date,” Crespo said, noting that after he received his work authorization, he paid federal taxes, kept his address and phone number current, as required, and also became a certified welder through a community college program.

She also filed other petitions for San Martin and for others who had clear grounds for immigration relief, to help protect them and their families, she said.

“I thought it would give them a light at the end of the tunnel,” Crespo said. “But now we’re hearing that it doesn’t matter if someone will have documents in a month. If they don’t have that light in their hand today, they’ll be arrested.”

Prendergast said ICE told her committee that when an individual has a pending U-visa application, ICE is supposed to contact the Vermont Service Center to ask for a preliminary review, to show whether that person is truly eligible. After its request, ICE expects a response about eligibility within five days, despite the center’s three-year lag for the U-visa applications themselves.

“But the Vermont Service Center does not always respond within five days,” she said. “And in our last meeting, ICE told us, ‘If we don’t get a response in five days, we’re generally going to proceed with removal [deportation].’”

Crespo doesn’t know what she should think of the USCIS request for prints and passport photos. Without a quick decision, San Martin will be gone, leaving his prints and photos behind.

Crespo has talked with San Martin about filing a habeas corpus petition, which would force the court to look at his case in detail. But those cases are taking nearly a year to be heard. That would mean another year of separation for him and Christopher, which breaks Crespo’s heart.

Crespo has spent the last few weeks picking the brains of every other immigration lawyer she knows, trying to plot possible legal tactics that could keep San Martin here. For her, he is a personal test case.

“If I give up on this case, how will I have any chance with other cases?” she said. “Because every other case will be less perfect.”

This post has been updated to clarify ICE’s protocol with U-visas.

This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin