The day was going to be perfect.
Alex figured he would wake up at 6:30 a.m., help get his little brothers up and off to school and catch the bus by 7. After school, the 14-year-old would do something he had been looking forward to for weeks — play in his first football game.
He would get to put on the team jersey — purple, with a camouflage print collar. And most importantly, his dad, Manuel, would be there, cheering from the sidelines.
Instead, Alex woke up to his mom screaming and crying outside his bedroom door.
By the time he got out of bed, it was too late. His dad was already gone — on his way to the county jail and then to immigration detention, where he would spend the next six months waiting to learn his future in the United States.
Manuel came to the United States from Mexico illegally two decades ago. He is one of the 143,470 immigrants arrested in the interior of the country last year by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities. These kinds of arrests are up 25 percent compared with in 2016 — part of an effort by the Trump administration to fulfill a campaign promise to deport more immigrants who have come to the U.S. illegally.
Manuel’s story points to a broader policy directive of President Trump’s first year in office. At a time when arrests at the border are at a 46-year low, the federal government has begun to go after people who were not targets under the previous administration: those in the U.S. interior who have lived in the country for years and who often have committed no crimes. In 2017, arrests of undocumented immigrants with no criminal record increased by 42 percent compared with in 2016.
Manuel’s case illustrates not only the giant, complicated bureaucracy involved in immigration enforcement but also the ripple effects one arrest can have on a family and a community.
NPR obtained Manuel’s ICE file, which confirms the details of his history in the United States. At the family’s request, NPR has obscured some family member’s names and left other details vague because of their status in the country.
Anatomy of an apprehension
Manuel and his wife, V, grew up together in Sinaloa, Mexico. When they started dating as teenagers, V’s family objected: Manuel was from a poor family, and V from a wealthy one with ties to the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel.
Manuel first crossed the border in 1995, when he was still a teen, after V’s uncle tried to kill him by running him over with a car. Another time, the uncle put a gun to Manuel’s head. When Manuel returned to Mexico in 1997 to marry V, her relatives beat him up.
Faced with near-constant threats, Manuel attempted to return to the U.S. in early 1998. That time, he was apprehended. He could have asked for asylum then, but he was 19 and didn’t understand immigration law. He was sent back to Mexico. Three days later, he crossed the border again, this time successfully.
Now in his late 30s, Manuel was living quietly under the radar in the Pacific Northwest when immigration officials showed up that Monday morning in April.
It was 5:30 a.m. He was preparing to leave for the first of the three jobs he worked to support his family.
The agents said they came to investigate a report that Manuel was driving a stolen car. He had owned the car for years. When asked later, police couldn’t produce any reports about the stolen car.
Then the agents asked Manuel for documents to prove his citizenship. He didn’t say anything. They told him he had a deportation order from 1998.
The agents put Manuel in handcuffs. He asked the officers to let him say goodbye to his wife. He didn’t get to say goodbye to his kids. Apart from his illegal entry into the United States, Manuel had not been charged with any crimes.
His son Alex didn’t make it to school that day. He did go to his football game, but he couldn’t stop thinking about his dad. Alex’s head wasn’t in the game. Eventually, the coach pulled him off the field. Within a few weeks, Alex’s grades had dropped so much that he wasn’t allowed to play at all.
Over the next few months, Manuel tries to talk to his sons — age 8 to 19 — on the phone every night from the detention center where he is being held.
“I tell them that they have to put a lot of effort into their schoolwork because they don’t have to pay for my error,” he says.
Manuel remains hopeful he’ll get to go home. But he has also watched many of the friends he has made in detention get deported.
Executing the law ‘across the board’
The Trump administration is looking to expand the government’s capacity to detain immigrants in the country illegally. In May, the Department of Homeland Security asked Congress to fund 17,000 new beds in detention facilities — one-third more than the system’s capacity at the end of the Obama administration.
That request comes at a time when the number of people crossing the border is lower than it was at the beginning of the Obama administration or during the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations. By the end of the Obama administration, the number of border crossers was actually dropping — and that trend has largely continued during the first year of the Trump presidency.
Decreased border crossings means more resources can be used to expand deportations in the country’s interior.
Last January, ICE agents got a memo stating that “officers will take enforcement action against all removable aliens encountered in the course of their duties.” That memo was written by Matt Albence, director of enforcement and removal operations at ICE. He has been at the agency for six years, and as he sees it, officers’ hands were tied under the Obama administration.
“The laws that Congress has passed and that our offices are sworn to uphold, we are now executing them faithfully across the board,” Albence told NPR in December.
To be clear, President Barack Obama deported thousands of people each year, too. But under a 2014 executive order, Obama directed immigration agents to focus on two groups for deportation: border crossers upon entry and illegal immigrants with criminal records. The government would not target noncriminals in the country’s interior.
In 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, these types of arrests accounted for 2.1 percent of total removals. In 2017, that figure climbed to 6 percent.
Albence said that about 90 percent of the people arrested by ICE have had a prior run-in with the courts. That 90 percent includes people like Manuel, who had that deportation order for crossing the border 20 years ago.
Anyone in the country illegally should know they are subject to deportation, Albence says.
“There’s certainly a humanitarian perspective where you can feel sympathy for the individual and their circumstances,” he said. “But that does not mean we’re not going to enforce the law.”
Albence says anyone who is in the U.S. illegally should stop violating the law. And if there is no way for them to get legal status — through family or employment — he says self-deportation “is certainly an option.”
For people who’ve grown roots in a community, and raised American kids, self-deportation doesn’t feel like a possibility. And when one immigrant is locked up, that absence is felt acutely.
Manuel had been paying for his oldest son to attend college. That son now has to leave school so he can work as a firefighter to support the family.
The oldest son is what is known as a DREAMer, a child brought to the U.S. who has temporary permission to stay in the country under DACA, or Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals. That program could end in March unless Congress acts, so he fears for his own future as well as his father’s.
Decision day arrives
At last in mid-September, after nearly half a year in detention, Manuel gets his day in court.
He has seen his kids once in all that time. The drive is far. But they make it this day.
If Manuel loses, the next time he leaves the detention center could be with a one-way ticket to Mexico.
The courtroom is cold and sterile. The judge tells Manuel she is denying his request to stay.
Visibly upset when the judge issues her ruling, Manuel is escorted out of the room. He is not able to see his kids.
“I’m angry, upset and confused mainly,” the oldest son says right afterwards. “I couldn’t even say bye. Especially after they told him, I couldn’t even look at him in the face and say bye. That was pretty painful.”
Manuel is not deported immediately. He has to decide whether he’ll fight the ruling and stay behind bars — perhaps for months longer — or accept the judge’s decision and try to make some money in Mexico to support his family back in the United States.
Manuel’s oldest son isn’t optimistic.
“He has the right to appeal, but it almost seems unnecessary, and also seems like no matter what he does, they’re going to f****** reject him,” he says. “I mean, I might as well leave, too. I might as well go back to a country I’ve never been to. This is the American dream, you know? We’re living it.”
In a moment of despair, Manuel calls V and tells her to send all his clothes back to Mexico, so he’ll have something to wear if he is deported.
She empties his closets.
A legal Hail Mary
Manuel does have one thing going for him that most immigrants don’t: a lawyer, Andrea Lino.
According to the American Immigration Council, 85 percent of people in immigration detention don’t get a lawyer, in part because it can be hard to find one while behind bars, and detainees in immigration court aren’t guaranteed one.
But having one makes a clear difference: Detainees with lawyers are released 44 percent of the time, compared with 11 percent for detainees without them.
While Manuel is deciding whether to appeal the ruling, his elderly mother gets a phone call at her home in Mexico. The menacing voice tells her that Manuel was deported and that members of the Sinaloa cartel kidnapped him at the border. The caller demands a ransom and threatens to kill her son.
She knows this is a bluff and that he is still locked up in the United States. But she also knows that the threat of violence is real. She has seen the cars circling the house, waiting for a sign that Manuel is back.
Manuel decides to keep fighting in court. His lawyer makes a Hail Mary legal filing and argues that the long history of death threats from his wife’s relatives should be grounds for him to stay in the U.S. The chances it will work? Somewhere around 5 percent, Lino tells him.
In mid-October, the judge issues her order. It’s one page.
It says her original decision overlooked the fact that Manuel was persecuted in Mexico because of his family relationships. The fact that those death threats came from family members gives him legal protection that he wouldn’t have had if they had come from random strangers.
She rules that Manuel can remain in the United States.
It’s called “withholding of removal.” Not asylum, not a path to citizenship. There are lots of limitations — for instance, Manuel can’t leave the country and must pay a yearly renewal fee.
But the upshot is: Manuel can go home, back to V and their children.
Their oldest son is in shock.
“It’s just such a powerful feeling,” he says. “It’s powerful because of what you believed in came true, it’s actually happening now. … It was powerful because my birthday just passed and all I wanted was my dad.”
A father comes home
Manuel’s release comes a few days later.
He walks through a chain-link gate, over a railroad track and outside the detention center for the first time in months. He waits at the bus station for an overnight Greyhound ride home. V texts him the whole way. The two oldest sons are waiting in their car outside the bus station. They’re shaking. And then, they see their dad.
“I just didn’t know what to say,” the oldest son says. “It was that kind of shock where you can’t even let it come out. … I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be like, ‘Hey Dad, what’s up? It’s been awhile.’ Or it’s like, ‘Hey Dad, I missed you so much.’ ”
Manuel hugs his boys. They cry. Manuel says the 10-minute drive home from the station feels like forever. He walks through the gate to the yard of their modest single-story house, past the trampoline and dog toys lying in the fresh snow. The last time he walked through the gate, daffodils were blooming.
Manuel is home.
He is also the exception. For most immigrants who enter deportation proceedings, the ordeal ends with a flight to a different country. Last year, the United States deported 226,000 people.
If Manuel hadn’t had a lawyer, or if the death threats were from random people, and not family members, he probably would have been deported.
But his family has not emerged from the experience unchanged. The last few months have left some scars.
Manuel says his younger boys still cling to him, afraid he’ll have to leave again.
And several months after his release, Manuel says he still hasn’t received the proper papers to work. As a result, the oldest son remains the family’s biggest breadwinner, and his schooling is left on hold. Congress continues to debate the future of DACA, so his future remains hazy, too. And after negotiations to solve that issue crumbled in Washington last week, it doesn’t appear that a solution will come soon.
Manuel says he knows that he broke the law and that his decision to come to the United States got his family into this mess. But he doesn’t regret it either.
“I’d do anything for my family, and everything I’ve done until now has been for them,” he says. “And I’m going to keep doing it, so they can be somebody in this life.”
This story was produced for broadcast by Sam Gringlas and Christina Cala, with help from Ana Lucia Murillo and Matt Ozug. The story was edited for broadcast by Jolie Myers and for the Web by Maureen Pao.