By Yoav Gonen
Roger Calero handed his passport and green card to the immigration
official at Houston Intercontinental Airport as he had done many
times in the past. It was December 3, 2002, and he was returning
to Newark, New Jersey, from reporting assignments in Havana, Cuba
and Guadalajara, Mexico for the Spanish-language news magazine Perspectiva
Mundial, which is published in New York. The immigration official
swiped Caleros passport through the electronic reader and
soon uttered the words that would profoundly affect Caleros
We need you to step aside into a separate room.
About three hours later, Calero was informed that the delay was
going to be more substantial than he had first suspected.
It came to my complete surprise that theyre denying
me entry, he says, speaking with a strong South American accent.
When he asked to see a lawyer, he was told that he was not entitled
to one because he is an immigrant and because he was under administrative
detention, not arrest.
After several hours, Calero was led to a local detention center,
where he would spend the next 10 days. The case against Calero,
who emigrated from Nicaragua to Los Angeles in 1986, was based on
his 1988 conviction for selling an ounce of marijuana to an undercover
police officer when he was a senior in high school. Calero received
a 60-day suspended sentence at the time and had his conviction waived
by immigration officials when he received his green card in 1990.
His green card was renewed in 2000 without a problem. Yet for some
reason the 1996 the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility
Act, which contains a provision declaring certain criminal acts
to be deportable offenses, was retroactively being used against
He was a high school student hanging out with friends,
says Caleros wife, Sarah Katz. Now theyre trying
to say hes a drug trafficker.
Most immigration lawyers share the couples frustration with
the 1996 law, which instituted reforms that were intended to make
immigration enforcement stricter. Immigrant advocacy groups see
it as being overly punitive and unforgiving. Cyrus Mehta, a member
of the American Lawyers Immigration Association and an immigration
lawyer in New York, is one of the laws detractors. But he
views an event from last year, not 1996, or even 2001, as the main
impetus for the recent emphasis on enforcement. The key event, he
says came on March 11, 2002, when it was reported that the Immigration
and Naturalization Service belatedly sent copies of student visas
to two dead September 11 hijackers.
Mehta believes that the ramifications of that embarrassing public
blunder were so great that they have created what he refers to as
a culture of no.
There seems to be a fear paralyzing them, in that if we say
no, we cant be wrong, says Mehta. If
we make a mistake and say yes, and the person blows
up a building, then Ill be responsible.
Part of the problem, he suggests, stems from the recent splintering
of the immigration service into three offices, all of them under
the Department of Homeland Security.
Under Homeland Security, everything is looked at through
the prism of security, Mehta says.
Although it is too early to assess the effects of the March 1 dismantling
of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, recent statistics
seem to confirm Mehtas theory about a culture of no both for
benefits (such as green cards), handled by the Bureau of Citizenship
and Immigration Services, and enforcement, run by the Bureau of
Customs and Border Protection .
Preliminary data posted on the Citizenship and Immigration Services
web site indicates that total removals, which include forced removals
from the country and people turned away at ports of entry (including
airports), increased by 25 percent (from 54,585 to 68,410) from
October 2002 through February 2003 compared to the same period of
time a year previously. Similarly, while the number of applications
for immigration benefits (employment authorizations, permanent resident
adjustments, green card renewals, and relative petitions) remained
fairly constant from one year to the next, the number of approvals
for benefits decreased by 27 percent from fiscal year 2002 to fiscal
year 2003 .
While the security-minded Department of Homeland Security might
applaud the deportation of an additional 14,000 individuals over
last year at this time, there is no reason to believe that the stricter
policy is affecting possible terrorists. For one thing, people suspected
of involvement with terrorism are not deported they are arrested.
Another cause for concern, numerous law organizations claim, is
that the immigration system is becoming increasingly inflexible,
unwitting violations of immigration law are being punished harshly,
and more mistakes are being made, many of them against people who
are legally residing in the country.
Tim Payne, an immigration lawyer in Chicago, represents a client
from England who in April was denied admittance into the country
upon returning from a vacation in Antigua. He was stopped at Kennedy
airport in New York, detained for 24 hours and sent to London because
he didnt have the proper travel documents. The man (who did
not want his name to be used) is a chief executive at a company
in Chicago and is married to a U.S. citizen, but has yet to receive
his green card.
According to Payne, officials had told the man before his trip
that he would not need a special travel parole document to re-enter
the country. But when he returned, border agents at JFK told him
tough luck for not having it.
The benefits section gave him the bad advice and the border
people say, Its not our problem to fix,
says Payne. Instead of picking up the phone and trying to
work things out, they put him in a [detention] cell for a day and
sent him back to Britain.
Mark Thorn, a spokesman in the New York office of the Bureau of
Citizenship and Immigration Services, defends JFKs increasing
reputation as a tough port of entry.
It is [tough], because our inspections are thorough, because
our people are well trained, [and] our people know their job,
he says. Thats not a bad thing.
While Payne does not necessarily blame border officials for his
clients predicament, he is troubled by what he sees as poor
communication between offices of the Homeland Security, as well
as by the shifts in personnel that have taken place as a result
of the dismantling of the Immigrations and Naturalization Service.
They need to make allowances that there are new people working
there and sometimes they give bad advice, says Payne. It
shocks my idea of fairness.
Mehta also feels that creating three offices out of the former
immigration service has led to mistakes by people who may be new
to their positions.
Additionally, new officials, as well as those who have years of
experience under their belts, are functioning in an environment
in which security is increasingly becoming the only factor that
They basically have a zero tolerance view at the border,
says Payne. No one knows this better than Roger Calero. Yet he is
the first to admit that his predicament is not unique. I happen
to be one of thousands, he says.
In fact, he is one of hundreds of thousands. According to the Fiscal
Year 2002 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization
Service, the total number of aliens detained in the United States
was 202,000. About half of them had criminal records, which would
include people like Calero. Unlike most immigrants fighting deportation,
however, Calero has the resources and stability to wage a public
battle against the government. As a result of almost
immediate petitioning by his wife, coworkers and various labor unions
with whom Calero had worked in the past -- and most likely because
of his status as a permanent resident for 12 years -- the immigration
service granted him parole on December 13, 2002. His supporters
have continued arguing on his behalf ever since.
People ask us, Are you going back to Nicaragua?
says Katz, who is helping her husband prepare for a September 10
hearing at an immigration court in Newark. And we say, no.
Were going to fight this.
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