In-Depth

It Took A Federal Judge To Reverse Elvin’s Deportation. Now The Government Is Expanding The Process That Got Him Unlawfully Detained.

The Trump administration is expanding its use of “expedited removal” – a fast-tracked deportation process that leaves little opportunity for appeal.

Elvin embraces his two kids after being in immigrant detention for two months.

Elvin came to the United States 12 years ago from Honduras. He’s undocumented, but he has a strong case to stay here because of family ties, including three citizen children and a citizen father. He’s not a person that should be in the fast-track for deportation — a process known as expedited removal, which has historically applied only to recent border-crossers. 

But last December, Border Patrol agents detained Elvin at a checkpoint and claimed he had recently crossed the border, making him subject to the fast-tracked deportation process. It wasn’t until a federal judge considered the evidence showing Elvin had lived in the United States for years that Elvin was freed from a months-long detention and imminent deportation. 

This fast-tracked deportation process is now expanding beyond the border.

Previously, federal agents only used expedited removal if an immigrant was found within 100 miles of the border and had crossed within the past two weeks. Now, the Trump administration will let agents use it to deport anyone who crossed up to two years ago and is living anywhere in the United States.

While Elvin’s case is rare, it shows how much can go wrong when it’s an immigrant’s word versus border officials and there’s little room for outside scrutiny. With other immigration cases, a judge will review the situation. But with expedited removal, the power to deport is left up to immigration enforcement officials. Border officials use the process to quickly send border-crossers without valid asylum claims back to their home countries — and not add to the growing immigration case backlog.

However, immigration lawyers and advocates say the government is denying a migrant a right to a trial, which gives almost total authority to immigration enforcement. And agents are known to make mistakes. 

“As Elvin’s case shows there’s very little opportunity to address any errors that might be made by Border Patrol or by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when they’re deciding to place someone in expedited removal proceedings because there’s virtually no check on that authority,” said Julie Pasch, an attorney with the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative.

Pasch said that she worries immigration officers won’t fully verify how long someone has been here — a key factor in expedited removal. She said that’s why lawyers are advising immigrants to carry paperwork, like utility bills or children’s birth certificates, as proof if they’ve been in the United States more than two years.

The use of expedited removal has grown since it was first created in 1996.

Expedited removal was used to deport over 103,000 migrants in 2017, according to Department of Homeland Security data

That number will likely climb with this expansion, Pasch said. 

“Where is daddy?”

Isabel was expecting her third child with her husband Elvin when their lives unexpectedly started to unravel. 

Elvin, a welder living in Houston, had gone to Laredo last December for work. 

On his way back home, Customs and Border Protections officials stopped his bus and pulled Elvin off. 

Officers questioned him for hours, according to Elvin.

He said they presented paperwork and a photo of another Honduran man with his same name who had already been deported. He told them that wasn’t him — they were wrong. 

Then, border agents asked Elvin other questions, like if he drove an Infiniti and had a pending immigration petition.

Elvin said, yes, that was him. 

“I’ve never been deported,” said Elvin. “I’ve lived in this country since 2007.” 

But in documents shared with Houston Public Media, Border Patrol agents wrote down that Elvin said he crossed the river into the United States near Laredo five days before, on December 15, 2018, making him eligible for expedited removal.

But Elvin hadn’t recently crossed the border. What’s more, he had a strong case for staying legally in the United States and the right to plead his case before a judge. Along with his kids and father being citizens, Elvin already had a petition pending to gain legal status. 

Houston Public Media reached out to Customs and Border Protection for comment and they have not responded.

Elvin refused to sign any papers, was locked away and sent to a detention center in San Antonio. 

Back in Houston, his wife Isabel didn’t hear from him for five days until she finally received a call from him: her husband was in trouble.

Isabel, two months pregnant, with her husband Elvin and their two kids.

Isabel spent thousands from their family savings on an immigration lawyer. But every legal action failed.

Meanwhile, Isabel’s kids missed their dad as she tried to comfort them.

“When my son woke up in the morning he was asking, ‘Dad didn’t give me a kiss… Where is Daddy because he didn’t give me kiss?” Isabel said. “Remembering those words from him, that breaks my heart.”  

As Elvin was transferred from one detention center to another, he said he went hungry a lot, but the worst pain was psychological. 

“I spent day and night crying,” Elvin said. Locked away in a tiny cell in an Illinois county jail, his mind was racing. At this point, several weeks had passed, and he was still facing deportation. 

“It’s all over,” he said he would say to himself. “What am I going to do now? They’re going to send me to my country. My kids are going to stay here. Who is going to help them?”

In Houston, Isabel had gone through all their savings, and she couldn’t make rent. With no income, they had to abandon most of their furniture and belongings and move away from Houston to be with her relatives in Tucson, Arizona.

All was lost, they thought. Then a team of lawyers with the Immigrant Justice Center learned about Elvin’s case and filed a special motion. Days before his flight to Honduras, they showed a federal judge proof Elvin had been living here: his marriage certificate, tax returns, a credit card statement and other documents.

The judge canceled his deportation.

“I screamed,” Isabel said, because she was so happy.  

After two months in detention, Elvin was released in February and reunited with his family in Arizona. 

Moving on

Even though Elvin narrowly missed this fast-tracked deportation, he still feels the ripple effects.

He has an immigration court case in Texas now, so sometimes he stays far from his family in Arizona to go to court in Houston. He said his family plans to move back to Texas, but they have to rebuild their lives from scratch.

And since Houston Public Media first reported this story, Elvin said that he was detained a second time by border officials — days before his wife was expecting their third child.  

Elvin was held for several hours despite showing official immigration documents. It’s another example, he said, of just how much power federal agents have. 

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