Despite rules, 34% of Milwaukee County deportees lack criminal record
The federal Secure Communities program was created to protect communities by identifying and deporting immigrants who have broken criminal laws. However, one-third of those deported from Milwaukee County had no criminal record. Read more
The nightmare began on July 11, 2011, for Maria Rodriguez of Milwaukee. Knocking at the door of her South Side home were several police officers. Behind them stood men wearing the uniform of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.
That day, they left with Hector Gregorio Arenas, the father of Rodriguez’s children, and she hasn’t been the same since.
Arenas, 38, was one of 119 undocumented immigrants from Milwaukee County taken into immigration custody and deported under the federal Secure Communities program between Jan. 11, 2011, and April 30, 2012, when data were last made available.
Arenas was convicted once in 1993, when he was 19, for resisting an officer and possessing a small amount of marijuana, and again at 22 for theft. That was the last time he’d had any contact with law enforcement until he was deported to Tijuana.
“Everyone makes mistakes; he’s been living a clean life long enough to say he’s changed his life,” said Nancy Flores, who runs the New Sanctuary Movement at Voces De La Frontera.
Because Arenas had been living a law-abiding and trouble-free life for the prior 15 years, he and his family were blindsided when he was taken into custody.
ICE identified Arenas as a Level 2 criminal (convicted of a minor drug or property offense such as burglary, larceny or fraud) and a threat to society, according to classifications under the Secure Communities program.
Rodriguez said that Arenas does not pose a threat to society; in fact, he saved her life.
Rodriguez, originally from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, was previously married to an abuser who threw her and their three children, then ages 12, 11 and 3, out on the street eight years ago.
“I had nowhere to go and no family here,” said Rodriguez in Spanish.
Then she met Arenas, who she said gave her both a place to stay and hope for the future. Years later, their family grew to seven as the couple had two boys together.
Rodriguez describes Arenas as a well-dressed, handsome and hard-working family man. He had been working at the same job near the harbor in Milwaukee for 10 years, she said.
Though they never officially married, she considers him her husband and plans to marry him when she can.
She said that Arenas admitted to her that he’d had previous run-ins with the law, but that the troubles were long behind him.
Secure Communities program guidelines make no distinction between lifelong criminals and people who’ve been convicted as young adults but have since been law-abiding.
Gail Montenegro, spokeswoman for ICE, defended the program, saying that it has eliminated the ad hoc approach to deportation of the past.
“In fiscal year 2011, for the first time ever, 55 percent of all of ICE’s removals were convicted criminals and over 90 percent of all removals clearly fell into one of ICE’s
categories for priority enforcement,” Montenegro said. Priority targets include criminal offenders, national security threats and “egregious” immigration law violators.
Once a person has been classified as a criminal and identified for deportation, there’s no legal mechanism to appeal the expulsion.
Flores believes that’s unfair.
Referring to Arenas, she noted, “He already paid for his crimes; he’s didn’t get deported for something he did years ago, he’s being deported because of his (immigration) status.”
Flores believes that ICE should be analyzing cases in the full context of a person’s life.
Montenegro contended that ICE is always looking to improve Secure Communities. As an example, she cited proposed policies to protect witnesses and victims of domestic violence or other violent crime.
The new policies won’t help Rodriguez or Arenas.
“Our life has changed 360 degrees in both an emotional and economical sense; I had never worked — I took care of the kids,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez described her life as “terrible” since the deportation.
She said that Arenas calls the family two or three times a week but sometimes can barely speak, becoming so upset that his voice breaks.
Their 4 year-old son Jesus cries too. The toddler asks why his dad is not there to buy him pizza and jumps into the car, saying he’s leaving to see his “papi.”
After originally explaining Arenas’s absence by telling the children that he was at work, Rodriguez had to tell them he was deported.
Rodriguez tried to prevent Arenas from being sent back to Mexico. She met with a lawyer who told her that she could go to Mexico to be with him, but that she risked not being allowed to come back.
The lawyer also told her that she could marry him in Mexico and then apply for a U Visa for both of them, but that this was an extremely risky option, because she could end up being forced to stay in Mexico too.
Flores said that though her organization was able to provide Rodriguez with emotional and other types of support, the group couldn’t help with her case.
Left with what she felt were no good options, Rodriguez has decided to just wait it out. Arenas can apply to come back to the United States legally after 10 years, according to Rodriguez.
Until then, she will have to go it alone. The couple’s children are all in school now and she recently found a job.
She’s begun taking Jesus to see a psychiatrist to help him deal with missing his father.
Rodriguez is in the process of applying for her own U Visa. The U Visa program provides lawful status to non-citizen crime victims who assist or are willing to assist authorities in investigating crimes such as domestic violence.
She constantly worries about Arenas, whose life, she said, is always in danger. He lives in an area of Mexico ravaged by cartel-related violence.
Still, she knows that she must carry on, for her children.
“Even though I’m depressed, I have to be well so that they can, too; their father is in Mexico and can’t do anything for them now.”