Cayla and her husband.
Let’s talk about immigration.
Meet Cayla Roberts -- a victim of sex trafficking who was brought to the US from China by smugglers called “Snakeheads” when she was 12 years old. She was sold by her father to settle a gambling debt, and was taken into police custody immediately upon entering the country, when the Snakeheads were busted. As an unaccompanied minor whose father had threatened to kill her, should she return, she was eventually placed in foster care, and went on to be a model child: honor roll, volunteering to rebuild houses after Katrina, working with children living in poverty.
Cayla is now married to a US citizen, and in a few weeks will graduate from college with a double major in psychology and interpersonal communication. Cayla is also currently in Removal Proceedings through ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)
After nine years of legal battles to remain in America, the US Court of Appeals rejected her request this April. Her only option for US Citizenship is to return to China and apply, which could take many years, and put her life in danger.
After reading her story, I phoned a very old friend who is currently practicing immigration law in Philadelphia. I first met her when she was a scrappy college activist and active member of the Human Rights Club, with patches on her Jansport backpack. When I think about her working as a grown-up Lawyer, I picture her at an oversized wooden desk in an office full of encyclopedic looking books. She’s usually holding a gavel, looking victorious.
I called her because my very limited knowledge of immigration law and asylum was not helping me understand this story at all. Why on earth was this girl eligible for deportation, after having been a victim of Sex Trafficking, brought here against her will as a minor? I felt like I needed a better understanding of the way this system works.
I also figured that if I didn’t get it, maybe you would benefit from a breakdown, too. Below is an attempt to explain, sans rhetoric, the current immigration policy and climate in America. From here on out in this article, our lovely lawyer lady will be in quotes. I hope this helps you understand a bit better -- it certainly helped me!
THE BREAKDOWNON ICE DEPORTATION
Almost a year ago, the Obama administration put out a memo -- it wasn’t a law, or a policy change, per se. The memo established the top priority categories for ICE deportation: Individuals with criminal convictions who pose a threat to the community (Though the definition of crime is very broad), recent illegal entrants into the country, terrorist and national security threats, and people who an egregious record of immigration violations (such as illegally re-entering after being deported, or committing fraud.)
The administration also put out a second memo, claiming to establish the groups who were low priority: Including youth who came to the US illegally as minors, graduated High School and are pursing vocation or college degree and have stayed out of trouble. Pretty much the population who would be eligible for the D.R.E.A.M Act, were it to become a law. Pretty much Cayla.
“These memos give us a guideline to use when we’re in court to say, these people are low priority. We then give the ICE Attorney a packet of information to plead their case: This person is a good person! They donate blood! They have kids here! They don’t get in trouble! Basically, you beg the government to let them stay, and sometimes it works. But it's not the same as granting asylum, or granting anything, really. Sometimes it gets the government to agree to turn a blind eye, and that’s considered a victory.”
There's no right to prosecutorial discretion -- It is not a law. ICE officers have always had a choice, though, as to whether or not to pursue someone who is “eligible” for deportation. There have been times in history where they were more indiscriminate than others, and there are places in America where the law is more strictly enforced.
“I have seen people who were ordered removed over 20 years ago and just because the government hasn't pursued them, they haven't been deported.”
SO HOW DID ICE FIND CAYLA ANYWAY?
When so many people in the US are living here illegally, how exactly does one find themselves in Removal Proceedings? It happens in one of three ways, usually:
1. Contact with police
(If you’ve seen the movie "A Better Life," you’ll remember the scene where the father, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who snuck his family over the border, had his truck stolen and did not tell the nearby police officers. Any contact with police as an undocumented immigrant exposes you. This means that many times undocumented immigrants are the victims of undocumented crimes, and also very easy targets.)
2. Applying and being denied for anything at US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) (a visa, for example.)
When this happens, USCIS can refer you to ICE, exposing you.
3. Being stopped at the border.
When we hear that phrase, we most often think of people attempting to sneak into the country, but this is exactly how Cayla was in the ICE system. Though she was an unaccompanied minor at the time, the government knew that she was in America from day one.
There are also immigration raids, but those are far less common than they were under the Bush administration.
Once immigration has taken note of your existence, they can issue a notice to appear in immigration court, which begins the process of Removal Proceedings. Not issuing this notice is the first act of Prosecutorial Discretion. It is the government’s way of saying: “We know you are here, and for now, we’re not going to do anything about it.”
There's no guarantee, though, and no statute of limitations. The case is administratively closed, but only until it is re-opened because of something -- being pulled over for a broken taillight, a noise violation, being the victim of a crime -- anything that draws attention to you. If you do end up in court, and your claim for relief is denied -- you have the right to an appeal.
After you've exhausted that, if the judge orders you removed, you’re usually given a date to report to a deportation officer. At that point, you can ask them to use their discretion to grant you a Stay of Removal.
“In my limited experience, Deportation Officers are far more willing to use discretion than anyone else in the process, because they are the ones who put people on planes, see their children crying. They are the people who are more likely to grant stays. This isn’t true of every part of the country, as field officers vary wildly in their generosity. Some attorneys also take the nuclear option of using the media to get the government to do what they want them to do, as is the case with Cayla.”
Detained undocumented immigrants go from jail to plane, and a lot of times they sign an agreement and leave voluntarily -- their fate is pretty much sealed. Non-detained undocumented immigrants have a lot more leeway to buy time with appeals and stays, but also a lot more anxiety and uncertainty. The one thing that Prosecutorial Discretion can really give people is the peace of mind to know that the government is choosing not to act -- for now.
Khaalid Walls, a spokesperson from ICE in Detroit said, re: Cayla: "There is no imminent departure. The bottom line is the case is under review."
If I were Cayla, that wouldn’t really give me too much peace of mind.
THE ACTIVISTS FIGHTING THE LAWS
The real, unsung heroes of Immigration Reform right now are the Undocumented Youth Activists who are working tirelessly and passionately to not only demand policy reform, but to create dialog about identity and change the face of the Illegal undocumented immigrant.
After Arizona’s governor signed an anti-immigrant bill, SB 1070 into law in April 2010, making it legal to racially profile in the state, a movement of organizers around the country rose up to fight it.
“The Undocumented Youth Activists are the lifeblood of the immigration movement right now -- they deserve the credit for what is going on. Organizations like NIYA and DreamActivist -- These people started out promoting the D.R.E.A.M act, and then the rhetoric surrounding the act in Washington became so negative and polarizing that they rejected and re-defined it. They said: Stop turning me into a model citizen and putting me on a pedestal, my parents aren’t criminals either. Don’t talk about my friends who got pulled over for speeding and got arrested like they deserve to be deported. A person doesn't have to be perfect to be afforded dignity.”
As the elections near and the immigration debates begin to heat up, the facts are important and hard to find. FACT: Obama has deported more people than any president since Eisenhower, and the priority categories that were established haven’t significantly changed the ratio of what kinds of people are being deported. Plenty of people who don’t fall into those priority categories are being deported, still.
Cayla is certainly not a priority candidate for deportation, and yet she’s being pursued. We need to know why.
“Why would we turn our back on somebody like that who has so much to offer us?" he said. "It doesn't make economic sense, it doesn't make sense from a social perspective, certainly not from a perspective of what the United States is and what we stand for. We're better than this." –David Koelsch, Cayla’s attorney.
If you want to help, you can sign a petition to grant Cayla the right to stay legally in this country here. And share Cayla’s story with everyone you know, to keep attention on this important story.