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August 5, 2019

Maryland Immigrants Being Torn from their Families After Required Marriage Interviews 

GREENBELT, MD – Six Maryland families targeted by a cruel “bait and switch” tactic by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), or who fear falling victim to it, seek to form a class action lawsuit against the practice of arresting and detaining immigrants at marriage interviews that are supposed to be a protected part of the process for immigrants married to U.S. citizens to obtain lawful immigration status. Instead, ICE officials are deceptively inviting immigrants into their office and then snatching them when they complete the first step of becoming a Green Card holder as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. The families’ experience makes clear there is an unlawful pattern of trickery by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in violation of Constitutional and statutory protections established for immigrant families seeking legal status. 

In a related case in May, U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel, sharply rebuked ICE for using this bait and switch practice, ruling it “a trap for unsuspecting applicants.” In November 2018, Judge Hazel ordered that Mr. Wanrong Lin, a longtime Maryland resident who was arrested and taken from his family immediately after a successful marriage interview, be returned to the U.S. and his family after the plane deporting him to China had taken off. Judge Hazel then granted a preliminary injunction blocking ICE from again removing Mr. Lin from the United States while the legal challenge continues. That case is now on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.  

Today, Elmer and Alyse Sanchez, Jean Claude Nana and Amira Abbas Abdalla, Jose Carlos and Olivia Aldana Martinez, Misael and Theresa Rodriguez Peña, Mwiti and Tatyana Murithi, and Eric and Bibiana Ndula seek to form a separate class action challenging ICE’s bait-and-switch practice. 

Elmer Sanchez, originally from Honduras has two children with his spouse, Alyse Sanchez. Their story repeats the clear pattern. At the couple’s marriage interview at the Baltimore USCIS office, Mr. Sanchez was taken into a separate room, put in handcuffs, and detained without being allowed to say goodbye to his family. 

His spouse Alyse Sanchez, said, “I was guided out of the room and then they detained my husband. I cried and asked, ‘Can’t I say goodbye to him?’ They said that was against policy.”

On June 13, upon hearing that Mr. Sanchez was set to be imminently deported, the ACLU of Maryland and Venable LLP filed for an emergency order, identical to Mr. Lin’s case before Judge Hazel, and ICE agreed to release Mr. Sanchez from detention. ICE also agreed to release Mr. Nana from immigration detention and they have since been able to return to their families.  

Elmer Sanchez said, “I love my wife and kids very much. But what scares me most is leaving my children alone because they have no fault in this. That is the ugliest part of all of this. Many homes are being destroyed because of a government policy. Nobody wants to leave their children. That is the trauma that stays with a person—being separated from your family. That is the trauma that will always stay with me.”

Jean Claude Nana, who is originally from Cameroon, and his spouse Amira Abbas Abdalla went to their marriage interview on August 22, 2018. Like the Lin family and Sanchez family, Mr. Nana was arrested after their marriage interview at the USCIS office in Baltimore. Mr. Nana was held for nearly ten months in immigration detention in Frederick County.

Nana’s spouse Amira Abdalla said, “Everyone loves Jean Claude. We trusted the legal immigration system, but it shouldn’t be this way.”

The remaining couples were either too scared to attend their interview, or have an upcoming interview that they are scared to attend. Theresa Rodriguez Peña went with her immigration attorney without Misael to their marriage interview, and the interview was cut short because Misael was not there. Even when their immigration lawyer cited to the preliminary injunction in Lin v. Nielsen, the USCIS officer ignored it, not finding it relevant. Olivia Aldana similarly went to a marriage interview without Carlos, and she was told to reschedule for another day. Mwiti Murithi and Eric Ndula have upcoming interviews and are worried that they, too, will be arrested. They are faced with the distressing decision of either risking arrest and continuing the process, or abandoning ever getting a Green Card.

ACLU of Maryland Immigrants’ Rights Fellow Nick Steiner said: “The Baltimore ICE office is clearly following a practice that disregards the rules and regulations that are meant to prevent such family separation. They cannot continue traumatizing immigrant families unchecked, and in complete disregard of the statutory and constitutional protections that exist for immigrants.” 

Venable LLP’s Maria Rodriguez and Nate Berry said: “An independent judiciary is vital to the strength of our democracy. It is only thanks to federal judges that this administration’s often harsh and illegal immigration practices have been kept in check.”

The immigration process that these Maryland families are trying to use the “stateside waiver process”—a lengthy and complicated immigration procedure available to immigrants with deportation orders to receive a Green Card as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. The first step is to file a form I-130 petition, which necessitates a marriage interview where an immigration officer assesses the bona fides of the petitioners’ marriage to ensure it was not entered into for any improper purpose. Then, the immigrant must obtain various waivers to restrictions on re-entry, exit the U.S. and obtain the proper paperwork from a U.S. consulate abroad. With visa in hand, the immigrant then returns to the U.S. and may enter as a legal permanent resident. The whole process takes years to complete, so federal immigration laws and regulations created the possibility of completing the necessary paperwork “stateside”, so that the immigrant does not have to wait abroad for approval of all the forms. These regulations turned a years-long family separation into a matter of weeks or months.  

The plaintiffs are represented by Nick Steiner and David Rocah of the ACLU of Maryland, and Maria Rodriguez and Nathaniel Berry of Venable LLP.

Learn more about Sanchez v. McAleenan and Lin v. Nielson here.