CALIFORNIA, MD – This Valentine’s Day, Mr. Wanrong Lin and Ms. Hui Fang Dong are celebrating their reunited family and the love of being together and with their three children after being cruelly torn apart by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “bait and switch” practice last August. Like other ICE offices across the country, the Baltimore ICE office is detaining and deporting non-citizen spouses of U.S. citizens, when they show up for appointments required as part of the process established by the federal government to allow those spouses to obtain legal status to remain in the United States. In a remarkable turn of events, after ICE put Mr. Lin on a plane and he was being deported to Shanghai, China, a federal court judge ruled that ICE must return Mr. Lin to the United States.
Ms. Dong is a naturalized U.S. citizen from China, and Mr. Lin is an undocumented immigrant also from China, who has lived peaceably in the United States for over 25 years. They have been married for 14 years, have three children, and own a Chinese restaurant in their community.
“I broke down. My mind went blank when they arrested me. I worried about my kids, what would happen to them, and when I can see them,” said Mr. Lin, who is trying to obtain a Green Card to stay with his wife and children, who are all U.S. citizens. “I felt relieved when I came back to the U.S., like a brick has come off my shoulders.” He added: “When I was at the detention center I saw a lot of people in similar situation.”
What happened to Mr. Lin is not an isolated incident. Across the country, ICE has been detaining and deporting non-citizen spouses of U.S. citizens when they show up at required appointments, and the ACLU has challenged the practice in cases in Massachusetts and New Jersey. In Calderon v. Nielsen, the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts barred ICE from deporting Lilian Calderon, a mother of two, and the ACLU of Massachusetts is now seeking to challenge the bait-and-switch practice through a class-action lawsuit. In Martinez v. Nielsen, the U.S. District Court of New Jersey also stayed the deportation of Antonio de Jesus Martinez, a father of two, with the case currently on appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
The process that Mr. Lin and others have been attempting to avail themselves of is called the “stateside waiver process”—a lengthy and complicated adjustment of immigration status procedure that undocumented immigrants must go through in order to become Green Card holders through their U.S. citizen spouse. The first step is to file a form I-130 petition, which includes 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.
In August 2018, Mr. Lin and Ms. Dong went to the Baltimore U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office to attend the “marriage interview,” the first step in the stateside waiver process after filing the initial form. The officer approved the couple to proceed with the legalization process. But instead of being sending them on their way, Mr. Lin was taken to another room where two ICE agents placed him in handcuffs and sent him to an immigration jail. He was never able to say goodbye to his wife or kids, who were in the next room.
“I felt like the sky was falling when Wanrong was taken away. Our children cried, had trouble sleeping, and worried whether I would be taken away from them too,” said Ms. Lin. “I’d like to tell other families to believe in themselves and don’t worry. Then speak out and get help."
Mr. Lin was held in immigration detention for nearly three months, until the ACLU of Maryland (ACLU) visited him at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center. At 1 a.m. in the morning, just hours after the visit, ICE transported him to New Jersey to be put on a plane and sent back to China. Minutes before he was put on a plane, lawyers from the ACLU and Venable LLP learned of his imminent deportation and filed a lawsuit, asking for an emergency order to prevent Mr. Lin from being deported, and challenging ICE’s practice of arresting immigrants when they appear for appointments required by the federal government as part of the stateside waiver process.
While Mr. Lin was being flown to China, United States District Court Judge George Hazel held a hearing on the ACLU’s motion seeking an order blocking the deportation. Shortly before the plane landed in China, Judge Hazel granted the ACLU’s motion, ordering that ICE return Mr. Lin home to Maryland, and temporarily preventing ICE from removing him again, pending further Court order. Judge George Hazel’s remarkable decision was one of only a handful of instances where a federal judge ordered an individual returned after they had effectively been removed from the United States.
“We’re really grateful that Mr. Lin was reunited with his family and back home after ICE had illegally attempted to remove him,” says Nick Steiner, Equal Justice Works Fellow at the ACLU of Maryland. “ICE’s cruel bait-and-switch strategy unnecessarily rips families apart in violation of the Department of Homeland Security’s (“DHS”) own rules, traumatizing immigrant families for no reason.”
ICE’s bait-and-switch practice seems to be a deliberate decision to force people like Mr. Lin into the impossible choice of either giving up their path to legal status, or attending an appointment where they may never see their families again. The ACLU seeks to stop the Baltimore ICE Office from continuing this horrific practice, and to keep Mr. Lin in the United States and out of detention, so he may seek a Green Card while remaining here with his family, as DHS regulations expressly allow.
“It’s wonderful that Mr. Lin is back with his family, but the case and our work continue because the judge has not yet ruled on the legality of the bait and switch practice,” said Maria Rodriguez, an attorney with Venable LLP.
Mr. Wanrong Lin and Ms. Hui Fang Dong are represented by Nick Steiner and David Rocah of the ACLU of Maryland, and Maria Rodriguez and Nathaniel Berry of Venable LLP.