Saturday, we went out to a picnic. Sunday, we were going to go to church. On Sunday morning around 8:30, they knocked on the door really hard. They called from outside: “Maria Lopez, this is immigration. We need to talk to you.” Maria didn’t have nothing to fear, so she went down. They asked, “Does your husband live here?”—Vern, Guatemalan deportee1
Vern went downstairs and the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents at his door handcuffed him and put him in their car. His wife and two children were devastated as they watched Vern being taken away. Eight days later, Vern was deported to Guatemala. Maria had to figure out how to get by with her minimum-wage job. Vern had to learn to readjust to Guatemala City—which he had left eighteen years earlier.
There have been five million deportations from the United States since 1997—two and a half times the total of all deportations prior to 1997. Mass deportation has not affected all immigrants equally: the vast majority of deportees are Latin American and Caribbean men. Today, nearly 90 percent of deportees are men, and over 97 percent of deportees are Latin American or Caribbean, even though about half of all non-citizens are women and only 60 percent of noncitizens are from the Americas.2
Vern, for example, was born in 1971 in Guatemala City to a single mother who struggled to get by. When Vern was sixteen, he got a job as a bus inspector. When he and his coworkers began to organize a union, they received death threats. Vern saw emigration as his best option for survival. With no option to enter the United States legally, Vern decided to enter surreptitiously.
When Vern arrived in the United States in 1991, he applied for asylum. The Immigration and Naturalization Service gave him a work permit as his case was being processed. Vern thus began to work in a frozen food processing plant in Ohio. He met a Honduran woman, Maria, who had also applied for political asylum, and they began to date. Each year, they received work permits that allowed them to continue working. Hopeful their cases would eventually be resolved, Vern and Maria married and had their first child, born a U.S. citizen, in 1996.
In 1998, Vern received a notice that he should leave the United States. His asylum application had been denied, even though he had faced death threats over trying to organize a union. If Vern had an immigration lawyer, his asylum plea may well have [End Page 531] been granted: 88 percent of asylum seekers without lawyers are denied. Vern’s plea may also have been granted if he had a different judge. Some judges have a record of denying 100 percent of asylum cases, whereas other judges deny as little as 4 percent of asylum cases. In Cleveland, where Vern’s case was heard, the approval rate by judges varies from 50 to 87 percent.3
When Vern heard that his plea was denied, he was distressed—he had established a life in Ohio and had few ties to Guatemala. He decided to stay and hope that his wife’s application would be approved, and that she could apply for him to legalize his status. They had another child and continued to make their lives in Ohio. Vern became a supervisor in the food processing plant. Maria also worked there, but she worked on the line, earning less money than Vern.
Vern and his wife had a comfortable life in Ohio, but Vern lived in fear that immigration agents would come looking for him. To avoid this, he stayed out of trouble. He did everything he could to avoid problems with the police—he never drank, avoided committing traffic violations, and abided by the laws at all times. He learned English, took his kids on outings every weekend, and tried to blend in as much as possible. Vern told me, in deliberate English, “I was a model citizen.” Then, he followed it up with “. . . or illegal,” clarifying that his good citizenship behavior did not actually endow him with...