Rochester, who drives a tractor-trailer for UPS, had voted for Trump in 2016. He says he liked Trump’s law-and-order message, and he never imagined that his wife, a stay-at-home mother with no criminal record, would be treated as one of the bad immigrants Trump vowed to remove. But he and his wife grew increasingly wary as Trump decreed that any undocumented immigrant could be deported and immigration agents became more aggressive. González Carmona had crossed the border without papers nearly two decades earlier. Based on poor advice from a lawyer, Rochester said, she decided to stay ahead of the authorities by agreeing to leave for Mexico on her own, believing she would have a quick turnaround back to the United States.
Not long after she left, a new lawyer they hired to handle González Carmona’s return discovered an old record of a formal deportation she was unaware of, when she had been caught and expelled at the border 18 years earlier, at the peak of a huge migrant influx under President Clinton. By long-standing law, she was barred from entering the United States for 10 years.
Six months after she departed in 2018, 5-year-old Ashton was diagnosed with cancer. He had a kidney removed and underwent 10 months of radiation and chemotherapy. González Carmona was stranded in Mérida, in southeastern Mexico. The family photos from that time are of Ashton, bone-thin and attached to a tangle of tubes in a hospital bed, with Rochester holding up a mobile tablet and his wife watching their son from afar.
She asked the Trump administration for an emergency permission, known as a humanitarian parole, to return to care for Ashton. On Aug. 31, 2018, an immigration official informed her in writing that there were no “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit” to grant her request.
“I can’t stand to think about the things Ashton used to ask me when he was sick, why she wasn’t there,” Rochester said.
Ashton’s cancer has not reappeared, and his father says he understands better now that González Carmona “made a mistake” that prevents her from being with them. As U.S. citizens, father and son can travel to Mexico, and have done so a few times a year to see her.
Yet Rochester says he and his son are the ones being punished. “We’re citizens,” he said, “and we have to choose between our wife and mother or our country.”
Rochester and his wife are preparing a new request for a humanitarian parole. Federal officials have broad powers to grant those paroles, which allow foreigners into the country for a short time, without providing any immigration status. A task force Biden set up to reunite families that were separated at the southwest border under Trump’s zero tolerance policy is issuing paroles to bring parents in to rejoin their children. Administration officials said the task force is a testing ground for a broader use of paroles to reunify more families of immigrants who were deported.
Since several federal agencies are involved, the work to organize the review process is slow going, officials said, and no deadline for announcements has been set. But the goal is clear: “We’re eager to bring people back in who shouldn’t have been removed in the first place,” said a senior immigration official involved in the planning, who was not authorized to speak publicly about ongoing discussions.
To date the administration’s highest priority have been military families and veterans, after Biden made promises to help them during his campaign last year. Espinosa, the Homeland Security spokeswoman, said her agency is also working to create easier pathways to naturalization — the process to gain U.S. citizenship — for those families. While estimates are inexact, officials say at least 11,800 active-duty service members have close relatives facing deportation, and hundreds of veterans have been expelled.
The administration already made good on Biden’s promise in one prominent case. On May 8, Alejandra Juarez, a Mexican woman who had been forced to leave in 2018, was reunited with her family near Orlando, Fla. Her husband, Temo Juarez, served in the Marines and is an Iraq combat veteran, and he and their two daughters are American citizens. Juarez benefited from years of advocacy by her congressman, Rep. Darren Soto of Florida, a Democrat, and a star turn by her daughter Estela, then 11, at the Democratic National Convention last year.
In a letter on June 9, more than 80 immigrants’ rights organizations urged Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to create a centralized review office for veterans and other groups. Advocates have likened their proposal to the recent efforts to overturn and make amends for wrongful convictions in the criminal justice system.
“We are not asking for special treatment,” said Nayna Gupta, a lawyer at the National Immigrant Justice Center who is leading the push for deportation reviews. “It’s just making the law do what it was intended to do.”
In addition to paroles, officials are looking at reopening deportation cases in court to give immigrants another chance and offering waivers to remove obstacles blocking immigrants from obtaining legal green cards through family members. With Biden already facing accusations from Republicans that he is letting in swarms of criminals at the southwest border, senior officials are anticipating intense opposition, and they are working to armor the review process, which they say draws on well-established executive branch authorities, against legal challenges.
Mayorkas has directed officials to closely examine claims of immigrants who said they were deported as punishment for political activity. “Retaliation in response to the constitutionally protected right of speech, that is just unacceptable,” Mayorkas said at a conference at the University of California, Los Angeles law school in April.
Claudio Rojas, who is from Argentina, was deported by immigration agents under Trump in 2019 shortly after a film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival that depicted the audacious resistance he had helped to organize years earlier inside an immigration detention center in south Florida. Filmmakers have rallied to press for Rojas’s return.
A question for Biden administration officials is whether they will also extend opportunities for return to people who were deported under Obama, when Biden was vice-president and Obama was lambasted by activists as “the deporter-in-chief.”
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