Leandro Arriaga arrived at the immigration office with his US citizen wife and three-month-old daughter on Wednesday.
Their lawyer knew the meeting was a risk. Arriago, 43, who had come to the US from the Dominican Republic in 2000, did have an order of deportation out against him. But she had never had a client detained at a US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) meeting before.
The arrest of Arriago and at least three other people in Massachusetts this week while they were applying for their green cards marks a dramatic shift in immigration policy, say attorneys and experts.
A total of five individuals were arrested in total according to a statement from Immigration Customs Enforcement (Ice), which was responding to “an investigative tip”.
Susan Church, the head of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says that at least three of those people were in the process of applying for green cards and did not have criminal records.
“This is what we all feared,” said Church.
She said Wednesday’s detentions, first reported by WBUR, signify that the goal of Donald Trump’s administration is not to target criminals or in the president’s words, “bad hombres”, for deportation.
“These people universally are trying to follow the laws, they are trying to follow the rules,” said Church. “[These] people are not placed in hotel rooms when they are arrested, they are placed in detention with other individuals with significant records, and they are held there without any significant opportunity to get bond, without any opportunity to see a judge, it’s utterly inhumane.”
Arriaga owns five properties, two in Lawrence and three Springfield, which he maintains and rents. He pays taxes, say his attorneys. Along with his four American born children, ranging in ages from three months, to thirteen years, he also supports his mother-in-law and his wife’s grandmother.
The Arriagas were meeting at USCIS to get an I-130 approval, or permission to apply for a green card on the basis of his wife’s citizenship. The purpose of the meeting was to determine the legitimacy of the couple’s relationship.
Catherine was interviewed first and then Leandro. Then the USCIS officer told the Arriagas and Palumbo to take a seat in the waiting area.
“She told us that she needed to review his previous file,” said Palumbo.
Then the officer called Leandro and Palumbo back. Palumbo said the USCIS officer sat them both down, asked if he was aware of a final order of removal, and called in two officers from Ice to detain him.
“They ask, ‘Do you want to see your wife and children? and he says, ‘No, no, I don’t want her to see me like this,’” said Catherine Arriaga.
Leandro Arriaga is now being held in the Bristol County jail.
“It’s too hard,” says Catherine of being left to care for her infant daughter on her own. “All his life here,” she says. “He has no criminal record, he has four children here, he is a hard worker and I don’t what happened.”
Church, who tracks detentions in New England, says that under the later years of the Obama administration, people who did not have criminal records were not priorities for deportation. Under George Bush’s administration, she only once had a client detained at the USCIS office, but she was released the same day.
The recent arrests mark a stark change in tactics, said Church. “This administration is processing them, detaining them, and my understanding is not letting them go,” she said.
Brian Doyle says he has a client who was detained under similar circumstances on the same day, 29 March. His client, a Brazilian woman in her late 30s, is also married to a US citizen and has a US born teenage child. She is a small business owner who employs between 8-12 people, and asked that her name not be released.
She came to the United States in 2001 and overstayed her visa. She does not have a criminal record, he says.
She was detained immediately after she and her husband were interviewed for I-130 approval, which would have paved the way to her obtaining a green card.
She is now being held in the Suffolk County house of corrections.
Doyle, who called her arrest “shocking”, says the detention is the first in his career under these circumstances.
Ice said in a statement that all five individuals arrested have deportation orders against them, and all will be “held in custody pending removal from the United States”.
Palumbo says she is working to get Arriaga released, but his arrest will dramatically change how she advises clients in the future. In a recent consultation, she met with a client who had an order of deportation but had been married to her American husband for five years. “I have to say to her, listen I have a client be arrested so I don’t feel comfortable doing a process if your husband is going to be arrested.”
She added: “This is a whole new class of people who now has to live underground.”