OCILLA, Georgia (Reuters) - Morena Vasquez didn’t want to drive that February night last year, but a co-worker at her job cleaning offices near Atlanta needed some keys dropped off.
“I knew it was my responsibility,” Vasquez said.
Driving was always risky for the 38-year-old mother of six. An El Salvador native, she had crossed illegally into the United States as a teenager, and though she had lived in Georgia for 23 years, she was unable to get a driver’s licence under state law.
Within minutes of heading out, Vasquez saw police lights flashing in her rearview mirror.
She panicked and sped up. Then she thought better of it. After all, two previous traffic violations had resulted in only a ticket or a court date. She pulled the car over and stopped.
And with that, a 15-minute errand turned into a nightmarish entanglement in the toughened-up immigration policies of U.S. President Donald Trump – an experience that tore apart the life she had spent more than two decades building for herself and her family.
Local police arrested Vasquez and quickly handed her over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, who packed her off to the agency’s detention centre in Ocilla, Georgia, at the other end of the state. There, ICE officers decided against releasing her on bond. She would have to stay behind bars while awaiting the outcome of the deportation proceedings brought against her.
For the next year, Vasquez languished in the crowded detention centre. She repeatedly asked an immigration judge for bond so she could await her day in court back with her family. And repeatedly, bond was denied as ICE argued that she was a flight risk. Even after a judge ruled that she had the right to stay legally and permanently in the United States, she was kept locked up for five more months as ICE fought the decision.
She lost her two jobs – teaching Spanish at a preschool, as well as the office-cleaning gig. She lost the five-bedroom house she rented. Her six children, ages 4 to 17 at the time of her arrest and all of them U.S. citizens, had to relocate in the middle of the school year to live near their ailing grandfather in another town, far from the detention centre.
In one of the letters Vasquez’s children sent to the immigration court during their mother’s incarceration, 9-year-old Kevyn pleaded: “Pless. Pless. (Please. Please.) I want my mom to take care of me and my little brother. I don’t want my mom to go to Salvador.”
President Trump has often pointed to Central American gang members and other criminal “animals” as the main targets of his strengthened immigration-law enforcement. But as his administration has expanded its dragnet under a series of executive orders, ICE has locked up thousands of people like Vasquez – people with little or no criminal history, with deep roots in their communities, who present little flight risk.
In earlier years, ICE would have released many of these people on bond soon after their arrest, allowing them to live with their families while awaiting legal proceedings that can take years. Now, ICE is denying bond for many of those people and pushing to keep them in detention for the duration of their cases, Reuters found, based on an analysis of government data and dozens of interviews with immigration judges, lawyers and current and former officials.
“There has been a noticeable change since the administration took over of greater reluctance, if not outright unwillingness, by ICE to entertain or grant bond,” said Greg Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
ICE officials did not respond directly to that assertion, and the agency declined to provide complete data on the number of bonds it has issued. ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke said that decisions are made on “a case-by-case basis, taking into account factors like immigration history, criminal history and community ties.”
While ICE bond numbers are not available, data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which oversees the nation’s immigration courts, provide evidence that immigration officials are increasingly denying bond in the Trump era.
The number of detained immigrants requesting bond hearings in immigration court – their only option if ICE denies them bond when they are arrested – surged 38 percent during the first year of the Trump administration from the previous year to 73,000, a two-decade high, a Reuters analysis of EOIR data shows.
At the same time, immigrants are being held in detention far longer, as many initially denied bond by ICE are forced to await the outcome of subsequent bond hearings in court. The average length of detention for non-criminals reached 63 days in April 2017, double what it was a year earlier and the longest monthly average since at least 2010, according to the most recent ICE data.
The Department of Justice, which oversees EOIR, declined to comment on the Reuters data analysis.
The increasing number of bond hearings is also thwarting the Trump administration in its effort to reduce a ballooning backlog of cases in immigration courts. As judges have been forced to shift their dockets to make room for bond hearings, the backlog has surged, reaching an all-time high of 711,142 pending cases in May this year.
Recent media attention has focussed on the Trump administration’s policy of removing children from parents caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. The Reuters findings show that denial of bond is also separating families that have been in the country for years and include children who are U.S. citizens.
“It’s not like criminal proceedings where in 48 hours somebody is deciding whether or not you need to be in jail,” said Katherine Evans, who directs the immigration clinic at the University of Idaho College of Law. “This is four to six weeks later. … You’ve already lost your job, you have no income, all of the consequences of being in jail are imposed before you can get any review of whether or not you need to be in jail.”
“It’s an absurd, let alone inhumane, expenditure of resources,” said Elizabeth Matherne, Vasquez’s lawyer. “You are putting people in cages that are not harmful to society.”
Under longstanding U.S. policy, immigrants caught crossing the border illegally and those with serious criminal records are subject to mandatory detention, allowing for exceptions on humanitarian grounds.
Most of the rest – those without serious criminal records already living in the United States and often with deep ties to their communities, like Vasquez – in earlier years were typically released on bond, immigration lawyers said.
But in one of his earliest executive orders, Trump put all immigrants living in the country illegally on notice: Officials were directed to “ensure the detention of aliens apprehended for violations of immigration law pending the outcome of their removal proceedings.”
In other words, anyone apprehended on immigration violations could be locked up. The move was strongly backed by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other longtime critics of the practice they derisively call “catch and release,” whereby immigrants deemed low-risk are released soon after arrest to fight their deportation cases.
To conform to Trump’s policies, Reuters has learned, ICE modified a tool officers have been using since 2013 when deciding whether an immigrant should be detained or released on bond. The computer-based Risk Classification Assessment uses statistics to determine an immigrant’s flight risk and danger to society.
Previously, the tool automatically recommended either “detain” or “release.” Last year, ICE spokesman Bourke said, the agency removed the “release” recommendation, but he noted that ICE personnel can override it.
The impact of these changes was immediate. The number of immigrants with no criminal history that ICE booked into detention tripled to more than 43,000 in 2017 from a year earlier, according to agency data.
And while ICE continues to arrest more immigrants with criminal records than those without, the most recent data that the agency provided show that in the first 100 days of the Trump administration, the most serious crime committed by nearly half of those arrested was an immigration or traffic violation, not including drunken driving.
When Vasquez was arrested last year, her record showed two convictions in 2014 for driving without a licence and other traffic violations. It also showed that in 2004, Vasquez was sentenced to probation for contributing to the delinquency of a minor after a child she was babysitting wandered too close to a highway.
Douglas County police held Vasquez briefly, she said, before they transferred her to adjacent Cobb County, one of several jurisdictions in Georgia where local police are deputized to act as federal immigration agents. The number of these so-called 287(g) agreements has more than doubled under Trump.
Sean Gallagher, director of ICE’s enforcement and removal operations in the Atlanta field office, covering Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, said he strongly supports the partnerships. He said some of his officers were frustrated by Obama-era policies that targeted high-priority immigrants for deportation but ignored others.
Now, Gallagher said. “the policy is really, really clear. It’s that we will make no exceptions.”
The Atlanta field office arrested more than 5,700 non-criminals in 2017, nearly six times as many as the year before and the highest increase in the nation.
Police records show that because Vasquez had failed to appear in court for one of her traffic tickets, ICE in 2015 had issued a “detainer” for her arrest – a notice to local authorities of her illegal presence in the United States. Cooperating police departments automatically turn over to federal authorities any immigrants with outstanding detainers who are picked up in their jurisdictions.
After her arrest, Vasquez was frantic. She had left her sleeping children in the care of her 17-year-old daughter. She called the pastor at her church to pick up her car and alert everyone at home.
“I know how hard all of this has been on her … and on all the kids,” said Ruth Negron, pastor at Iglesia Cristo Reina, where Vasquez attended services several times a week and led a drama group.
Vasquez was just getting back on her feet, Negron said, after her Mexican husband was deported five years earlier and subsequently disabled in a car accident. She had only recently moved herself and the children out of a trailer and into their larger rental home.
When ICE denied Vasquez bond at the time of her arrest, any hope she had that she would be released soon and back with her family evaporated. Within days, she was taken to the agency’s Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, near the Florida border.
A month later, Vasquez had her first hearing in front of Judge William Cassidy, broadcast via grainy video feed from his Atlanta courtroom.
“I was going ... to see if you could give me a bond, because I have six children and I am the head of my household,” Vasquez told the judge, according to a transcript.
The ICE prosecutor countered that Vasquez was a flight risk because of her failure to appear in court on earlier traffic charges.
Judge Cassidy agreed. He urged her to get a lawyer and sent her back to detention.
The entire proceeding lasted less than five minutes.
Matherne, the lawyer who later took Vasquez’s case, and other immigrant advocates said that before Trump took office, such a case — involving an immigrant with a relatively clean record and long-established in the United States — would never have gone this far.
“How it used to work is they would go through the ICE processing centre and some sort of analysis would take place and you wouldn’t even see people like Morena in detention,” Matherne said. “They would be released under supervision or on their own recognizance” and given a court date to contest their deportation order.
Supporters of the Trump administration’s tough enforcement say that’s the problem – that releasing immigrants on bond encourages them to skip court dates and go into hiding. Making that argument last October, Attorney General Sessions noted that deportation orders issued in absentia “have doubled since 2012, with nearly 40,000 in the 2017 fiscal year.”
EOIR data confirm the increase, but also show that most immigrants still show up for their court dates: 74 percent of immigrants appeared at their final hearings in 2017, down from 90 percent in 2012.
While the number of people requesting bond hearings in immigration court has surged, they are no more likely to succeed at winning release than they were during the Obama administration. Last year, immigration judges granted bond in 42 percent of cases, similar to the rate in prior years, according to the Reuters analysis.
Judge Cassidy, who denied Vasquez’s bond request, fell below the national average, granting bond in 35 percent of cases over the past decade. (In an investigation last year here, Reuters found that decisions on whether to deport illegal immigrants or allow them to stay in the country vary widely among immigration courts. Judges in Georgia and North Carolina were among the toughest.)
In more than 30 bond hearings Reuters observed in February and March at immigration courts in New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta and at the Stewart Detention Center, another Georgia facility, ICE prosecutors agreed to negotiate bonds in only three cases. And in each of those, bond was set at more than $10,000 (£7,572), far above the $1,500 legal minimum.
Sums like that can be prohibitive. Unlike U.S. criminal defendants, who can usually put up 10 percent of their bail amount with a bondsman and secure their release, immigrants must post their bonds in full.
Arturo Flores, a 45-year-old Mexican immigrant and single father, had been living illegally in the United States for more than 17 years when he was arrested in November 2017 in North Carolina for driving 15 miles an hour over the limit and without a licence. In North Carolina, as in Georgia, people without legal immigration status can’t get licenses.
ICE set his bond at $12,000.
The family didn’t have enough to pay. His two teenage children, living with an uncle after their father was placed in the Irwin County Detention Center, had just sent what little money they had to Mexico to help pay for their mother’s funeral, who died while their father was in custody.
In January, Judge Michael Baird granted Flores’s request to lower the amount, to $5,000. It took the family another two months to scrape together the cash.
Flores said his health deteriorated during nearly four months in detention. Less than a week after his release in March, he had a stroke and was hospitalized.
He thinks the ordeal contributed to his health problems. “I was very stressed out and worried about my children surviving without their mother or their father,” he said from his home in North Carolina, where he is waiting for his next hearing in immigration court.
Some immigrants facing long incarcerations decide to give up and leave the country.
Hender Huerta, a 30-year-old former police detective from Venezuela, applied for asylum in December 2016, six months after coming to the United States with his pregnant wife and his daughter on a tourist visa. Huerta had been active in opposition politics back home, and in his asylum application, he said he had received death threats for his anti-government activities.
Huerta could remain free while pursuing his asylum claim because he and his family had entered on legal visas. But on Feb. 17 last year, he was pulled over on a traffic stop in Georgia. He said the officer told him his Venezuelan driver’s licence was not valid in the state.
He tried to explain his situation, including that he had a newborn at home, but the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, which has an enforcement agreement with ICE, handed him over to federal authorities.
“The ICE officer told me because of Trump’s policies anyone who has a pending process will move on to immigration detention,” Huerta said.
He waited four months at the Irwin County Detention Center for a bond hearing. Last June, Judge Earl Wilson in Atlanta refused to release him because his asylum hearing was just a few days away. Then at that hearing, Judge Wilson denied Huerta’s asylum claim, saying he had not provided enough corroborating evidence to support his claims of persecution.
Huerta’s lawyer, Sarah Owings, said her client could have gathered the necessary documents if he hadn’t been incarcerated.
“I can’t believe the court found this man a flight risk,” Owings said, according to a recording of the hearing.
Owings told Reuters she thought Huerta would have had a strong case on appeal, but to Huerta, the prospect of remaining in detention was unbearable. He waived his right to appeal. The judge ordered him deported. Huerta thought Venezuela was too dangerous, so he made his way to Mexico, where he now works for a food distribution company.
“At first, I had hope I would get out,” Huerta said via phone from Hermosillo, Mexico. “But my wife and daughters didn’t have anywhere to go, and I had no way to help them.”
In detention, Vasquez, too, had no way to help her children.
After her church persuaded her landlord to let her out of her lease, her children slept on the floor of a cousin’s house for several weeks. Then their grandfather, a U.S. green-card holder ill with diabetes, found a place where all of them could live in Rome, Georgia, an hour from their old home.
The eight-hour round-trip drive to the detention centre made it hard for Vasquez’s children to visit. They wrote their letters to the court to plead to have their mother back.
Vasquez earned $1 a day washing dishes in the detention centre kitchen. She felt humiliated when she joined the other inmates as the guards herded them into the cafeteria for what they called “chow time.” The phrase reminded her of a dog food commercial. She lost 20 pounds.
In May 2017, her case was moved from Judge Cassidy to Judge Wilson, the judge who had denied Huerta’s asylum claim. In a series of hearings through spring and summer last year, Vasquez’s repeated requests for bond were denied.
Vasquez despaired. Giving up and returning to El Salvador, a country unknown to her children, was not an option. When she was a teenager, a friend had tried to recruit her to join a violent street gang. When her mother found out, she sent Vasquez to live with her father in the United States.
Vasquez’s sister stayed in El Salvador. She was murdered by gangs in 2012, her face mutilated with stab wounds, local police records show.
Vasquez’s mother, Ana Henriquez, wrote to the court from El Salvador, pleading with the judge to let her daughter stay in the United States. “The situation here is horrible,” Henriquez wrote. “I cannot feed or look after my daughter and my grandchildren. They are North Americans and I am very poor.”
In September, Vasquez had a hearing on the merits of her case. Judge Wilson found that she had “worked hard in the United States, and has taken care of her family, and for the most part has stayed out of trouble.”
As a result, he ruled that Vasquez was eligible for “cancellation of removal,” meaning that her deportation order would be withdrawn and she could live and work legally in the United States.
The government appealed the ruling, arguing that Vasquez had failed to prove that her father, a permanent U.S. resident, and her six children, citizens all, would suffer “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” if she was deported, the standard required.
She was sent back to detention.
All hope seemed lost. But unbeknownst to Vasquez, her eldest daughter had told her teachers about the family’s predicament, and that the school had helped them contact pro-bono lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Now with legal counsel, Vasquez asked for another bond hearing. And on Feb. 20 — a year since her arrest — she found herself again facing Wilson on the video feed.
“I was so nervous … my feet were shaking,” she said. “I think I told him my name three times.”
Her lawyer, Matherne, reminded Wilson that he had granted Vasquez’s request to stay legally in the country more than five months earlier.
“Well, what’s the hold up?” Wilson said. “Why isn’t she released?”
The prosecutor at the hearing, Alex Brown, argued that Judge Wilson’s cancellation of Vasquez’s deportation order would probably be overturned on ICE’s appeal, which would give Vasquez an incentive to go underground if she were released. He suggested a $7,500 bond.
Matherne said the amount was unreasonable. “The respondent’s father has been taking care of six children on his own,” she said. “He’s diabetic, and he has heart problems. He’s exhausted his savings.”
Judge Wilson agreed. “She’s not going anywhere,” he said. “I think this is a $1,500 bond case.”
When the judge announced he would grant the lowest level of bond allowed, other detainees in the room burst into applause.
Vasquez’s family scrambled to borrow the money to pay the bond that day.
A week later, the Board of Immigration Appeals threw out the government’s appeal, clearing the path for Vasquez to stay permanently in the United States.
Vasquez is now working odd jobs on construction sites and staying with roommates in Cobb County, looking for a place to settle with her children while she waits to complete all the steps needed to obtain her green card.
“I feel knocked out and confused,” Vasquez said. “It’s a big adjustment getting back into society again.”
Edited by Sue Horton and John Blanton.