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A Deportation Nightmare in the Bronx

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On the corner of Alexander Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard, in the Bronx, there’s a piano factory, a new barbecue restaurant called Hudson Smokehouse, and a Black Lives Matter mural painted recently enough that the clear-eyed, fist-raised protesters it depicts are wearing face masks. You can hear the trucks rumbling on the Major Deegan Expressway, one block north. Looking south, a sliver of Manhattan is visible beyond the Harlem River. This past week, I met Dariela Moncada Maradiaga on that corner, which is a few blocks from her apartment. She told me about how, nearly fifteen months earlier, it was the spot where her brother Javier Castillo Maradiaga was arrested and her family’s American story began to unravel. “Sometimes, as an immigrant,” she said, “it’s just your turn.”

Dariela, who is in her mid-thirties, and works as a waitress, is the eldest of four kids. Her mother, Alma, who works as a clerk at Metropolitan hospital, in East Harlem, came to America from Honduras in 1997, under a special U.S. government designation called Temporary Protected Status. In 2002, she sent for Javier and Jason, her youngest children. The boys made the journey north, across the southern border, when Javier was eight and Jason was six. Dariela joined them a few months later. (A fourth sibling stayed in Honduras.) Ever since, Dariela said, Javier and Jason have been as close as brothers could be.

The trouble began with a birthday party. On December 14, 2019—a Saturday—Dariela invited her family over to celebrate Jason turning twenty-four. The plan was to have dinner and then, at Jason’s request, watch a U.F.C. fight. Jason and Alma arrived early. Dariela’s ten-year-old daughter was there, too. By the time the food was ready, they were only waiting on Javier. “Hey, is your brother coming or what?” Dariela remembers asking Jason.

Jason called Javier, who told him that he had been stopped by the police. Without telling the rest of the family what was happening, Jason ran out to the corner. Javier was wearing a black cap and a white jacket. His arms were being held behind his back by two N.Y.P.D. officers. Jason began filming on his phone. “What’s going on?” he said. “Can I ask what’s going on?”

“He’s being stopped for a traffic infraction,” one of the officers said, telling Jason to back off.

“They say that I crossed the street on red,” Javier told his brother.

“For jaywalking?” Jason shouted. “White people here don’t do that? They don’t cross the street?”

“He got stopped for disobeying a pedestrian-control device back there,” the officer said, gesturing up the block.

Several more police vehicles, including a van full of officers, arrived on the corner. Jason called Dariela. “The police just took Javier for jaywalking!” he said. Dariela, in a rush to leave, put on flip-flops—in December—rather than lace up a pair of shoes. She and Jason went to the police precinct a few blocks away, and then, the next day, they went to a nearby courthouse, to post bail for Javier. Jason was there until around three in the morning, when he saw a Department of Correction bus drive away from the building with Javier inside.

Later that day, Javier was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement—a violation of New York City laws that would soon prompt a Department of Correction internal investigation. But that investigation would do nothing for Javier. He’d spend two Christmases, a pandemic, and a change in Presidential Administrations inside immigrant detention centers in New York, New Jersey, and Louisiana. Javier could be put on a plane to Honduras as soon as next week.

This was all a big mistake. While reporting this article, I obtained a letter that New York City’s Law Department sent to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan on February 3rd, acknowledging that Javier had only been turned over to ICE because of “an operational error involving the City’s local detainer law, which has since been addressed.” According to city officials, after Javier’s transfer was discovered, one Department of Correction employee was suspended, and then moved to a different unit in the department. The D.O.C. also put in place new procedures, such as involving its attorneys more closely in reviewing interactions with ICE. In a statement, a New York City spokesperson described Javier’s release to ICE as “an egregious mistake and a clear violation of local law,” adding that, “while we were unable to reverse this painful action, the City took immediate measures to ensure accountability for this misconduct, including officer discipline and clear procedural changes in how cases are reviewed.” The letter from the Law Department urged for Javier’s release, but ICE has remained implacable. In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the agency sent me a statement saying that Javier had been ordered to leave the country in 2003—when he was nine—and had “failed to comply.” “As of Feb. 26,” the statement reads, “he remains in ICE custody.”

During the Obama Administration, Javier had applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Even with the deportation order that had been issued against him, he met DACA’s qualifications, as did his siblings. In 2011, a year before the DACA program was created, Javier graduated from Knowledge & Power Preparatory Academy, in the Bronx. He always had a head for math, Dariela told me, and according to his niece he makes the best hamburgers in the world. DACA granted all three siblings a degree of legal status in America. Dariela described the feeling of freedom she had when she left New York City for the first time as an adult. In 2013, the family took Dariela’s daughter to Disney World.

After Donald Trump was elected, though, the siblings faced a choice. DACA status has to be renewed every two years. Many recipients became nervous about giving updated addresses and other personal information to an Administration that was trying to end the program altogether, and that was openly hostile to immigrants. “Trump was packing the courts, and the DACA cases were moving from court to court, and it felt imminent that they’d get rid of it,” Dariela told me. She reapplied, despite her reservations, feeling that she had to cling to whatever legal status she could, for her daughter’s sake. Javier, fearful of what the government might do to him, let his DACA status lapse.

Still, even without DACA, New York City laws should have protected Javier from ending up in ICE custody. In 2014, the city government put strict rules on interactions between city law-enforcement agencies and ICE. Only people with violent or serious criminal convictions on their records are allowed to be handed over. According to the latest data released by the Department of Correction, during a one-year span beginning in July, 2019, the department turned over twenty people to federal immigration authorities. Of those twenty, nineteen had violent or serious criminal convictions. The other person was Javier. City officials claim that he is the only known case of someone being transferred to ICE in violation of the new city laws, which went into effect in 2015. “He’s now spent nearly fifteen months of his life in prison for something that never should have happened,” Rebecca Press, an attorney with UnLocal, one of the legal-aid groups that’s taken up Javier’s case, told me.

The family initially tried to fight the situation on their own. They had the money to hire a private attorney, Dariela said, so their first impulse was to keep quiet, let the lawyer work, and hope for the best. They visited Javier when they could, at a detention facility in Essex County, New Jersey; a week and a half after Javier’s arrest, Jason, Dariela, and Dariela’s daughter spent Christmas Day there. But the stress took its toll. Alma began sleeping with her phone on her pillow, fearful of missing any calls. Jason began saying that, if Javier was deported, he’d go back to Honduras with him. Dariela’s daughter suffered panic attacks. On the day of Javier’s transfer to ICE, as the family scrambled to find out where he had been taken, Dariela had to cancel an admissions interview for her daughter at one of the city’s most élite private schools. Dariela would sometimes cry in front of her daughter, despite herself.

Alma Maradiaga, Javier’s mother, speaks into a megaphone at the Foley Square demonstration.Photograph by Lev Radin / Pacific Press / Shutterstock

A few months later, when the pandemic hit, the family splintered further. Visits to the detention facility were cancelled. Alma, as an essential worker, went into the hospital nearly every day, and stopped seeing her family, for fear of spreading the virus. The office where she worked was near the hospital’s morgue. “I’d see the corpses go by, and I’d cry, and I’d think about my son,” Alma told me. There were days when Javier, who is now twenty-seven, sounded despondent on the phone, wanting the ordeal to be over, even if it meant going to a country he hadn’t seen for nearly two decades. “He’d say, ‘I don’t want to fight anymore. It’s better to be free,’ ” Alma said. “I understood, but I also wanted him here.”

On the Presidential campaign trail this past summer, Joe Biden was promising that he would halt deportations during his first hundred days in office. He also pledged to end Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, reunite children who had been separated from their parents at the border, lift the Trump Administration’s restrictions on the right to claim asylum in the U.S., and enshrine the DACA program. “When Biden took the oath to serve, I cried,” Dariela said. But Javier still faced deportation. On the Wednesday in January when Biden took office, his Administration issued a hundred-day moratorium on deportations. Javier was in a detention center in Louisiana. That Sunday, his family, backed by immigration activists, held a rally in Foley Square, in Manhattan. On January 26th, Javier was flown to New York; two days later, after a federal judge in Texas issued a temporary restraining order against Biden’s moratorium, Javier was returned to Louisiana. On January 31st, Representatives Ritchie Torres, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and six other members of New York’s congressional delegation sent a letter to ICE leadership saying that the “uncertainty and confusion is terrorizing Javier and his family.” If Javier was released, he would be eligible to reapply for DACA, they pointed out. On February 1st, ICE granted Javier a thirty-day reprieve from deportation, giving his lawyers time to make more arguments for his release. But the agency has shown no sign of being willing to release Javier. “Even though Joe Biden is now the President of the United States, ICE operates like there has been no transfer of power,” Torres told me. “Javier has been in the U.S. since the age of eight. He’s every bit as American as I am.”

On Thursday, I spoke with Genia Blaser, an attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project, and asked her what she thought Javier’s case said about both New York City’s sanctuary-city policies and the Biden Administration’s commitment to protect immigrants. “The city has acknowledged that they violated the law, yet ICE is still furiously trying to deport Javier,” Blaser said. “It’s an indication that this is what our immigration system is. It’s not broken—this is exactly what it was designed to do.” For Blaser and other activists, Javier’s case illustrates the problem of using the criminal-justice system as a pipeline for ICE—a questionable arrest can lead to deportation. “Biden inherited this system that’s been built up over the last seventeen years,” Blaser told me. “What we’re waiting to see is how far is he willing to go to actually address the harms that the system has caused.”

Standing on the corner in the Bronx, Dariela said she felt exhausted. A few days earlier, I’d seen her leading another rally in Foley Square, shouting through a megaphone in the shadow of courthouses. The thirty-day reprieve was almost over. Javier had more court hearings scheduled, but it was impossible to say which way they would go. “At the end of the day, this just shows our rights can be trampled at any moment,” Dariela told me. Her family, which used to be so close, was scattered. Her mom was still working at the hospital. Over the summer, Dariela had a falling out with Jason, and hadn’t heard from him since. Her daughter had been able to reschedule her interview with the élite private school, which accepted her; this fall, she started sixth grade there. It’s the kind of school that feeds prestigious colleges and fuels big dreams. “She’s the first one in the family going through all these milestones,” Dariela said. “But everything now is sweet and sour.”

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