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Immigration attorneys describe surge in deportations under Trump

GRAND FORKS — For Grand Forks' single immigration law firm, business is growing and changing under President Donald Trump.

New executive orders made by the president led to a 38 percent increase in the number of people detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in the first quarter of 2017, which local attorneys say has changed the status of immigration law in the region and across the country, and crowded the dockets of the nearest federal immigration court in the Twin Cities.

Last year, Swanson Law Office was working mostly to get H1-B high-skilled immigrant worker visas, J-1 student visas, and helping those who marry foreign nationals obtain citizenship for their spouses.

"Recently, we're seeing a lot more deportation defense," Billy Bailey, an attorney at Swanson Law Office, said. "It's really ramped up."

At the Bloomington, Minn., Immigration Court, where most immigration cases originating from North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota are processed, the caseload has increased.

At the end of May, the court had 5,666 cases pending, according to Kathryn Mattingly, a press secretary in the executive office for immigration review within the U.S. Department of Justice.

In Fiscal Year 2016, the Bloomington Immigration Court handled 2,767 cases total, with 1,668 cases completed, Justice Department records show. The court has just three full-time judges, though rotating judges help with caseloads.

People detained in North Dakota and in northwest Minnesota are typically brought to the Grand Forks County Correctional Center, an ICE-friendly facility, for about a week before being brought to Sherburne County, north of Minneapolis, to await their hearings, immigration lawyer Sue Swanson said. Waiting up to three weeks in the Sherburne County jail before making an initial appearance has become a regular occurrence, she said.

Swanson said the rates of bond set by ICE and U.S. Border Patrol agents have also risen this year, preventing many clients from bailing out while awaiting their court appearance, where bonds are typically lowered.

"I have a client with no criminal record who has a $23,000 bond," Swanson said.

Swanson and Bailey said the courts have become so backlogged that many of their clients have their next hearings scheduled for 2019.

'Everyone is a priority'

With the ramping up in enforcement comes a change in who is prioritized for deportation. Bailey said he has clients who are students who recently completed their studies and are being sought for deportation. They were likely found by ICE checking on the J-1 student visa database, he said.

"They are checking the database for students and actively looking for students."

That is a departure from the last 25 years, experts say.

"Before you had to get yourself in trouble first and they'd say, 'We've got an immigration issue,' " Bailey said. "Everybody is a priority now."

He said he has clients who were students in western North Dakota whose J-1 status had expired and were picked up by Border Patrol agents for deportation.

Bailey and Swanson said Border Patrol is increasingly working with ICE in northern North Dakota to assist in detaining deportees.

Swanson said for those whose legal status has expired or is under review, it is common for them to meet with ICE to discuss their cases. But now those routine check-ins have turned into deportation detentions.

"They're telling them they just need to talk," Swanson said.

But once the talking is over, many are being arrested and fast-tracked for deportation, a course that had been reserved for violent criminals and drug dealers in the past.

"There's really nobody being released anymore," she said.

Lt. Derik Zimmel with the Grand Forks Police Department said if officers are interacting with people who they have reason to believe are not in the country legally, they reach out to federal authorities.

"We're just simply going to contact Border Patrol and they would take over the investigation," Zimmel said.

He said officers might determine someone's status based on running names through law enforcement data systems, seeing if stories add up or other investigational circumstances. Border Patrol has access to federal resources and databases local agencies do not.

Zimmel said occasionally Border Patrol agents assist with language barriers between officers and Spanish speakers in the community.

A long process

Jose Garcia has two days permanently etched in his memory: Nov. 23, 2008, when he received his permanent resident status in the U.S., and March 23, 2012, when his wife received hers.

Now a cook and waiter at the Casa Mexico restaurant in East Grand Forks, the Jalisco, Mexico, native said it took about two years to get his green card.

Obtaining legal residential status in the U.S. is a long, complicated process, Swanson said.

Garcia said when his wife was still awaiting permission to enter the U.S., he would return to Mexico twice a year to see her and their two daughters. The wages he was able to earn in the U.S. helped, but the distance was hard.

Their third child, a son, was born in the U.S. after his wife got her residency.

"Now, we're all here," he said with a smile.

Garcia and Julia Mejia, an El Salvador native with permanent residency in the U.S., said fear of immigration enforcement is not as high among the Hispanic community in northwest Minnesota. Eating at Mejia's El Gordito Market in Crookston, Garcia and Mejia said that most in the local community either have permanent residency status or are U.S.-born from border states.

About six months ago, Garcia said a man he works with at Casa Mexico was stopped by police and the Border Patrol came to translate. Now, that man is back in Mexico.

"Asi es la vida," Garcia said. That's life.

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