Mommy had to go away for work — that’s what loved ones are telling 4-year-old Danna Grace, anyway.
That’s how Omaha dad Jose Rodriguez explains the sudden absence of his wife, who hadn’t missed a bedtime story with their first-born until May 9. That’s the day immigration agents followed Ada Claros del Cid from her daughter’s day care, then handcuffed and detained the pregnant woman before deporting her to El Salvador.
Though mom and daughter talk by phone, more than three months have passed since the two last saw each other in person. And Danna Grace told her dad: “Tell mommy she doesn’t need to work anymore. I don’t want any more toys.”
Such scenes underscore how the Trump administration’s stepped-up enforcement efforts have separated families far from the United States-Mexico border.
Area lawyers don’t expect that to change, and neither does the federal government.
President Donald Trump pledged a crackdown on immigration during his 2016 election campaign and was cheered at a West Virginia rally last week when he described America’s immigration laws as “a disgrace.”
A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, when asked about the expectant Claros, pointed to a 2017 directive that said ICE no longer will exempt classes or categories of “removable aliens” from potential enforcement.
In a region that includes Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas and Minnesota, ICE during the last fiscal year made 4,175 arrests for immigration violations, up from 2,500 (67 percent) from the previous year. The arrests of foreign nationals with no criminal convictions jumped even faster, more than tripling in that St. Paul, Minnesota-based region from 317 to 1,144.
The number of immigrants deported last fiscal year from the region that includes Nebraska and Iowa went up overall by 55 percent, to 2,841.
While interior enforcement has revved up under Trump, the Migration Policy Institute said in a recent report that ICE arrests and removals nationwide during fiscal 2017 were still about half their peaks during the early Obama years — before that administration narrowed its priorities to focus on immigrants that pose a risk to public safety.
Both the institute and local immigrant advocates say immigrant communities today are more fearful because of the combination of Trump-era harsh rhetoric and policies that have resulted in more arrests of people not suspected of risking public safety.
This month, the immigration spotlight turned more sharply toward the nation’s interior states when a high-profile sting based in Nebraska ensnared 133 workers suspected of being in the country illegally and 17 businesspeople accused of a conspiracy to exploit illegal labor. The investigation’s scope spanned from a tomato greenhouse in O’Neill, Nebraska, to a farm in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.
Claros’ case is separate and unrelated to that Aug. 8 operation, but Omaha attorney Brian Blackford said his client’s circumstances illustrate the federal government’s ramped-up efforts.
Now 31 years old, Claros is a former Benson High School student with only a shoplifting offense (for which she was fined $100 in 2010) on her record. She is five months’ pregnant and, Blackford said, far from the “bad hombres” Trump has said he wants to boot.
Claros was targeted, both ICE and Blackford say, because of a judge’s removal order issued in 2005 in Texas after she crossed the border illegally. She was 17 years old then, fleeing from violence and gang activity in San Salvador that, she said, killed one of her brothers.
Her father, already in the U.S., brought her to Nebraska, and she didn’t return for the Texas court hearings in which she could have argued why she shouldn’t be forced to leave the country.
“She was at the mercy of her parent to take her there,” Blackford said. “That didn’t happen. She’s the one that has to pay for it.”
Claros met Rodriguez at church. They married nine years ago and started their own family. Though she knew that she was in the country illegally, Claros said in a phone interview that she was unaware of the deportation order and its ramifications.
“It’s a huge shift, a huge shift,” Blackford said of the pursuit and detention of an undocumented immigrant not considered a risk to public safety.
ICE spokeswoman Nicole Alberico said Claros was sent back to El Salvador on Aug. 10 — following three months of detention, mostly in an Iowa jail — after she had lost a July appeal to reopen removal proceedings dating back 13 years. “She has been afforded due process in all stages of her immigration case.”
An ICE statement reiterated that the federal government recently ended the “presumption of release for all pregnant detainees” to better align with the president’s executive order of 2017. (ICE says, though, that it tries to avoid detention of pregnant women during the third trimester.)
Gary Walters from the Immigrant Legal Center of Nebraska and Iowa said foreign nationals with previous removal orders (but no bad criminal history) were never immune from arrest. But he said Nebraska and Iowa increasingly feel the shift away from the more narrow Obama-era focus on arresting public safety threats and national security risks. The current approach grabs more “low-hanging fruit,” he said, often going after easier-to-find immigrants with old deportation orders who have settled into communities, jobs and family lives.
Across the country, the Pew Research Center estimates that there are about 43 million immigrants in the U.S. About 11 million of those are undocumented immigrants — including about 45,000 in Nebraska and about 40,000 in Iowa.
Blackford, who took over Claros’ case after the earlier appeal loss in July, has not given up on his client. He believes that she has a legal shot based on a little-publicized 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows certain people to apply for cancellation of removal if they weren’t given proper notice of their court date, place and time.
If that strategy works with the U.S. Department of Justice Board of Immigration Appeals, Claros’ 2005 file could be reopened. At that point, Blackford said, he would argue that she has been in the country more than a decade and should remain with her U.S.-born child who otherwise would suffer extreme hardship.
Now Claros’ family reunion is a race against time, the attorney said.
If the pending appeal is successful, Blackford plans to seek her return from El Salvador to attend court hearings. He wants that to happen before she can’t fly, before the child’s due date in December. If the baby is born abroad, it would have no legal right to come to the U.S., he said.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez, who has spent more than $12,000 in legal fees, remains torn.
His heart wants to follow his wife. But he has a local roofing and siding company in Omaha, and doesn’t think he could provide for his family in the homeland he left as a kid.
“They don’t do siding and roofing there,” he said. Relatives warn him of escalating gang violence in El Salvador.
“If I go, what’s going to be the future there for my kids?” Rodriguez said. “Maybe I’m going to have one daughter here and she’s going to have the other there. It’s a horrible choice.”
Rodriguez can’t travel between countries to visit his wife due to his tenuous status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Blackford said. While the Obama-era DACA program shields recipients brought to this country illegally by their parents, current rules won’t let him leave without risking his U.S. status.
(Unlike Claros, who was 17 when she crossed illegally, Rodriguez was eligible for DACA because he was under age 16 when he entered.)
For now, Rodriguez sends moral and financial support to his wife, who is with relatives in El Salvador, and tries to occupy Danna Grace with happier thoughts.
He takes her see a therapist. But he avoids too much information about his wife’s situation, instead turning to YouTube for tips on styles for little girls. “I tried to do her hair the other day,” Rodriguez said. “It really looked bad, but she said, ‘No, dad, it looks pretty good.’ ”