How to Stop a Deportation

Written for Tikkun on July 28, 2013

by Puck Lo

How to Stop a Deportation

by Puck Lo

On an overcast September morning that seemed like any other, twenty-year-old Steve Li woke up early and began getting ready for his classes at the City College of San Francisco.

He ignored the unexpected ringing of the doorbell, until it was replaced by an urgent pounding at the door. Moments later, as he stood in the bathroom, he heard his mother’s voice as she answered the door.

What happened next is a nightmare familiar to some 11 million undocumented people who reside in the United States, many of whom live day to day with uncertainty.

Deportations are on the rise. According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, last year they hit a record high of nearly 410,000, a rate double what it had been over the previous 10 years. And that number doesn’t include “voluntary returns”—mostly people who are picked up by border patrol and forced to leave. Under the Obama administrations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has deported more people than during Bush’s presidency. Nearly half of those deported in fiscal year 2012 had no criminal record, like Steve Li. Of those with criminal convictions, most were convicted of low-level offenses such as forgery, driving without a license, or drinking in public.

Too often, individuals facing deportation have often endured this process in isolation, sometimes further isolated by feelings of shame. But with increasing frequency, communities—often those with the fewest legal rights—are organizing to expose and resist the violence of deportation.

It is an understatement to say that it is difficult to stop a deportation. Legal codes regulating immigration and deportation can be arcane and esoteric, and are described as among the most complicated of U.S. laws. Nevertheless, victories are possible. One ad hoc defense group convinced a state senator to intervene in a deportation. Another campaign halted a seemingly irreversible final removal order at the eleventh hour—the procedural equivalent of slamming the brakes on a train and watching it come to a screeching halt at the edge of a cliff. Other times, victory manifests in meaningful but less measurable forms: a box full of letters, an extension granted in an appeals process, or a packed room full of supporters.

The Arrest and Detention of Steve Li

While Li showered, five ICE officers searched his family’s small San Francisco apartment.

Li, known for his ready smile and happy-go-lucky attitude, had lived in the United States since he was eleven. He had not realized that he was undocumented until that moment—emerging from his shower in a pair of sweats and a t-shirt—when the agents handcuffed him. The agents told Li that he would be deported back to Peru, his place of birth.

Handcuffed, he started crying.

“I didn’t know what to think,” he said later. “Just the thought of me going back to a country I no longer know, and I have really no memory of… I just went through the movements.”

Li’s parents, Chinese nationals, hadn’t realized their visas had expired. They had lived legally in the country for decades and hadn’t realized that anything had changed. They thought they were in the process of applying for asylum, Li said. Both had driver’s licenses and work permits.

The ICE agents, clad in dark blue and black, interrogated the lanky, bespectacled youth. They wanted to know where his father, a small business owner, worked.

“They said they were going to help me if I cooperated with them,” recalled Li, whose normally cheerful expression flickered with the memory. “They told me, ‘You won’t have to get deported if you tell me where your dad is.’”

“I was just shocked,” he remembered. “I just kept saying, ‘I don’t know.’ But once they found my dad, the ICE officers told me: ‘You’re done. You lied to me. You’re going to get deported now, and we’ll do everything we can to deport you.’”

Li and his mother were loaded up into separate black vans. They were not allowed to talk. Steve watched through the windows as the vehicles traced the familiar route to his father’s shop. He wondered if he would make it to school today.

After the ICE agents picked up his father, Li and his parents were shackled and seated separately on a bus with about fifty others and driven to the Sacramento Country Jail. They endured long waits before being processed and were forced to sleep on dirty floors in overcrowded holding tanks. Once processed, Li was not eligible to see a judge or to consult a lawyer. All he knew was that he had a final deportation order and that he would be deported to Peru as soon as possible.

Once a person is in removal proceedings, chances of winning are bleak. People fighting their cases in immigration court must pay for their own lawyers. As a result, almost 70 percent of people detained don’t have legal counsel, said immigration lawyer Sin Yen Ling, who would eventually become Li’s attorney. Even with a lawyer, the path to freedom is fraught with bureaucratic obstacles.

“The legal options to stay in the United States are narrow in scope and not everyone fits within the confines of what the law requires,” Ling said. “Compounding that problem is a legal system—immigration court—that operates and functions with a purpose of removing people as fast as the court can without recognizing people’s due process rights.”

While in custody, Li was unable to reach anyone outside the jail. The phones were only set up to call phone numbers that had prepaid accounts to accept collect calls, he said.

“It was like one day we just dropped off the face of the earth, and no one knew where we were,” he said.

He couldn’t reach his parents, and didn’t even know if his parents were being deported. Finally, a month later, another inmate informed Li that his parents had been released.

“I was really happy, because if my parents got out, I thought that this nightmare would finally be over,” Li remembered.

Soon afterward he was taken back to San Francisco, where he waited for hours in the ICE holding tank.

“Some people there I heard were getting released, and others were actually going to be sent to Arizona. I really thought that I was one of the people who were going to be released,” Li recalled. “Until someone came in and gave me a paper saying that I had to sign it, and that I was going to be transferred to a detention center in Arizona. And if I don’t sign it it’s ‘failure to comply,’ and that I will have to go to prison for five years.”

Li boarded the plane in a daze.

“At that time I really thought everything was over, that they were just going to put me on a plane and fly me somewhere without anyone knowing at all. I just felt hopeless,” he said.

On an average day, ICE employees arrest 108 people, process 1,177 arrestees into detention centers, keep 33,384 prisoners in detention centers (for an average of twenty-nine days per person), and deport 1,057 people from the United States.

Li would spend two months in detention in Arizona, sharing a cell with sixty-four other prisoners at a facility with about 400 other people awaiting, or fighting, deportation. He watched people come and go. Some had been fighting their cases for years. Others “come in Monday and are deported on Wednesday.” He passed the time helping other prisoners who needed help filling out their paperwork. He talked to them and was moved by their stories.

“They were risking their lives to come here, to the United States,” he said, sounding sad. “Hearing other people who were in the same situation as I am—who were just students here trying to make something better for themselves—waiting for deportation, just really opened my eyes to this injustice that we have in America. I myself didn’t know anything about this, until I finally saw it in person. And it just made me really mad.”

In Arizona, Li was finally able to call home, by spending his wages of $1 a day that he made working full-time as a dishwasher in detention on the pay phone. He learned that he had a lawyer. He also heard that his friends and family were holding demonstrations and rallies, and fighting for his release.

“When I heard that, it really kept me going forward, really helped keep my spirits up,” he said, looking less grim. “That there were people out there who cared about me and were fighting for me to come back home.”

Looking to the Example of Laibar Singh

If a formula could be found for how to succeed in halting a deportation, it may well be culled from the tumultuous year-and-a-half campaign to keep Laibar Singh in Canada.

Three years before Li and his parents disappeared from their San Francisco apartment into the byzantine system of criminal alien removal proceedings, at the departures section of the Vancouver International Airport in Canada, Singh, a man en route to his deportation flight to India, watched with disbelief the crowd that had gathered to prevent his plane from leaving.

Singh, a forty-eight-year-old Punjabi from a lower caste in India, originally arrived in Canada in 2003 to seek asylum. Three years later he fell ill, became paralyzed, and fought his case from a bed in a Sikh temple. A few years later, he inadvertently became a local hero and national symbol.

To prevent his scheduled departure on December 10, 2007, about 1,500 protesters—South Asian grandmothers with young children, men wearing turbans, and allies from other communities—had taken over the entire international departures area. A cavalcade of cabs with Punjabi drivers had given free rides to protesters. Buses full of impassioned supporters stalled traffic on area roadways and bridges.

For hours, people continued to arrive, in droves. At the center of the commotion—amid the shouting, impromptu bullhorn speeches, and chants—was Singh, looking dignified, upright in the back seat of a taxi. He was surrounded by his community—people who saw their own grievances mirrored in his mistreatment.

Handwritten cardboard signs read: “Save Life of Mr. Singh,” “Wrong Deportation,” and “Shame On Haste Decision.”

Airport police stared from the sidelines, looking bewildered.

“Nobody is going to move an inch!” a couple of women yelled at them accusingly in Punjabi.

Singh had entered Canada as a refugee claimant, utilizing a strategy common to many refugee seekers. He carried falsified papers that he declared as fake to Canadian immigration authorities at the time of his arrival. Although both international and Canadian refugee law recognize that Singh’s entry was legal, media reports later constantly referred to Singh’s entry as “illegal.” Harjap Grewal, an organizer with No One Is Illegal, an anti-colonial immigrant and refugee rights group, said this characterization sowed xenophobia among white Canadians.

Until 2006, Singh worked jobs in construction and agriculture. At the same time, he continued to apply for asylum. The Canadian government denied his request. While seeking other legal alternatives, he contracted a spinal infection that left him paralyzed from the neck down. In 2007, while Singh was receiving treatment at a medical care center, he was notified by the Canadian Border Services Agency that he would be flown back to India the following day. Within hours, an angry and indignant South Asian community—mobilized by a strong independent media network serving Punjabi, Hindu, and Urdu readers and radio listeners—quickly came to his aid. They planned an emergency rally for the following morning, and 300 people pledged to support the ailing man. That evening, Singh announced that he was taking sanctuary in a gurdwara, or Sikh temple.

During the following months, No One Is Illegal, various gurdwaras, and conservative South Asian politicians formed a coalition to support Singh’s right to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds.

Grewal’s organizing work with No One Is Illegal was unpaid. For him and his partner, Harsha Walia, organizing around Singh’s case was at times “like a full-time job,” he said later. Both Grewal and Walia worked with No One Is Illegal, and they were well known by the South Asian community. No One Is Illegal, according to Grewal, has enjoyed an astounding 90 percent success rate in stopping—not just delaying—deportation cases and winning full legal status for claimants applying for humanitarian relief.

Over the next half-year, Grewal watched Singh’s health improve during his stay at the gurdwara as a result of home-cooked meals and frequent visits from supporters. He watched Singh’s face brighten as he admired drawings children made for him. The two shared stories about Punjab, the region where Singh and Grewal’s families are from. Grewal talked about the solidarity work his collective engaged in with First Nations communities, and Singh expressed much interest.

Meanwhile, Vancouver’s South Asian radio stations broadcast numerous talk show conversations about Singh defying his deportation order. At gurdwaras after prayer, Grewal and Walia spoke to hundreds of people at a time, distributed flyers translated into Punjabi, and participated in countless debates on immigration and race with the ubiquitous family friends everyone called “auntie.”

“The conversation kept being started and talked about,” Grewal said. “It got to the point where either your parents or your kids were talking about Laibar Singh.”

The Mobilization of Steve Li’s Community

In San Francisco in November 2010, twenty-one-year-old Marilyn Luu began to worry.

Usually, she saw Steve Li at dinners they shared with their former Asian American Studies professor, Sang Chi, who taught at City College of San Francisco. But for three weeks, Li hadn’t returned texts or calls. So Luu went on Facebook, hoping to clear things up. She sent a message to a relative of Li’s who lived outside the United States and was stunned when she received word that Li was in detention in Arizona and awaiting deportation to Peru.

Luu called Sang Chi. “We knew right away we had to do something about it,” she said.

A small core group, comprised of Luu, Professor Chi, other friends of Li’s, Attorney Yen, and others, began meeting every few days. They planned rallies, press conferences, and phone-banking parties to spread awareness and flood senators with messages to support Li. They collected hundreds of letters.

“Time was of the essence,” Luu recalled. “Everything felt very spontaneous, very last-minute. We barely had time to put the speeches together. But it was the most amazing thing—it always worked out.”

Hundreds of people came to rallies. Meanwhile, Attorney Yen brainstormed some legal and bureaucratic hold-ups that could push back Li’s deportation date. She applied for a “deferred action” with ICE. If granted, Li’s deportation would be delayed. If her application were denied, Yen figured, she would ask Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Barbara Boxer or Representative Nancy Pelosi to sponsor a private bill that would, even if voted down, automatically buy Li some time. If that also failed, she aimed to try to delay Li’s deportation for six months by requesting that the Peruvian government delay issuing documents to ICE that were necessary for Li’s deportation.

“Generally, if the government detains someone with a final order for more than six months, the Supreme Court requires that the government release that person if the person cannot be removed after six months,” she explained.

Then, after three weeks of protests, press conferences, and adrenaline-rushed organizing, Yen told Luu that the immigration office would be deporting Li in three days.

“We thought, ‘I guess we did all we could,’” Luu remembered. “We’d better start planning for what we could do for Steve once he gets to Peru. We kind of gave up.”

In Arizona, the news hit Li hard when he got on the phone with his lawyer that night.

“There was nothing else I could do,” he recalled thinking. “I was just really sad. I talked to my parents, and my mom was crying, and my dad was crying too. All my friends were crying, and I was just getting really depressed.”

That night, Li couldn’t sleep. The next morning, he couldn’t bring himself to eat anything.

He was in for yet another shock.

At the urging of Attorney Yen and others, at the eleventh hour, Senator Feinstein finally agreed to intervene. She introduced a private bill that sought to grant Li an immigrant visa and stop his deportation. While it never passed Congress (and few expected it to), the introduction of the bill alone put his deportation on hold for a year.

The same day that Senator Feinstein introduced her bill, Li was released. Later that day, he sat, incredulous, on a Greyhound bus, which plodded north through the desert landscape. He was going home.

The Mobilization to Protect Laibar Singh

For the first few weeks of his stay seeking sanctuary at the gurdwara, Singh’s health seemed to improve dramatically. He regained limited arm and hand motion, and he was able to sit up. His spirits were high.

Then, by mid-August Singh’s health had deteriorated. Concerned caretakers rushed Singh to the hospital. They were devastated when the following night nearly thirty uniformed officers, border services agents, and undercover officers arrived to haul him away. His deportation was scheduled to take place in five days.

“That was a brutal moment,” Grewal recalled. “They arrested him, took him to a detention center. There he was put on concrete slab bed, without bedding. He was screaming.”

Singh’s supporters flew into action, organizing delegations at regional citizenship and immigration offices across Canada. They continued pushing for a humanitarian review of his case, spoke to the press, and delivered letters of support for Singh to politicians. Eventually, one of those politicians—Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day—granted Singh a sixty-day stay of removal.

By October, 35,000 people had signed a petition supporting Singh’s right to stay on compassionate and humanitarian grounds. His advocates continued winning him stays and extensions, securing victory in twenty-day increments. But the endgame was near. In late November the Canadian government refused Singh’s humanitarian and compassionate claim. They announced Singh’s newest scheduled deportation date: December 10.

Tensions were high. Momentum was building, Grewal said. One demonstration in the nearby city of Surrey—a South Asian stronghold—brought out 800 passionate supporters who braved a “huge snow dump.” Their efforts were completely ignored by the English-speaking press.

As a cold December approached, Singh and his supporters braced themselves. Conservative South Asian politicians continued to petition Stockwell Day, who had granted Singh’s last stay of deportation. No One Is Illegal spread the word far and near that on the day of the deportation, everyone should congregate at the airport.

But nothing could have prepared Grewal for the turnout he saw on that day. It was triple what he had expected—about 1,500 people. As the massive crowd formed a protective human shield around the taxi that held Singh, Grewal thought, with joy, “My job organizing is done.”

“That was the energy,” he said later. “People had done their own organizing—the individuals who told their kids to take off school and got their families out there. That’s what a truly grassroots movement is.”

After hours of raucous but peaceful protest, the Canadian Border Services Agency decided to call it a day. Singh’s departure flight left without him. There was no word on a reschedule.

“For safety and security reasons, Mr. Singh’s deportation has been delayed,” Canadian Border Services Agency spokesperson Derek Mellon told the Canadian Press that day.

The cheering, victorious crowd—which included an ecstatic Singh—dispersed.

Steve Li’s Bittersweet Victory

Today, two years after his incarceration and whirlwind escape from deportation, Li is still quick to laugh and as easygoing as ever.

Last fall, he transferred to the University of California, Davis, where he majors in Asian American Studies. With enthusiasm he said he’s considering a career in health care, and he mentions with pride that he attended a summer program for pre-med students at Stanford University.

“That was really nice, and I got to meet a lot of students who want to go into the health care field as well,” he said.

He’s also speaking at events in Davis and building awareness about undocumented Asian Pacific Islanders.

But his voice drops when he mentions his parents, who, months after his own release from detention, were deported to China.

“I was definitely not expecting that,” he said haltingly. “Seeing them being forced to leave the country to go back to China, a country that they have not been back to for over thirty years—and to go back without really anything to show the family was really sad.”

Because of his own immigration status, Li is unable to visit them. And his parents are barred from applying for a visa for ten years, he said.

“I definitely cannot leave the country, so I don’t know really when I’ll be able to see them again,” he said, then fell silent.

Li himself has been able to remain in the United States, thanks to Senator Feinstein’s bill, which she reintroduced in 2012. But this year, when the bill expires, Li hopes he’ll have qualified for a two-year stay under Obama’s “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program, which allows many students who would have been eligible for the DREAM Act to stay for two years and possibly quality for work permits.

For now, Li said, he’ll focus on that—and graduating.

“There’s really no plan after that,” the twenty-two-year-old said. “Being an undocumented immigrant, really you can’t plan in advance because you never know what is going to happen.”

Political Backlash Against Laibar Singh

The year after Singh’s deportation was so dramatically stopped was not easy on him or his supporters.

The English language press attacked him vituperatively, framing the costs of his illness as a burden to and abuse of the Canadian health care system. Reporters described his supporters as “a mob.” Right-wing pundits accused him of “hiding” and “evading the law.” Articles written by journalists often used terms identical to those they used to describe Osama bin Laden, activist Grewal noted wryly.

“This had become a national issue,” said Grewal. “It really had an impact on people that was really hard—recognizing how racist a society we really live in.”

South Asian parents complained that their children suffered increased racial harassment at schools. Within the broad base of South Asian community that had supported Singh, fractures began to worsen, and more conservative South Asian politicians quietly stepped away.

“Suddenly, people withdrew their support from him for political or ideological reasons,” Grewal said. “Some people were starting to say stuff like, this isn’t good for the community, that shutting down an airport isn’t something a respectable community does.”

With supporters stressed and divided, Singh’s days in Canada were numbered. In October 2008, no longer able to endure living in limbo, Singh announced his decision to return to India.

It’s a loss Grewal said he still feels today.

Lessons for Future Anti-Deportation Campaigns

Part of what makes organizing against detention so difficult is immigration laws are extremely technical and complex, and difficult to fight without expertise, according to immigration lawyers. People in custody are often moved rapidly and without warning.

What’s more, immigration and asylum laws are different in every country and they constantly change, so it seems nearly impossible to draw any commonalities for organizing purposes.

However, deportation cases do not exist in a vacuum.

“As activists and community organizers, we are the people who need to understand the legal process but also provide options,” Grewal said. “Once you’ve lost your hearing, a lawyer might say to you—‘OK, there’s nothing more you can do.’ But we as organizers know that there’s still plenty to do—everything from blocking a deportation to having a campaign. No politician is ever going to tell you those are options.”

Looking back now, Grewal said he thinks he can pinpoint the exact moment that could have changed everything in Singh’s case. It was right after the announcement had been made that Singh’s deportation had been stopped. It was right before everyone went home.

“It was the highest point of the campaign—but we allowed it to go back to politicians, who said they would reflect on it to make a decision,” he said. “That was our mistake. If politicians are saying you should ask for a one-year stay, then we should tell them no, we are still asking for permanent status, now.”

He recalled a different sanctuary case that No One Is Illegal had worked on in from 2005 to 2007. After two years of living in a church, Iranian refugee claimant Amir Kazemian was suddenly arrested and was in an immigration cell, ready to be deported. But at that moment, the years of high-profile campaigning and organizing finally came together, Grewal said.

“Immigration gave him status on the spot,” he said. “We don’t believe it happens, that the only victories that are possible are, get a stay, a year. But a stop of a deportation isn’t a victory—status is the victory. The person being able to stay is the victory.”

He added: “This is something I’ve been thinking about. If you’re organizing without any concerns of what politicians might or might not do—they’re still going to do what they’re going to do. You don’t need to sit at the table.”

After the airport rally, Grewal recalled: “More conservative elements in the community were literally saying to us, ‘Stop having these demos. We’re trying to work something out here with the politicians like Stockwell Day.’”

He paused.

“What happens when you stop organizing is you lose the momentum while waiting for politicians to act,” he added. “That day at the airport—what would it have been like if airport had been shut down for more than five hours?”


Puck Lo is a writer living in Oakland, California. In 2011 she worked as a researcher and community-building coordinator to support undocumented student organizing at UC Berkeley.