In July 2017, Iglesias de Dios Pentecostal Church in New Haven swarmed with national press, protesters, Connecticut’s U.S. Senators and Governor Dannel Malloy.
They gathered to meet Nury Chavarria, a single mother who Immigrations and Customs Enforcement had ordered to board a plane back to her native Guatemala. Chavarria said she couldn’t leave her four children who were born in the United States, including a son with cerebral palsy who requires near-constant care.
Instead, Chavarria sought sanctuary at the church while her immigration lawyers pulled all-nighters. A week after ICE ordered her to board a plane back to her country of origin, an immigration judge in Hartford issued her an emergency stay.
“Wow! It’s great news for me and my family,” Chavarria said through a Spanish interpreter, moments after she left the church. “I want to thank all the people who were with me in this very difficult time.”
Chavarria became one of the first high profile cases to win a court-issued stay since the start of the Trump administration.
“It was the first case that really involved compelling circumstances where ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) just said the temporary stay is not going to be granted,” said Glenn Formica, Chavarria's immigration lawyer.
Chavarria had an outstanding deportation order from an immigration court, but she had checked in yearly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement since 2011. Each year, ICE officials granted her a stay—until 2017.
Since Chavarria’s case, more than half a dozen other parents made headlines in Connecticut when they challenged their deportation orders. Still, Formica said that court-issued stays, like the one he was able to win for Chavarria, are rare.
“They are the extreme minority,” Formica said, “I mean extreme minority.”
Formica said the press would not hear about most deportations because parents feel embarrassed to put their families’ pain on display.
At Formica’s law firm, up to 30 people a month ask him to help their cases, but he can’t. Most have exhausted their legal options.
Formica said since July, “We boarded a lot of people on airplanes.”
ICE used to issue many stays at their own discretion each year. Formica said those discretionary stays were the only thing keeping his clients here, unless a change in circumstances made it dangerous to return to their country of origin. A rare, court-issued emergency stay may offer some parents hope, but it is not a happy ending.
“Even when these cases are reopened, they still have to get relief,” Formica said, “In some cases it's just postponing a removal date to some time in the future.”
ICE’s annual report says removals of people living in the country have gone up 37 percent since the Trump administration scrapped Obama-era immigration priorities.
“Those are easy numbers for ICE to get because they've already been through the immigration court process. They already have removal orders,” said Heather Drabek Prendergast, the top liaison to ICE for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “The only thing that's left is getting them out of the country.”
Prendergast’s colleagues who work with ICE in New England estimate that 98 percent of stay applications get denied. ICE did not return requests for comment.
Prendergast said individuals who used to receive discretionary stays from ICE may have serious illnesses or strong family ties to the United States. With the large backlog of cases in immigration courts, she said it could take years to deport someone who was arrested in 2017. So, people with outstanding immigration orders become the easy target.
“This isn’t something where ICE has to send five agents, you know armed, with full protective gear to do a raid at somebody's house to get ‘em, right?” Prendergast said, “This is a safe and easy removal for ICE. All they have to do is put them on the plane to go home.”
This month, Governor Dannel Malloy stood with a somber-looking Toni Huang in Hartford, one day before he was set to board a plane back to his native China.
“This is one of the folks who the government is seeking to deport,” Malloy said as he gestured toward Huang.
ICE ordered Huang and his wife, Kris, to fly back to China by Lunar New Year. They have two children born in the U.S. who attend school in Farmington, Conn.
Malloy told reporters this is the third case he decided to speak for because the Huang parents are not what President Donald Trump had called “bad hombres.” Breaking immigration law is technically a civil infraction, not a criminal infraction.
“Other than the question of their status, they have lived honorable and decent lives, contributing to society and contributing to the welfare of their children,” Malloy said.
Hours after the press conference, the Huang family learned that the U.S. Court of Immigration Appeals granted them a stay to reopen their case.
Lawyers claimed the Huangs could face religious and ethnic persecution in China. They’ll now have the opportunity to present that argument in court and let an immigration judge decide whether the Huangs will eventually board a plane back to their native China—or get a rare chance at legal residency.