Handcuffed & Jailed, Nate Awaits His Fate in Bergen County Prison

Posted on March 27, 2019 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

Check Out This First-Person Perspective on the Current State of Immigration

On an early spring evening, three men and a woman directly impacted by recent changes in immigration law and enforcement met to hash out the current state of immigration in the United States.  This special group included an Indonesian refugee; Catholic Charities NY’s top immigration attorney/director of Immigration Refugee Services; one of the agency’s top social service managers/director of refugee resettlement; and the advertising agent, writer and inspiration for the Broadway play, “Come from Away” Their powerful and often painful conversation, hosted on March 21, 2019 at Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP, an international business law firm that provides pro bono attorneys to Catholic Charities NY for its work representing immigrants, forms the foundation of this four-part series.  Starting today and during the following weeks, check out their insider perspectives on the United States’ changed and challenging immigration system.

By C. Mario Russell, Esq.
Catholic Charities NY Director of Refugee Resettlement

Thank you, first of all, to Norton Rose Fulbright for making their office our home for a few hours – a place of common understanding and hope, among friends, supporters, and so many us sharing in this journey.  And equally, thanks readers, for your time, your interest.


Indeed, home is what we all know to be a place – our place -- of safety, security, comfort.

When four of us gathered at Norton Rose in midtown Manhattan to speak with others interested in the state of immigration in America, our program had everything to do with home, with the hope of a new home, with the need to be safe at home, and for home as the place where hope is kept intact and whole.

So let’s begin with the experience of one family, one once-safe home, torn apart by ICE.  On a Wednesday night, July 25, 2018, we received a call from Sr. Elizabeth in the Bronx. She told us that Nate (names changed to protect the family) had wandered into her community convent in the late afternoon and was looking for help for his family. He had 7 US citizen children (under the age of 15) and an undocumented wife and mother – no status – like himself.  

Nate had received a notice to report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement the next morning, July 26, for what’s called a check-in, but what, in his case, really meant enforcing a deportation order against him. Nate had been in the United States for over 15 years, an immigrant from Mexico, working construction, day labor, day jobs, building a family, paying taxes, creating a new and better life out from the suffocating poverty he had known in Mexico.

He had applied for immigration relief years ago, and because of poor legal representation, had failed in his bid. Prior administrations, recognizing the human reality of his situation—children, family, long residence and work history: in a word, a life and home created—allowed Nate to stay in the United States conditionally.

But, as of 2017, with a new administration, his time was up. Sr. Elizabeth told us that Nate insisted on checking in because he did not want ICE to come to his home and arrest him there and, worse, his wife also. He had no real choice.

Handcuffed and Jailed

The next day one of our lawyers met Nate at 7 am in the morning to accompany him at his ICE check-in. To no one’s surprise, he was handcuffed and transported to Bergen County Jail in New Jersey. Pleas for discretion, for consideration of his family and history, for just a little more time… were ignored. New policy; zero tolerance; new rules. The home was shattered. This was 7 months ago.

ICE arrests in NYC have increased by 88%, for over 3,400 last year, and the deportation of non-criminal immigrants has increased by 265% under this administration, from 300 in 2016 to 1200 in 2018. New deportation cases filed in 2018 in NYC are at 19,000, 30% higher than in 2016, with over 100,000 pending!

A Policy as Simple as It Is Brutal

Now, at the same time, last summer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” border policy targeting families and children who were seeking protection and a safe home in the United States. The policy was as simple as it was brutal: immediately physically separate children from the parents or custodians with whom they had travelled – many coming from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, seeking safe haven from violence, abuse, and conditions for life that were not sustainable. Place each adult in a federal jail and each child in a detention or shelter/foster facility, no matter the age of the child, the location of the facility, and the individual history or needs of the children.

Creating Fear

The intent was clear: separation and swift prosecution of parents for “federal trespass” will create fear among families seeking safety and reunification. While parents were detained in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, their children were placed in detention, shelter, and foster care facilities as far as Washington State, Virginia, and New York.

Over the course of the summer, between 2,500 and 3,000 families and children were believed to have been separated. That number has never been accurately accounted.

Catholic Charities NY Steps In

In New York, Catholic Charities was immediately involved in leading and coordinating the representation of close to 400 children who were transferred to this region, ages ranging from as young as 4 and as old as 17. Catholic Charities operates one of the largest detained unaccompanied minors legal screening and representation programs in the United States.  Each year we meet with over 5,000 children who are fleeing violence and abuse and are seeing to reunify with a parent or caretaker at their home in the United States. For this reason, we took on the screening and representation of the children transferred here – working with legal partners, pro bono friends, countless supporters, officials and others who gave assistance and took on cases.

“Why Did Mommy Leave Me?

It is hard to fully capture the experience for these parents and children.  Each was placed in deportation proceedings in different parts of the country.  Many didn’t know what had happened to the other.  There was little to no communication, and no clarity about what would happen next. Again, it’s hard to express the pain, anxiety, fear, the trauma for them but we heard the stories and the cries: “where’s my mommy”; “I just want to be with daddy”; “why did mommy leave me?”

Eventually the policy was rescinded and the courts ordered reunification… And I remember how Joel—a 28-year-old dad—just could not let go of his 4-year-old son William upon finally being reunified with him at one of our family shelters in the Bronx after 4 months of separation. And his words:

“I was told by immigration that William would be put up for adoption and I would never see him again…It was the most painful day of my life.”

Finally, Reunited

Now, some good news. Joel, William, and Nate are back home. After 7 months of litigation in New York and New Jersey, Nate was released—last week! —on bond and reunified with his family in the Bronx. And, Joel and William relocated to New Orleans—where they had been intending all along to go--to be with grandparents and uncles who live there. They were referred to a Catholic Charities there for legal assistance.

Honoring Everyone’s Dignity

This is the work we do— work that is done, today, in particularly difficult and challenging times. The current administration has taken aim at immigrants in multiple ways including travel bans, zero tolerance enforcement, family separation, arrests in homes, workplaces, and public places (including courts!), slashing of refugee admissions, terminating humanitarian programs, to name a few…

So this work that we do—this work that you support and that we are asking for your even greater support—we accomplish in 6 program areas, including legal services, special projects, refugee resettlement, unaccompanied minors programming, hotline information and referral services, and English instruction. This is the work done by a staff of incredibly passionate, motivated, professional, strong, smart, and hopeful lawyers, case managers, job developers, instructors, administrators, phone operators, clerks, each of whom—day after day—honors the dignity of every immigrant and shares in the vision of creating a home for each.

Numbers Only Begin to Tell the Story

I will share a few numbers with you, but I am fully aware that numbers don’t as much tell a story as provide a simple frame of reference, a point of departure.

Last year:

  • We directly assisted 19,500 vulnerable immigrants and refugees with legal and integration and resettlement assistance
  • We met with 5,000 unaccompanied children
  • We represented over 2,000 adults and children in immigration court
  • We answered over 64,000 calls for assistance and referrals on our immigration hotlines

Yes; these are only numbers.  And, as Mario indicated, what really matters are the individuals we serve who make up these numbers.  In this series, stay tuned for a special post from Catholic Charities immigration volunteer-extraordinaire Kevin Tuerff, better known as author, speaker, and inspiration for the Broadway play, “Come from Away.” Check out an upcoming post from Catholic Charities Director of Refugee Resettlement Kelly Agnew Barajas.  And meet Aarav, a man who arrived from India years ago seeking asylum, then suddenly torn by ICE from his wife and four children, one of whom has Down Syndrome. 

Do you or someone you know need help finding free and low-cost immigration services in New York?

Check out Catholic Charities NY’s Immigration Services

Catholic Charities is responding to the needs of our neighbors during the 
COVID-19 pandemic.

For Help Call 888-744-7900