Norma Contreras dutifully reported Sept. 21 to Charlotte’s office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which ICE required the undocumented immigrant to do as she fought to stay in the U.S.
Contreras’ minister husband and her three children, a Charlotte family for 17 years, haven’t seen her since. Contreras is being held in Georgia awaiting deportation to her native Honduras.
That a woman with a work permit, clean criminal record and community support could be uprooted without warning is among the starkest examples of changes to federal immigration policy under President Donald Trump.
Under former President Barack Obama, immigrants like Contreras, who had been previously deported in 2009 but had no criminal record, could typically stay. Under Trump, who promised to swiftly deport “bad hombres,” that exemption vanished.
Since Trump took office, 89 percent of ICE administrative arrests nationally have been of people who have been convicted or charged with crimes.
Norma Contreras – whom ICE lists as Elena Contreras-Duarte – falls among the remaining 11 percent. Data for the Carolinas and Georgia show that non-criminal ICE arrests have increased under Trump.
For the first three quarters of the 2017 fiscal year, including Trump’s first five months in office, non-criminal arrests were 30 percent of the 9,394 total cases in the three states. Such arrests in the two previous years were 12 percent and 10 percent of the totals.
Contreras’ supporters have said she’s been a model citizen, even if she didn’t have the papers making her one. Her husband and children said her deportation would shatter their family.
“She’s done everything she had to do to report to them,” said Byron Martinez, operations director of the advocacy group Unidos We Stand. “They should at least give her six months or so to prepare herself.”
ICE counters that federal immigration courts have heard her appeals, including that she could become a target for kidnapping and extortion in Honduras, and ordered her out of the country.
“She’s had full access to the courts, and the bottom line is that the courts have ruled against her,” said Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman in Atlanta.
ICE expects more than 12,000 people will have been deported from the Carolinas and Georgia for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. That’s well above the 5,770 removals in 2016 and 7,377 in 2015, but similar to the total for 2014 and below the 14,744 removals of 2013 under Obama.
Contreras first came to the U.S. in 1999 to escape gang violence in Honduras but was turned back at the Mexican border. In 2001 she returned, this time with two children. She was deported in 2009 but came back the same year. In 2010, ICE released her under a renewable order of supervision.
The release came with no guarantees Contreras could remain in the country, cautioning that she “present herself for removal if so ordered.”
Regional ICE spokesman Bryan Cox confirmed Contreras’ Sept. 21 arrest. Since her return to the U.S. following her 2009 deportation, a felony, “she has received all appropriate legal process before the federal immigration courts, which denied her appeals,” he said in a statement.
“As Acting ICE Director (Thomas) Homan has made clear, ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.
“ICE continues to focus its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and, in this case, border security.”
Contreras lost her request for asylum in the U.S. in 2012. But her family, church members and employers said Contreras, who works for a cleaning company, deserves to keep the life she’s built in Charlotte.
Charlotte immigration attorney Colby Morris, who plans to seek a stay of removal, said a previous deportation hurts immigrants like Contreras.
“You can have the cleanest criminal history ever, but the fact that you have that (removal) history counts against you,” he said. Evidence of strong ties to the community, he added, can act as a counter-balance. Supporters have signed 17 affidavits testifying to Contreras’ work in the church, at work and as a mother.
“Of all the clients I have represented, she has the most support,” Morris said.
‘Never saw it coming’
Yerlin Portillo was 8 when her mother came to Charlotte to join her husband in 2001. Now 25, she’s studying cardiovascular technology at Central Piedmont Community College, but her grades are suffering as she worries.
Her dad, the Rev. Joel Portillo, who ministers to a Church of God congregation in Greensboro, was granted asylum to the U.S. But with her mother’s regular reports to ICE and permit to work, she said of the impending deportation, “we never saw it coming.”
“What people don’t understand is that when Trump says we’re going to get criminals, that’s also including every single person who’s committed a crime,” Yerlin Portillo said. That includes those who illegally entered the country after being deported.
While the family regularly talks by phone with Contreras, she said, “we don’t know if tomorrow she’ll be given a ticket and put on a plane.”
A return to Honduras would make her mother a potential target for kidnapping and extortion, Portillo said. It would also scatter the family.
Joel Portillo has decided to sell their Charlotte home and voluntarily return to Honduras with his wife, taking their 14-year-old son Reynieri with him, Yerlin Portillo said. Her other brother, Joel Jr., 22, would likely move to California.
Joel Portillo has told his youngest son that he might not see his mother “in a long time.”
“I always thought that only bad people end up in jail. At home and in school they have always taught me that if you are a bad person who has hurt other people you go to jail as punishment,” Reynieri wrote in an affidavit to the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE. “No one ever teaches you that good people like my mom end up in jail too.”
Staff researcher Maria David contributed.