Internal ICE Emails Show How the Government Set a Trap for Undocumented Spouses of US Citizens

Two federal agencies collaborated to arrest people with a clear path to obtaining green cards.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers debrief after operations to arrest undocumented immigrants in New York in April. John Moore/AP

On January 30, Lucimar de Souza, an undocumented immigrant from Brazil, went into a US Citizenship and Immigration Services office to prove her marriage to an American citizen was legitimate. It was a standard part of the process for undocumented immigrants married to US legal residents to obtain green cards, one they had long been able to take without fear of detention or deportation. But as she exited her interview, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers detained her, causing her to be separated from her 10-year-old son. She spent the next three months in jail.

De Souza was not the only immigrant to be arrested while verifying her marriage with USCIS, nor was the arrest an accident. Internal government emails and depositions of ICE officials unsealed this week show the two agencies worked together in New England to effectively ambush undocumented immigrants like de Souza who had clear paths to obtaining green cards. The arrests were deliberately spread out over time to prevent the media from finding out about them, the documents show.

The new materials also reveal a startling lack of awareness among some ICE officials of a process that was supposed to allow undocumented immigrants married to legal residents to obtain legal status without being deported.

The documents were released as part of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts that seeks to block the Trump administration from detaining and deporting people in New England who may be able to obtain green cards through spouses who are US citizens. The ACLU stated in a court filing that the unsealed documents show “the stunning extent” to which a program designed to keep together the families of immigrants with deportation orders was turned into “a trap calculated to cause that separation.” The ACLU will be in a federal court in Boston on Monday to try to convince Judge Mark Wolf that people on the path to legal residency deserve protection—over the objections of the Trump administration.

It is unclear how many immigrants were arrested at USCIS interviews in New England. Adriana Lafaille, an ACLU attorney working on the case, says she is aware of 17 cases between January and mid-February, when Thomas Brophy, ICE’s acting Boston director at the time, told his officers to stop arresting people at USCIS offices. Lafaille said about four people have been deported because of the arrests. Rebecca Adducci took over as interim director in June and said in her deposition on July 26 that Brophy was wrong to stop ICE officers from arresting immigrants at USCIS offices. But she said was not aware of any arrests at USCIS offices since taking over ICE’s Boston field office, which covers all of New England.

John Mohan, an ICE spokesman in New England, declined to answer specific questions due to the pending litigation. He provided a statement that calls allegations of “inappropriate coordination” with USCIS “unfounded.” It also states, “This routine coordination within the Department of Homeland Security…is lawful and legitimate in the work we do to uphold our nation’s immigration laws.” (In January, according to one of the depositions released this week, Mohan advised against saying that ICE received a referral from USCIS, writing in an email that “media likely already know how it came about and will spin it in a twisted way anyway, so defending it is a moot point.”)

USCIS spokesman Michael Bars also said in a statement that he could not comment on the pending litigation. After receiving referrals from USCIS, he said, law enforcement agencies have the “discretion to decide whether they intend to apprehend the individual or not. USCIS is committed to adjudicating all petitions, applications and requests fairly, efficiently, and effectively.”

The interagency coordination dates back to at least October, when Mirella Tiberi, a Massachusetts section chief with USCIS, sent Andrew Graham, a deportation officer in ICE’s Boston field office, a list of undocumented immigrants with deportation orders who had submitted applications to verify their relationships to Americans with legal status. Tiberi wrote that her boss wanted to know whether ICE was interested in coordinating the interviews “so they are not all scheduled at once.” Graham responded:

As far as scheduling goes, I would prefer not to do them all at one time as it is only a strain on our ability to transport and process several arrests at once, but it also has the potential to be a trigger for negative media interest, as we have seen in the past. If you have the ability to schedule one or two at a time and spread them apart, that would work best for us.

In December, an ICE supervisor received an email stating that someone “of interest” was coming in to USCIS that morning. (The sender’s email was redacted in the released documents.) “Thanks for the reminder,” the ICE official said in a response addressed to Tiberi. “We are hoping to have two officers at your office but are getting a late start. Would it be possible to delay the interview by about fifteen minutes?”

ICE’s efforts to hide the arrests from public view worked until around late January. On January 30, ICE officials considered a media inquiry about Fabiano de Oliveira, a Brazilian man whose arrest at a USCIS office Mother Jones reported on in April. Graham sent Todd Lyons, one of ICE’s deputies in the Boston office, de Oliveira’s case file. Among other things, it stated that de Oliveira had one US citizen child and no criminal record and was arrested at a USCIS office after establishing a bona fide relationship with an American. Lyons responded that de Oliveira’s “attorney should have never advised him” to go to USCIS. “He has no path unless he leaves the country,” Lyons concluded.

Graham agreed. He wrote that it made sense to remove people with deportation orders since their cases were at “the end of the line.” He added, “They are typically the easiest to remove, they have the shortest average length of stay, and at the end of the day we are in the removal business.”

In reality, it was ICE officials like Graham and Lyons, not attorneys advising their clients to attend USCIS interviews, who appeared to be confused about immigration policy. Prior to 2016, US law generally required people with deportation orders to leave the country and apply for a waiver from abroad that allows them to obtain legal status in the United States. The process can take months, and there are no guarantees that someone will receive a waiver, so many people are reluctant to pursue them. USCIS addressed that issue in 2013 by creating a “provisional waiver” program that allows people to start the process from within the United States. In 2016, it expanded the program to include people with deportation orders.

The policy is still in effect. USCIS’s website states it was “developed to shorten the time that U.S. citizens and lawful permanent resident family members are separated from their relatives.” Detaining people at USCIS interviews, the first step in obtaining the waiver, would render the 2016 regulation meaningless. As the ACLU argued in an April court filing, “In effect, the government’s one hand beckons [people] forward, and its other hand grabs them.”

In July, seven weeks after taking over ICE’s Boston office, Adducci did not know about that policy change. During her deposition, Adducci defended the decision to detain Lilian Calderon, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who was married to a US citizen and had two young children. “I don’t think it’s fair that she takes cuts in front of somebody who is waiting outside to do it legally,” she said.

“Did you know that the regulations in 2016 specifically made non-citizens with final orders of removal who are married to US citizens eligible for the provisional waiver process?” a cross-examiner asked.

“No,” Adducci replied.

Lyons, who is set to replace Adducci after Friday as acting director, was familiar with the waiver program during his July deposition, but he agreed with Adducci that everyone with a removal order is subject to possible deportation. Lyons and Brophy had told Judge Wolf in May that arresting people at USCIS offices was a poor use of resources. Their testimonies pitted them against Christopher Cronen, the Boston field office director who initiated the arrests before being promoted in January to oversee all of ICE’s field offices in the eastern United States. 

On May 22, Brophy testified that he had told his staff to stop arresting people at USCIS offices because they didn’t pose a threat to public safety or national security. He was more concerned by what he called Massachusetts’ narcotics “epidemic” than people trying to get green cards. At the time, Lyons was set to take Brophy’s spot the following week, and he said in court the next day that he would continue the policy of not arresting people at USCIS offices. ICE’s resources were, in his view, “extremely” limited, and prioritization was important. 

Wolf, who was weighing whether a court order was needed to protect people trying to obtain legal status, wanted to know how long Lyons could serve as ICE’s acting director in Boston. “Legally, sir, it’s eight months,” Lyons replied, “unless they decide to promote me.”

One week after the hearing, David Jennings, Cronen’s boss, asked Adducci if she would temporarily leave her role as the head of ICE’s Detroit office to run things in Boston for two months. By early June, Lyons was back to being deputy after only four days at the top.

Later that month, Justice Department lawyers said in a court filing that Adducci would not abide by any previous statements from Boston ICE leaders that contradict a January 2017 executive order from President Donald Trump that blocks ICE from exempting “classes or categories of removable aliens.” She said in her deposition that Brophy contradicted the order by deciding not to detain people at USCIS interviews if they didn’t pose a safety risk.

Adducci said she doesn’t “anticipate” deportations of people arrested at USCIS offices, but she wouldn’t prohibit it either. She also hasn’t told her officers to consider whether people were arrested at a USCIS office when deciding whether to remove them from the United States. (The ACLU’s lawsuit would protect undocumented immigrants who may be eligible for waivers through their spouses from being arrested anywhere, not just at USCIS offices.) 

The number of people arrested at USCIS offices in New England is a tiny fraction of the 143,470 people arrested by ICE in the last fiscal year. But the arrests send an outsize message to undocumented immigrants that they’re not safe from deportation even in spaces where the government is encouraging them to show up. Lafaille believes the arrests make no sense. “All they want is to just live at peace with their families, to continue contributing to their communities,” she says. “Why would we ever spend a penny to make that more difficult?”

At Adducci’s deposition, a cross-examiner brought up the case of de Souza, the Brazilian woman who was arrested at a USCIS office on January 30. “Did you know that she was separated from her son for over three months while she was detained?” Adducci was asked.

She seemed unsure how to answer. “I mean, I would—” she began. “Hopefully she got to see him.”