Jose Escobar took his wife, Rose, and their two-year-old daughter to IHOP for pancakes the morning he was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Escobar, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, was killing time. He had just come from what he expected to be a short, regular annual check-in with ICE officers as part of his supervision order, which allowed him to avoid deportation while he sought legal status. But unlike in years past, at this appointment, the officers interrogated him with questions like, "Who owns the house you live in? Do you drink? Do you do drugs?" They asked him to return for more questioning later that afternoon. It had never happened before.
Still, Escobar wasn't worried. In fact, at IHOP, in between appointments, he was busy working on his cell phone. He was a supervisor for a company that sends crews to repaint and repair apartment units when tenants move out, and he couldn't afford to be away from his job for this long. Realizing he wasn't paying much attention to Rose and the baby, he promised the following night they would do something as a family. Rose, a U.S. citizen, said that after six years of these regular check-ins, and six years of impeccable compliance with ICE's supervision rules, neither of them felt they had any reason to believe her husband wouldn't be coming home.
"I looked my husband in the face and said, 'Don't worry about it—we'll be fine," Rose said. "We're not fleeing. We're not criminals. We're doing what they're asking for. And if you do what they're asking for, you'll be okay.'"
When they returned for the remainder of the ICE check-in, Rose was not allowed to join her husband for the meeting. The next time she saw him he was in handcuffs.
"They opened the door to the lobby and told me, 'You can go say goodbye now," Rose said.
Jose Escobar has been in the United States since 2001, when he was 14 years old. He has no criminal record. He met Rose when they were just 15 and they married in 2006, the same year a deportation order was issued for Escobar. He had obtained temporary protected status upon arriving in 2001, but the protection had expired when Escobar turned 18, and he had missed the deadline to reapply. So he remained under the radar — until 2011, when ICE showed up at his home as he was leaving for work, the deportation order in hand.
Aura Espinoza, director of the legal department at the immigration advocacy organization FIEL, said that ICE sometimes releases law-abiding undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizen families as long as they agree to seek legal status. That was the deal that ICE made with Escobar in 2011, Espinoza said.
Every year, he was asked to check in with ICE about his efforts. In 2012, he applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, DACA, which offered undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children reprieve from deportation and a temporary work permit. More than a year later, in 2014, his application was rejected, because his GED was not from an accredited school recognized under the program, Espinoza said. By 2015, he applied for a similar program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans. But before his application was processed, last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to dismantle the program, finding that President Barack Obama's executive order that made it possible had exceeded his authority.
At the time Escobar was detained, Rose said, he was considering going back to school at Houston Community College in order to meet the education requirements to re-apply for DACA. The immigration officials had told her that he was detained because he was not trying hard enough.
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"My husband works Monday through Friday 7 to 7. He's a hard-working man. We don't live off the government. We do everything on our own. And now they're taking the main provider away from us," Rose said. "I'm hurt. Because I know the new president is trying to make America great again, but I am an American, and this is hurting me."
ICE did not respond to questions about why, given Escobar's clean record and compliance with the supervision order, he was detained, or whether detaining immigrants on supervision orders was part of the recently issued directive from the White House. On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced that while undocumented criminals would be prioritized for deportation, ICE would be expanding the classes of undocumented immigrants who could be deported, with few exceptions. Records showed that Escobar was being held in the Houston Contract Detention Facility.
After seeing him off, Rose said she cried in the parking lot, with her daughter in the backseat. Later, she told their seven-year-old son that his dad was off on a long business trip. She prayed. She thought about how mistaken they had been, believing that if they only did everything they were asked to do, everything would be okay.
"I said to the officer, 'You asked us to be here. We're here. You asked for documents. We gave them to you,'" she recalled. "What has he done wrong that you are looking at him like he's a criminal?'"