By Alex Emslie
In what appears to be an abrupt reversal, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have released a Berkeley recycling program director from detention.
Daniel Maher, a convicted felon who has lived under threat of deportation to China for nearly 15 years, was released from ICE custody Friday morning after spending over two months in various immigrant detention facilities around California, according to his attorney, Anoop Prasad with the Asian Law Caucus.
ICE detained Maher in early June as part of a broader crackdown on Chinese nationals subject to deportation, and undocumented immigrants with prior serious criminal convictions. Maher, who immigrated legally to the United States from his native Macau when he was just 3 years old, fit both descriptions and was suddenly faced with the possibility that he’d be sent to a country he’s never known. He speaks neither Mandarin nor Cantonese.
But while Maher’s case is not unique — Prasad says he’s aware of more than 50 Chinese nationals swept up in early summer raids as ICE prepared for a renewed deportation agreement between the U.S. and China — his reputation in Berkeley made him a good candidate to highlight the international issue, an immigrant advocate who coordinated protests over Maher’s detention said.
“The attorneys at the Asian Law Caucus had interviewed quite a few detainees, Chinese detainees, who were in a similar situation as Daniel,” said Annette Wong with the San Francisco-based group Chinese for Affirmative Action. “We talked about it, and we identified Daniel as somebody that we wanted to begin a campaign for, because he had so much community support.”
Maher’s recent incarceration wasn’t the first stretch he’d spent in an immigration detention cell. He was detained for about a year in 2000 after serving a 5-year state prison sentence for armed robbery, kidnapping and a firearms offense. Those convictions made him a priority for removal when he got out of prison, but Chinese officials wouldn’t agree to take Maher or many other Chinese nationals.
“For months, deportation officers with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service sought to obtain a travel document from the Chinese government to carry out the removal order,” ICE spokeswoman Virgina Kice wrote in response to KQED’s questions about Maher’s case. “However, Chinese authorities declined to provide the necessary documentation and a federal judge ultimately ordered the former INS to release Mr. Maher on a writ of habeas corpus. He was freed by the INS in August 2001 under an order of supervision, requiring him to report in regularly to a deportation officer.”
As a convicted aggravated felon, Maher remains an enforcement priority, Kice wrote.
“Historically, the U.S. and China have not had a repatriation agreement,” Prasad said. “The result’s been for decades now, the U.S. has had difficulty deporting Chinese citizens back to China. Recently that has started to change as the U.S. and China have entered into negotiations.”
According to ICE, those negotiations came to a memorandum of understanding between the agency and the Chinese government, signed in March.
“The MOU outlines the process by which Chinese experts travel to the U.S. to interview Chinese nationals (who are under final orders of removal) to verify their identity and citizenship,” Kice wrote. “In late June 2015, the first team of experts traveled from Beijing to the United States to implement the MOU and are currently interviewing Chinese nationals who are ICE priorities for removal.”
Wong said the latest MOU — similar to an agreement signed in 2006 — coincides with deportation priorities announced by the Obama administration in November, specifically the Priority Enforcement Program, the successor to ICE’s old Secure Communities initiative.
“President Obama is putting as a priority for deportation people that have past criminal convictions,” Wong said. “The priorities laid out in [PEP] kind of flow into this agreement that’s happened between the United States and China.”
But she added, “When we look at people with past criminal history, people are more than the worst 15 minutes of their life, and people shouldn’t be labeled criminals for the rest of their lives because they made one mistake. Clearly, there are people out there who have rehabilitated themselves. They’ve integrated themselves into a community. They’re contributing members of society.”
Prasad said the expectation of a working deportation process and the administration’s focus on deporting “felons not families” led to stepped-up immigration enforcement against Chinese nationals in early June.
But if Maher’s case provides any indication, the process is not working smoothly.
After another 70 days of incarceration waiting to be deported, ICE was forced to release Maher again “after it became apparent the agency would not be able to obtain a travel document from the Chinese government in the foreseeable future to carry out his repatriation,” Kice wrote. “Mr. Maher was released under an order of supervision, which will require him to report to ICE periodically to ensure he is complying with the conditions of his release.”
The agency did not respond to questions about other Chinese nationals detained under circumstances similar to those of Maher — including how many had been detained since March, whether any had been released because ICE was unable to attain travel documents from China, and whether any had been deported or repatriated to China.
“What we do know is that there hasn’t been a repatriation agreement signed,” Prasad said. “Of the group that we’ve been watching of people picked up in these raids, ICE has not been able to deport anyone, and we’re closing in on three months now of these people sitting in detention. ICE has not been able to secure a travel document for anyone yet.”
Prasad said he believes Maher was released because of the community pressure the agency faced.
“We had just concluded a rally outside of ICE’s offices on Wednesday,” he said. “There was a petition which had received over 3,000 signatures. They were getting phone calls on a daily basis about Daniel’s case, and we’d also just filed a lawsuit.”
Not everyone ICE detained gets that kind of attention, though.
“There are so many people — not just folks from China but from all over the world — that are in immigration detention in really deplorable conditions as well,” Wong said. “It’s really unfortunate that we’re not able to do campaigns for every single person in detention.”
Maher is expected to address news media on Thursday, Wong and Prasad said.