In 2000, Carla Rice, a Bronx resident who works with learning disabled teens, married the man she fell in love with, Antonio, a man from the Dominican Republic. Their matrimony lasted 14 years, until the day her husband succumbed to a long fight with cancer. She was not able to be by his side during his final moments. In fact, during all those years of marriage, they never even lived under the same roof.
Theirs is an unconventional love story, complicated by immigration laws, a prison sentence and misfortune. It happened years ago. It is an old story. But since last Tuesday, February 21, when Donald Trump issued new deportation rules, it is also a story that could have happened today –or any other day in the future.
They met while Antonio, then 40, was in prison, serving a 13-year sentence for armed robbery and drug possession (Rice requested her husband’s last name be omitted.) A friend had connected them. They met, clicked and married, despite the odds, figuring they could pick up their lives when he got out of prison. But the day he was to be released in 2002, after he’d been there for 13 years, Antonio called his wife and told her immigration officials had arrived at the prison to detain him.
The get-tough policy stems back to 1996 when two acts were signed into law that constituted a paradigm shift for immigrants in the United States. In the aftermath of the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City two years later, killing 168 people, Congress passed –with bipartisan support– the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act on April 24, 1996. In September of the same year a second act was signed, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. President Bill Clinton signed both into law.
Together, they fundamentally altered the rules of immigration and affected the lives of thousands of individuals who had lived most of their lives in the U.S., transforming many of them into potential deportees. Like Antonio, some had committed a serious crime long ago and had served a sentence; others would be haunted by long forgotten lesser events, such as traffic violations.
“Before 1996, if somebody was convicted for a crime and completed his sentence, he was subject for potential deportation. But nobody would get around to try to deport you for two or three years,” says Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center, a legal advocacy group based in Long Island that represents Central American undocumented immigrants. “Meanwhile, if you could prove you had rehabilitated and had substantial roots with the community, you might get a form of forgiveness.” But with the passage of these laws, things changed.
The 1996 laws now authorized fast-track deportation, a procedure that is routinely used today. Before then, if an undocumented immigrant had been issued a deportation order for committing a crime that resulted in imprisonment, the deportation process would start only after a prisoner had completed his or her sentence. After 1996, proceedings began while prisoners were still in jail, triggering a Catch-22 of sorts. “You cannot show you have substantial roots with the community or that you have rehabilitated, because you are in jail!” said Young.
The new legislation also expanded the scope of crimes for which immigrants –documented or not– could be detained and deported by effectively redefining the concept of felony. Young explains: “Aggravated felony used to be defined as serious crimes, such as murder, attempted murder, rape, or drug related. Now you have people who become deportable for forging a check.”
A third key element of the new laws was the introduction of retroactivity. This meant that any offenses an undocumented immigrant might have committed in the past, regardless of how long ago that might have been, could now become cause for deportation. “If you committed what was considered a lesser crime in the eighties –not a deportable offense– those crimes would now be reconsidered as aggravated felonies,” said Young. “So, from 1996 you could be arrested and deported, no matter if you committed those crimes 30 years ago and had completed your sentence.” For Antonio and Rice, the new laws would shatter the future they had planned as a couple.
The Love Story
Rice, a 52-year-old longtime resident in of the Bronx with degrees in social work and psychology, and Antonio’s paths crossed over karate. Rice, who works with teens with learning disabilities, began practicing karate in 1997, motivated by her interest in philosophy and Eastern thought. She wanted to understand the martial art more deeply than just learning how to fight. “How could something that teaches how to hurt people bring inner peace? I had a lot of doubts.” Her instructor, recognizing her confusions, suggested she get in touch with the teacher he learned karate from, a man named Antonio.
Antonio, 40 at the time, had a black belt. He even competed in Japan. But there was a wrinkle: He was serving a 13-year prison sentence for armed robbery and attempted drug possession. Rice began corresponding with Antonio at first. “I wrote all the time,” she said. The letters exchange lasted for over a year, and Rice says she came to understand the life of a young black man who grew up in the Bronx during the 1970s and 80s, when unemployment, drug use, crime and poverty were rampant.
At the beginning of 1999, Rice finally went to meet Antonio in person. “By that point, I knew I loved him,” she says. After a year of visits, they married in what could be described as an unconventional wedding. Antonio managed to obtain a clean shirt to wear with his prison-issued pants; a justice of the peace performed the ceremony in the prison’s cafeteria; his bunkmate was the only witness and a guard watched over them.
Antonio used to be angry at society, says Rice, but by the time they met he had come to understand that, although he believed that social injustice was a key factor in leading people like him into a life of crime, he knew he was responsible for his own
actions and was willing to atone for them and try to become a better man. He even earned a degree in psychology in prison.
Antonio was due to be released in 2002. They only had to endure a mere two years until the moment they could live together under the same roof as husband and wife. They were optimistic. But such optimism proved to be misguided.
Rice and Antonio knew about the standing deportation order that had been issued back in 1988, but they had not fully grasped how much the situation had changed since then. Although the 1996 laws had been in place for four years, their enforcement exploded after the September 11 attacks. Even after having lived in the United States for almost 40 years, Antonio was sent back to the Dominican Republic, a place where he had not lived since the age of nine.
He was heartbroken, but resigned, says Rice. “He realized, again, that this was a consequence of the wrong decisions he had taken a long time ago. He accepted it,” Rice says. Nonetheless, the couple vowed to fight the case while he was out of the
Rice traveled back and forth to the Dominican Republic, four to five times a year at first. They postponed having children until they could live together as a family in the United States. At some point, seeing little progress in her husband’s case, Rice began considering the possibility of moving to her husband’s country. But she was unsure. “I did not speak Spanish and I had never lived in a country like the Dominican Republic. I didn’t know what I would do there,” she says.
Then things got worse. By 2005, barely three years after she received Antonio’s tragic call on his prison release day to let her know about his deportation, he called again. This time to inform her he had been diagnosed with cancer.
To make matters worse, Antonio did not have health insurance. Rice realized it was up to her to support him financially, and the only way she could do it was by remaining in the U.S. It would take a toll on her in many ways. “I obviously started having less money, so I had to reduce my number of visits. There were times I did not see him for over a year,” she says. As her husband’s condition worsened, so did the financial demands. “I had to sell my car and give up my apartment, since I could not pay rent anymore. I took a second job to meet other obligations, but I defaulted on some loans. I still have debt to this day.” After three years, she reached despair and sought support.
Pleading for Help
In 2008, she found Families for Freedom, a not-for- profit organization that promotes immigration reform and advocates for immigrants who have criminal records, a group that does not receive the same degree of empathy other undocumented immigrants do, according to the organization’s executive director, Abraham Paulos, a Eritrean immigrant who arrived when he was nine months old and barely escaped deportation himself. An activist group, Families for Freedom educates deportees and their families on their rights and the resources they have available to fight deportation through workshops, education campaigns and building advocacy networks.
Located in a spacious but frugal office in midtown Manhattan, the walls of its headquarters display information of the neighborhoods where raids have been carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the enforcing arm of the Department of Homeland Security, as well as of people detained and in danger of being deported. Volunteers are constantly on the phone talking with them or their families. Unlike the Central American Refugee Center, Families for Freedom
provides no legal assistance.
“We have a hotline where 99 percent of the callers are people who have been detained, are scared and don’t know what to do,” Paulos said. “We give them a crash course on their rights, right there on the phone.” The number of calls they receive is overwhelming. “Sometimes we just put the hotline on mute. We simply can’t respond to all the calls.” He points to one of the landline phones on a desk. “We probably have not reset that one in a couple of weeks.” The screen displays 3,953 missed calls.
And since last Tuesday, the number of these desperate calls to many organizations have escalated. “This week’s new deportation rules changed the priorities. Until now, the official target were undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Now it is undocumented immigrants,” explains Patrick Young. “Just this week we have had 13 people arrested in Long Island. Rumors are spreading and there is fear in the community. Some are not going to work. Some, concerned about what happened to Muslim permanent residents during the travel ban, have canceled plans to travel to their home countries out of fear they will not be allowed back in the U.S., even though they are green card holders.”
Through her contact with Families for Freedom, Rice said she finally came to understand the laws and the conditions that made it impossible for her husband to live with her in the U.S. “For all practical purposes, my husband was an American. He made mistakes and paid for them, but because he did not have a piece of paper, he was treated differently than other people who also made mistakes,” she said.
The experience with the group proved nothing less than cathartic for Rice. “It took me years to be able to talk about it. And then it took me years to be able to talk about it without crying or swearing. They pushed me to begin speaking out; they even made me compose a rap song about it and sing it!” she said. Her interaction with the organization also led her to take a more involved role in its activities for immigration reform.
She was hopeful, but then, in 2014, she received a phone call from her husband’s sister, informing her that Antonio had passed away. Rice mourned, but she did not change course. A year after Antonio’s death she became a member of the board of directors of Families for Freedom.
“I can understand why many think convicted immigrants should be deported. My husband certainly did; he accepted responsibility,” she said. “At the same time, Antonio worked hard for years to turn himself around. And he did. He could have been a role model, visited schools, talked to kids about his experience, help them avoid the same mistakes. But our system just threw him behind this big blur of badness it creates for immigrants who have made mistakes. Our society just wanted to get rid of him. We need to change that.”