Each year, the routine was the same: The Villacis-Guerrero family would make the trip from their home in Woodhaven, Queens, to the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Manhattan. Accompanied by their attorney, they would take the elevator to the ninth floor, where they would meet with an official from Immigration Customs Enforcement to discuss their case.
Liany Guerrero, 53, is a Colombian citizen. Her husband, Juan Villacis, 57, is an Ecuadorian citizen. Together with their two children, the pair came to the U.S. legally in September 2001, fleeing threats Liany faced in Colombia, a consequence of her political activism there, and to care for Juan’s mother, now a naturalized U.S. citizen with serious health issues. The couple’s twin daughters, both in their early 20s, grew up in New York City from age five, graduating high school in Queens, distinguishing themselves as star students, and earning protection from deportation under the Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Since their arrival more than 16 years ago, the family has worked to legalize their status in the country, all the while putting down roots in Queens — buying a home there, paying taxes, and becoming active in their church and community. For five years, the family’s meetings with ICE have resulted in permission to stay in the country another year. Still, when they arrived at the federal building on October 18, carrying some 500 pages documenting their lives in the U.S., the family was under no illusions that the world had changed.
As they wrapped up their October consultation, their worst fears were all but confirmed: ICE ordered Juan to return to the building on November 15 — one day after his stay of removal, the mechanism preventing his deportation, ran out. Everyone, it seemed, had the same message for Juan: Don’t go. Under the guise of national security, a new president had declared open season on immigrants. Across the country, stories surfaced of families showing up to the very same meetings, only to learn their lives in the U.S. were over.
But skipping the meeting, going underground, fleeing New York — that wasn’t like Juan. He had no criminal record in either the U.S or his home country of Ecuador. A physical therapist from Queens, who taught himself English and raised two girls into accomplished young women as he cared for his ailing mother, Juan believed in the promise of the U.S. as a place where an immigrant can make a life. The decision to meet with ICE was wrenching, and terrifying, but ultimately Juan decided he would go.
The family of four, accompanied by their longtime attorney, Jillian Hopman, stepped off the elevator on the ninth floor, where ICE’s New York City Enforcement and Removal Operations offices are located. Juan’s daughters were prevented from going into the room with their father that day. Instead, a security guard directed them to the cafeteria downstairs, while their mother and father stayed behind with the attorney. Juan handed the girls his wallet and cellphone, just in case.
For Juan’s daughters, the first sign that something was up came in a text message from their mother. “They just called in your dad, separately, with Jillian,” she wrote.
Immigration law is exceedingly complex, with individual cases often involving years of legal wrangling inside a massively backlogged system. The Villacis-Guerrero family’s story is no exception.
Liany and Juan first came to the U.S. with their daughters on a tourist visa and applied for asylum shortly after. Liany comes from an affluent and politically active family in Colombia, one that has repeatedly come into conflict with armed, left-wing groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN.
According to the family, Liany’s father was kidnapped by FARC before the twins were born — he was later released. Two of her brothers went on to serve as mayor in their hometown; while Liany was working on one of their campaigns, she experienced her own run-ins with the armed rebels. The situation came to a head, the family says, following the birth of the twins, when the paramilitary group began dropping off photos of the girls and visiting Liany at her office to deliver threats, prompting the family leave Latin America for Queens, where Juan’s mother was living.
In the U.S., the family’s asylum case stretched on for years. Though a judge found their claims “credible” and “consistent,” the appeal for asylum was ultimately denied on the grounds that it didn’t reflect political persecution. In 2005, the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld the decision.
Liany and Juan were faced with a difficult decision: pull their daughters out of school, where they were thriving, or hold on in hopes that circumstances in their case would change. They decided to take their chances and remain in the U.S. During the intervening years, the family continued to work, pay taxes, and build connections in Queens. Juan, meanwhile, served as the primary caretaker for his elderly mother, who obtained her U.S. citizenship in 2009, while working full-time and eventually earning his license as a physical therapist.
In 2012, Hopman took on the case, successfully securing a stay of removal for the Villacis-Guerrero family. Every year since, Hopman explained, the government has renewed those stays through the family’s meetings at ICE’s Manhattan office.
It was a similar story for many immigrant families across the country. Under the Obama administration, particularly in the latter years, new immigration enforcement priorities were introduced to direct the limited resources of ICE and other agencies away from families like the Villacis-Guerrero’s and toward undocumented immigrants that posed a threat to the public. Then, in 2014, the administration introduced DACA, the order designed to provide protections to high-achieving young people brought to the U.S. as children without documentation. Juan urged his daughters to apply and, with Hopman’s legal aid, they eventually earned the sought-after protections.
Taken together, the solutions were imperfect. But still, they provided the family with hope that one day they might achieve permanent legal status in the U.S. Then came the 2016 election.
Rising to power on a hard-line immigration platform, President Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders during his first week in office that undid that Obama administration’s priorities on immigration enforcement, effectively making every undocumented in the country, with the exception of DACA recipients, a priority for deportation. Within weeks, stories emerged of undocumented parents arriving to their annual ICE check-ins only to find themselves handcuffed and placed on the path to deportation.
The stories loomed over the Vilacis-Guerrero family in the weeks leading up to their October 2017 appointment. They spent hours with Hopman, going over the details of their case. The immigration attorney prepared four times the amount of material she usually brought to the ICE check-ins. She hoped to show that the justifications supporting their stay the year before not only remained, but that in fact the reasons for keeping the family together in the U.S. had increased.
In September 2016, after coming out to her parents as gay, Liany Jr. married her longtime partner. “We’re a very traditional family,” Liany Jr. explained. “Even my parents had it pretty tough once I came out as gay, but they little by little started understanding that this is just simply the person I wanted to live with.” While Liany Jr.’s relationship was ultimately accepted by her parents in Queens, the reception back in Colombia was not so — relatives there began receiving disapproving messages from community members in their hometown. “When you’re in the United States, sometimes you don’t really realize how fortunate you are with all these things,” the 22-year-old said.
“Our names are still there, and people are speaking about us,” she added. “That’s been a pretty scary part.”
In Hopman’s view, the reaction in Colombia heightened the danger of seeing the family deported. What’s more, in her years since coming to the U.S., Liany Sr.’s health has steadily deteriorated. Eleven days before the ICE check-in, doctors discovered several cysts in her breast that are now being treated with cancer testing.
Heading into the October check-in, Hopman told the Villacis-Guerrero family that “the only bad thing that could happen is if [ICE] told them to come back three or four weeks later,” when Juan’s stay had expired. “That’s exactly what they did,” Hopman said. “They scheduled them for a second appointment after the stay expired … the first day [Juan] was no longer protected, and they could take him into custody.”
The move was particularly alarming because Juan’s Ecuadorian passport was set to expire in mid-December. Hopman worried the looming expiration could provide ICE an argument not only for taking Juan into custody, but also for his swift deportation. “We were all nervous,” she recalled. “I met with them for hours every day leading up to the November appointment.”
“I’m really afraid that we are being lured into a trap,” she told the family. “But I think you are all very good people for wanting to go and do what the government tells you to do.”
From the beginning, it was clear to Hopman that the November check-in was not going well. For one, she said, ICE called Liany and Juan in separately, “which they’ve never done before.”
Sitting alongside Hopman, Juan was told that he and his wife’s applications for a stay had been denied. He would be taken into custody and placed into deportations proceedings on the spot. Sensing something was wrong, Juan’s daughters had made their way back upstairs to the ICE waiting room, where they reconvened with their mother. Noting that his family was just outside the door, Hopman asked the ICE officer if Juan could give them a hug goodbye. The officer declined the request, Hopman said, telling her that in an effort to curtail “emotional scenes,” the office was no longer providing “that courtesy.”
Surrounded by nervous families clustered in the waiting room, Juan’s wife and daughters watched as Hopman emerged from the office alone.
Juan was going into deportation proceedings immediately. “I asked for 12 months at first. Then I went down to six months. Then I went down to three months. Then I went down to the day after Christmas. Then I went down to the day after Thanksgiving,” Hopman said.
ICE didn’t budge.
“It didn’t matter if he had won the Nobel Peace Prize the day before and taken a bullet for Mike Pence,” Hopman said. “All they cared about was his passport was expiring, because then they have to execute it or they have to wait for a new passport.”
With his fate seemingly sealed, Juan’s attention turned to his wife and hoped that she would be able to remain with the children. The news on that front was mixed. The officer seated before them said ICE had reversed a decision to place Liany under “intensive supervision,” which would require her to wear a GPS-monitoring bracelet, but that she was still expected to buy herself a one-way ticket out of the country for a January 15 deportation. “I’m going to be honest with you,” Hopman recalled the officer saying. “I was ordered basically to take both of them into custody today, and the supervisor wanted the wife detained as well, and I got her two more months.”
ICE informed the family that Juan would be deported to Ecuador, while Liany would be sent to Colombia. “That’s why the wife is devastated,” Hopman explained. “It’s not even like her own immigration [issues] — it’s that she’s separated from her husband who has been her best friend since the ’60s.”
It was then, Hopman said, that she asked the ICE official if Juan could give his family a parting hug, only to be rebuffed. “It was very cold,” she said.
Hopman believes that with more time, she could secure relief for the Villacis-Guerrero family. “There have been changes” in the family’s circumstances, she said. “They have been threatened. There is a brand-new claim for relief and a way for them to reopen their case, genuinely. It’s just Juan does not have the time now.”
For the veteran attorney, the case has been particularly difficult. In Hopman’s view, the case represents “the hidden consequences” of last year’s election, playing out daily for families across the country. While the president has talked about targeting “bad hombres,” the truth is that the administration has struggled to secure the high deportation numbers it promised on the campaign trail. Rather than going after violent criminals, Hopman and many others in the immigration advocacy community feel the administration has sought to bolster its enforcement numbers by setting its sights on the easiest targets available — the people who voluntarily walk into ICE offices.
“It’s the low-hanging fruit,” Hopman said.
It fell to the family to inform Juan’s elderly mother that her son was being deported. “We had to come home and tell her that ourselves,” Liany Jr. said. “She was shocked. I mean, my dad is the one that’s taken care of her basically since we got here.”
In the days since Juan was taken into custody, the twins have been told to hold tight to the memories and opportunities the U.S. has given them. “My mom’s like, ‘All these memories that we’ve had, that’s what has to give us the strength to pull through with this,’” Liany Jr. said. “We’re beyond grateful for everything that this country has offered,” she added, “even with everything that’s going on right now.”
ICE did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. For now, Juan is being housed in the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey — his deportation could come as soon as Wednesday.