President Obama vowed last year to deport “felons, not families,” but try telling that to Edvan Costa.
The church deacon and Stoughton homeowner has not been charged with any crimes since he arrived in the United States illegally 17 years ago, but he has spent the last month in immigration jail fighting deportation to Brazil. He is married and the father of a daughter who is a US citizen. He has lived and worked in Massachusetts nearly half his life.
“I’m kind of confused,” said Costa, wearing arm and leg chains in a recent interview at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Burlington office. “I’m a clean guy.”
Contradictions abound in Obama’s immigration policies, and advocates for immigrants say they are fueling distrust in communities such as Boston, Somerville, and Lawrence and other cities that are home to significant immigrant communities.
“It seems like an agency that has a runaway agenda,” said Jeffrey Rubin, a Boston immigration lawyer who was involved in Costa’s case and represents a Lawrence man with no criminal record who is also detained. “And it is in complete contradiction to what the president of the United States wants.”
In November, Homeland Security rolled out new policies to prioritize deporting criminals and recent border crossers over illegal immigrants who otherwise obey the law.
One of the president’s policies — to grant work permits to parents of US citizens and legal residents and older immigrants who arrived as children — has been temporarily halted by a federal court.
But Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has insisted that the agency is still focusing on deporting criminals over families. In a column posted on the agency’s blog last month, he wrote that immigration agents are focused on deporting “convicted criminals over undocumented immigrants who have been here for years.”
Homeland Security did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In recent weeks, ICE’s Boston field office, headed by Sean Gallagher, rejected stays of deportation for Costa and Carlos Jordan, who arrived from El Salvador as a teen and is the father of a US citizen.
The Boston office, which covers New England, has also locked up Nicolau Oliveira Lima Jr., a 26-year-old citizen of Portugal who arrived legally in 2010 but stayed longer than he was allowed. He planned to marry his girlfriend Rose Anico, a US citizen, in Lawrence.
Lawyers for the men say none has criminal records and all would probably qualify for Obama’s work-permit programs now pending in court. Lima could have applied for legal residency through Anico if they were allowed to marry.
Anico said Lima is already like a father to her 8-year-old daughter. “This makes no sense to me,” she said.
Immigration officials say they can’t consider anyone’s qualifications for Obama’s work-permit programs because a court has halted them.
But lawyers say ICE still has the authority to set aside the deportations of longtime residents such as Costa, who was arrested on the day the Obama administration told federal appeals judges that people like him deserved to stay. Detaining immigrants costs over $120 per person per day, according to ICE.
“What side are these people on?” said Talia Barrales, a Boston immigration lawyer who represents Jordan. “Why are you even arguing for these programs when you’re deporting people that would qualify for these programs?”
ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said Costa is a priority for deportation because he was ordered deported after Jan. 1, 2014, the deadline outlined in one of the Homeland Security memos issued after the president’s speech last year. Jordan also received a final deportation order this year, though he is not detained. ICE said Lima is a priority because he stayed longer than he was allowed.
Immigration lawyers, however, say the January 2014 deadline was aimed at recent border crossers, not longtime residents.
Advocates for immigrants say locking up noncriminals is damaging Homeland Security’s credibility. The agency has urged cities and towns to help officials deport criminals, but over 300 communities across the United States — including Boston, Somerville and, last week, Lawrence — have limited police cooperation with ICE after the secretive agency targeted immigrants with little to no criminal records.
Law enforcement officials said relations with ICE are further strained by the agency’s release of criminals in the United States.
ICE says it has to release criminals whose homelands won’t take them back because the Supreme Court ruled it cannot jail foreigners indefinitely. But members of Congress have pointed out that federal officials could deny visas to officials from nations that refuse their citizens, which the Obama administration has not done.
Among the New England criminals released in recent years are a sex offender from Vietnam, a man with multiple drug convictions from Jamaica, and a man from Haiti with a violent record who stands accused of fatally stabbing a Connecticut woman in June, according to court records and law enforcement officials.
Barnstable Sheriff James Cummings, a Republican, said ICE recently declined to issue an immigration detainer for an illegal immigrant from Bulgaria arrested this summer for child pornography and for driving his car at a woman. If the man posts bail, Cummings said, he could go free. ICE has said they are monitoring the case.
“It just shows that the whole immigration system is a mess,” said Cummings.
Because immigration arrests are secret, it is virtually impossible to verify who is detained and deported, although deportations overall are down.
Costa said he disclosed his arrest because he thought his pending deportation did not match the president’s priorities. Now 36, he said he applied for legal residency after crossing the border illegally and was initially approved. He became a truck driver and the father of a 2-year-old girl. Costa’s three siblings are US citizens.
He said he was placed in deportation proceedings after he returned from visiting his mother in Brazil; he said the government gave him permission to go.
“I do love this country,” Costa said in an interview. “It gives you opportunity, more opportunity than my home country to have a better life.”
After the Globe interview, his lawyer said Costa was whisked out of state, told he was getting deported, and then brought back to Boston.
As of Monday, Costa was still in Suffolk County jail, fighting to stay in the United States.