At first, the conversation with the two immigration officials was friendly.
They said they believed her marriage to an American citizen was genuine, Lilian Calderon Jimenez recalled. Her application to become a permanent resident was cleared to move forward.
They even chatted about sports, teasing her over her love for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Calderon said.
A few moments later, they told the Providence woman that officers from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement were in the other room. They wanted to speak with her briefly, they said.
Minutes later on that January morning, Calderon, a 30-year-old waitress, was in handcuffs, sobbing. Her husband, Luis Gordillo, who had been waiting outside, was told by government officials that she was in federal custody. They handed him a binder of family photos and documents Calderon had brought to the interview, to prove their relationship was real.
“You’re all set,” he recalled they said, then walked away as he stood in a daze.
Calderon, who was brought to the United States illegally when she was 3, would spend nearly a month in a Boston jail, while her husband, her immigration attorney, and lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union fought for her release. She was placed in the South Bay House of Correction’s immigration unit, where she and other women arrested by immigration authorities received little to no information about what might happen to them, she said. Calderon’s lawyer did not know why she was placed in that facility.
At night, the women huddled together and gave one another their husbands’ phone numbers in case they were transferred to another jail or deported.
“It was horrible,” Calderon said in an interview. “I cried every night.”
In less than a year, at least 14 immigrants in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island who had already applied for permanent residency have been detained by federal authorities. Like Calderon, many of them had married a US citizen, typically a straightforward path to permanent resident status. Most were taken into custody at US Citizenship and Immigration Services offices, where they had come for scheduled interviews about their application.
The arrest of undocumented immigrants who are regularly checking in with the government on a path toward legal status marks is a new and aggressive tactic by federal authorities, immigration lawyers say.
“We have clients who are coming forward out of the shadows to apply for green cards and are being arrested before the process is completed,” said Todd Pomerleau, an immigration lawyer at Rubin Pomerleau, a Boston firm that represented three men who were detained after they applied for residency. One man has been in jail since June.
ICE officials say the agency is within its rights to arrest immigrants with outstanding deportation orders. Immigration lawyers said government officials have always alerted ICE when immigrants were scheduled to visit federal offices, but the agency rarely showed up to arrest anyone with pending residency applications.
John Mohan, a spokesman for ICE, said the agency does not track arrests made at government offices or the number of immigrants who are detained while seeking permanent residency.
“It has always been the case that an arrest could happen at USCIS offices,” he said. “ICE will always attempt to make an arrest in a safe location as part of the commitment to public safety and the humane enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws. . . . Arrests are the result of targeted enforcement operations and are done so on a case-by-case basis.”
Calderon was 3 years old when her parents brought her to the United States from Guatemala and settled in Rhode Island. Her father, a police officer in Guatemala, was forced to flee when men he helped convict for rape were released and began threatening his family, she said.
An immigration judge denied the family’s bid for asylum, and when Calderon was 15, she was given a final deportation order. Calderon remained in the country illegally.
She met Gordillo in high school, and the couple eventually had a girl and a boy: Natalie, now 4, and Noah, not yet 2. They married in 2016, and soon afterward Calderon applied for permanent residency.
In 2016, rules were finalized that allowed immigrants who applied for residency through their spouses to seek a waiver to remain in the country while their applications were pending.
The waivers were meant to prevent families from being separated during the lengthy application process.
The Providence couple assumed their status was secure and never thought to talk to their children about the possibility Calderon could be taken away. The day she went to the government office in Johnston, R.I., the couple were relaxed and talked about stopping for doughnuts after the appointment.
“We never thought this would happen,” Calderon said. “I was blindsided.”
Lawyers said the federal government is violating the intent of the waiver by detaining people for deportation before their application process is complete.
“I don’t see how being sent to jail keeps you close to your family,” Pomerleau said.
But Mohan, the ICE spokesman, said immigrants with a final removal order should be aware they are at risk of being detained at any time.
“Individuals under a final order of removal cannot . . . continue on with their lives as if that risk goes away simply because they have chosen to ignore the fact that they are in the United States in violation of law,” Mohan said.
As the days and weeks passed, Luis Gordillo struggled with how to explain his wife’s absence to his children.
“The whole time I just said, ‘Mommy is working,’ ” he said. But Natalie kept pressing.
“ ‘How come my mommy left? My friends have mommies and I don’t have a mommy anymore,’” Luis recalled her saying. “She didn’t leave because she wanted to. She was taken. But how do you explain that to a 4-year old?”
Calderon could get little information about her situation. A phone line set up at the jail so detainees could make free, unrecorded calls to attorneys never worked, she said, and jail officials would shrug when she asked for help.
Peter Van Delft, a spokesman for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, said the telephone service is managed by an independent vendor, Securus Technologies.
“Thus, we have no control of its maintenance,” he said. “However, any time that we have been made aware of a problem with its service, we alert the company, and we follow up with them until the issues are mitigated.”
At night, when she wept, her cellmate, an older Haitian woman who had been detained for two months, tried to soothe her and offered her soup.
“Don’t cry,” she would murmur. “We’re all going through the same thing.”
Meanwhile, her lawyers filed a motion for her release. On Feb. 6, Boston US District Court Judge Mark Wolf ordered that Calderon temporarily remain in Massachusetts and not be moved.
On Feb. 13, a week before Wolf was scheduled to hear her case, jail officials told her she was being released. Her husband met her outside the jail and she sank into his arms.
When she got home, her children hugged her close. Noah kept pointing to her and turning to his father in disbelief.
“Daddy, it’s Mommy!” he exclaimed.
Natalie clung to her and began cooing like a baby. Her mother’s absence had caused her to regress.
After Wolf demanded answers as to why Calderon was detained and released, ICE agreed to a 90-day stay of removal. Calderon is scheduled to return to court on May 7. She intends to fight to stay in the country as her application is processed.
The first few nights Calderon was back, the family slept together in the same bed. Natalie often woke up in the middle of the night, screaming and crying for her mother.
“Mommy’s here,” Calderon murmured. “Go back to sleep.”