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story.lead_photo.caption In a photo taken June 21, 2019, Alyse Sanchez and her husband, Elmer Sanchez, pose for The Associated Press in Sandy Spring, Md. The Sanchezes and five other couples have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Maryland arguing U.S. immigration authorities are luring couples to marriage interviews only to detain the immigrant spouses. (AP Photo/Regina Garcia Cano)

BALTIMORE -- A federal judge in Maryland has said immigration officers can't use marriage interviews as a "honeypot" to trap and deport people who are living in the country illegally.

Now that same judge will consider a lawsuit filed by six couples who say federal officers did just that in the Baltimore office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Federal regulations allow U.S. citizens to try to legalize the status of spouses living in the country illegally. Thousands of families are doing it: Records show Citizenship and Immigration Services approved 23,253 provisional unlawful presence waivers. Those are the final documents spouses, children or parents of citizens need before leaving the country and applying to rejoin their families legally.

But the American Civil Liberties Union says a growing number of officers have "cruelly twisted" the rules by detaining migrant spouses after marriage interviews. The ACLU is pursuing a similar complaint in Massachusetts and says dozens of detentions also have happened at field offices in New York, Virginia, Florida, Illinois and California.

Alyse and Elmer Sanchez were thrilled when they made it through their interview. She texted her family from the immigration office as relief washed over her: The officer had agreed that their marriage is legitimate.

Moments later, Elmer was in shackles, detained pending deportation to his native Honduras, leaving her alone with their two little boys.

"We feel it was a trap, a trick to get us there," Alyse said.

Their case is assigned to U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel, who already reversed the deportation of a Chinese man detained after a successful marriage interview in Baltimore. Ruling just before Wanrong Lin landed in Shanghai last November, Hazel said the government can't use the process "as a honeypot to trap undocumented immigrants who seek to take advantage of its protections."

Regulations under President Barack Obama provide for marriage interviews, even for people with deportation orders. The monthslong process typically requires couples to demonstrate the legitimacy of their marriage as part of the first step. If the couples pass the interview and earn other approvals, migrant spouses eventually must travel abroad for a visa interview at a U.S. consulate. Only if they receive a visa can they return to the U.S. legally.

It's unclear how many individuals have successfully become permanent U.S. residents through the process. It facilitates a proper record for families with mixed citizenship, and it's meant "to avoid the grievous consequences of forcing a spouse or parent to leave" the U.S. for years while trying to build a lawful immigration case from their home countries, the ACLU says.

Now, the plaintiffs say, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is unlawfully using the process as bait. ACLU of Maryland attorney Nick Steiner said it began in 2017 and seems to happen randomly nationwide.

"Previous practice would allow immigration lawyers to bring their clients to their interviews without fear of arrest because there was an understanding that they were trying to receive Green Cards, notwithstanding the removal orders, and there's also longstanding guidance that [Citizenship and Immigration Services] should be following, that prohibits arrests at interviews," he said in an email.

The Homeland Security agencies -- through Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Shawn Neudauer and Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Jane Cowley -- said they don't comment on pending litigation. But depositions and emails released in the Massachusetts case suggest federal officials were coordinating to target migrant spouses at their marriage interviews.

"In my opinion, it makes sense for us to arrest aliens with final removal orders as they represent the end of the line in the removal process," wrote Andrew Graham, a Boston-based Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer. "They are typically the easiest to remove, they have the shortest average length of stay, and at the end of the day we are in the removal business and it's our job to locate and arrest them."

The government in its response to the complaint filed in Maryland argued the case should be dismissed because the court lacks jurisdiction and the plaintiffs' "claims are not likely to be successful." It also argued Elmer was "personally served" with a notice for his deportation hearing and that it showed a date, time and place.

A Section on 10/09/2019

Print Headline: U.S. uses marriage interviews to trap migrants, lawsuit says

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