All they could tell him is that it had something to do with a felony in Virginia. There were three or four officers and they were forming people into lines. Roland Sylvain saw one officer disappear with another man from his line. “I told them, ‘I need to tell my wife where I’m going,’” said Sylvain, a longtime permanent resident who was married to a U.S. citizen. “She was seven months pregnant and crying on the deck of the ship. But the officer couldn’t—wouldn’t tell me anything.”
By the time Sylvain told me this story, he’d spent the past year repeating it to countless lawyers, describing how he’d been stopped as he disembarked with 20 other family members from a Fourth of July cruise in Tampa. The officers had led him through an empty parking lot and across the street into a white, nondescript building. Inside, he says, more officers took his fingerprints. Then they took his green card and passport.
Sylvain is one of thousands of immigrants who have been charged with “aggravated felonies” by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The term, first introduced in the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, applies specifically to immigrants and asylum-seekers: If they’re convicted of any of the crimes in this category, they can be deported and prohibited from reentering the U.S. for 20 years. In 1988, the list of aggravated felonies was limited to serious crimes such as murder and drug trafficking. But Congress expanded the definition over the years, most extensively in 1996.