When Carmen Goff received a letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last month asking her to visit the agency's Memphis office, she didn't have cause for concern. It said she needed to provide new fingerprints, pictures, and documents and would be given new reporting dates. She and her 10-year-old son Brandon, who was previously a St. Jude cancer patient, had been diligently reporting to the ICE office since arriving in Memphis years prior. Their green card application was in progress.
The letter "didn't set off any alarm bells for me because they explicitly said for new reporting dates, meaning we're going to set you a future check-in date," says Lily Axelrod, an immigration attorney who represents the Goffs. "But that turned out to be a lie, and they had already had her deportation flight booked."
Carmen and Brandon came to the U.S. from Honduras in November 2016, requesting asylum after crossing the southern border. At that point, Brandon had recovered from leukemia, which he was diagnosed with at just 18 months old. Carmen sought better economic circumstances and a better medical system for her son, fearing his cancer would return. She also hoped to flee violence in Honduras: A gang had killed her stepfather when he refused to give them money, she told Memphis' The Commercial Appeal.
Immigration authorities gave her a court date and allowed her to move to join relatives in the Atlanta area. Unfortunately, Brandon's cancer returned. Carmen brought him to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, which does not charge for treatment, and he eventually recovered. But their immigration status was on shaky ground.
"The judge did not grant her asylum case," says Axelrod, explaining that "it's pretty tough to win asylum cases" because "the law is a mess" and "the standard for evidence is extremely high." They didn't win their appeal either. "At that point, Carmen and her son Brandon had a final order of removal from the judge," Axelrod explains. "But the local ICE office, as they often do for cases that have some kind of a humanitarian element…allowed Carmen to have what's called an order of supervision."
Issued in 2019, that order allowed Carmen to stay in Memphis, keeping her son in treatment and the two of them out of ICE detention and deportation proceedings. It required her to complete regular check-ins with ICE and keep the agency apprised of new documents or addresses, which she did. In the meantime, Carmen met and married Jose Guerrero, a Venezuelan immigrant who recently naturalized as a U.S. citizen. The couple began to file the necessary paperwork for marriage-based immigration relief. Making good progress, the letter Carmen received on August 1 didn't seem like anything to worry about.
Carmen reported to the ICE office on August 11 with Brandon in tow. There, according to The Commercial Appeal, "officials told her to sign a document—she doesn't know what it said, because it was in English." The friend who had dropped Carmen and Brandon off became alarmed that they hadn't emerged from the office after several hours and that Carmen wasn't answering her cellphone. "We were able to check and confirm…that she had been detained," says Axelrod. "She and her son were held in the ICE office in Memphis for a while and were not allowed to contact an attorney or contact a family member."
Officials then took Carmen and Brandon to the Memphis airport, "where they told her that she was going to be flying to Texas"—but not that she and Brandon were being deported, Axelrod explains. Axelrod contacted someone high on the ICE chain of command in the region to note that agents had a St. Jude patient in custody. Axelrod sent ICE officials the family's latest documentation from St. Jude, where Brandon was still undergoing annual check-ups. That back-and-forth culminated in ICE letting Carmen and Brandon go home that evening.
"It was really traumatizing for her, as a mom more than anything," says Axelrod. "Everybody wants the best for their kids and to be able to tell their kids that everything is OK. She had that moment of not knowing what to tell him and not knowing how to protect him."
Last year, the Biden administration directed ICE to focus on deporting truly dangerous undocumented immigrants—those entangled in terrorism or serious crimes, for instance—rather than the vast majority who lead peaceful and productive lives in the United States. But in June, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas Judge Drew Tipton blocked that policy.
Axelrod believes that Carmen and Brandon's near-deportation wouldn't have happened if the Biden administration's enforcement priorities were still in place. "My theory is that during this period of injunction while there is no official guidance from on high, local ICE offices basically have the freedom to do what they want with their docket," she says. If the goal is "to deport as many people as possible…the easiest people to deport are people like Carmen, people who are going to show up to the ICE office when you tell them to and who have already given you all their travel documents, who you already know that they're nonviolent and compliant."
"This is sort of the low-hanging fruit in terms of effort expended to number of people deported," Axelrod continues.
The reversed enforcement guidance represents a significant blow to countless undocumented immigrants who have no criminal records, face violence if forced to return to their home countries, and have built their lives in the United States. Immigrants are already being deported without notice. Oklahoma immigration attorney Lorena Rivas told the Los Angeles Times that had happened to one of her clients, and she had heard of similar cases from other attorneys. One woman was deported to Mexico after a routine check-in in Memphis along with three of her children, who are U.S. citizens.
"ICE is designed to do exactly this," says Axelrod. "That's what our immigration laws allow." Though Carmen and Brandon ultimately weren't deported, other nonviolent, vulnerable migrants might not be so lucky.