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Call for help leads to possible deportation for Hyattsville mother

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 3:33 PM

Last Christmas Eve, Maria Bolanos made a decision she would later regret: During a fight with her partner, she called the Prince George's County police and sought their protection.

The call for help had disastrous consequences for Bolanos, a 28-year-old undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. Within months, she found herself ensnared in an increasingly controversial immigration enforcement program designed to deport undocumented criminals.

Bolanos now faces deportation and possible separation from her 21-month-old daughter, who was born here and is a U.S. citizen.

Her case illustrates what immigrant-rights advocates and some local officials consider the shortcomings of Secure Communities, the centerpiece of the Obama administration's immigration enforcement efforts and a program that has helped generate a record number of deportations.

Secure Communities, which already operates in the District, Maryland, Virginia and will soon be running nationwide, relies on the fingerprints collected by local authorities when a person is charged with anything from a traffic violation to murder.

In Bolanos's case, the officer who responded to the domestic dispute at her apartment in Hyattsville later charged her with illegally selling a $10 phone card to a neighbor - an allegation she denies. The charge was eventually dropped, but by then Bolanos had been been fingerprinted and found by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be in the country illegally.

She has been told she probably will be deported after a Wednesday hearing before an immigration judge in Baltimore.

Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said removals during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 included more than 1,000 murderers, nearly 6,000 sex-offenders, 45,000 drug-offenders and 28,000 drunk drivers. The number fell short of the agency expectation of 400,000 deportations but still surpassed the 2009 total of 387,790, the previous record.

Although ICE officials have touted the large numbers of criminals who are being deported via Secure Communities, they are unapologetic about the significant number of non-criminals being removed as well. In the past year, more than half of the 392,000 immigrants deported were convicted criminals; the rest had overstayed their visas or entered the country without authorization.

"ICE cannot and will not turn a blind eye to those who violate federal immigration law," said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Brian Hale. "While ICE's enforcement efforts prioritize convicted criminal aliens, ICE maintains the discretion to take action on any alien it encounters."

Not surprisingly, immigrant-rights groups have been critical of the administration's efforts to ratchet up deportations without delivering on the president's campaign promise to create a path to citizenship for the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But Secure Communities also has come under attack in Arlington County, the District and other jurisdictions, where local officials worry that it is discouraging undocumented immigrants who are crime victims and witnesses from coming forward.

Those concerns are well justified, said Bolanos, speaking through a translator.

"You would have to be crazy to call the police," she said. "I would never call the police again."

Detained and desperate

Maria Bolanos works two jobs to pay her bills. She does janitorial work at an apartment complex Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and pulls a 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift at a restaurant Thursday through Sunday.

"Dora the Explorer" plays endlessly on the TV in her second-floor apartment, in deference to the wishes of her daughter, Melisa Arellano-Bolanos.

Framed pictures of the the Last Supper and of Jesus and Mary hang above the dining table. A photo of Bolanos's partner, Fernando Arellano, hugging Melisa is tucked into one corner of one of the frames.

Bolanos said she came to the United States in 2004 in search of a better life. She paid $7,000 to coyotes to help her cross the border via the Arizona desert.

The first time her party was caught, she said. She was released in the desert across the Arizona border from Mexico after being fingerprinted and photographed by authorities--and almost immediately crossed the border again.

She found her way to the Washington area and met Arellano at a restaurant where she worked. Arellano, now 34, was also undocumented and from Mexico. They fell in love and moved in together. Melisa was born in January 2008 at Washington Hospital Center.

The couple's fight began when Arellano came home late on Christmas Eve, Bolanos said, and quickly escalated into a shouting match.

By the time police arrived, Arellano had left the apartment.

Police charged Arellano with assault. That charge was dropped when neither Bolanos nor the police officer showed up in court, according to a spokesman for the Prince George's states attorney's office.

Months later, the fight forgotten, Bolanos found an arrest warrant waiting for her on the charge she was selling phone cards without a license.

The charge was eventually thrown out, but not before she was fingerprinted and the prints were shared with ICE through Secure Communities.

Authorities determined that she was in the country illegally and ordered her detained. Her ankles and wrists were shackled, she said, and she was moved to a detention facility in Upper Marlboro.

Bolanos said that she told authorities she was still breastfeeding her daughter but that they initially disregarded her plea to be released. After a doctor found that her breasts were engorged with milk, she was fitted with a locator ankle bracelet and sent home, pending the deportation hearing Nov 3.

Dual deportation

In August, Arellano was booked by police for making an illegal traffic turn. Police found he did not have a driver's license and arrested him. His fingerprints went to ICE, too - and he was detained. Now he is also facing deportation.

"In both of these cases, Secure Communities functioned exactly as it was designed to, allowing ICE to identify individuals booked into jail for a state crime and who were also present in the country unlawfully," said ICE spokesman Hale.

But that's not how immigrant rights group see it.

"ICE is misrepresenting the program in order to implement a nationwide deportation instrument, said Gustavo Andrade, organizing director at CASA de Maryland, which has been trying to help Bolanos. "Even one family destroyed because of this kind of program makes it unacceptable."

Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey also expressed concern about a phone card charge leading to a deportation proceeding.

"We should target our limited state and federal law enforcement dollars on killers, rapists, child molesters, human traffickers and violent gang members," Ivey said in a statement. "This kind of defendant should not be a high priority."

If Bolanos and Arellano are both deported, he would have to go to Mexico and she to El Salvador, meaning Melisa would be left without at least one of her parents. In El Salvador, Bolanos said, her family has faced death threats from gangs, and her brother was killed a year ago.

As she talked, Melisa played with the charger attached to her mother's ankle bracelet. Bolanos spends two hours every day charging the device, which looks like a BlackBerry attached to her leg with a thick band of black rubber. It hurts when she walks.

Bolanos wears long jeans to cover the ankle bracelet.

"I'm really ashamed to show it in public," she said. "People see it and think I'm a murderer. I try to keep it covered at all times."

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