The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Maryland immigrant hoped to delay his deportation until Biden took office. It didn’t work.

Lily Santos, 40, with her and Edgar Diaz-Palma's three children, Bresny Daniela Santos, 6, Edgar Rene Santos, 5, and Keylor Ubaldo Santos, 1, at Casa de Maryland's headquarters in Langley Park. Edgar Diaz-Palma, who was the provider for Santos and their three children, was deported Dec. 1. (Trent Leon-Lierman)

Edgar Diaz-Palma was driving to a bakery last month to buy breakfast for his children when a black, unmarked SUV behind him flipped on its lights.

Diaz-Palma pulled over, and an officer told the 42-year-old father of three that he had made an illegal U-turn, according to his attorney. The officer asked for Diaz-Palma’s license, and moments later told the Langley Park resident that he had a pending issue with immigration and was under arrest.

Diaz-Palma was ushered into a second unmarked police vehicle, this time a van, and driven to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center in Baltimore. Along the way, he called his partner to explain why he wouldn’t make it home.

In the weeks since his arrest, family, friends, legal advocates and elected officials have scrambled to piece together the facts of that morning and determine why ICE targeted Diaz-Palma — all with the hope that they could delay proceedings long enough to see President-elect Joe Biden usher in new immigration policies.

“Edgar has been in this county 20 years, has three American-born children, who now don’t know where their father is,” said Bradford Brown, a family friend who has helped draw attention to Diaz-Palma’s story. “I know this is tearing these kids apart. For what?”

Brown said he prayed that they would be able to slow his friend’s case down until Biden took office.

But time ran out. On Dec. 1, Diaz-Palma was deported.

In a statement to The Washington Post, an ICE spokesperson said Diaz-Palma was arrested as part of the agency’s Operation Broken Promise, a nationwide sweep of undocumented immigrants who did not leave the country after receiving voluntary departure orders. The operation commenced Nov. 2, the day before the presidential election.

Diaz-Palma had no pending criminal charges, according to ICE, and was arrested in the sweep because he did not abide by a judge’s ruling in 2018 asking him to leave the country of his own volition. Immigration officials said they first learned of Diaz-Palma’s presence in the United States in 2013, when he was in Illinois for work and the minivan he was riding in broke down on the interstate. A state trooper stopped to assist, ICE said, and reported the people inside — all of whom were undocumented — to ICE Homeland Security Investigations.

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Diaz-Palma appeared before a judge and was released on bond.

For the next five years, he worked with immigration attorneys to resolve his legal troubles. He hoped to get a green card so he could stay in the United States. He was afraid to return to Guatemala, unsure what kind of life he could provide for his family there.

Brown, the family friend, said he helped Diaz-Palma gather his immigration paperwork but worried that his friend’s attorneys were not adequately representing him.

Then the removal order came, and the pandemic hit. Diaz-Palma struggled to find an attorney who could help him keep fighting, Brown said.

In Prince George’s County, the arrest of Diaz-Palma infuriated elected officials who say federal authorities usurped the jurisdiction of local police departments to enforce a civil warrant.

“Threats and deportations of Prince George’s County and Maryland residents are entirely unacceptable,” Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) said in a statement. “Sting operations directed at members of our community strike fear among residents that they too will be targeted and separated from their families at a whim.”

The congressman said Diaz-Palma’s case is part of what he worries is an escalation of deportations by Trump in the administration’s final months. He said his office submitted a formal inquiry about Diaz-Palma but received little information from ICE about the case.

Prince George’s County Council member Deni Taveras (D-District 2), an advocate for the immigrant community, said she was shocked to learn that Diaz-Palma was followed by unmarked vehicles, which she said reminded her of federal customs officials using unmarked vans to detain protesters in Portland, Ore.

“How can it possibly be that we have unmarked vehicles going around capturing people and not self-identifying who they represent,” said Taveras, adding that this was the first such incident she had heard about in the county. “What does this mean that we now have Gestapo-style tactics employed in the United States?”

Taveras was the lead sponsor of a law passed last year barring county agencies from working with ICE.

Unilateral actions by ICE grew increasingly common under the Trump administration, but vary by regional office, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School. He said those moves are legal but go against the spirit of laws passed in sanctuary jurisdictions such as Prince George’s, which explicitly barred county agencies from engaging in immigration enforcement.

Diaz-Palma fled Guatemala and entered the United States without documentation in 1999. He moved to Maryland, where he built a career in construction, providing for his long-term partner and their three children, ages 6, 5 and 1.

Then on Nov. 12, Diaz-Palma was arrested. The weeks that followed were filled with uncertainty.

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From their home in Langley Park, Diaz-Palma’s partner, Lily Santos, and their children relied on unpredictable phone calls from detention centers across the country and the advice of legal and immigration advocates to track his whereabouts and navigate the system.

Diaz-Palma was held in Baltimore until the evening of his arrest, when his arms and feet were put in shackles and he was driven through the night in a van to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., his family and attorney said.

He was often crying when he called home, said Santos, who is also originally from Guatemala.

“He tells me that he feels it is unfair what happened to him because his kids will be the ones that suffered,” Santos, 40, said last week.

Santos cares for their three children and does not work outside the home. She said she does not know how they are going to pay their rent and has been relying on a friend and a local nonprofit group for food — including on Thanksgiving — since Diaz-Palma was detained.

“It’s a tragedy in the making for his family,” Bradford Brown said. “This is just, any way you cut it, this is draconian.”

On Nov. 23, Diaz-Palma’s attorney Vincent Rivas-Flores filed a motion with the Board of Immigration Appeals asking the court to stay the deportation proceedings and reopen his case. In the motion, Rivas-Flores argued that Diaz-Palma’s previous attorneys had failed him in court for five years by not sufficiently explaining to the immigration judge what was at stake.

But the day after Thanksgiving, Diaz-Palma was on a plane set to be deported, a move that was paused, according to ICE, to allow a judge to rule on the court motion.

Then on Nov. 30, Santos’s phone rang again. The judge had denied Diaz-Palma’s plea to stay. It was their son’s 5th birthday. Diaz-Palma was deported the next day.

Their 6-year-old daughter has stopped engaging in her Zoom classes and refuses to do her classwork. Santos is trying to get her to a psychologist but is unsure how she will pay for it.

Santos said she has not yet figured out if she will move to Guatemala — or try to make the life for their children that he wanted in the United States.

“He tells me, ‘You can’t cry, you have to be the rock for them,’ ” Santos said. “So that is what I have tried to do.”

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