It was well before 9 a.m., but the Immigration and Customs Enforcement waiting room was already packed. Women held babies with one arm while filling out forms with the other. Men in dirt-caked boots rifled through dog-eared documents. Outside, in a crowded hallway on a Wednesday in April, children played underneath an “Enforcement & Removal Operations” sign.
At the far end of the hallway, Haydee Reyes fidgeted nervously. Two weeks earlier, her sister and 10-year-old niece had crossed the Rio Grande and asked for asylum. Now, after being released and bused to Northern Virginia, it was time for their first ICE check-in.
Reyes, a legal resident of the United States, wasn’t sure what would happen. But as she waited in the whitewashed basement in Fairfax, she witnessed a disturbing reminder of one possible outcome.
Click. Click. Click.
It was the sound of handcuffs locking into place.
As children suddenly stopped playing and the hallway grew quiet, Reyes watched as an ICE agent arrested a slender young man in a black sweater, putting him on the path to deportation. When the man’s wife began arguing with the agent, she, too, was cuffed and led away.
Over the past year, amid fierce debates over family separation, migrant caravans and billions of dollars for a border wall, the nation’s attention has been fixed on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Yet every day, the futures of thousands of undocumented people are decided far from that frontier, in drab suburban office complexes like this one — part of the vast and often overwhelmed system designed to enforce U.S. immigration laws.
The surge in the number of people seeking asylum, despite the Trump administration’s aggressive attempts to reduce immigration, has only burdened that system further.
Over the past two years, as record numbers of Central American families have turned themselves in at the border, the number of immigrants required to report regularly to ICE has jumped by 26 percent to 2.9 million. On April 17, there were 153 check-ins at the Fairfax office, more than twice the number a year ago.
For the people presenting themselves to immigration authorities, including more than a million already facing final orders of removal from the United States, each check-in can feel perilous.
As she watched the couple next to her get arrested, Reyes wondered if her sister, somewhere in the line ahead, would be next.
The glass and concrete building on Prosperity Avenue betrays few hints of the drama underway inside. Apart from a sign for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which occupies the first and second floors, the only other indication is the families who line up outside before the doors open at 6:30 a.m. and emerge hours later, sometimes smaller in size and sobbing.
Through a metal detector and down an elevator lies room C-22. Here, immigrants are met by a smoky glass window, behind which a shadowy human form tells them to fill out an intake form.
There are about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, and most are unknown to authorities. In addition to the roughly 50,000 being detained, another 2.9 million are on what ICE calls its “non-detained docket,” meaning they have been released while their immigration cases wind through backlogged courts.
Some were arrested after years of living in the United States and then posted immigration bonds. But a growing number are Central American families who turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents, asked for asylum and then were quickly released on parole.
Those on the non-detained docket are required to report periodically to a deportation officer, either in person or by phone, except for roughly 100,000 immigrants who instead check in with a government contractor and are often outfitted with ankle bracelets as an alternative to detention.
An ICE spokesman said the agency does not track how many immigrants fail to show up for check-ins. Nor does it know how many check-ins occur each day across the country, but it is easily in the thousands. They take place in more than two dozen locations, from San Francisco to San Antonio to South Florida.
Fairfax is among the busiest. A report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found that in 2016, deportation officers in the Washington suburb each handled an average of more than 10,000 non-detained cases per year: five times as many as in Seattle or St. Paul, Minn.
The Fairfax office tripled the size of its waiting room last summer, but on this Wednesday morning, all the seats were filled within minutes. And by 9 a.m., the hallway was so full that a custodian could not push her cart down it.
“Oh, my gosh,” exclaimed one ICE agent as he entered.
Bright green signs warned that children and companions were not allowed. Yet women breast-fed their babies as toddlers dozed on plastic seats and teenagers tapped away at smartphone games. When somebody pointed to one of the signs, a mother shrugged.
“What am I supposed to do?” she said of her young son. “Leave him outside on his own?”
Many asylum seekers checking in for the first time hoped to make a good first impression. Some women wore bright dresses and high heels as if headed to church. One father wore a freshly ironed shirt with the tag still on it.
Huddled in the corner of the room, Yensy Santos nervously glanced at her cellphone, counting the minutes until her name was called. The 20-year-old wore red lipstick that matched her purse. She had arrived three weeks earlier from Honduras but now had no idea what was going to happen. Adding to the anxiety: She was 4½ months pregnant.
“Honduras is no place to raise a child,” she said later in Spanish.
Cecilia Bolanos didn’t bother dressing up. She’s been checking in for six years, ever since she was detained at the border fleeing gang violence in El Salvador. Now the 24-year-old is married to an American citizen, working as a waitress and about to close on a house.
“The first couple of years I was kind of nervous” checking in, she said in English, “but then you get used to it.”
Not everyone views the check-ins as routine.
Under President Barack Obama, ICE prioritized deporting undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes, immigration attorneys and activists said. But under President Trump, the agency has taken a broader, more aggressive approach, including opening immigration cases that had been previously closed.
“If there is bed space open, there is now a real fear that someone could be arrested [during a check-in], even if they have been playing by the rules for years,” said Nicholas Katz, legal program manager for the immigrant rights group CASA.
That is the worry for Ahlam Mohamed. She said she came to the United States when she was 10 from Somalia, where her father was killed in front of her. Her mother and sisters are American citizens, but Mohamed’s green card was revoked because of drug and fraud convictions. She checked in on April 16 — her sixth appearance in as many years.
“Every time I come here, I feel like it’s my last day,” said Mohamed, who was told to return on April 28, 2020. “If they send me back to Somalia, that’s a death sentence.”
The fear is strongest for the 1.05 million people who already have final orders of removal, meaning they could not only be arrested at a check-in, but also quickly deported.
The day of Mohamed’s check-in, the lawyer for a 63-year-old Ghanaian immigrant with no criminal record was locked in an intense discussion about his fate with a deportation officer. The man had lived in the United States for more than 25 years but was suddenly facing removal.
“I can give him six months; then it’s a final order,” the deportation officer told the attorney. “I understand there are people who’ve been here for a long time, but things are different now.”
The following day, the young man and his wife were not so lucky. A different deportation officer called their names and took them to the same side corridor where the Ghanaian man had nearly been arrested. They had no lawyer with them. As the wife began arguing and pulling documents from a bright red binder, the ICE agent struggled to understand.
“Does anybody speak Spanish and English that can translate?” the officer asked.
“Sure,” volunteered a man waiting for his mother’s check-in.
After the couple’s arrest, the eerie silence slowly evaporated. People kept arriving for check-ins, unaware of the couple’s fate. An hour later, ICE arrested another young immigrant in the same corridor as his wife silently looked on.
One of the three arrested was later released, according to an ICE spokeswoman. Of the two who remained in custody, one had recently been ordered removed after missing a court hearing, and the other had unlawfully entered the United States multiple times, the spokeswoman said.
Most people, however, checked in without incident. They went to the front window, where the disembodied voice delivered temporary reprieves in poor Spanish.
“Come back six months.”
“See you 2020.”
Strained faces melted into smiles. Sighs of relief filled the elevator on its ascent from the underworld.
Instead of a date, some were given a time, an hour or two later, to report to another office and receive a GPS ankle monitor.
One was a middle-aged man in a wheelchair.
Another one was Yensy Santos, the pregnant 20-year-old from Honduras.
She looked stunned as her 17-year-old sister led her toward the exit, where an Uber would take her to get the monitor. (It would be taken off two days later, when she provided a doctor’s note proving she was pregnant.)
Bolanos was told to check in again in October, by which time she hoped to have applied for a green card through her husband.
After an hour waiting, Reyes clasped her hand over her mouth when she spotted her sister walking down the hall.
The 30-year-old blew her a kiss and smiled. She had just gotten her teaching degree in El Salvador when gangs began extorting her. Now, she told her family, she and her 10-year-old daughter had been given a year before they had to check in again. In the meantime, their asylum claim would join the more than 1 million cases already in U.S. immigration courts.
By noon, the waiting room was half empty. By 2 p.m., there was only one person left to check-in: a small Central American woman who said she had been coming here for years.
“Blanca?” said the voice beyond the glass.
“Thank you,” Blanca answered, retrieving her paper work and shuffling toward the door. She’d be back.