The Rev. David Boase presided over so many baptisms and funerals in Alton, Ill., that the town began to feel smaller than it really was, full of people the priest has watched grow up or grow old.
He has been a priest at two Episcopal churches for the past 14 years in Alton, a southern Illinois river town on the banks of the Mississippi, and when he arrived from England in 2004, he said he knew fairly quickly that he never intended to leave. It was, “as we say about priestly work,” his calling.
“It was a heartfelt sense of belonging, and that was a large part of the impetus of my seeking citizenship,” Boase, 69, told The Washington Post. “I just wanted to belong in the fullest possible way here in America, as a responsible citizen.”
But that’s all scheduled to come crashing down Friday, when Boase, a legal permanent resident, expects to be removed from the country by an immigration judge because of a violation 12 years ago.
At issue? A single vote cast in 2006.
Boase was placed in removal proceedings last month, roughly a year after he admitted during his citizenship interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that, yes, he once registered to vote, and yes, he once cast a vote. Boase’s notice to appear in immigration court — the charging document that initiates removal proceedings — specifies that his one trip to the polls in 2006 is the reason for his removal. It does not mention any other aggravating factors, and David Cox, Boase’s immigration attorney, said there are none. It’s only the lone vote.
“It’s a shame when a person tells the truth and admits fault, intends to explain in all honesty, with full disclosure, and still everything falls apart,” Boase said. “All I want to do is continue to live here. I still want to be an American citizen, but I can’t see that ever happening.”
His local parish and a flood of supporters started a GoFundMe campaign, “United for Father David Boase,” to help with his legal fees, and even reached out to Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s (D-Ill.) office to ask the senator to intervene. But still, his supporters recognize that it is unlikely to stop what Boase believes is inevitable.
“When my wife and I found out what happened to him,” said one parishioner, Jeff Dunnagan, “it brought us both to tears.”
Boase said it all began when he passed his driver’s test at an Illinois DMV in 2005, and a government employee asked him if he would like to register to vote. Despite Boase’s two forms of British identification, Boase said, the employee did not question his citizenship, leading him to believe registering would be fine.
From what Boase recalls, the vote he cast the following year was for a ballot measure to boost fire-protection resources for the local fire department. And when a friend informed him it was illegal, Boase said, “I never voted again.” But the damage was done. The problem was that there happened to be a single federal Democratic candidate running unopposed for the House of Representatives on the ballot, too — Rep. Jerry Costello, who held Illinois’ 12th District for 20 years.
Whether Boase voted for the candidate doesn’t matter. The mere existence of a federal candidate on the ballot made Boase’s participation in the election that year a federal offense, Cox said.
“The law treats this as unforgivable,” Cox said.
But still, Cox said, USCIS had the discretion to look past it.
Cox suspects that the government’s decision to instead seek Boase’s removal stems from a change in USCIS policy this summer. The policy memorandum, issued June 28, sought to “align [USCIS’s] policy” for initiating deportation proceedings “with the enforcement priorities” of DHS, which were outlined in President Trump’s January 2017 executive order, USCIS said in an announcement.
Like Trump’s executive order, the new USCIS guidelines broaden the classes of immigrants that USCIS would be not only encouraged but required to deport. This includes not just those who have been convicted of a crime but also people who haven’t been, if they’ve “committed acts that are chargeable as a criminal offense.” Such acts include unlawful voting.
In a policy brief issued in July, the American Immigration Lawyers Association warned that this new policy “ties the hands of [USCIS] officials and eviscerates the concept of prosecutorial discretion,” while clogging up overburdened immigration courts with thousands of people USCIS otherwise likely wouldn’t have referred for removal in the past.
In response to questions about whether its decision to seek Boase’s removal stemmed directly from this policy change, USCIS said it could not comment on his individual case, citing privacy laws.
“Protecting the integrity of our laws is a top priority of USCIS,” spokesman Michael Bars said in a statement. “The agency is committed to adjudicating all petitions and applications fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet all standards required under applicable law, policies, and regulations.”
It’s unclear whether the policy had gone into effect at the time Boase’s case was referred for removal. USCIS had said that implementation of the policy was “pending” in a July 30 statement.
“If I had to guess why they didn’t overlook this [in Boase’s] case, which they have the full discretion to do,” Cox said, “I can only think that the reason his case got this treatment is because they took this harsh approach.”
Cox said he will ask the judge on Friday to allow Boase to voluntarily depart the country, which would minimize the punishment typically associated with deportation and allow Boase to possibly return for visits.
In the meantime, Boase, who still leads Mass every Sunday, said he is selling his home and its contents, his car — “everything, my life in America,” he said — and preparing to depart for the rolling green fields that he stopped calling home 14 years ago.
He has dwelled on what has happened incessantly over the past several weeks, but by now, he said, “I feel, oddly enough, a calmness about everything.”
He’s made peace, he said, with what can’t be changed.