“He saw all that’s destroyed in the area,” his wife, Liliana, told The Washington Post. “He volunteered to help the people clean the area.”
But for three decades, Cardona has been in the country as an undocumented immigrant. As he lives with the physical and psychological consequences of his 9/11 work — severe respiratory and gastrointestinal problems and depression, to name a few — the 48-year-old is facing deportation.
“I don’t know. It’s too much,” Liliana Cardona said when asked about the emotional toll of her husband’s current situation.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have long known about Cardona, who has reported to ICE during the past several years. But he was arrested recently after changes in immigration policy under President Trump’s administration.
Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), whose district includes Queens, wrote a letter to the Trump administration’s top immigration officials urging them not to deport Cardona.
“Mr. Cardona is deserving of our thanks — not the cold shoulder. It is unconscionable to deport a man who responded in our country’s time of need, who suffers chronic health conditions as a result, and whose treatment and care would be severely diminished should he be deported,” Crowley wrote in his Tuesday letter addressed to Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, ICE Director Thomas Homan, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acting director James McCament.
“Deporting Mr. Cardona would send a chilling message not just to immigrants who call our country home, but to all who would help when their country calls on them,” Crowley, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, added.
Cardona is facing deportation because of two misdemeanor drug convictions in 1990, when he pleaded guilty to attempted sale of controlled substance and was sentenced to 45 days of imprisonment followed by five years of probation. He later applied to become a permanent resident, but was denied in 1998. He was ordered to be deported in 2000, according to a federal complaint he and his wife filed against immigration officials last week.
And then, 9/11 happened. Cardona volunteered on behalf of his employer, a cleaning company, to help clean up the disaster site, his lawyer, Rajesh Barua, said.
Cardona stayed in the country for the next several years until immigration officials arrested him in April 2011. He was released on the same day because of his health problems, court records say. A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Cardona was enrolled in a program that allowed him to stay under ICE supervision while living in his home instead of in jail as he went through immigration proceedings.
The Alternative to Detention program includes electronic monitoring and is used at 75 locations nationwide. It requires people to report to ICE regularly, either through personal check-ins or home visits.
In 2014, Cardona again sought to legalize his presence in the United States through the I-130 visa petition, a common way for foreigners to gain legal residency through their relatives or spouses. His wife, whom he married the previous year, is a naturalized citizen. The couple went through a marriage petition interview in 2016, according to court records. His application, however, has been pending for the past three years.
Cardona’s supervision order was later revoked, and he was arrested on Feb. 28, less than two weeks after Kelly issued a memo detailing sweeping new guidelines that empower ICE agents to target not just hardened criminals, but also those who have outstanding deportation orders — regardless of how long they have been in the country.
The new rules represent a significant shift from the previous administration’s policies.
In 2014, the Obama administration curtailed deportations by not removing people who have been in the country for a long time. Violent criminals are the highest priority for deportation, as has always been the case. Next are those who have been convicted of misdemeanors other than minor traffic offenses, followed by people were ordered to be deported on or after Jan. 1, 2014, according to a November 2014 memo by Jeh Johnson, then secretary of homeland security.
Another memo, issued by ICE Director John Morton in June 2011, directed ICE agents and other immigration officials to look at factors, such as familial relationships with U.S. citizens, criminal history and contributions to the community, in deciding whether arrest and prosecution are warranted.
Kelly’s memo, which calls for the hiring of additional ICE agents and does not list any of those factors, states: “Prosecutorial discretion shall not be exercised in a manner that exempts or excludes a specified class or category of aliens from enforcement of immigration laws.”
ICE did not comment further about Cardona’s case. He has been in the Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey since his arrest in February, court records say.
In an interview with The Post, Crowley, whose constituency consists mostly of people who weren’t born in the United States, said the Trump administration should soften its approach on immigration instead of casting a wide net on anyone who is in the country illegally, regardless of their ties to the community and lack of violent criminal histories.
“He was not a threat, never deemed as a threat. He was cooperating with ICE all these years. Now he is being deported,” Crowley said, adding later: “This is not the country that I was brought up in…. Because of the service you lent to the country after 9/11, now you’re sick from it. But we’re going to kick you out.”
On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) pardoned Cardona for his previous conviction.
“It is my hope this action will not only reunite Mr. Cardona with his wife and daughter, but also send a message about the values of fairness and equality that New York was founded upon,” Cuomo said in a statement.
Cardona has a 19-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.
“Mr. Cardona has given back so much and conclusively turned his life around,” Jose Calderon, president of the Hispanic Federation in New York, said in a statement. “With this pardon, Mr. Cardona will be able to make his case to stay in this country with his family, and continue to receive care for his serious medical conditions.”
The pardon would allow Cardona and his lawyer to reopen the deportation order from 2000 and make the case that there are no grounds to remove him from the country. But whether he will be released is still up to the Department of Homeland Security, his lawyer, Barua, said.
Cardona’s request for a stay of removal that was filed recently remains pending, according to ICE.