In 2016, William Diaz Castro was arrested at his home in New Orleans by ICE agents who were looking for someone else. He was charged with “illegal reentry” because he had been deported to Guatemala before. But this time, William’s wife Linda and their son witnessed the traumatic arrest. William is a leader with the Congreso de Jornaleros/Congress of Day Laborers, an organization of immigrant workers founded by day laborers who helped rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina, and drove a grassroots campaign for his release from inside the detention center.
To support William’s case, Linda found an attorney, Sima Atri with the New Orleans Workers Center Racial Justice. She hadn’t seen cases like William’s, individuals without prior convictions or extensive immigration records being charged with illegal reentry, which are more common along the border. Sima says that William’s case demonstrated a dangerous trend in New Orleans – one that compounds the entrenched racial and economic disparities of the world’s “prison capital.”
Since 2005, over 730,000 people have been prosecuted in our federal courts for the crime of improper migration. Last year 52% of all prosecutions in the federal courts were for either crossing and recrossing the border. In April 2017 Attorney General Jeff Sessions specifically directed federal prosecutors to increase prosecutions and punishment for immigration related offenses including illegal entry and re-entry. At the same time, ICE agents have been directed to treat all undocumented immigrants as “priorities” for deportation.
William: “Quiero ver a mi hijo crecer. Quiero ver a mi hijo crecer un permiso de trabajo.” “I want to see my son grow up, to have a work permit. To be okay in this place. I want the same for my wife so that neither she nor I have to go through this process again. Because in reality it’s very difficult to be away from the people you love.”
Jasmin Lopez: You are listening to Indefensible. Stories of people resisting deportation. This is Jasmin Lopez.
Trump: And we will not let them back in. they’re not coming back in folks. They do they’re going to have bigger problems than they ever dreamt of.
Sima Atri: For undocumented people, there’s similar challenges to other people of color in Louisiana. We’re in the state with one of the highest rates of detention. It’s a lot easier to be criminalized here.
Judy Greene: A very large portion of these people who are prosecuted for recrossing the border are coming back because they had lived for years in the United States before and they have families. You know they have lives. They have children who are U.S. citizens.”
JL: Every Wednesday evening, immigrant workers and families gather for the Congress of Day Laborer’s meeting, also knowns as congresso in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tonight, there’re are about 200 people here. Equal number of men and women, with some children as well. We’re in the sanctuary of First Grace United Methodist Church.
Meeting: Sin papeles sin miedo.
JL: Everyone chants, no papers, no fear. Congresso is a group founded by the day laborers who helped rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They offer legal services, workshops and community to undocumented people in the area. This is where I meet up with William Diaz Castro and his wife Linda Guzman. William and Linda met in Kotalanol, Guatemala. But they decided to leave because of increased violence in the country. William left in 2007 and Linda would join him later. William managed to cross into the U.S. on Christmas eve.
William: I entered as undocumented through the U.S./Mexico border. From then on, I started to work. I didn’t know anything about construction but I had to adapt and learn. Life here has been well like always. There are good moments and there are not so pleasant ones. Buenos momentos y malos momentos
JL: Linda came two years later. Over several years, they worked hard to build a new life in New Orleans. When Linda was pregnant with their child, William was arrested by immigration agents and deported in 2012. He made it back to New Orleans just before their son Willie was born. Then one night last year ICE agents knocked on William and Linda’s door and demanded to be let in. They were searching for someone else.
William: “Empezaron a preguntarme a mí y a mi esposa muchas preguntas.” They started asking me and my wife a lot of questions. I went to get her and my son out of bed. * They had no arrest warrant. * No permission to enter the house. Nothing.
JL: When they arrested William, ICE agents found out he’d been previously deported. They took him to St. Tamini Parish Jail. William was charged with the crime of illegal reentry. William became one of the 730,000 people who have been prosecuted for improper migration since 2005. The United States turns an undocumented immigrant without criminal convictions into a federal prisoner like this. Yyou’re arrested by immigration agents and held in immigration detention. Immigration agents then refer your case to the U.S. Attorney, requesting to charge you with a federal charge of illegal reentry. The U.S. Attorney agrees to prosecute the crime and you can be convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. After serving prison time for the conviction you become number one priority for deportation.
William: * My main motivation was always my wife and son.
JL: Despite the long days away from his family, William tried to stay motivated.
William: *I tried to keep reading any book I could. * I used to make bracelets, things like that, to distract myself. * Every day was the same. * It’s very difficult because I’ve never been in a prison. * It was very difficult to spend every day watching the sun rise and the sun set. * I’d watch the rain fall or the skies become cloudy from a window. * It was a very horrible thing. * It was a situation once when we were locked up and a fight broke out. *It was a lot of blood. I had never seen so much blood. There were people lying on the ground unconscious. * Very difficult, yes.
JL: While William was detained, Linda was left to support and care for their son Willie. She worked long hours at a laundromat washing and folding the clothes of other families.
Linda: *Well it was quite difficult and traumatic because it was the second time we faced this with the exception that this time my son was there. * He saw everything. He saw when they put those things on his dad and took him away. * He cried. He asked me about his dad. *Every day. I had to lie to him. * And tell him he was working. That was a lie I had to tell my son to calm him down a bit. * Every time he sees the police officer he still has the fear that his dad will be taken. *He was traumatized.
JL: After William was arrested Linda did what she could to fight for his release. Sima Atri, a staff attorney at the New Orleans Worker’s’ Center for Racial Justice, represents William.
Sima Atri: I met William because his wife came to a Ccongress of Dday Llaborer’s meeting and described a situation where her husband had not only been arrested by ICE but while he was in immigration detention, saw that then he’d been charged with a criminal charge related to immigration. This is something we hadn’t seen before for individuals that didn’t have criminal backgrounds or didn’t have extensive immigration records. And so, we looked more closely as his case and tried to understand what was happening at the local U.S. Attorney’s Office. And then I met him through jail visit.
JL: Sima Atri says that William’s case demonstrated a dangerous trend in New Orleans. Criminal charges for improper or illegal entry are much more common in border states. In the eastern Louisiana, the federal court district last year, there were 48 reentry cases like William’s. and that number has been increasing.
Sima Atri: We decided we would target the U.S. Attorney’s Office and try to get them to change their practices to no longer charge. Either charge people um with the specific immigration crime or not charge them with the felony version of the crime, which would allow them then to still not get deported even if they’re found guilty.” “
Judy Greene: The bottom line here is that it is a misdemeanor, federal misdemeanor, to cross the border the first time. And you’re subject to a jail term of up to six months. But if you recross the border then you can be indicted for a federal felony.
JL: That’s Judy Greene, director of Justice Strategies, a policy research group that focuses on mass incarceration. She says that the U.S. began to criminalize immigrants in the mid-1960s. during the second world war, labor shortages led to the creation of a guest worker program called the Bracero program. When the Bracero program ended in 1964 lots of border crossings became criminalized. And after 2005, the number of federal prosecutions exploded.
Judy Greene: The Department of Homeland Security and the ramping up of enforcement against immigration have basically hijacked the federal courts. Most of those prosecutions take place in the five federal districts that are on the border from San Diego to Brownsville.
JL: Nearly 70,000 migrants were criminally prosecuted at the border during 2015. In our federal court system, illegal entry and reentry are now the top two criminal charges, 49% of all cases filed for federal prosecution in the U.S. Judy Green says that these prosecutions don’t deter undocumented border crossers. It only lengthens the process of deporting them.
Judy Greene: This is not a substitute for the regular process of apprehension, detention and removal or deportation. It simply interrupts that process, imposes days, weeks, months, years in prison and then they go back into that process. When they are released from jail or prison they go back to ICE custody and they are going through the same. You know so this is just you know added punishment for nobody’s benefit. And you know costing a lot of money. But more importantly is causing a lot of human misery.
JL: The New Orleans Worker Center and the Congress of Day Laborers did a lot to support William. Like hold a 24-hour vigil to protest the arrest of William and two other people. The group held a vigil at Lafayette Square last September. William joined the vigil via telephone from immigration detention.
William: *Good evening everyone and while I can’t see you but I heard you from here. And it makes me happy that you’re all there and doing well. And thank you for the support.
JL: William leads the group in a chant of no papers, no fear. * Linda was also at the vigil. *Linda told the crowd that the reason she was there was to ask the U.S. Attorney to drop the charges against her husband and the others like him. *
Sima Atri: William fought for both himself and to change the way the criminal justice system was criminalizing communities from detention.
JL: Again, that’s Sima Atri, William’s attorney.
Sima Atri: He chose to remain in jail instead of taking a plea and returning to his home to remain in jail for almost ten months. And from jail didn’t stop the work that he was doing. He continued to be involved by calling from jail into meetings by calling into town halls so he could tell the story and tell about the experiences that he was having and the way the system was criminalizing the community. That’s just a very inspirational thing for someone to choose to. To be so committed to the fight. To be able to do that. And then also to be so committed to his family throughout the whole process. The family. They were talking to each other every single day. We’re finding any way possible for the son be able to see his dad so that his son wouldn’t grow up in such important years in his life. It’s. it’s pretty incredible fight, especially when you’re doing it from behind bars.
JL: William also filed a civil rights complaint with the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security. Nine months after William was arrested he had his day in court. That was in December. I called Linda after the hearing.
Linda: *Hello, good afternoon. We’re out of court now. Thankfully they gave William time served so now we wait. *Right after that time served then they’ll decide what will happen to see if they’ll let William out. * Now we just wait.
JL: William’s charge was reduced and he pled guilty to the misdemeanor version of the crime of reentering the U.S. This means that he wouldn’t serve time in federal prison. He was transferred back to immigration custody and with a reduced charge.
Sima Atri: We filed a request for prosecutorial discretion which is a request to ICE saying that yes you have the right to deport this person but you shouldn’t because of all these reasons; ‘cause of the fact that he’s not a priority under your own rules, he has a family here, he has a U.S. citizen son, he’s a compliant still in the civil rights, complaint to DHS. He fears going home to Guatemala. There’s all these reasons. He’s all this community support. Why are you deporting him? How does this make our country safer, which is supposed to be at the root of why people are deported. And they granted that request for prosecutorial discretion. And so now he’s out of detention. He’s back with his family and he checks in with ICE every six months.
JL: Because William fears returning to Guatemala and has faced violence there, he is in the process of applying for a form of immigration relief called withholding of removal. It’s like political asylum but at an even higher standard. This prohibits the U.S. government from removing you to a country where your life or freedom would be threatened because of your race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Sima Atri says that it’s not easy to get.
Sima Atri: Louisiana grants withholding at incredibly low rates, even though there are tons of people here in Louisiana who have very real claims that could be granted in other parts of the country.
JL: Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States. And that affects both immigrants and U.S. citizens. Sima Atri tells me there’s higher rates of arrest due in large part to racial profiling. The New Orleans Worker’s Center has built alliances with other organizations and worked with the U.S. Attorney. As a result, local law enforcement don’t collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or share information with the agency.
Sima Atri: I think William’s story is actually emblematic of many immigrant’s experiences here in the country. The fact that he was targeted by multiple systems of enforcement. The fact that he is very committed to his community, has a family, has this whole life that we don’t talk about when we talk about undocumented people and deporting undocumented communities. And I hope we see him not as an exception because he’s like only one story but actually is the norm of the types of communities that are going to be impacted by Trump.
JL: I asked William and Linda what they looked forward to now.
Linda: *Stability. * To be together without having that fear of being separated again. *Because I know that as much as it cost me and my son, it cost my husband as well. *Overcoming so much pain is something that one can’t explain. Do you understand me? Not just us. We’re so many families that are being separated now. *And with this new government it’s much worse. *Yes. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen now.
William: *We’re happy to be together again. *I’m also very happy because I can hold my son every night, sleep next to him. *A few days ago, he started to cry because I had to work at night. * She had to take him to where I was so that he could see that I was working. *Every time he sees a police officer he think they are going to take me or arrest me. *He’s very affected in this process. *These are things that people in superior positions like federal officers or ICE officials, they don’t see all this. it’s as if they just want to work to fulfil their task and that’s it. *The humanitarian side of this is forgotten. *Like my wife says, there are many people I met who are going through this situation. Cases that are worse than mine. *Wives who are pregnant and their husbands are facing deportation proceedings. * They don’t care about any of that.
JL: William was spared from deportation and released before Donald Trump’s inauguration. Since then, President Trump’s executive orders and the Department of Homeland Security’s memos direct ICE agent to treat all undocumented immigrants as priorities for deportation. Even so, William says he’ll continue to fight for the right to live with his family. He says he’s here to stay. You’ve been listening to Indefensible. And I’m Jasmine Lopez. This podcast is brought to you with the support of the Immigrant Defense Project and the For Freedom’s Fund. Andrew Ingkavet composed the music. This episode was edited by Calla Leah and Will Coley. Special thanks to Natalie Yar for contributing to this story and to Tonya Ketenjian and J.C. Howard for being the voices of Linda and William. Join us next week for another episode of Indefensible. Be sure to subscribe on ITunes or wherever you get your podcasts.