March 26, 2020
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Deportee’s wife: ‘I’m not going to let this government tell us who we can love’

PORTLAND, Maine — Over the next 24 hours, Sandra Scribner Merlim expects her husband to be shackled along with scores of other prisoners, bussed to an airport from a federal immigration detention facility in Louisiana, and from there flown back to a country that he hasn’t seen in more than 20 years.

Otto Morales-Caballeros’ imminent deportation to Guatemala appears to be one of the first instances of a Maine family being forcibly divided by the Trump administration’s more aggressive approach to enforcing immigration law. It leaves Merlim without a source of income and with a hole in her home and heart where her husband used to be, she said.

“My husband, my provider, my protector, the love of my life is gone,” Merlim said tearfully on Wednesday. “Gone from our lives like a common criminal.”

Morales-Caballeros, 37, came to the United States as a teenager, entering the country illegally to escape drug trade-fueled violence in Guatemala. But the crime that is forcing him to leave the United States is a 2013 felony conviction for working under a false social security number, his wife said.

Four year ago, Morales-Caballeros was arrested and held in jail for about 18 weeks until he eventually pleaded guilty to the federal felony of using of fraudulent documents, according Merlim. “He just wanted to get out of jail, get back to work, and come back home to me,” she said.

After taking the plea deal, Morales-Caballeros paid a fine and was released on time served with an oral agreement with the Department of Homeland Security that he would be able to remain in the United States and continue to work as long as he cooperated with immigration officials, Merlim said. Before and after his arrest Morales-Caballeros had made numerous efforts to secure legal status in the U.S., but each had been denied, according to his wife.

Agreements like the one that allowed Morales-Caballeros to continue to live and work in Maine were a hallmark of ICE policy late in the administration of former President Barack Obama, when the agency was instructed to prioritize the deportation of violent criminals. The Trump administration, however, has moved away from this lenient policy and ICE officials have repeatedly stated that anyone in violation of immigration law is subject to arrest and possible deportation.

This shift saw the number of immigration arrests in New England and nationally shoot up during the first weeks of the Trump administration, compared with the same time last year. Arrests, however, were lower than during the peak of Obama’s deportations push in 2013 and 2014.

For Merlim, this change in national policy barged into her family’s life on April 12 with a heavy knock on the door of their Naples home. She had just seen her husband out off to work at a local grocery store and thought he might have forgotten something.

Opening the door dressed in a nightgown and blue slippers, Merlim said she was surprised to see an ICE agent who told her that her husband had just been arrested and that she needed to immediately come and pick up his things.

Outside her house, Merlim said she was lead to a black SUV and opened the door to find her husband’s lunch bag, his phone, hat and a prized watch she’d given to him as a gift. When she asked if she could see him, an ICE agent said “no,” Merlim recalled. The couple has been together for 11 years and married for the past two years.

“When the president said they were going to take out the violent criminals and the ‘bad hombres,’ they weren’t talking about my husband,” said Merlim, referring to a comment Trump made during a presidential debate.

ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said that Morales-Caballeros was arrested on an outstanding removal order issued by a federal immigration judge in 2010. “As a criminal alien with a lawful final order of removal he will remain in ICE custody pending his removal,” Neudauer said.
Since his arrest, Merlim has been working with Westbrook immigration lawyer George Hepner to try to forestall or prevent her husband’s deportation. A last ditch request for prosecutorial discretion was recently denied, in part because of the 2013 conviction, Merlim said.

Once Morales-Caballeros is back in Guatemala, Merlim hopes he will be able to apply to return to Maine under a legal status sometimes granted to the spouses of Americans. She is raising money to cover the legal fees on, but is worried that being with her husband might mean leaving the home they shared.

“I really don’t want to have to move to Guatemala,” said Merlim. “But I’m going to be wherever he is and I’m not going to let this government tell us who we can love and who we can marry.”


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