An immigrant activist says ICE deported him in retaliation. Now he's back in the U.S.
When Claudio Rojas was deported in 2019, he knew it would be difficult to come back to the U.S.
Rojas says he was sent back to Argentina in retaliation for appearing in a film that criticized U.S. immigration authorities.
But his lawyers never gave up.
When Rojas landed in South Florida in August, his wife and children were there to greet him at the airport.
"That door that was closed, opened," Rojas told NPR in Spanish through an interpreter. "That is why I say that it was a miracle to be able to come back."
Once an immigrant is deported, it's rare for authorities to allow them back into the country. But it's happened twice in recent months, as the Biden administration allowed several prominent immigrants' rights activists back into the U.S.
ICE retaliation claims are getting a close look under the Biden administration
This is the first time Rojas has spoken publicly about his return. He's one of several prominent activists who've been allowed back into the U.S., or had their immigration cases dropped, after claiming that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement retaliated against them for their activism during the Trump administration.
ICE denies retaliating against anyone. But for years, immigrant advocates have been making similar allegations — and under the Biden administration, those claims are getting some traction.
"Bringing people home who've been deported for their activism is a really important first step in correcting what has been a really outrageous assault on our democratic values," said Alina Das, Rojas's lawyer, and a professor at NYU School of Law.
Das has a second client who's also been allowed back into the U.S. Jean Montrevil is a longtime immigrant rights advocate in New York. His lawyers say ICE targeted Montrevil for his activism, using a decades-old conviction as a pretext to deport him to Haiti in 2018.
"I had come to a point where in Haiti I was afraid to go outside my house," Montrevil told NPR.
Montrevil too was allowed back into the U.S. under the Biden administration, and landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in October. At first, Montrevil says, he wasn't sure if he would be free to go.
"Maybe there's a mistake. Maybe you have to go to detention. Maybe this, maybe that," he said. "So when I finally walked out there to see my kids, and the people that was there waiting for me, it was a sigh of relief."
ICE has denied retaliating against Montrevil and Rojas. The agency did not respond to requests for comment on their return to the U.S.
"If you speak up...the immigration system will come after you"
Under new guidance from the Department of Homeland Security, immigration authorities have been told explicitly not to take action against activists simply for exercising their freedom of speech.
"We have an obligation to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of every individual, irrespective of their immigration status," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NPR in September when the guidance was first announced. An individual's "exercise of their First Amendment rights cannot be a factor in deciding to take enforcement action," Mayorkas said.
In theory, the First Amendment applies to everyone in the U.S., even undocumented immigrants. But in practice, courts tend to give wide discretion to immigration authorities when deciding whom to arrest and deport.
Lawyer Alina Das says ICE abused that discretion when it moved to arrest and deport Montrevil and Rojas.
"It was sending a signal that if you speak up about the abuses in the immigration system, the immigration system will come after you," Das said in an interview with NPR.
Das tried to persuade a federal appeals court panel that ICE had violated Rojas's First Amendment right to freedom of speech. But the case was closed after Rojas was allowed back into the U.S., and the court never issued a ruling.
Advocates want a path to citizenship and an end to immigration limbo
While both Montrevil and Rojas were allowed back into the U.S., their legal status is temporary. Das wants immigration authorities to go a step further by granting them permanent legal status, and a path to citizenship.
"So long as immigrant communities remain in limbo under the potential threat of deportation, they can't truly feel safe," Das said. "That's why much more meaningful reform is needed. And what we've been seeing so far is simply a first step."
It's not clear how long DHS's latest immigration enforcement guidance will be in place. The states of Texas and Louisiana have challenged the guidance in court, arguing the rules are preventing ICE officers and agents from doing their jobs. A trial is expected early next year.
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