On a cold and sunny morning in late November, as sharp winds stirred up fallen leaves, and most folks were beginning to slow down in anticipation of Thanksgiving, Shing Ma “Steve” Li, a 20-year-old nursing student from San Francisco who narrowly avoided deportation to Peru, whipped the local media into a energized frenzy by advocating for the passage of the DREAM Act during a press conference at the Asian Law Caucus, whose offices sits close to the Transamerica Pyramid, and a stone's throw from the lantern-decorated streets of Chinatown and the neon-lit strip clubs of North Beach, in San Francisco.
The purpose of the press conference was to give thanks for Li’s release four days earlier from a federal detention facility in Arizona, outline why a hardworking student who has lived in San Francisco since he was 12, has no criminal record, and speaks Cantonese, English, French and Spanish, was incarcerated for two months and threatened with deportation. And ultimately, the event was aimed to stir up support for the DREAM ((Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, bi-partisan legislation that leading congressional Democrats plan to put to a vote this month.
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have promised to move to a vote on the DREAM Act on November 29, during Congress’ lame duck session, a brief window of opportunity to complete action on stalled bills, before Republicans take charge of the House, and Democrats see their majority in the Senate shrink, come January 2011.
Li, his family and his legal counsel Sin Yen Ling, a senior staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, kicked off the press conference by acknowledging the many supporters whose phone-calling, letter writing and protesting outside Sen. Barbara Boxer's offices in San Francisco, helped secure Li’s Nov. 19 release from a federal detention center in Arizona, after Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a private bill to delay Li’s deportation.
“I believe his removal would be unjust before the Senate gets to vote on the DREAM Act,” Feinstein said in a Nov. 19 press statement. Feinstein’s bill guarantees Li protection for 75 days after Congress’ lame-duck session end. And Li’s attorney Ling says Feinstein may reintroduce her private bill next year, and that ICE isn’t likely to deport Li in future, now that he is no longer considered a fugitive.
“We don’t feel that Feinstein’s private bill will pass, because of the result of the Nov. 2 election and the reality of partisan politics, but it’s unlikely that Steve will get deported again,” Ling said.
If passed, the DREAM Act would grant undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, if they entered the United States before age 15 and have attended college or served in the military for two years.
Li’s ordeal—and his ensuing conversion to an ardent DREAM Act advocate—is happening against the backdrop of an increasingly anti-immigrant mood in the United States, as witnessed in Arizona, where state legislators passed SB 1070 earlier this year, and now in California, where a Tea Party member from Belmont wants California voters to weigh in on a similar initiative in 2012. And then there’s the sobering reality that come January, congressional Republicans, who are facing challenges from the far right-wing Tea Party, take control of the House and are unlikely to advocate for immigration reform.
But Li, who is ethnically Chinese, and was born and raised in Peru until he was eleven years old, after his parents left China in the 1980s to escape its one-child policy, remained optimistic, as he drew on his recent experience to illustrate why Congress needs to passes the bi-partisan DREAM Act now.
“I’m still at risk of being deported,” Li said, noting that, each year, about 65,000 U.S.-raised students graduate from high school and would qualify for the DREAM Act, which addresses the fact that federal immigration law has no mechanism to consider the circumstances of youth who were brought here as minors and call the U.S. home, but can’t work legally, face barriers to accessing higher education, and live in constant fear of deportation.
"We have to work to do something to stop these students from being deported,” said Li, who wasn’t aware that a final deportation order had been issued against his family, when he was 14 years old and the U.S. denied his parents’ application for political asylum. “It’s important we push Congress, so no other student has to go through the same thing I did.”
“How many future doctors, engineers and scientists will the US lose,” Li added, questioning whether the US could end up deporting geniuses who might otherwise have discovered a cure for cancer, or invented ground-breaking sustainable energy technologies. “We are America’s future and we want to make a difference,” he said. “I still believe America is a great nation, a moral nation, and that Americans, if given all the information, will do the right thing.”
Li’s legal counsel Ling, recalled how Li and his parents were arrested on Sept. 15 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, and detained at ICE’s offices in downtown San Francisco, before being transferred to a jail in Sacramento County. "They were arrested as part of ICE’s fugitive operations program, which targets people who have failed to comply with final deportation orders,” she said.
The family was held there for three weeks, Ling said, before Li’s parents were released back to San Francisco, wearing electronic monitoring anklets. But Li was involuntarily transferred to a federal detention facility in Florence, Arizona, where he remained until mid-November. His transfer also made it impossible for his parents to visit, since, under the terms of their electronically monitored release by ICE, they are not allowed to leave San Francisco.
Ling said ICE blames a lack of bed space in the Bay Area for why they must transfer folks from San Francisco to Arizona, Texas or a facility near Bakersfield, California. But either way, the practice serves to isolate immigrant detainees from family and friends as they await deportation.
“Steve was released from Florence, Arizona, on Friday, Nov. 19, and then took a Greyhound bus, which arrived in San Francisco Saturday afternoon,” Ling said, noting that ICE wasn’t planning to notify her or Li’s family of his release, and that they typically drive folks to Phoenix and drop them off at the bus station.
Li’s mother Maria addressed the media in Cantonese, as she thanked Sen. Feinstein for allowing her son “to return to his mother’s embrace.”
And then Li, who says he is "a huge Giants fan" and "grew up reciting the pledge of allegiance at school, just like everybody else", described his ordeal
“I always viewed myself as an American,” Li said, recalling how that perception was challenged when ICE raided his home and threw him in jail, this fall.
“I was shocked and confused, I felt it must have been a mistake” Li said, recalling that he was in the bathroom getting ready for school when the doorbell rang on Sept. 15.
“I didn’t expect anyone, so I woke up my mother, and she answered the door,” Li said.“Next thing, immigration agents came into the house. I didn’t know what was going on.They said they had to take me somewhere, that I had to be deported. “
Li said he was immediately separated from his mother and not allowed to ask ICE questions.
‘They searched me, threw me in the car, handcuffed me and took me to the immigration center,” Li said, referring to ICE’s office in downtown San Francisco.
“It was intimidating. I was scared of what was going to happen to me,” Li continued, describing how he was held for the rest of the day in a cell that contained 20 other people, some of whom had been transferred from other detention facilities and were already wearing prison clothing.
“I was fingerprinted, my photograph was taken and my situation was explained to me,” Li said, describing his shock at then being transferred in handcuffs and shackles by bus to a jail in Sacramento County with his parents, who were also handcuffed and shackled.
“It was traumatic to see my parents, who are hard-working people, be treated like that," he said,
In Sacramento County, Li and another detainee were placed in a cell that contained bunk beds, a small table, a toilet and a sink.
“We could only go to the day room and watch TV for one hour a day,” he said. “The immigration authorities didn’t tell me anything, they just threw me from place to place.”
After three weeks, Li thought he was going to be released, when the prison authorities returned his clothes and got him to sign some paperwork. But instead, he was transferred to ICE’s San Francisco office on Sansome Street, put him in a holding cell, and told him he was being sent to Arizona to be processed for deportation,
“My whole world came down,” Li said. “I couldn’t talk to my parents, who had already been released. I thought of never being able to see my family and friends again. It was depressing.”
Things got worse when he was shackled, handcuffed, and loaded onto a bus which took him to Oakland airport, where he was put on a plane with a bunch of other deportation detainees.
“We were handcuffed and shackled to our seats, and I wondered what would happen if the plane went down,” Li said, describing a seemingly interminable journey to Arizona, which involved making landings in Los Angeles and San Diego.
“In San Diego, they took Mexicans off the bus, presumably to drive them to the border,” Li said.
Arriving in Arizona the following morning, Li was driven to an isolated federal detention facility in Florence, which is about 800 miles from San Francisco, where he was only allowed outside his cell for an hour a day.
“We were incarcerated all day and body searched multiple times in a facility, where there were three toilets and four showers between 64 people,” he said.
Locked up with 400 fellow detainees, Li heard a lot of stories that were similar to his: students who’d received a higher education and were very talented, but didn’t have legal status.
In particular, Li remembers one student he met during his Arizona incarceration.
“Like me, he came here with his parents and had no say in that decision, but was picked up as a result of new legislation in Arizona, “ he said.
Li’s arrest means he missed a semester of school, but he vows to continue his studies. And despite his traumatic experience, Li says he is not bitter.
“It went through my mind,” he said, “But I have learned a lot, including the fact that we have a broken immigration system. I urge everyone who qualifies for the DREAM Act to use their voice. They need to find the courage to use it and fight to change the law.”