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Post-Trump World Could Mean Big Changes For Local Immigrants, Including Alex Garcia

Alex and Carly Garcia listen to a Sunday sermon which kicked off a "week of action" in support of their family.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Alex and Carly Garcia listen to a sermon inside Maplewood's Christ Church in 2018.

For many immigrants, the Trump administration took an already broken system and made it significantly more maddening to navigate, and more punitive.

In 2017, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied Honduran native Alex Garcia’s request for a stay of removal. A longtime resident of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, Garcia has long been married to an American citizen, and is the father of five American children. When he was ordered to leave the country, he claimed sanctuary in a Maplewood church. He’s lived there ever since.

“It’s three long years that I have been mentally not very well and three years dependent on others,” Garcia told St. Louis on the Air last week, “and depending on others for me is not — it’s really hard. … I have a lot to lose, which is my family.”

But, he was quick to add, “the fight’s not over.” A new administration in Washington could mean a reprieve.

His wife, Carly Garcia, said she is “really hopeful” about what the Biden presidential administration could mean for their family’s situation, adding that “only time will tell.”

“It’s going to take a lot of work from President Joe Biden, from Congress, from the Senate — it’s going to take a lot for them to pay attention to us,” she said. The family now has a petition asking Biden to grant Garcia a pathway to citizenship.

St. Louis-based attorney Javad Khazaeli said Monday that a recent case in Philadelphia with similarities to Alex Garcia’s gives him hope. Khazaeli believes the country’s immigration policies and practices may already be starting to shift.

“Just within the last few weeks, after the election, they’ve been told that their deportation case is ending,” Khazaeli said of the Philadelphia case. He’s hopeful that Biden’s administration will exercise prosecutorial discretion “and stop the effort to remove Mr. Garcia from America.”

Adriano Udani, an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is optimistic for immigrants like Garcia.

Adriano Udani (at left) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Javad Khazaeli is a St. Louis-based attorney focused on immigration among other areas.
UMSL & Khazaeli Wyrsch LLC
UMSL & Khazaeli Wyrsch LLC
Adriano Udani (at left) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Javad Khazaeli is a St. Louis-based attorney focused on immigration among other areas.

“I think we’re all wondering what kind of country do we want to be,” he said, referencing last week’s siege at the U.S. Capitol. “I think we have to ask ourselves: Is this system even worth saving? And if not, then we need to create something that treats people with more dignity and respect — and respects free movement, in Mr. Garcia’s case, as well as choosing to just control your own lives rather than having some administrative agent do it for you.”

The child of Filipino immigrants, Udani said his own parents came to Cleveland on a work visa many years ago. At one point, they became undocumented.

“They overstayed their visa, and it was because of a very kind immigration officer that they were allowed to stay,” said Udani, adding that his family was “very privileged” in some ways, never experiencing violence or trauma, but still internalizing a lot of assumptions about their sense of belonging in the U.S.

Like Udani, Khazaeli is the son of immigrants. They fled Iran when he was just 2 years old. Khazaeli’s background also includes a stint serving in a senior immigration position with the Department of Homeland Security.

“I spent 10 years as a prosecutor for immigration, and I was expecting that whenever there’s an administration change between Democrats and Republicans to see some swing,” Khazaeli said. “But everybody that I know who’s in my position has just been totally taken aback and unprepared for how extreme this last administration has been on immigration.”

Udani said that while the immigration system itself “was built on racist, sexist practices when it formalized as an agency early in the 1900s,” Trump took it to another level.

“What I think is different and unique about the Trump administration is the sense that more discretion is empowered to the administration and its agents — and then also to prosecute anyone,” Udani said, “regardless of their conditions or their circumstances, to prosecute them just because they crossed into American soil.”

Crossing the border and asking for asylum is not a crime, Khazaeli noted, adding that when he was a prosecutor, he and his colleagues would typically evaluate each person “to determine whether that person was a risk.”

“If somebody was believed to be involved in some kind of violent activity, then there would be steps taken to keep them incarcerated. Now, as Adriano said, it’s across the board — women, children, babies, all of them treated like dangerous to national security. And the positions that this government has taken are things that have never been done before.”

Khazaeli said the Biden administration could quickly halt the practice of incarcerating people who present themselves at the border.

“On paper you can get rid of that quickly; it may take a few months to do that from an organizational point of view,” he explained. “But we could go back to what President Obama did, what [either] Bush did, what Clinton did, what Reagan did. All of those things could be done on Day One.”

Along with big policy shifts, Khazaeli said he hopes the Biden administration will change its procedures for attorneys handling immigration cases.

“It is now utterly impossible for an attorney to call and talk to anybody in the government about a case,” he said. “I have to call a number [and] be put on hold for four to eight hours. My paralegals can’t do it. When they answer, I’ve got one minute to answer the phone. If not, they hang up on me and I have to start it over. And the person I’m talking to can’t help me — they give my number to a supervisor who will call me anytime between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. within the next 72 hours. And if I don’t answer the phone, I have to restart the process. … It’s Kafkaesque.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.