Daniel Maher made the best of his second chance after prison, building a family and finding a good, steady job. But after nearly forty years in America, he is now facing possible deportation because of his past crime.
Maher, a Chinese immigrant, came to America from Macau when he was two. In 1994, at the age of 20, he says he was talked into participating in an armed robbery, and was subsequently arrested and convicted. Maher served seven years in prison, but US officials' attempt to deport him were thwarted when China wouldn't issue travel documents.
So after his release, Maher rebuilt his life in California. Now 41, he has become an environmental advocate and manages the recycling program at the Ecology Center, a non-profit in Berkeley. He lives with his girlfriend and children in Berkeley and considers them family.
But a renewed effort to identify criminals in America who could potentially be deported has included Maher in its sweep, and the U.S. has now held him in a detention facility since June 2.
“Daniel and the other people picked up in the ICE raids are everyday people who have become a trading chip in negotiations between the U.S. and China,” Anoop Prasad, senior staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, told NBC News. “In return for cooperation in extraditing people wanted for corruption prosecutions in China, the US asked for China's cooperation in accepting people for deportation. As a result they went and started sweeping up people with old deportation orders like Daniel.”
The joint U.S./China nationwide effort began in April as a way to root out corrupt Chinese officials and fugitives, believed to be hiding out in the U.S. where they have transferred large financial holdings.
But experts say the wide net cast is actually catching people like Maher.
“I am now sitting detained in a concrete jail cell hundreds of miles away from my supportive family and friends,” Maher wrote on the Asian Law Caucus website. “I am struggling to be given very basic human rights.”
Virginia Kice, Western Regional Communications Director/Spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in a statement to NBC News, confirmed that China did not provide travel documents for Maher’s original deportation in 2001. He was released but ordered to continue to check in with immigration officials.
“As a convicted aggravated felon, Mr. Maher remains an enforcement priority based on his criminal history,” the statement continued. “Recently, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officials in San Francisco were advised it may now be possible for the agency to obtain a travel document for Mr. Maher. In light of that, ICE officers took Mr. Maher into custody June 5. He is being held at a facility in Southern California while ICE pursues his removal.”
But advocates for Maher insist ICE has discretion on the issue of deportation and say they will pursue Maher’s release.
Prasad cites an ICE memo that allows for an exception to be made for “compelling and exceptional factors that clearly indicate the alien is not a threat to national security, border security, or public safety, and should not therefore be an enforcement priority.”
Meanwhile, Maher’s family and friends have also started a petition drive to immigration officials at ICE to end the deportation efforts for humanitarian reasons.
“ICE claims deportations improve public safety,” Prasad said. “But we see time and time again that ICE harms our communities and makes us less safe by arresting people like Daniel.”