Detained Without Parole
During the early days of Paulo’s detention, Rachel was hopeful that he might be released.
She took a week off from her job as a staff accountant at a local dialysis center and moved in with her parents.
“The first week he was in there, they were saying we might be able to get him out possibly by getting character references from people,” Rachel said, explaining her lawyer’s strategy. “They could put an ankle bracelet on him.”
She rounded up letters from family, friends and coworkers of Paulo’s, about ten people in all. But within two weeks, immigration officials told them that he wouldn’t be eligible for parole, she said.
In the past decade, fewer immigrants have been granted temporary release after being picked up by federal authorities. Instead, they’re held for future hearings or eventual deportation.
Alternative supervision would be cheaper, but in many cases, immigration judges don’t have the authority to grant it to detainees. One federal immigration official told Reuters earlier this year that the daily cost of holding a detainee is $119 per day, compared with anywhere from $0.17 to $18 if the person is released and supervised.
Since they’d been married, Rachel and Paulo had never been apart for more than one night. Now she could only visit him once a week, for an hour.
Each Sunday, she would travel to the jail and sit with him, unable to act affectionately like they would have in the outside world. “You could just hug,” she said. “You couldn’t give him a kiss or anything.”
A card that Rachel sent to Paulo while in detention. (Courtesy of Rachel Custodio)
She aligned her life around those visits and his daily phone calls. Since she wasn’t allowed to call him, she would need to be on standby, waiting for him to call three times each day.
On the phone and during the weekly visits, Paulo told her about detention: how the air conditioning only seemed to work 50 percent of the time, making it stiflingly hot otherwise; how he developed a rash on his elbow, probably because of the heat, but couldn’t get medical treatment for a week; how he helped correctional officers break up a fight in the jail, only to be threatened by several other inmates afterward; how one correctional officer told him, “I am your God” after he saw Paulo and other inmates praying.
Months passed and their case made no progress. “We didn’t want him to have to stay there any longer,” Rachel said. “And the chances didn’t look good.”
A Humiliating Feeling
After a little more than two months in detention, Paulo agreed to be removed from the county. He was deported to Brazil two months later, on October 5, 2010.
He had no criminal record and had never been charged or convicted of a crime. Yet when he was removed from the country, he was put into a van and placed in a secure seat that reminded him of a dog cage, he said.
Even Paulo, who was 5’5”, says he hit his head and knees on the metal dividers that separated detainees. He endured that during the four-hour ride from Boston to New York City, where he would be flown out of the country.
The ride made him physically uncomfortable, but he was more bothered by how others might perceive him.
“The worst part is when you go to the airport, you have handcuffs on your hands, and you have everyone watching you,” he said. “That was humiliating.”
While Paulo boarded his flight out of the country, Rachel was getting ready: from the moment she realized he would be sent to Brazil, she decided to follow him there.
“He’s my husband and we got married to be together, we made a commitment to each other,” she said. “You don’t really have much of a marriage talking through webcam and on the phone.”
She was more worried about how their relationship would hold up if they had to spend five years living on different continents.
“What if you end up drifting apart, somehow getting a divorce?” she said. “It’s happened to people.”
Deported By Association
In Brazil, Rachel likes to go jogging around her and Paulo’s apartment, but he won’t let her go after dark. As it stands, he gets nervous about her going at all.
“We don’t live in a bad area but you never know,” he says. “I’m worried, you know, especially if something happens to her, I’m going to feel it’s my fault.”
Their new home is a building in downtown Tubarão, a relatively small city of about 93,000 people in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina.
While her Portuguese has gotten better, she’s still far from proficient. Paulo acts as her translator most of the time.
Rachel says she’s never seen another American in Tubarão, so she can’t meet up with fellow ex-pats the way she might be able to if they lived in a larger city.
To hear her describe it, her time in Brazil has been less of a vacation and more of a psychological endurance test.
“Sometimes I didn’t even want to go out because I can’t talk,” she said. “I’d stay in.”
Paulo knows that it’s hard for her to socialize when she doesn’t speak the language.
“A few times I caught her crying from out of nowhere,” he said. “I’m putting her in this situation, that’s how I feel...I dragged her here with me.”
A testimonial written by Rachel's uncle while Paulo was in detention in Boston.
Still, it’s not all bad. They go out to restaurants and take trips to the beach. Rachel continues to marvel at the beautiful mountainous terrain you see when you’re driving through the county.
And she’s had a chance to spend time with Paulo’s family, even if there’s still a language barrier. She wants to be with her own parents, but is glad to have his relatives for support.
“My family is there, but I have his family here, and him,” she said. “It’s kind of like you’re torn in the middle.”
Work is a legitimate concern, though. Rachel is able to teach English online, but she’s making about $12,000 per year, compared to the $48,000 salary she had in Massachusetts. Paulo went from making $200 a day as a roofer and contractor to bringing in $50 daily.
Things like food and rent are cheaper, but other items, like disposable razors or electronics, are more expensive than in the U.S.
Paulo's extended family in Brazil. (Courtesy of Rachel Custodio)
They’ve also put their own relationship on hold. They’ve talked about having kids, but they want to wait until they’re back home. Rachel doesn’t want to raise a child on the salaries that they’re making.
“We were going to wait until we came back, but I don’t know how much longer it’s going to be,” she said. “I hope I’m not too old.”
When Paulo agreed to leave the country and stopped contesting his case, he also accepted a punishment within the immigration system.
He would be banned from returning to the country for 10 years, because of three separate charges. The issues: failing to appear for his immigration hearing, spending more than a year in the U.S. without authorization and being subject to deportation.
The first step will be waiting out a five-year bar -- the one he received by failing to appear at his immigration hearing, according to his lawyer. Unless they can reverse that, it will take them to 2015.
If they can’t successfully appeal the 10-year ban after that, they could be in Brazil until at least 2020, and likely longer, considering the time it will take them to acquire his visa.
Family Left Behind
The effects of Paulo’s deportation carry back to Massachusetts, as well.
As an only child, Rachel was close with her parents, Debra and Milton. She and Paulo lived 15 minutes away from them, and they would visit frequently and help them with chores around the house.
The visits weren’t just about keeping her parents company. Rachel’s mother has had serious health problems, including four separate bouts of cancer and knee replacements that make it difficult for her to get around on her own. Rachel and Paulo would help them around the house and drive them to doctor’s appointments.
Months after Rachel moved to Brazil, Debra was diagnosed with colon cancer. She was left to grapple with the latest in a string of illnesses without her only child.
“My daughter would be making meals and she would take me to appointments,” Debra said of her past illnesses. “And when she couldn’t, Paulo would.”
Oddly enough, the fact that Rachel’s parents depended on them could help their immigration case.
Rachel’s lawyer thinks that the 10-year ban for Paulo to return to the U.S. might be overturned if they could get an immigration official to consider the circumstances.
So far, however, that hasn’t happened.
Reasons for Hope
In regards to Paulo’s case, Khaalid Walls, the ICE spokesperson, issued this statement:
“Mr. Custodio was subject to an outstanding deportation order issued by an immigration judge in 2008 and was considered an immigration fugitive until his arrest in May 2010. In accordance with the final order of removal issued by the judge, he was removed from the country shortly after his arrest.
“ICE is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens and egregious immigration law violators.”
The immigration system might not offer them clemency, but there’s another hope for the Custodios. Congress could change federal immigration laws to allow some U.S. citizens to sponsor their deported spouses for visas.
A measure like this was part of a massive immigration reform bill passed in the Senate this June. But leaders in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives have said they won’t take up the legislation, and it’s unclear if they will pass something comparable to the Senate bill.
There’s no promise that a bill will pass this year, or anytime soon. Congress hasn’t passed legislation like this in decades.
Paulo and Rachel are aware that a change in immigration laws is a longshot.
“I’m putting everything on hold,” Rachel said. “My career’s on hold, my family’s on hold.”
“We feel like we’re just waiting.”
Update, Aug. 29, 11:05 a.m.: I originally wrote that Paulo spent four months in detention before accepting his deportation. He actually spent a little more than two months before making that decision.