That’s what remained of the life that Rachel Custodio had shared with her husband, Paulo, in their two-bedroom apartment outside of Boston. Everything else had been sold, given away or stored at her parent’s house after she learned Paulo would be deported.
Clothes, shoes, toothpaste, deodorant, razors. She was only bringing the basics to Brazil.
Her stomach knotted as her parents drove her to the airport. She had literally trembled with fear the few times she had flown on a plane, but that afternoon in October 2010 was even worse.
She had never left the U.S. and she didn’t speak Portuguese, aside from a few phrases. Now she was traveling alone to meet Paulo, who had been escorted out of the country in handcuffs and shackles days before.
As she boarded the plane, she had no idea when she would be coming back.
Nearly three years later, she still doesn’t know.
The Marriage Test
Rachel Custodio is part of a group of people who usually aren’t mentioned when we talk about immigration policy: U.S. citizens married to undocumented immigrants.
The Obama administration has deported more than 1.6 million people, a historic high. But those deportations don’t just affect the people who are removed; they can be life-changing for the children, parents, and spouses who are left behind.
Statistics aren’t available for the exact number of spouses who follow their deported husbands and wives out of the country, but the phenomenon has likely been on the rise as removals have skyrocketed in the past decade.
We do know that families are being broken up through deportations. In the first six months of 2011 alone, more than 46,000 fathers and mothers of U.S. citizens were removed from the country, according to a report by the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank.
In the case of Rachel and Paulo, they were trying to do things “the right way.”
They married in April 2009 but knew that Paulo’s immigration status would need to be resolved eventually.
He had crossed the border illegally seven years earlier, a $4,000 trip with gun-toting coyotes and a brutal desert march from Mexico into Texas.
“I remember they give you a jug of water, like a gallon water, and I just suck it in,” he said. “I didn’t know that you should drink slowly.”
During several nights in safe houses in Houston, coyotes guarded his group of nearly two dozen migrants with guns, making sure no one tried to flee. The people being smuggled had only paid a portion of the fee, so the coyotes wanted to make sure no one would disappear before the balance had been settled in full.
From Houston, a van drove the migrants to different locations. Paulo went to the Boston area, where he had family and eventually found steady work as a roofer.
In 2005, he met Rachel, then 22, at a nightclub called Rain in Malden, Massachusetts. They both had noticeable accents: Paulo, his English decorated with strings of Brazilian vowels; Rachel, with the characteristic New England tone that turns a “car” into a “caah.”
After dancing at the club, they exchanged numbers and started dating.
“He was genuinely interested in everything about me,” she said. “We would talk for hours on the phone, sometimes until the sun came up.”
After they married, the couple hired an immigration lawyer and began the process of straightening out Paulo’s immigration status. Even if everything went according to plan, Rachel says that she knew Paulo would have to return to Brazil at some point and apply for a visa from there.
The first step they had to do was an interview with immigration officials where they would essentially prove that they were married.
They expected to be peppered with a range of questions, from things as general as where they met to hyper-specific details like the color of their spouse’s toothbrush.
For Rachel and Paulo, however, the problem wasn’t the marriage test.
In May 2010, they went to a federal office building in Boston for what was known as the I-130 interview. The tone of the appointment soon went from technical to investigative, though.
“Before we knew it, the immigration officer said he had to go talk to a supervisor,” their lawyer, Christina Corbaci, recalls.
Corbaci says she looked at a file on the officer’s desk and suspected that Paulo had an immigration record that the couple wasn’t aware of. “I told him, ‘You know, I think that you do have a deportation order, and I think that they’re coming to get you.’”
Someone else in this situation might have left the building, but Paulo decided to stay. An officer with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) appeared and told him that he would be taken into custody.
Rachel was panicking, crying.
“I was thinking it was a mistake or something,” she said. “That’s what we were all thinking.”
A Costly Mistake
Paulo says he was totally oblivious to the deportation order. There’s reason to believe him: if he knew about the order, then why would he have walked into a federal immigration office and exposed himself to authorities?
The story, according to the Custodios and their lawyer, is that an acquaintance of Paulo’s offered to get him a driver’s license.
In most states, undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for licenses. Still, lots of people drive, licensed or not. Paulo was one of those people.
His van was registered to a friend and he paid insurance, but he didn’t have a license. He worried about getting tickets or even worse -- getting pulled over and then having a police officer discover his immigration status.
That’s where the acquaintance came in. He was another Brazilian, but a Florida resident, according to the Custodios. He filled out paperwork for the license on behalf of Paulo, and then Paulo went to a motor vehicle office in Fort Lauderdale, where he was able to get a license. The whole thing cost him $150, he says.
What Paulo says he didn’t realize was that in order to get him the license, his friend also submitted an application for a work visa. That application could be used as proof of identification, along with his Brazilian passport.
"I did not speak English very well back then, so I didn't review all of the papers he gave me at the time because I didn't understand them," Paulo later stated in court documents related to his case.
The visa application put him on the radar of immigration officials, though, who sent him a notice to appear before an immigration judge. Paulo says he never got that letter, and that it likely went to the friend’s address in Florida.
He failed to appear for a related court hearing and a judge ordered his deportation, in absentia.
Paulo handed Rachel his wallet and whatever else he had in his pockets. The ICE officer wanted to put him in handcuffs, but Paulo says he spoke with him and asked if he could go without them. He didn’t want to look like a criminal.
Within minutes, he was gone and Rachel was left in tears, standing with Corbaci, her lawyer.
“It was the worst day of my life,” she said. “It was the worst day of both of our lives.”
Deportation policy isn’t static; it can change depending on the approach of a particular president or administration.
For example, a policy shift during President Obama’s first term revolutionized the way immigration officials pursued removal cases.
On June 17, 2011, John Morton, then the director of ICE, issued a memo that asked immigration agents to use “prosecutorial discretion” when deciding which immigration cases to follow up on.
The memo gives agents the power to focus on high-priority cases -- and ignore low-priority cases.
Corbaci believes that Paulo’s case could have qualified for prosecutorial discretion.
“Our experience is the prosecutorial discretion policy, at least up here in Boston, I think he probably would have qualified,” Corbaci said. “They list all of these factors that are positive and negative, and immigration fraud is obviously a negative, but I think it would have been minor considering his minor role in it.”
Spokesperson Khaalid Walls wrote in an email that Paulo was considered “an immigration fugitive” -- a judge had ordered his removal and he had, in the eyes of the law, ignored it. That meant that he fell within the agency’s priorities for deportation, another spokesperson told Fusion.
In other words, he may not have been a criminal, but ICE still considered him a priority to be removed from the country.