The night before his periodic check-in with immigration agents last week, Baljit Singh’s wife asked him if he felt nervous.
Yes, he told her. Every time.
It’d been their routine every six months for years: He’d feel apprehensive, she’d always calm him down, knowing that as a husband and a father without a criminal history, he was at the bottom of the priority list for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But after President Trump took office with plans to ramp up deportations of those in the country illegally, Singh had a feeling things would change.
On Aug. 1, his wife took their two young sons to Starbucks for chocolate croissants and then to a library to pick out dinosaur books. When she returned to their Yuba City, Calif., home, Singh wasn’t there. She checked her phone and noticed a voicemail.
In a teary message, her husband told her that this time, he was getting deported.
A week later, Singh was released with an ankle monitor and 90 days to get his affairs in order and prepare for his departure to India.
“With this new administration, the rules have changed — everybody goes,” his wife, Kate Singh, told The Times on Wednesday, a day after his release from detention. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a father and haven’t done anything to break the law, or if you’re a criminal. Everybody’s going. It’s just a huge cleanup.”
Baljit Singh, 39, entered the U.S. illegally 12 years ago through Mexico, crossing the border into Texas. His attorney said he fled religious persecution in Punjab, India, where as a Sikh, he feared for his life. After a judge denied his asylum case, he appealed his case all the way to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said Wednesday that Singh’s immigration case has undergone “exhaustive review” over the last 11 years at multiple levels of the Department of Justice’s immigration court system.
“The courts have consistently held that Mr. Singh does not have a legal basis to remain in the U.S.,” she said via email.
While ICE prioritizes enforcement resources on people who pose a threat to national security and public safety, Haley said, the head of the agency has made it clear that anyone in the country illegally “may be subject to arrest, detention and, if found removable by the immigration courts, as Mr. Singh was, removal from the United States.”
In January 2016, Singh’s court-issued removal order became final. Even so, said his attorney, Elias Shamieh, Singh was allowed to stay in the country as long as he checked in with his immigration officer every six months — until last week.
“The human element has been stripped from the immigration service as it stands right now — there is no compassion,” Shamieh said. “It’s a really destructive approach to the immigration laws.”
About six years ago, Baljit Singh met his now-wife. The pair have two children: Arjin, 5, and Sammy, 3. Kate Singh and the children are all U.S. citizens.
Baljit Singh suspected he would have to return to India at some point, his wife said, but the couple had hoped to wait for their children to grow older, which would also give them time to save money.
Now, Shamieh said, Baljit Singh must return to India before he can begin the paperwork to return legally. That process could take anywhere from six months to two years. If the paperwork is denied, the lawyer said, he’d have to wait 10 years before he can return.
In a blog post on her website, Kate Singh questioned how she would survive financially without her husband, who as a gas station manager is the sole breadwinner of the household.
“I’m all for criminals, drug dealers and troublemakers to be sent back,” Kate Singh wrote. “ … They are scooping up the good with the bad in their nets just like the destruction that takes place with net fishing. The inedible fish and precious coral get swooped up with the wanted fish. Habitats are destroyed with these nets.”