Privilege Became Punishment for Popular Street Cart Vendor

The Celebi-Ariners at Oakland's Eat Real Festival in August. (Photo by Adelaide Chen)

The Celebi-Ariners at Oakland's Eat Real Festival in August. (Photo by Adelaide Chen)

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The Amuse Bouche street cart vendor was reigning terror on the Orcs in World of Warcraft when ICE showed up at the door. He was married to a U.S. citizen, he explained. They were applying for his green card, but the paperwork had not been turned in. The agents waited for Murat to turn off his computer, then handcuffed and arrested him.

“It was completely unexpected and out of the blue,” said Murat Celebi-Ariner’s wife Pelin.

For the last week and a half, the hip denizens of the Mission District’s unlicensed food vendors have watched as one of their own crashed into a world where many of their Latino neighbors live day-to-day: the one inhabited by agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, deportation proceedings and the collateral damage of families split by unexpected departures.

It’s a world where life for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States — and the 2.8 million residing in California — can change out of the blue.

If Celebi-Ariner’s imminent deportation to Paris hardly seems like hardship, it has helped to illustrate a story that many readers have tired of: the undocumented worker who gets picked up and sent home. In 2008, immigration deported 102 French citizens, compared with 162,120 Mexican nationals, according to a removal query provided by ICE. The same week that the street cart vendor was taken way, a Honduran mother’s 16-year-old son was whisked away by ICE to a detention center in Oregon.

“We live in the Mission,” said Mrs. Celebi-Ariner. “I am sure there are a lot of fellow deportees and suffering families around us, which definitely gives you a taste and a lot of empathy for everyone else who is suffering.”

Suddenly, with the tall, skinny Celebi-Ariner, the ordinary had become unusual: someone who easily blended into the Mission’s hipster scene was taken away.

“It’s very odd that they went after him at all, ” said Allison Davenport, legal services director for Centro Legal de la Raza.

In the Celebi-Ariner case, all that kept the couple from safety was making an interview appointment with immigration on time. If they had scheduled an appointment, ICE may have left their apartment.

Instead, a week and a half ago, on the same day agents lead her husband away, Mrs. Celebi-Ariner, 33, found two voicemails waiting for her. In each, her husband repeated the same words: “They took me.” It’s a call that at least 17,123 others in San Francisco made or wanted to make in the 2009 fiscal year, according to ICE figures.

“It was horrible,” said Mrs. Celebi-Ariner, a poet who holds dual citizenship in Turkey and the United States. “The worst part was there was no getting in touch with him or anyone. It was like all of a sudden the ground swallowed him up. It opened up and swallowed him.”

The couple had known each other since before they can remember. Every summer in a small beach town in Turkey they would play together. They hooked up seven years ago, but they were in two different countries and the long-distance relationship didn’t work. They fell in love again last summer and decided to live together.

“Back in Turkey, we had sort of a whirlwind romance. It was a wonderful summer,” recalled Mrs. Celebi-Ariner. “We decided we didn’t want to be apart anymore.”

It wasn’t just a case of bad luck for Murat Celebi-Ariner. The Frenchman entered the U.S. in March on the Visa Waiver Program for the second time. The program allows low-risk visitors from 35 countries (mostly European) to enter the U.S. without having to get a visa.

“It’s a formal promise that you will return to your country in 90 days,” explained Sharon Rummery, spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

If someone enters the country on this program and decides to stay past the three-month mark without applying for permanent citizenship — known as a green card — or a visa, they waive their rights to formal deportation proceedings.

“You need to be earning a certain amount of money, which I wasn’t, to sponsor Murat,” explained Mrs. Celebi-Ariner. “So we needed to get another friend of ours to sponsor him and give over all her tax documents.” It took time to compile their documents, including her husband’s birth certificate from France, and find $1,500 to pay for it all.

Forty percent of the 12 million undocumented people in the U.S. are visa overstays, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. They enter the country legally, and then stay after their visa expires. People on the waiver program are considered unauthorized if they don’t leave after 90 days.

“There’s a widely held perception that the only people here illegally are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

San Francisco’s undocumented community has long included a fair number of Irish, Eastern European and others, some who have overstayed their visas. And for those who came on the visa waiver program, there are limited opportunities to fight your case if caught.

Here’s the gist: If you get a visa, you get a trial. If you’re on the waiver program, you’ve given up that right.

The trick to visa waivers is, “You waive your right to have an immigration hearing if you overstay or are picked up by ICE. Everybody else inside the U.S. does,” explained Davenport.

Although ICE won’t confirm it, Randall Caudle, Celebi-Ariner’s immigration lawyer, was told by an ICE official that they’re starting to crack down on visa waiver violators. “Up until this case I haven’t seen ICE actively go after a visa waiver overstay,” said Caudle. “It seems to be a new initiative.”

People who have overstayed are easy targets because all the authorities have to do is search in a database for those with missing exit dates. In Celebi-Ariner’s case, ICE knew exactly where he was because he had written his address on his entry papers.

In an attempt to defer her husband’s unexpected deportation, Mrs. Celebi-Ariner filed the overdue green card application, along with a request to delay deportation.

Before the couple’s decision was rejected, Virginia Kice, ICE’s western regional spokeswoman, made clear the hopelessness of such a deferral. “This guy’s a visa waiver. It’s not even relevant.”

Davenport added, “Deferrals are pretty hard to get.”

It could be another two weeks before authorities put Celebi-Ariner on a plane back to France. Until then, Pelin’s husband will wake up every day in Yuba County Jail, as he has since his arrest.

Only one other European is currently being held at Yuba. The jail houses about 400 prisoners, of which on average 180 are ICE-contracted, up slightly from last year. One of five detention centers in northern California, Yuba divides prisoners by the severity of their crimes and ICE detainees are not held separately from the general population.

Davenport said, “There are a lot of people who don’t necessarily need to be detained.”

There were 32,000 people in ICE custody on a particular day in January 2009, according to an AP report carried out under the Freedom of Information Act. On average, the detainees headed toward deportation had been imprisoned for 72 days.

The number of detainees held for visa overstays is unclear. Customs counts the number of people entering the country legally on visas and visa waivers, but counting them on their way out is trickier. There hasn’t been an accurate count of the number of visa waiver violations, according to Department of Homeland Security officials.

Jess Ford at the Government Accountability Office said several committees on the hill have asked GAO to look into the issue. They expect to report results in late spring of 2010.

The United States Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology, or US-VISIT, is a system established in 2004 to track entry and exit of visa holders.

“If they don’t depart in a timely fashion there’s a system that will alert authorities,” said Kice.

Yet there are thousands who live in the U.S. for years without consequences. It is unclear why, of all the visa waiver overstays, ICE tracked down Celebi-Ariner.

Kice mentioned that Celebi-Ariner  “wasn’t supposed to be working” several times during an interview with Mission Loc@l. The popularity of his enterprising food cart could have brought him to the unwanted attention of the authorities, some guessed.

An idea Mrs. Celebi-Ariner presented was Murat’s name. “We think it more now than we did at first,” she said. “He’s got this Turkish name and this Turkish father, which they’ve questioned him about.”

“This was not random enforcement action. Our arrests and enforcement are based on violations of the law,” Kice insisted.

Murat Celebi came to visit his girlfriend Pelin Ariner in March on the Visa Waiver Program. Ariner became an American citizen in June, around the same time Celebi’s allotted time expired.

Waiver overstays are not eligible to change their status. Visa holders, however, can change from one type of visa to another.

If the couple had married by June or before, Ariner could have petitioned to adjust her husband’s status to permanent resident, lawyers said. She could have done this before she became a citizen, but there is at least a six-year backlog of permanent residents petitioning for status changes in their immediate family.

“I wasn’t ready to get married,” she said when questioned about why they didn’t seal the deal sooner. “Frankly, I didn’t want to do it just for that. We wanted to think about it more, so we let it expire.”

Celebi-Ariner may have to stay out of the country for as many as five years. There are avenues to apply to return sooner, but they are not easily secured, immigration lawyers said.

Murat’s father, Alpay Celebi, just wants his son home “as soon as possible.” In a comment, he asked, “Dear Americans, be kind with them. “

18 Comments

  1. Wanda

    Murat is a sweet guy, but he and his wife knowingly broke the rules, both by overstaying a waiver and by working illegally. A visa waiver is not a visa and cannot be converted; this is very clearly stated on all visa application websites. Alleging discrimination based on his name after you’ve broken the law is a little ridiculous.

    The foolish part is that unlike most deportees, they simply did not follow rules that they were in fact eligible for. Now he will be lucky if he’s allowed to enter the US again (five years is very optimistic without a lot of cash and a good lawyer).

    They did not have to be married for her to sponsor him on a fiance visa. However he needed to be out of the country to apply, and wait till he got it to return. Yes, she needed to demonstrate her ability to support him, so that he would not be tempted/forced to work illegally.

    Being allowed to stay in the country legally is not the same as the right to work. This article implies the issue is a green card, but that’s the second step.

  2. Jason

    It sounds like he did everything wrong. He overstayed his alloted time in the country. He didn’t file paperwork on time. He was working without authorization. Maybe if he had spent time completing his paperwork instead of playing video games he’d still be at home.

    I don’t have any sympathy for this person. The ICE did the right thing and no one is to blame but Murat.

  3. glen matlock

    Why is this story such a big deal?

    People shouldn’t have to obey this nations laws if they are nice?

    This all strikes me as the typical recreation of reality story, a massive sense of entitlement mixed with astronomical lazyness, then after the fact complain about how unfair it all is. Typical progressive attitude.

  4. DaveO

    What a stupid, stupid pair. A perfectly legal avenue was available to them, but they could not be bothered.

  5. Irene

    The article is well-written. Thanks for helping the public to understand that not all immigrants are Latino.

  6. abacus

    “Privilege Became Punishment for Popular Street Cart Vendor”

    I really like the way the authors tried to drum up sympathy for these two individuals. In most cases where laws are violated, someone will get in trouble, and the results will not be good. He may be popular, but he’s here illegally.

  7. Kevin Andrew Murphy

    I have a couple friends who recently got married and had to deal with all sorts havoc in regards to marriage, residency and citizenship. It was an utter pain in the ass, and while the non-citizen was able to finally become a citizen, he was a college-educated Brit working in the tech field with enough money and time to fly back and forth for ritual purposes, the proper language to understand the paperwork, and enough money to hire people to sort it out for him. And it still took years.

    Then you’ve got people like the Celebi-Ariners who are basically poor bohemians who are nonetheless doing their best to do useful work and don’t have endless amounts of cash to throw at bureaucrats.

    It’s at times like this I really detest my country.

  8. Lu

    While I am a supporter of the local Mission street food scene, my simple questions has always been … are they paying their fair share of taxes, fees and insurance. The people who operate and support these ventures are progressive, left lending liberals who are the first in line to vote away our tax dollars but last to pay into the pot (think Tom Daschle, Tim Geithner). The bouches were good, but not good enough for you to be breaking the law lady.

  9. Jim

    They gamed the system and lost the game! It’s their fault, both of them. They got caught violating the rules.

  10. Tanya

    I realize there is a need to control overpopulation in this country but Immigration is way too out of control. My husband was deported July 1st and it has been such a hard struggle. He had papers, they want to take them away. When our ancestors came they just walked into this country from their ships. I realize there are rules, but is tearing apart families the right choice. What about the Americans that are left fatherless or motherless, don’t we have enough American citizens abandoning their kids already.

  11. visa systems in pretty much all countries are archaic and out-dated. while meant to be targetting terrorism, and less savory elements, often innocent people get caught in the bureaucratic fold.
    living in japan the last 10 years, i have had to do the same pain in the ass jumping through hoops, collecting documents etc. basically most countries structure their visa policies on reciprocality, meaning they make the same requirements as demanded of their citizens abroad. so while it was relatively easy for europeans, aus and new zeleanders to get a visa or working holiday visa, because the US has such a strict policy for getting a visa, I had to go through the exact same BS.
    in the end I got it, but it would be nice for the US to take more of a lead, and offer something like a working holiday, which may make a nice cushion for travellers like the Celebi-Ariner’s in getting setup with a more permanent arrangement.
    nonetheless, laws are what they are, and while you wouldnt drive on the wrong side of the road for fear of getting arrested, its up to you to know the requirement for not getting yourself into trouble. always sad to hear stories like this, though, and believe me, plenty of friends have gotten deported for overstay here also, with the standard 5-year ban.

  12. mikey

    I don’t understand why the article’s lead sentence was about the guy “reigning terror on the Orcs in World of Warcraft when ICE showed up at the door.”

    For one, it’s not a funny play on this unfortunate’s situation as an illegal immigrant and the fear of terrorism in our society.

    Secondly, I believe that they have confused “reigning” with “raining”. To reign is to rule or prevale, so it doesn’t sound right to be “ruling terror” on the orcs.

    It’s a an old threat to “rain havoc” upon your enemies, but to rule/reign terror? A google search turned up the phrase in the lyrics of a song by Snog, but I don’t think it’s intended to have the same meaning.

    From those dark Bolivian skies
    To Jackie’s blood soaked thighs
    From the grave of Salvador
    To the endless, mindless war
    I do believe it’s reigning terror
    I do believe it’s reigning terror

    I also don’t know how you would “rain” or “reign” terror on anybody.

    Finally, you don’t terrorize Orcs in the World of Warcraft. Your “enemy” in the game doesn’t feel anything like terror or fear. It’s just a game where you kill them or they kill you.

    “Reigning terror” doesn’t give you much “props” or “street cred” (sic)

    While I feel sorry for this family’s misfortune, they don’t get deserve any more sympathy than the other “productive” illegal immigrants in their situation.

  13. Tracy

    It was a lot easier for unskilled immigrants to come here before we rolled out all the social welfare programs. Now, each unproductive citizen is so expensive that we require specialized in-demand skills for someone to qualify for citizenship. Being a poet is nice, but if you really want your husband here, get a real job for a few years. People do it to put one another through college, they do it to pay for a serious illness. Being separated sucks, but it is such a waste – they could have prevented this. Hard choices, perhaps, but no harder than “pay the student loan or pay the taxes?”

  14. diplomatbob

    Glad to see ICE is cracking on on waiver overstays. This guy and his wife were idiots, pure and simple. There are plenty of legal ways to come here, especially when you are married to an Amcit. It may be a pain in the butt, but it’s the law.

    The endless attempts to get sympathy for people who knowingly break the law gets old. And his wife can always move to France (oh, how terrible) if needed. And let’s be real–getting a waiver is NOT hard. The people who process waivers roll on everything.

  15. jake

    The sadness here is more for the lackadaisical behavior of the couple than for their end result. The playing-video-games metaphor seems apt.

    I, too, would encourage ML to do a larger story on these street vendors that have become so popular. But at what cost? Paying your fair share of fees (taxes, etc.) is not a small matter. What are the consequences? In contrast to those vendors who abide by the rules.

  16. OYeah

    I’m a progressive liberal and I had a hard time sympathizing with this couple, as nice as they appear to be. There are other folks in worse shape who have no options and these guys could have easily avoided this whole thing. He’s got family back home, she can join him, it doesn’t sound dire.

  17. MissF

    The article says “If someone enters the country on this program and decides to stay past the three-month mark without applying for permanent citizenship — known as a green card — or a visa, they waive their rights to formal deportation proceedings.”

    Not quite. First of all, you mean “permanent residency”, not “permanent citizenship”. A green card holder is not a US citizen, they’re a lawful permanent resident.

    Secondly, someone on the VWP CANNOT apply for any kind of visa from within the US, so that part is redundant. You have no right to apply to extend or change your status from the VWP (OTHER than applying to adjust status to permanent resident, in a very limited number of cases/circumstances), and as a visa is a travel document allowing the holder to request ENTRY to the US, there would be little point applying for one while in the US on the Visa Waiver Program, even if one WERE able to do so.

    This couple made a huge mistake in not submitting the application to adjust the guy’s status while he was still within the 90 days allowed on the VWP. It’s sad – he will now face a ban from returning to the US that will need to be overcome if he’s to join his wife and resume their life together here.

  18. Moonshadow_Girl

    While part of me feels bad for this couple, most of me thinks that they are definitely at fault. They had every opportunity to do this the right way, and now if they want to be together, it will have to be in some other country. His ban from the US may be as much as 10 years depending on the overstay.

    My husband is from England, and we had to jump through all the hoops and pay out some money for the privilege of bringing him over here. We were engaged in December 2005, but I didn’t actually petition for his fiance visa until February 2007 because we wanted/needed to save up the money for the entire process. He was approved for his visa in November 2007 and flew back with me for good and we were married in January 2008. Once we married, we immediately filed the paperwork to adjust his status and get his green card. We were able to visit back and forth during all that time on the VWP, only we followed the rules and never came close to an overstay in either country while we were visiting each other.

    The woman could still have filed while she was a permanent resident for her husband. Yes, it might have been about a 6 year wait if she had remained a PR, however, once she achieved her US citizenship (which she did), her petition would have been immediately moved up and his Visa could have been issued in less than 6 months.

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