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.”
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. “