Less than two months ago, Steve Li studied nursing in San Francisco—but today, Li is working for $1 a day in the kitchen at an Arizona detention facility and could be deported to Peru at any moment.
Students, professors and city officials rallied in support of Steve Li at the City College of San Francisco on Friday. They are calling on Senators Boxer and Feinstein to introduce a private bill in Congress and halt Li’s deportation. The Board of Supervisors will take up the issue today in a vote to lend support to Li.
“The time for our leaders to show political courage is now because a human life and other human lives are at stake,” said Lawrence Wong, president of CCSF’s Board of Trustees.
“The election is over,” Wong shouted to a crowd of supporters holding signs and photos of the detained student. “Let’s not play politics with the life of Steve Li, who is incarcerated, who is basically in jail for nothing that he has done, through no action of his own.”
Immigration Customs and Enforcement officers raided Steve Li’s home on September 15 and arrested 20-year-old Li and his parents for failing to act on a removal order they received after being denied political asylum in the United States five years ago.
Steve Li, then 14, was never fully aware of his family’s immigration circumstances, and as a minor, his presence in the asylum court was waived. His parents made legal decisions based on bad advice from their lawyer at the time, according to Li’s current attorney, Sin Yen Ling.
Ling said Li’s case is a good example of what is wrong with fugitive operations, a program Immigration Customs Enforcement created in 2003 to increase efforts to “locate, arrest and remove fugitives from the United States,” according to the agency’s Web site.
The program’s original priorities were based on capturing dangerous non-citizens with criminal convictions. But over time, the program shifted its focus and began heavily targeting non-citizen immigrants, regardless of their criminal backgrounds.
Non-citizens with criminal convictions represented just nine percent of fugitive operations arrests in 2007, the last year for which data is available, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute.
“Fugitive operations says, ‘well, you had your court date. You had your due process, now you have to leave.’ But this is not adequate due process for Steve Li,” said his attorney Ling.
Ling said the program was meant to further U.S. national security. “It obviously doesn’t—when you deport someone who is only 20 years old, who was issued a decision when he was fourteen and didn’t know about it,” she said.
Immigration officials released Li’s parents, who are Chinese citizens, on the condition they wear ankle monitors and remain close to home. The repatriation process for Chinese nationals is complicated and often takes longer than the six months ICE is allowed to hold detainees.
Unlike his parents, Steve Li was born in Peru, a country that repatriates more than 1,000 people a year. U.S. officials expect the Peruvian government to issue the necessary travel documents, allowing them to put Steve Li on a plane to Peru, explained Ling.
Marilyn Luu, one of Li’s closest friends, is worried about how he will survive in a country he hasn’t lived in for nine years. “He has no one in Peru. He’s going to be homeless,” Luu said. “He won’t have friends. He won’t have family. He’ll have no one but himself.”
Li’s supporters are trying every possible legal maneuver to bring him home to San Francisco.
Ling, his lawyer, filed a deferred action request with immigration authorities that would give them discretionary authority to cancel deportation proceedings. Ling said the request is currently pending.
Another strategy is to convince Peru to delay Li’s travel documents. If the Peruvian government fails to issue the documents by March 15, the United States is required to release Li.
Lawrence Wong, CCSF Board of Trustees president, spoke with the Council General of Peru, who requested a packet of documentation about the case for the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to review.
“I am hopeful,” said Wong, “because in my conversation with the Council General of Peru, he sounded sympathetic. He didn’t sound officious. He sounded sympathetic as a human being, understanding what it must be like to have a child torn away from his parents and his family.”
The community is also pressuring Senators Boxer and Feinstein to introduce a private bill in Congress that would stop Li’s deportation. Senator Feinstein has previously introduced private bills to help immigrants under special circumstances.
Such bills rarely pass—516 private immigration bills were introduced from 1995 to 2007, and only 36 were passed, according to the Congressional Research Service. But the mere introduction of the bill in Congress could put Li’s deportation on hold.
Senator Boxer does not introduce private bills. But Zachary Coile, a Boxer spokesman, said the Senator’s office provides assistance to thousands of families on immigration matters and her staff would be happy to meet with Li’s family to discuss his case.
Coile also said that Senator Boxer will continue to advocate for passage of the DREAM Act—a bill that would provide undocumented college students, like Steve Li, a path to citizenship. The bill failed to move through the Senate in September.
Supervisor Eric Mar said the Board of Supervisors will vote on a resolution today denouncing Li’s deportation and urging Congress to pass the DREAM Act.
“It’s about fighting for comprehensive, humane immigration reform,” said Supervisor Mar at Friday’s rally, “and also making sure the DREAM Act becomes a reality for Steve Li.”
Wong, also at Friday’s rally asked the crowd, “What does it say on the Statue of Liberty? Send me your tired, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.’ With what has happened to Steve Li, we have made a mockery of those words.”
“Bring Steve home, bring Steve home!” the crowd chanted in unison.