Don’t deport my husband

May 11, 2017

On April 12 at 6:30 a.m., ICE agents detained Otto Morales-Caballeros while he was traveling from his home in Naples, Maine, to work at Sea Salt Lobster restaurant in Saco. After being held for two weeks in the Strafford County Jail's ICE detention center, Otto was moved to Massachusetts last week, and then sent over the weekend to an ICE facility in Louisiana. He is to be deported to Guatemala, potentially as soon as Thursday, May 11.

Otto fled the civil war in Guatemala in the mid-1990s when he was just 16 years old and has not returned since. Over the years, he and his wife Sandra Merlim have spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on legal fees, cooperating with immigration authorities in an ongoing effort to regularize Otto's status.

On May 1, Sandra Merlim spoke on Otto's behalf at events organized to protest escalating ICE raids and in honor of International Workers Day. On May 10, she spoke at a press conference in Portland to local and Boston-based media outlets. Below is her statement.

MY NAME is Sandra Merlim. My husband is Otto Morales-Caballeros. I call him Daniel--his middle name. As you may already know, Daniel was taken by ICE agents on April 12 near our home in Naples in the early morning hours while on his way to work. My life will never be the same again.

Daniel had complied with ICE for years, letting them know where he lived and worked. They could have called or knocked on our door, and he would have gone in, but they staked out our house and arrested him on the side of the road in full view of the public. There was no reason for this ridiculous show of force against a kind and gentle man like my husband. The only reason to go through that was to make a public display--to set an example.

At 16 years old, Otto fled the violence of the Guatemalan civil war in the mid-1990s and came here to live a quiet, safe life. He has now lived here more than 20 years, almost without incident. While he was treated like a violent criminal, he is actually just a loving, humble, grateful, hardworking man. And he is missed by so many.

Left: Otto Morales-Caballeros; right: Sandra Merlim speaks at a press conference
Left: Otto Morales-Caballeros; right: Sandra Merlim speaks at a press conference

When our new president said he was going to take out just the violent criminals and the "bad hombres," he was not talking about my husband. My husband's only crime was wanting to live here and to work hard for a living. But our government tore our family apart.

We are at the final stage of his presence here in the U.S. This is it. Unfortunately, we lost our battle to keep him here in the U.S., with me, our four rescue dogs, family, friends and co-workers. Even our community in Naples. We are all in horrified disbelief. This is just a nightmare I keep trying to wake up from.

Daniel had one charge on his record that he could not overcome. This is supposedly why our appeal was denied. He had no choice.

Daniel was held in jail for 18 long, agonizing weeks in 2013, never having been in jail before and not knowing what his fate would be. The owner of the company he worked for set him up with a false Social Security number so he could work. At the time, Daniel didn't understand the legal repercussions, and he just wanted a chance to work--to provide for our family.

The prosecutor kept him in jail, refusing to negotiate until he pled guilty. When he signed the guilty plea, he just wanted to get out of jail, go back to work and come back home to me. We had a verbal agreement with the Department of Homeland Security. Because Daniel worked with DHS and the prosecutor to help secure a conviction against his boss, DHS and ICE agreed that Daniel could stay in the country.

We have been going through the process to try to get him a legal status, checking in with ICE weekly. Daniel was even allowed to use the Social Security number so he could keep working.

He's never asked for anything from this country but to be able to stay in it.

I NEED you all to know this. No matter what side you are on in the immigration debate, I want you to please open your hearts and minds and imagine this. Imagine you wake up one morning, get your husband's lunch ready. He kisses and hugs you and walks out the door. A few minutes later, you get a loud rapping on the door.

Did he forget something? You go to the door, and it's ICE officers, saying they had just arrested your husband.

"WHY???? What's going on? Why NOW????" you ask.

Their response: "Because we CAN."

They tell you to go with them immediately to go pick up his car. You are not dressed yet, still just in a nightgown and no slippers. They tell you to come the way you are--they will not wait. So you do what you are told and go.

When I got there, his car was surrounded. Daniel was in a black SUV with black windows. I was barely awake and thought I must be dreaming. I asked to see my husband, for what may be the last time for a very long time. A sharp "NO" was my answer. "He will call you later," I was told.

I opened the car door to find his lunch bag, his hat, his prized watch that I got him for his birthday and his phone. My heart dropped like a bomb in my chest. I just wanted to scream, scream like never before, but I couldn't. Nothing would come out. My husband, my provider, my protector and the love of my life was now gone. Torn from both our lives like a common criminal.

My life has not been the same since, but everything in our home is just as he left it. His boots are still by the door. His favorite fishing pole is still in the corner. His recliner sits empty. And his L.L. Bean down jacket still hangs on the chair. I have closed off our room. I cannot go in there. It looks like he will walk through the door at any time, like always. But it feels more like someone just passed away.

I AM a dyed-in-the-wool, lifelong Mainer, born and raised. I am a housewife, a mother, a brand new grandmother and now a reluctant activist. My family, the Scribner family, has been here since the 1600s. A family of immigrants, just like us all.

Please know that Otto is also a MAINER. He has lived and worked here for many years. He has strong Maine values and strong family values. He loves our state, just as he loves this country, as much as we all do.

This is the least diverse state in the union, yet Daniel managed to win everyone over, including me, and made it his home. Those who are privileged to know him or were affected by him were all the better for it. My husband never took anything from this country. Yet he gave his all to our country. He gave everything he had to this beautiful state he loves so deeply.

This isn't about politics. It's about real people, just trying to live their lives and suddenly being torn apart. Families with husbands and wives, with children and grandchildren. With homes and businesses. With LIVES! All just trying to live our own version of the American dream.

My husband IS my dream. I waited a long time to find the right man. And now after all this time, he is taken away by a cruel and morally unjust administration. It's so unfair. It hurts all of us.

If we don't stand up for what is right, then who will? And who will be next? How long will it take before we are all at risk of being targeted by this new regime for one reason or another? And when it does, who will stand for us?

Authoritarian governments always begin like this. They take people off the street, but they start with people deemed unworthy. Make no mistake--this is a strategic part of the normalization process.

We may have lost this latest battle. But it's not a defeat by any means. I love my husband. I miss him so much my heart breaks every time I turn a corner in our house. All I want is for him to come home. I do have legal recourse. It takes time and money. I don't care how long it takes. I will never stop fighting.

I will start the next chapter of this process as soon as possible. But as I'm sure you all know, an experienced immigration attorney for these types of cases is costly. I am a housewife and new grandmother, and trying to keep my head on straight while coming up with funds for attorneys and expenses has not been easy.

We got a good start on our GoFundMe page, which is still up. We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for our case. Thanks to generous donations, we were able to secure a lawyer. With immigration cases, though, funds dry up quickly, and we will need to raise another $10,000 to take on the next phase of our case.

Daniel is my husband. I married him for better or worse. Although this is about as bad as it can get, I will not quit fighting. We have been together for 11 happy years, and I am NOT ready to say goodbye--only, I'll see you soon, mi amor. My love.

As devastated as I am, I truly hope you are as outraged as I also am. This should not be happening here, in the greatest melting pot in the world. In such a heartwarming state as Maine.

My heart is breaking, not just for my husband, but for all the families currently losing loved ones to these awful ICE raids. These are raids on the American way. I hope you will help me to get the word out and to help me get my husband home. Home to Maine, where he belongs, with all of us who love him. Thank you.

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