Update (Aug. 9): Singh spoke Wednesday about his detention and pending deportation at his Yuba City house following his release. That article is here.
Every few months for the past four years, Baljit “Bali” Singh has made a required check-in with federal immigration authorities to let the government know where to find him and to assure immigration agents he was leading a respectable life, despite being undocumented.
Until recently, it was a routine meeting and Singh wasn’t especially fearful of being deported, said his wife, Kate Singh.
“This time he was really nervous about going in, and sure enough, he did not come home,” she said.
During his Aug.1 appointment in downtown Sacramento, Singh was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and held at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center for a week. Late Tuesday, he was released with an ankle bracelet and hard news.
He has three months to put his affairs in order, say goodbye to his wife and two preschool-age sons and leave the country. He may not be able to return for up to 10 years.
Singh has no criminal record and has worked for the same employer for nine years managing gas stations, said Kate Singh. But his detention and imminent deportation don’t surprise his lawyer, Elias Shamieh, who said he is seeing a surge in noncriminals being targeted for immigration enforcement under new guidelines from the Trump administration.
ICE spokesman James Schwab said he was unable to immediately provide details of Singh’s case, but would have information available in coming days.
Between Jan. 22 and April 29 of this year, ICE agents arrested 41,898 individuals nationwide, a 38 percent jump over the same period in 2016, the agency reported. About 25 percent of those apprehended had no criminal convictions, an increase of 150 percent.
In the area overseen by the agency’s San Francisco office, the number of ICE arrests actually fell from 2,006 during that same period last year to 1,976 this year – but included a larger percentage of people without criminal records, said an ICE official who was not authorized to speak on the record.
“There is more than enough work for ICE to do going after criminals,” said U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, who represents the largely agricultural district Singh lives in. “The targeting of men and women, mothers and fathers and in some cases younger teenagers who have committed no crime, who are productive members of their community, is just wrong. Deportation is simply not going to be a solution and what is being carried out now is detrimental to families and communities.”
Garamendi’s office asked ICE for a delay in Singh’s deportation. Garamendi said that comprehensive immigration reform that allows a pathway to citizenship for those in the country is needed.
ICE contends that increased enforcement increases public safety.
“ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officers identify, arrest, and remove aliens who present a danger to national security or are a risk to public safety, as well as those who enter the United States illegally or otherwise undermine the integrity of our immigration laws and our border control efforts,” said David Jennings, ICE field office director for enforcement removal operations in San Francisco, in a recent statement. “Operations … that target and arrest convicted criminals and other immigration fugitives make our communities safer for everyone.”
Singh crossed into the United States from Mexico illegally in 2005, said Kate Singh. Originally from Chak Des Raj, a small village in northern India with a population of just more than 1,000, Singh applied for political asylum as a Sikh, claiming religious persecution, said Shamieh. His case went all the way to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but he ultimately lost and a final deportation order was issued.
In 2010, prior to that order, the Singhs met in Fort Bragg, where Baljit managed a Circle K gas station. Kate Singh would come in to get coffee before walking her dog on the beach.
An Irish-Italian with a fiery stoicism, Kate Singh said she was impressed with Baljit’s calm and kindness. He would give money and coffee to those in need and put water out for the squirrels in summer.
An Indian immigrant “wasn’t on my list of dream men,” said Kate Singh, an author and blogger. “He’s a good person. He’s very solid and grounded and patient and quiet.”
The two married in 2011 and had their first son, Arjun, a year later. Twenty months after that, their second son, Sammy, was born. Kate Singh said during those years, they spent “tens of thousands” of dollars on immigration attorneys trying to fix Baljit’s status. Singh also continued regular contact with immigration authorities. Kate Singh said those agents told her not to worry because her husband wasn’t a priority for deportation. But they understood he might have to leave the United States in order to get legal status – they just hoped to put it off until the kids were older.
“They wanted to him to go back and come back legally. But here’s the problem … if he goes back, I have to spend years petitioning,” said Kate Singh. “He could be there for up to 10 years. So that’s what’s scary. So we were kind of trying to put things off until the kids were older. There’s never really a good time. You don’t want to miss the baby years. These are their precious years.”
Last year, Baljit Singh’s boss asked him to help renovate a station in Yuba City. Singh commuted from south Natomas to Yuba City until May, when the couple bought a run-down house on a side street a few blocks from the gas station and fixed it up in a six-week frenzy of home improvement. They painted the outside light blue and just inside a new white picket fence, they planted a pomegranate tree to match the one in Baljit’s yard in Chak Des Raj.
He had just finished painting the kitchen a cheery yellow and building planter boxes in the backyard in the days before his detention.
When Kate Singh got the call from Shamieh on Tuesday afternoon that Baljit would be home that day, she started screaming, he said. But it’s uncertain how long her husband will be able to stay with his family.
“I have some hope, but under the circumstances, it may be challenging,” said Shamieh.