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'Zero Tolerance': A Vermont Family Feels The Pain Of Trump Immigration Enforcement

A longtime Vermont resident is scheduled to be deported Sunday back to his native Kenya. His family says they are the victims of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration issues.

That policy has led to thousands of families being separated while trying to enter the country. But removing parents from their children is not just happening at the southern border.

Carl Ronga, his wife Becky, and their five-year-old Rehema live in Randolph Center.

Rehema plays with a music box in her living room and hangs out with Carl, a stay-at-home dad who’s been her primary caregiver. It’s a fleeting moment for them to share.

He’s scheduled to be deported on Sunday, booked on a one-way flight back to Nairobi. Carl Ronga said he knows his situation is not as dire as that faced by families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But it’s tough on his family, especially Rehema and his two other children from an earlier relationship.

“I’m not saying that going back to Kenya is as horrible as going back to South America, or some other countries,” he said. “But it’s the pain of the children, the trauma. It’s very hard to tell my five-year-old what’s going on. It’s very hard for my 13-year-old to comprehend.”

Credit John Dillon / VPR
Carl Ronga and his daughter Rehema.

Ronga has been in the U.S. for 17 years.

He came here to attend the University of Massachusetts.

His trouble with immigration authorities began after he overstayed his student visa and later filled out a government form for a job in Vermont at IBM.

He checked the box on the form indicating he was a U.S. national.

He said the form was confusing and that he made a simple mistake.

“There was a first box which you checked: U.S.-citizen/national. The other, I think, was ‘green card holder,’ and the other was like alien number if you had one,” he recalled. “So I figured out national was the best choice; I came in legally, but I’m somewhere in between. You know, I’m not an alien, not a green card holder, definitely not a US citizen, but it was either or [on the form].”

Regardless of whether it was a mistake or deliberate fraud, misleading the government about your citizenship is a serious, deportable offense.

But under previous administrations, immigration authorities could exercise prosecutorial discretion and often chose not to deport people who had committed no other crimes and were contributing to the local community.

"Carl Ronga was not an enforcement priority. Now everybody is an enforcement priority." — Erin Jacobsen, Vermont Law School

Not so under President Trump, said immigration lawyer Erin Jacobsen.

“Carl Ronga was not an enforcement priority. Now everybody is an enforcement priority,” she said.

Under Obama, Jacobsen said, ICE would probably not have moved to deport Carl. “They didn’t want to spend resources on somebody who has three children, U.S. citizen children, a U.S. citizen wife, is taking care of those children ... and has no criminal record.”

Jacobsen said Carl faces deportation both because of the zero tolerance policy and because of a 1996 change to immigration law that made misstating your citizenship a violation that was harder to challenge legally – and resulted in a permanent ban from ever entering the U.S. Carl now has no chance of ever getting a green card, or U.S. citizenship

Jacobsen teaches at Vermont Law School and knows the family’s story because Carl's wife, Becky, is a student there.

“There’s no legal avenue to try to change that consequence,” she said. “The consequence itself is a permanent bar. So if Carl is deported, he can never come back to the United States.”

The Rongas took their case up to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals but lost. They had also hoped he would qualify under a President Obama executive order that deferred deportation for undocumented people with U.S. children.

But that order was blocked by the courts.

Their legal remedies are now exhausted, short of a presidential pardon or a very rare, special act of Congress that would grant him legal status.

"We've put into this country. He's put into this country. We are a legitimate family that is being separated; being torn apart over a policy I think is too harsh." — Becky Ronga

As the family decides what Carl should pack for his trip to Kenya -- he says he's definitely taking most of the family photos with him — Becky Ronga is alternately frustrated and teary as she confronts the future.

“We’ve put into this country,” she said. “He’s put into this country. We are a legitimate family that is being separated; being torn apart over a policy I think is too harsh.”

Credit John Dillon / VPR
Carl Ronga with some of the family photos he'll take with him if he has to leave Sunday.

For the last several months, ICE agents have tracked Carl’s location with a GPS bracelet locked to his ankle.

He said he is paying the price for trying to get a job, for trying to support his family.

“I believe if you’re doing work, earning an honest living, you should be given a chance to be an American because everybody came to this country to work,” he said.

"I believe if you're doing work, earning an honest living, you should be given a chance to be an American because everybody came to this country to work." — Carl Ronga

Becky just tries to imagine her life without Carl after 11 years of marriage. He’s cared for Rehema while she’s gone to law school. He’s been a deacon in their church. He has helped her parents and other family members.

“The punishment isn’t just only for him. It’s for my kids, myself, his family, the community. I don’t know what I’m going to do without him,” she said.

On Friday, Carl and Becky met with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Massachusetts where they applied for a temporary stay of deportation to give him more time with his family.

But by the end of the workday, they still had no word, and they are planning to be at Logan Airport Sunday for Carl's flight.

Update July 2, 2018, 2:35 p.m.: The Rongas' request for a stay of deportation was denied, and Carl Ronga did fly back to Kenya on July 1. His wife Becky says she's hoping to visit in December with their daughter Rehema.

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