Christian M’Bagoyi walked into the Philadelphia ICE office as ordered on Friday morning, accompanied by his wife, Sarika, both uncertain if he would be walking out.
Thirty-six minutes later he appeared — relieved and smiling that he wasn’t detained and deported — as two dozen supporters on the sidewalk broke into cheers and applause for the West African immigrant. He and his wife stepped into the arms of Erika Guadalupe Nunez, a Juntos advocacy-group organizer, as both women fought back tears.
“Thank you. The biggest thanks I can offer,” M’Bagoyi told the crowd. “I think I would have been detained if the people had not been here.”
M‘Bagoyi, 42, of Bucks County, was ordered to appear in person, as ICE said he “has a final order of removal and has exhausted all forms of immigration relief,” even though he appears to fall outside of new agency guidelines that dramatically narrow the agency’s enforcement priorities.
“Organizing works. Thank you. Thank you,” Sarika said, pausing to gather herself before continuing. “You are instrumental in keeping our family together. We have never felt so supported and loved.”
New Biden administration guidelines tell ICE to focus on people who pose serious threats to the public — M’Bagoyi has no criminal record, and lives peacefully with his wife and daughters — so the demand for an in-person check-in was ominous, his family and attorney said.
For immigrants, particularly those with deportation orders, the outcome of a physical visit to ICE is unpredictable and potentially life-altering.
Some people walk in, confirm the information on file, and are back outside in 15 minutes. Some can be inside for hours. Others never come out — detained and then deported.
ICE officials continued on Friday to offer no comment on M’Bagoyi’s case.
His deportation order stands and he remains under ICE supervision, scheduled to check in again in September.
Philadelphia immigration lawyer Matthew Archambeault, who represents the family, said he was relieved that M’Bagoyi was not detained, and would continue pursuing legal appeals “to keep him here, safe and secure with his family and community.”
Despite M’Bagoyi not being taken into custody, “a system that requires humans to supplicate themselves in order to stay with their families is inhumane,” Archambeault said. “This country should be thanking people like Christian and embracing them and we hope President Biden does better.”
As of Friday, more than 3,600 people had signed an online petition calling on Biden to assist M’Bagoyi, who came to the United States about 20 years ago, at age 21, after his ethnic background put him at risk in West Africa. He did not want to reveal his homeland.
He legally entered the United States on a tourist visa, but then stayed after it expired, he said. His request for asylum was denied.
He was allowed to remain in the country under an ICE order of supervision, which provides a Social Security number and employment permission. Undocumented immigrants can spend years under supervision, living, working, paying taxes, and building families in this country — then suddenly be scheduled for quick deportations.
That’s what happened, for instance, to Clive and Oneita Thompson, an undocumented Jamaican couple who spent more than two years living inside Philadelphia churches to avoid deportation, until the federal government dropped its case in December. For 14 years the Thompsons were allowed to work and raise their seven children in the tiny South Jersey community of Cedarville, then phoned at work by an ICE agent and given a week to leave the country.
M’Bagoyi’s wife is a U.S. citizen, and they have two daughters, ages 1 and 3, who are also citizens.
He works as a union carpenter and has been studying to become trained in information technology. Sarika, 38, is a marketing and advertising consultant, holding a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Boston University and a master’s in public health from Hunter College in New York City.
For 36 nervous minutes — 8:02 to 8:38 a.m. — on Friday, nearly two dozen supporters waited on the sidewalk outside ICE, holding signs that said, “Keep Christian Home,” and “Stop Separating Families.”
Then suddenly the couple was out.
M’Bagoyi said that after he entered the ICE office, located at Eighth and Cherry streets, he was directed to present his case paperwork. The officer reviewed it, he said, and noted that M’Bagoyi is pursuing legal appeals.
The Juntos campaign to rally support and awareness around the couple was led by Nunez, executive director of the South Philadelphia-based Latino-rights organization, who pledged on Friday that the group will continue to speak up for M’Bagoyi and for other immigrants.
The drama surrounding the fate of one family unfolded as activists here and elsewhere decry the recent deportations of hundreds of Black immigrants, and question whether ICE will resist implementing Biden administration reforms.
The president issued a moratorium on deportations Jan. 20, which has been blocked by a federal judge in Texas. Black lawmakers in Washington have urged him to stop the expulsions.
Last week acting ICE director Tae Johnson issued new guidelines that direct agents to focus on those who pose risks to national security, border security, or public safety.
The guidance essentially tells ICE officers to go after the worst offenders first, similar to the priorities put in place by former President Barack Obama. Under President Donald Trump, ICE was unleashed to arrest anyone who lacked permission to be in the United States.
The new guidance defines national-security priorities as people who have committed terrorism or espionage, or are suspected of being involved in those crimes. Border security includes people taken into custody at the line or a port of entry. And public safety applies to those convicted of an aggravated felony or an offense committed as part of a street gang or a drug cartel.
M’Bagoyi does not fit those priorities, his lawyer noted.
In deciding whether someone endangers the public, ICE agents are to consider the seriousness of the offense but also personal factors such as family circumstances, health, and ties to the community.
The guidance also states, however, that it’s important for ICE to deport immigrants who have final removal orders and who had been in detention for at least 90 days after the order was issued. ICE told M’Bagoyi that he fits those circumstances, supporters said.
“We won today,” Sarika said, “but it is not over for us and for others.”
The couple planned to spend the rest of the day, they said, with their children.