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The state of illegal immigration in Hawaii.


(page 3 of 3)

Clare Hanusz, an attorney specializing in immigration law, helps undocumented aliens navigate an often-confusing system.

Photos: David CroxfordPhoto Illustration: Kristin Lipman


Jim Kosciuk, spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Honolulu, says, “We’ll encounter two or three cases of forged documents a week, and that’s not counting the instances when we refuse entry to people for other reasons, such as previous criminal records.”

Hawaii’s position in the middle of the Pacific Ocean rules out a lot of other options for anyone hoping to slip into the Islands. “I don’t recall any instances of people sneaking in via a boat, and I’ve been here for 12 years,” Kosciuk says. “We do routine harbor sweeps, from Ko Olina to Haleiwa, for any unannounced arrivals, but we just don’t get many private vessels showing up in Hawaii.”


Many foreign nationals come in on legitimate visas, and simply don’t leave when their visas expire. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services maintains records on all visa holders, but there’s no big red alarm that goes off when someone overstays their visit. Because of limited resources, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers concentrate on larger-scale violations and criminal activity that poses a threat to the general public. It’s easy for a well-behaved foreign national to fade into the woodwork.

Of course, fading might be easy, but trying to live a normal life without the legal identification U.S. citizens take for granted can be frustrating. It’s hard to put down roots and become a productive, contributing member of society when any brush with law enforcement, down to a simple traffic stop, can easily lead to deportation. Calleen Ching, an attorney from the Hawaii Immigrant Justice Center, says, “Without a Social Security number, you’re part of the permanent underclass. You can’t get a driver’s license, you can’t get a legitimate job, you can’t even get into the federal building without proper documentation.”

Traveling, in particular, is difficult and risky for those without valid identification—not only to the Mainland and to foreign destinations, but even interisland. Immigration attorney Clare Hanusz says, “I get a lot of calls from people who get arrested flying Neighbor Island. It used to be that the only requirement to board a plane was some form of valid identification that identifies you as the person with the ticket. Under the Real ID Act, TSA (Transportation Security Administration) is now playing immigration police. If I’m a Mexican national and I present a Mexican passport, which a year ago would have been fine, TSA is going to ask for my visa, and if I don’t have one, they’re going to call ICE or Customs and Border Patrol.”

One of Hanusz’s clients was picked up last year in just this way, while trying to fly back to Honduras to visit his ailing grandfather. Louis (not his real name) had been in Hawaii for just under 10 years, married a local girl and had two children (now 5 and 6 years old). But suddenly he was sitting in a federal detention center, facing a removal hearing.

It's hard to put down roots and become a productive, contributing member of society when any brush with law enforcement can easily lead to deportation.

Cases heard in immigration court are civil proceedings, not criminal, but the stakes are high and the odds terrible. Two out of three judgments result in removal from the U.S., either by deportation or voluntary departure.

Detainees don’t even get the opportunity to appear before a judge in person. They appear via a closed-circuit television setup. Because it’s a civil trial, aliens are not entitled to a public defender to help argue their cases. Local nonprofit Hawaii Immigrant Justice Center (formerly Na Loio) offers free legal representation to undocumented aliens, but it’s only able to take on a tiny percentage of the cases. In 2007, almost half of detainees went unrepresented by a lawyer in immigration court.

With the help of Hanusz, Louis was granted bond and a voluntary departure, and flew back to Honduras in October. He’s now living with family there, trying to figure out a way to return to Hawaii.

He and his wife, Stacy (not her real name either), have applied for an I-130 visa, which is available for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, but there’s an additional obstacle. Because he had been out of status in Hawaii for more than a year, federal immigration regulations bar him from returning to the U.S. for 10 years. It’s possible to apply for an exemption due to extreme hardship, but a favorable ruling is by no means guaranteed, and even in a best case scenario, Hanusz estimates it will likely be one to two years before Louis steps foot in Hawaii again.

“It’s been hard, big time,” says Stacy. “I have the kids and he’s not here to help me out with them. I lost my job last year, and we were struggling financially, and our home went into foreclosure. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Why risk all this? Why not enter the United States via legitimate channels?

It turns out to be a long, difficult process, and there are only two main ways to get on the path to legal status: family-based and employment-based. The latter generally requires an applicant to have a profession with a high level of skill, a high-level academic degree or a large chunk of cash to invest.

Many foreign nationals don’t qualify for either method, and will never be able to legitimately come to the U.S. “What people don’t understand is that if you’re poor and you have no immediate family members who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, for most people there is no legal way to come to the U.S.,” says Hanusz. “It’s not just a question of them deciding to cut the line. There’s no line for them.”

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that the current state of affairs isn’t satisfying anyone. Local workers are being undercut on jobs, undocumented immigrants are being underpaid and exploited. The rest of Hawaii is picking up an estimated $9 million annual tab for social services to undocumented residents.

America was built by generations of immigrants, long before anyone started distinguishing between legal and illegal immigration. America was a better country for them than their old country, we were richer for accepting them and they were enriched by moving here. A lot of people confronting this issue today think there has got to be a way to get back to this ideal. As Chock says, “We’d like these workers to become members of our union, because I think these people are the future of our workforce.”

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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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