Should a Mistake Made Long Ago Doom This Immigrant’s Future?
Update, March 30, 2018, 5:13 p.m:
Gov. Jerry Brown announced today that he had granted a “full and unconditional” pardon to Daniel Maher and 55 other people. Maher served five years in prison for armed robbery and attempted kidnapping when he was 21.
The conviction cost Maher, who moved to the United States legally from Macau when he was three, his green card and made him deportable.
Brown said Maher has “lived an honest and upright life” since his release from custody 18 years ago and deserved executive clemency. With the pardon, Maher can now ask an immigration judge to toss out his deportation order because the pardon removes the grounds for that immigration enforcement.
“It’s a great surprise. I just can’t believe it,” said Maher, 44. “This actually opens up a lot of doors.”
Various immigration attorneys agreed the governor’s executive clemency can significantly help Maher regain his legal permanent resident status.
You really get a sense of how many plastic bottles Americans use -- even in an eco-friendly city like Berkeley -- when you hang out at an open-air recycling facility like the Ecology Center. Trucks pull in every few minutes, dumping loads of plastic onto an enormous pile.
“It’s been a big push, to collect all the plastics,” says Daniel Maher, who supervises the fleet of trucks that pick up Berkeley’s curbside recycling. “Yeah, we can collect everything. But what’s going to be done with it? Is it going to turn into fuel for somebody’s cook fire? Is it going to be something that’s filling up the river?"
Maher says most of the plastic ends up getting sent to China.
That’s kind of ironic, since Maher is doing his best not to get shipped to China himself.
He’s technically on a list of deportees, because of a crime he committed more than two decades ago. And he’s worried that with President Trump’s push to deport immigrants with criminal records, he could get picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at any time.
Maher is originally from Macau, a former Portuguese colony that became part of China long after he left. He and his parents came to California when he was three to join his grandparents, who had a flower farm in Union City. They moved around: San Francisco, San Jose. As a teenager, he fell in with the wrong crowd.
"Misfits are there for one reason or another. Maybe they were, you know, looked at as nerds as well. A lot of my friends were in gifted education,” says Maher.
Should a Mistake Made Long Ago Doom This Immigrant’s Future?
Some of those same friends started to turn their energies in another direction after they graduated from high school. They came up with a plan to rob drug dealers.
"I think what made it easier for me to go along with it was the fact that we were actually going after drug dealers. People that were preying on others," he says. "So that was our way of rationalizing what we did. Clearly that didn't work out very well for me."
When he was 21, Maher was charged with a felony, convicted of armed robbery, attempted kidnapping.
“It was totally out of character,” he says. “It was a real jumbled, bad time. I totally regretted it afterwards.”
And here's another big regret: Since he came to the U.S. with a green card, he could have applied for his U.S. citizenship when he turned 18. But he was too distracted.
After serving five years in prison (he was released early for good behavior), he was put in immigration custody. It came as a shock. Daniel thought of himself as American. But to the U.S. government, he was a violent immigrant felon. That meant they could take away his green card and deport him.
Here’s where it gets complicated. Years after Daniel’s family immigrated, Macau became part of China. So the plan was to deport him to China -- even though he doesn’t identify as Chinese culturally. Nor does he speak the language.
But China doesn’t have an agreement to accept deportees from the U.S. So after a year and a half in a detention center, Daniel was released in 2001.
He didn’t have a green card anymore. But as long as he agreed to keep checking in with immigration officials and staying out of trouble, he could get a temporary work permit. He learned web design, then found a job at a recycling center. His life really turned around.
Today, the 43-year-old Daniel I meet, the one with the close-cropped hair and the easy giggle, doesn’t seem like the same guy. Daniel tells me I wouldn’t even recognize his 21-year-old self.
“I used to walk around with a scowl,” he laughs. “Not anymore. I can't even picture that life anymore.”
Redemption Through Recycling
Daniel has won accolades from his peers for his work with at-risk youth interested in green-collar jobs. He's become a manager in charge of the fleet, the go-to guy for computer fixes and managing the routes for recycling drivers. For years, his prison term and his potential deportation felt like a thing of the past.
Until one day in 2015, when ICE came looking for him at work. His name was on a list of Chinese nationals, including some corrupt government officials China was hoping to extradite under an agreement with the U.S. government. This was 15 years after he was released from prison.
"This was the last thing on my mind," says Maher. "I didn't have any reason to believe that something in the past would come back to haunt me like this."
Maher says ICE put him in a holding cell, without food or water for 24 hours.
Then they transferred him to a private detention center in Southern California. His co-workers and his parents had no idea where he was.
“If I was going to be deported, I’d at least like my family to be prepared,” says Maher. “But I was unable to make any phone calls out for about a week and a half.”
This time around, Maher says, immigration detention was different from when he was held 15 years ago in a center run by the U.S. government. This time, he was in a private facility that felt more like a prison.
"And that’s where a lot of my troubles began. It took a month for me to get [medication] I was supposed to take daily. You know, if you’re really in that system, it's really the twilight zone,” recalls Maher.
When the Chinese government officials came to interview him, he couldn’t communicate with them.
"I think they pretty much shook their heads,” says Maher. “'What are we going to do with this guy? He doesn’t speak the language. He's definitely not one of the corrupt government officials we're looking for.' So it's like, 'Why are we having this conversation?' "
After a lot of advocacy from his co-workers at the Ecology Center, his lawyers and even some elected officials, Daniel was released from immigration custody after three months. But he’s still in limbo. ICE knows he’s here. They just don’t know what to do with him.
Starting a Family Life After Years On Hold
For more than 15 years, Daniel was unsure when or if he’d be deported. By the time he reached his early 40s, he finally felt free to give himself permission to live his life, to get into a relationship. A few weeks before he was picked up by ICE in 2015, he had just started dating a woman named Katrina.
"I’d actually just started to let go," says Maher. "It just came at that time where I said, 'You know, if I keep waiting I'll never have a chance at a family or in any kind of happiness.' "
This summer, Daniel plans to get married to Katrina, and become a stepdad to 7-year-old Kyle. He attends Kyle's Cub Scout meetings, trying to impart some of the lessons about honesty and good moral character he says he’s learned over the last two decades.
Katrina says Daniel has been a big part of their happiness. Until she met him, she raised Kyle as a single mom.
“One day I asked him, ‘What do you want for your present on your birthday?’ He's like, ‘I want a dad.’ And I said, ‘Where are we going to get a dad?' He’s like, 'Toys R Us.' He’s always wanted a dad. So Daniel’s kind of like the cherry on top of our lives,” she smiles.
But even as they start their new life together, Daniel is on edge.
He’s still technically on a list of deportees and could be detained again at any time. Even though there’s no place to send him. But what if things change? President Trump has signed an executive order authorizing the secretary of Homeland Security and the secretary of State to sanction countries that refuse to take deportees from the U.S., which could potentially change China's policy.
"It's on my mind all the time," sighs Daniel. “Every time I sleep at night it's like, you know, I have all these plans, a lot of things that I want to get done. Is it going to be interrupted?”
Maher says he always has money in his pocket, so he can buy a toothbrush and phone card if he gets put in detention again. He's set up a password manager so Katrina can access his bank accounts.
“I even have a schedule of all my bills, when they're due,” explains Maher. “Now I have to make it easier for somebody else to take over my life from there.”
There is one possible solution for Daniel. But it’s a long shot. He’s petitioning a state court to reduce his 23-year-old felony charge to a misdemeanor, and give him a certificate of rehabilitation. That would allow him to ask for a pardon from the governor. He could then go to an immigration judge and argue that he’s no longer deportable.
Maher says he knows just what he would say to Gov. Jerry Brown if he had a chance:
“'Hey, here’s a guy who's definitely spent his youth doing bad things. But look at what he's done since, you know, he's turned his life around. He stayed out of trouble. He's a family man now. He's teaching at-risk youth, he’s a positive force in the community.'"
“I understand the underlying reasoning behind deporting violent felons,” says Maher. “I just feel that there should be considerations based on those that are clearly not going to change their path. And those that actually do.
"Does one moment in time justify changing a person's life for the long term, or can we change it for the better, give that person a second chance, because he's shown that he's changed?" asks Maher. "I'm all for that second chance."