Otto Morales-Caballeros’ boots are by the front door of his house in Naples. His fishing pole is in the corner. His L.L. Bean down jacket hangs on a chair.

But Morales-Caballeros is not there.

He is currently held at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removal and staging facility near the airport in Alexandria, Louisiana. He is scheduled to be deported to Guatemala after 20 years of living and working in the United States. His imminent deportation – possibly as soon as Thursday – is a sign of the escalation in immigration enforcement under President Trump.

“My husband, my provider, my protector, is gone,” his wife, Sandra Scribner Merlim, said tearfully.

Merlim spoke about her husband’s case with reporters Wednesday outside the Portland home of former state representative Diane Russell.

Otto Morales-Caballeros with his grandson.

Morales-Caballeros, 37, came to the United States from Guatemala alone at age 16 without legal documentation. Merlim said he fled the violence there after his brother was murdered and his niece was killed. His mother and sister are still in Guatemala, but his wife said he has not set foot in his home country in more than two decades.


“He’s so nervous,” she said.

Merlim said the couple has been trying to obtain legal status for Morales-Caballeros for more than a decade. However, her husband wasn’t aware asylum applicants need to apply within one year of arriving in the United States, so their efforts years later failed. An ICE spokesperson said a federal judge issued a removal order for Morales-Caballeros in 2010, and court documents show he pleaded guilty in 2013 to a federal charge of felony use of fraudulent documents. He had used false identification and a fake Social Security number while seeking work. State records show he has no other criminal record in Maine.

“When our new president said they were going to take out the violent criminals and the ‘bad hombres,’ they weren’t talking about my husband,” Merlim said. “My husband’s only crime was wanting to live here and to work hard for a living.”


Merlim said the couple had been assured in the past by immigration officials that Morales-Caballeros would not be deported if he stayed out of legal trouble. But her husband was detained April 12 on his way to work at a lobster processing company in Saco. Merlim was still in her nightgown when ICE agents knocked on her front door and asked her to pick up her husband’s car. Morales-Caballeros was in the back of a black SUV when she arrived at the scene of his arrest, Merlim said, but she wasn’t allowed to speak to him.

“I opened the car door to find his lunch bag and his hat and his prized watch that I got him for his birthday and his phone,” Merlim said, her voice catching in her throat. “My heart dropped like a bomb in my chest.”


In less than one month, Morales-Caballeros has been held in at least four locations, most recently Louisiana. A call to that facility for comment was not returned Tuesday, but the website for its operator, The GEO Group, describes it as a final stop for detainees before removal.

A Westbrook immigration attorney, George Hepner, filed a request for prosecutorial discretion, which might have delayed or prevented deportation for Morales-Caballeros. Hepner told the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday the request was denied.

Merlim and Morales-Caballeros have been together for 11 years and married since 2015. They have no children together, although Merlim said he has become a part of her family. Now their hopes rest on a Form I-130, a petition for a relative or spouse to become a lawful permanent resident of the United States. Merlim said she has filed that document and she is waiting for a response.

“I do have legal recourse, but it takes time and it takes money,” Merlim said. “I don’t care how long it takes. I’m never going to stop fighting.”

Sue Roche, executive director at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, couldn’t speak specifically to Morales-Caballeros and his case. But she said the process of obtaining legal resident status in the U.S. for a non-citizen spouse is extremely complicated.

The Form I-130 is just the first step. The federal government uses that document to verify a marriage is genuine and not just for immigration purposes. Once that form is approved, the person who is not a citizen must return to his or her home country and apply for permanent residency in the U.S. from there.


That step is a barrier for some people. For example, a person who has been deported usually cannot return to the U.S. for 10 years. He or she can apply for a waiver, but approval requires proof that separation will cause extreme hardship for the couple.

“We have had success in a lot of cases, but it is not a guarantee,” Roche said.


While the new administration has ramped up immigration enforcement, Roche said other challenges already existed.

“These incidents that are occurring are really shining a light on the many problems of our immigration system,” Roche said. “Somebody getting deported and getting separated from their U.S. citizen spouse is not something new.”

Todd Chretien, a family friend of Sandra Scribner Merlim, displays family photos as Merlim prepares to talk with reporters about the deportation of her husband, Otto Morales-Caballeros, on Wednesday in Portland.

During his two terms, President Obama deported more people than any past president – more than 2.7 million between fiscal years 2009 and 2016. In 2012, ICE data shows 409,849 people were removed from the U.S. Of that number, 55 percent were convicted criminals; the majority of people deported without criminal convictions were apprehended at or near the border. There is no state-level data available on deportations or immigration arrests.


However, the annual number of deportations decreased after 2014, when the Obama administration issued new enforcement guidelines. Immigration agents were told to focus only on threats to national security, border security or public safety. Those categories included gang members and felons. This prosecutorial discretion meant removal orders were often postponed for people considered a low priority. In 2015, the number of removals dropped to 235,413. Fifty-nine percent were convicted criminals.

Days after his inauguration in January, Trump issued an executive order that dramatically expanded the federal government’s priorities for immigration enforcement. For example, agents now are instructed to remove anyone with a criminal conviction and anyone who already has been issued a removal order. Last month, The Washington Post reported immigration arrests had increased more than 30 percent.

This shift has been felt even in Maine, where immigrants make up less than 4 percent of the population. According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, fewer than 47,000 of Maine’s 1.3 million people are foreign born. An even smaller fraction are undocumented. In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that fewer than 5,000 unauthorized immigrants were living in Maine, less than 0.3 percent of the state’s total population.

Merlim said she feels for others who are experiencing her same pain. With her husband’s deportation imminent, Merlim said she is working to expedite her passport. She plans to visit him in Guatemala and then return to the United States to find an attorney and work on their case. Morales-Caballeros was the breadwinner for their family, and Merlim said money has been tight since his arrest. A GoFundMe campaign has already raised more than $8,000, but Merlim said she thinks she will need $10,000 more to cover legal expenses.

If her attempts to bring Morales-Caballeros back to the United States fail, Merlim said her other options might be moving to Guatemala or seeking asylum together in Canada.

“I love my husband,” she said. “I miss him so much that my heart breaks every time I turn a corner in our house. All I want is for him to come home.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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