A Naples man who was detained by federal immigration officers last month as part of the Trump administration’s move to tighten immigration enforcement is on the brink of being deported to Guatemala after living in the United States for about 20 years.

Otto Morales-Caballeros, 37, came to the United States alone as a teenager without legal documentation. While on his way to work April 12, he was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on an outstanding removal order from 2010. His attorney, George Hepner, filed a request for prosecutorial discretion, which might have delayed or prevented deportation for Morales-Caballeros. Hepner said Tuesday that the request has been denied.

“There’s really nothing keeping him in the U.S. right now other than administrative delays,” Hepner said during a phone interview from the immigration court in Boston.

In less than three months, Morales-Caballeros has been held in four locations. Upon his arrest, he was detained at the Cumberland County Jail, but he was soon moved to the Strafford County Jail in New Hampshire because it is the nearest federally contracted detention center. By the beginning of May, he had been transferred to the Suffolk County House of Corrections in Massachusetts. This week, he was moved to a detention and removal staging facility at the airport in Alexandria, 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 temporary stop for detainees.

“This 400-bed staging facility will serve as a 72-hour holding facility for male and female offenders entering or leaving the country,” the website states.


Hepner does not know when Morales-Caballeros will be deported.

“It could be in a day or two, it could be in week,” he said.

Cases like this one are becoming more common under the new administration, Hepner said.

“Not just in Maine but everywhere, we’ve heard stories of people getting snagged,” Hepner said. “We’re seeing less of a tendency to exercise discretion in a positive way. I don’t blame ICE. They are just following orders. They don’t make policy.”


The Pew Research Center reported that fewer than 5,000 unauthorized immigrants were living in Maine as of 2014. That’s less than 0.3 percent of the state’s total population and just 8 percent of its immigrant population.


In 2014, the Obama administration issued guidelines to immigration agents that instructed them to focus on deporting only people who are a threat to national security, border security or public safety. Those categories included gang members and felons. This prosecutorial discretion meant removal orders often were postponed for people who were considered a low priority.

Days after his inauguration in January, President 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.

Morales-Caballeros’ arrest in April was one of the first few signs in Maine of that shift under the new administration. A week earlier, agents also detained Abdi Ali, a 28-year-old Westbrook man, at a Portland courthouse after a hearing on a misdemeanor drunken-driving charge, which is not typically considered a deportable offense. ICE gave Ali a document that cites a 2013 misdemeanor conviction for cocaine possession as grounds for deportation.

Ali came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia when he was 7 and has lawful permanent-resident status. He is still being held at the Strafford County Jail, according to the ICE detainee locater.

Morales-Caballeros left Guatemala two decades ago after his brother was murdered and his niece was killed, his wife, Sandra Scribner Merlim, told the Portland Press Herald.



A spokesman for ICE said a federal immigration judge issued a removal order for Morales-Caballeros in 2010. Court documents show he was convicted in 2013 on federal charges of felony use of fraudulent documents. Merlim said the couple had been assured in the past by immigration officials that he would not be deported if he stayed out of legal trouble.

Morales-Caballeros and Merlim have been together for 11 years. They married two years ago and do not have children together. At the time of his arrest, Merlim said they were still waiting on a response to their Form I-130, a petition for a relative to become a lawful permanent resident of the United States.

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which is responsible for adjudicating immigration cases, declined to comment on Morales-Caballeros’ case Monday.

Representatives for Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment about Morales-Caballeros. A spokeswoman for Rep. Chellie Pingree said her office does not comment on case work, and a spokesman for Rep. Bruce Poliquin said the case is outside his district.

A GoFundMe campaign to cover legal expenses for Morales-Caballeros had raised more than $7,800 as of Tuesday afternoon. Merlim declined to comment on her husband’s case Tuesday and said she will speak to the media Wednesday.

“He hasn’t been to Guatemala in 20 years and doesn’t have anyone to go back to,” she said last month.

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


Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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