Story highlights

Daniel Maher reformed himself after serving time for armed robbery, say his colleagues

More than two decades later, he is being held in custody and faces deportation

His lawyer says he has become a pawn in high-level U.S.-China negotiations

CNN  — 

On the morning of June 2, Daniel Maher knew he would not be on time for work. He’d stayed up late attending a waste commission meeting the night before, like he did every month as the recycling director for an environmental agency in Berkeley, California.

What Maher didn’t know is that he would not make it to work at all that day. When he stepped outside his front door, he was confronted by six armed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Maher thought they had come to question him, as they had done periodically over the years. Instead, they whisked him away and threw him behind bars.

Maher, part of a recent sweep of Chinese nationals, is now awaiting deportation – which will sever him from his family, friends and a life he toiled to make for himself as a model citizen in America.

The problem is that Maher is not a citizen. He was born in Macau, now a part of China. And the model part? It’s blemished by a felony conviction from more than two decades ago.

Under the law, the United States can deport convicted felons back to their country of origin at any given time if they are deemed a threat to public safety. Such immigration decisions are discretionary, and those who know Maher say he has reformed himself.

But Maher’s attorney said there is more to the case than what appears on the surface. He says Maher has become a pawn in a high-stakes political game between two global powers engaged in a prickly and complex relationship.

Maher might have been left alone, said Anoop Prasad, had it not been for recent high-level negotiations between Washington and Beijing on security matters that included immigration. The talks, he said, have put pressure on authorities to round up Chinese citizens for deportation.

“It’s bad timing,” said Prasad, a lawyer with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco. “Some of this has to do with the larger picture of what’s going on between the United States and China. Some of it has to do with the domestic pulse on immigration.”

If Maher were not an immigrant, he could go on with his life as a reformed felon, Prasad said. But as it is, Maher faces the possibility of being shipped to a country he has never known.

“Sure, what I did was wrong,” Maher said in a telephone conversation from the Adelanto detention facility in Southern California. “I was young, and I made a mistake. But I worked hard to turn my life around. I am not a risk to the public.”

‘I never looked back’

Daniel Maher was only 3 when he arrived in America from what was then Portuguese-controlled Macau. (The small peninsula near Hong Kong became part of China in 1999.) His parents, Luis and Helen, came as legal immigrants, sponsored for permanent residency by relatives already settled in the United States.

Maher and his four siblings grew up in the San Jose area. His parents worked as waiters and grew flowers on a small farm. In his youth, Maher fell in with the “wrong crowd,” as he puts it. Maher struggled to finish high school and worked at an auto repair shop. At 20, he was arrested in a drug-related armed robbery.

In December 1994, Maher was convicted of kidnapping, second-degree robbery and possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to 11 years, four months. During his time in state prisons, Maher did a lot of thinking – and, he said, changing.

He earned his GED in 1999 and completed vocational training programs. He worked in the prison system as a fast food cashier, busboy and telemarketer.

“I never looked back,” he said.

Daniel Maher was 3 years old when he came to the United States with a permanent visa.

But his conviction meant he no longer had a green card to stay in the United States, and in 2000, an immigration judge ordered his “removal” from the country.

Immigration officers reviewed Maher’s case the following year before an early release from prison. In a report issued after a March 2001 interview with Maher, deportation officers said he told them he was pressured by peers into the robbery and regretted his actions.

“Now he sees that it was foolish,” the report said. “He stated that he does not want to lose his freedom again.”

In a “comments” section, the deportation officers wrote that Maher “appears to be a person of above average intelligence, who seemed to have had no trouble finding work, working hard or in completing his education. … He is bright and seems committed to living a legitimate and law-abiding life if released.”

The deportation order stood, though, and for months, immigration authorities sought to obtain travel documents for Maher to enter China. Their efforts were in vain; the Chinese consulate did not respond to multiple requests.

A federal judge ultimately ordered Maher’s release on a writ of habeas corpus after a Supreme Court ruling prohibited indefinite detentions such as his.

Maher was freed in August 2001 under an order of supervision. Since then, he has reported regularly to a deportation officer.

China is one of several “recalcitrant” nations that refuse to accept nationals the United States wants to deport. That list includes Cuba, and as the Obama administration normalizes diplomatic ties with the socialist nation, up to 34,500 Cuban nationals convicted of crimes in the United States could now be sent back.

The administration also has been discussing deportations with China. And on March 27, Sarah Saldana, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), signed a memorandum of understanding on deportations with her Chinese counterpart.

China has long been pressuring the United States to extradite nationals wanted on corruption charges in the absence of an extradition treaty, which is partly because of Washington’s concerns over China’s due process of law and human rights violations.

Maher insists he is not a  threat to public safety and should not be deported.

In exchange for the extraditions, the United States wants to send back thousands of Chinese citizens under ICE orders of removal.

A Homeland Security news release on Secretary Jeh Johnson’s visit to Beijing in April said the two countries had “committed to a more streamlined process to repatriate Chinese nationals with final orders of removal.”

More than 30,000 Chinese citizens are currently on final orders of removal from the United States, according to the State Department.

As of early July, 527 Chinese citizens were in ICE detention, according to Department of Homeland Security records. Last year, 63 Chinese citizens with criminal convictions were released from custody since they could not be deported.

ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christenson said a team of Chinese experts traveled to the United States to interview Chinese citizens targeted by ICE for deportation. Among them was Maher, much to the surprise of his friends and colleagues.

Prasad, Maher’s lawyer, said the interview was short and Maher had problems communicating with the Chinese officials because he does not speak Mandarin or Cantonese.

Queries made by CNN to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco and the Chinese embassy in Washington were not answered. However, Virginia Kice, a Western regional spokeswoman for ICE, said Maher “remains an enforcement priority based on criminal history.”

She said ICE officials in San Francisco were advised that it may now be possible for the agency to obtain a travel document for Maher.

“In light of that, ICE officers took Mr. Maher into custody,” Kice said.

The past catches up

Maher had always worried that one day his past would catch up with him.

After prison, he began working for the nonprofit Ecology Center in Berkeley. And he moved back in with his parents to help relieve the financial burden on his younger brother, Anthony, who was then studying pharmacology.

Maher lived each day with fear of deportation hanging over his head, reminded of it every time he reported to immigration agents, every time he heard about a deportation case.

But he held out hope that someone in officialdom would believe he had changed; that his life would speak for itself.

Those who worked with Maher at the Ecology Center described a kind, generous and dependable man. Maher knew about engine repair, telephone systems and computers, said Amy Kiser, the center’s program director. He stepped in to solve problems and didn’t care if he had to get his hands dirty.

Maher was the guy who sprung for coffee and listened when a colleague was dealing with cancer in the family.

“Daniel is an essential element of our closely knit team,” Kiser said. “I am very upset that he is being detained. He does not deserve this.”

A petition asking ICE to free Maher has more than 2,700 signatures on it.

“I fail to understand what can be gained by uprooting Daniel from his family and friends, his work, and his life,” said Susan Miller, another Ecology Center employee. “I can’t accept that his detention and possible deportation is a beneficial and reasonable response to a purported threat which is, in my view, nonexistent.”

The center had hoped to have Maher act as guide for its “Plastic Free July” events. Instead, Maher has been spending days and nights in a shared concrete cell.

He said it has been hard living in limbo, not knowing what the next day might bring.

It’s especially hard knowing that he may end up in mainland China, a place he has never seen. He doesn’t know how he would function there.

Once deported, a convicted felon can never return to the United States. That means his family would have to uproot themselves if they want to be near him.

“It’s a little late for me to start all over. I realize this is my own fault, but….”

Maher’s voice trails off.

He knows this is not a good time for him to be pleading his case.

The recent shooting death of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco put an intense spotlight on the issue of deporting immigrants with criminal records.

The man charged in Steinle’s murder, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, had seven felony convictions and had been deported from the United States back to his native Mexico five times.

People from all corners – conservatives as well as liberals – have pointed fingers at authorities for releasing Lopez-Sanchez from detention before he could be deported again.

Lopez-Sanchez was turned over to San Francisco authorities on a drug warrant in March. San Francisco police let him go in April after the drug charges were dropped.

Republican members of Congress blasted the Obama administration at a homeland security hearing Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said ICE admitted releasing 30,558 immigrants with criminal convictions in 2014. He said he received data last week from the Department of Homeland Security that 1,423 of those immigrants already had been convicted of new crimes including domestic violence, sexual assault, burglary and assault.

“Because of the failure by this and previous administrations to detain criminal aliens, and the failure to vigorously pursue fugitives, there are almost 180,000 convicted criminal aliens currently in removal proceedings who are living in our neighborhoods and almost 170,000 convicted criminal aliens who have been ordered removed yet are also living free,” Goodlatte said.

Those who want swift action on deportations point to cases such as Steinle’s and that of Qian Wu, a 46-year-old New York woman who died in a grisly stabbing. The man convicted of her murder, Huang Chen, is an undocumented Chinese citizen who had served time for a previous attack on Wu and was released after China refused to take him back.

Immigration lawyers say the harshest cases should not set policy for everyone. Criminal convictions run the gamut, they say, and each case must be based on the merits of the individual in question.

Prasad, the Asian Law Caucus attorney, said Maher clearly does not fall into the same category as Chen or Lopez-Sanchez.

“People understand the two situations are really disconnected,” Prasad said.

But he believes the administration is trying to soften criticism of its record number of deportations by saying the United States makes it a priority to target immigrants who pose safety concerns.

Maher’s family finds it ludicrous that anyone would put him in the same category as Lopez-Sanchez.

“I think that’s so unfair. My brother is nothing like that person,” said Anthony Maher. “We are so worried. My brother has never been to China. He doesn’t speak Chinese. What will he do there?”

Rather, Maher’s supporters say, authorities should compare Maher to someone such as Eddy Zheng, a Chinese man who spent 19 years in prison for kidnapping and robbery and transformed himself into a community activist.

California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Zheng on Easter, saying Zheng had redeemed himself through his anti-violence and mentoring work.

“All we are saying is, ‘Look at the support he has, the amazing work he does,’ ” Prasad said. “It’s pretty clear Daniel Maher is not a public safety danger.”

Maher, meanwhile, has been moved to the Mesa Verde detention facility in Bakersfield. He’d like nothing more than to go back to the San Francisco Bay area, to his girlfriend, his family and a job that has been kept open for him.

He admits he made a grave mistake 20 years ago.

“Please look at my history,” he said about his actions since he was released from jail. “Please let me stay.”

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