I-Team: Woman facing deportation jailed for two years with no criminal charges

Posted at 6:56 AM, Mar 30, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-31 00:38:59-04

HAMILTON, Ohio -- Li Li Chen seemed to illustrate the qualities of an ideal American.

She and her husband worked seven days a week in their restaurant. After getting home sometime after midnight, she would wake up at 5 a.m. to make breakfast for their two children and get them off to school. With the busy schedule, she still found time to study the Bible with a local church group and involve herself in her children's activities.

But for the past two years, Chen has been held in the Butler County Jail.

While she faces no charges and doesn't have a criminal record, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are holding Chen because she entered the country with a bogus passport.

"When I first entered into this country, I was 17 years old," Chen said. "I didn't know any better. Besides, I wanted to get away from my country because there's more freedom in this country."

Chen arrived from China in San Jose, California on Feb. 27, 2004. Her passport, in another woman's name, indicated she was a lawful permanent resident. Authorities caught on and Chen admitted she got the fraudulent passport from a smuggler.

"Why I'm (in jail) is not because of what America did to me," she said, "I didn't do the right thing the first time. I still love this country."

Chen was one of four children. At the time, the Chinese government had a one-child policy to limit population growth. Her brother-in-law, Xing Chen, said anyone who violated the policy could face steep fines or even jail.

Xing said Chen's mother and others helped her get the passport. She was just doing what she was told, he said.

"When she came here...she didn't know anything," Xing said. "At that age, kids are still in school."

Chen applied for a waiver that would let her stay in the U.S. She was later released on a $15,000 immigration bond. In October of 2004, an immigration judge ordered she be sent back to China. Chen appealed. It was the start of a years-long legal effort to stay in the U.S. that's still going on today.

'I was desperate'

Living in the U.S., Chen, now 30, built a life for herself. She got married to Wang Chen and they had two children. They opened a Chinese takeout restaurant and got involved in their community outside Columbus. Though she was in the country illegally, she filed taxes. Wang earned his U.S. citizenship and the children, born here, were citizens by default.

"They used to be a real happy family just like everybody has here in the United States," Xing said.

But Chen's immigration bond was breached when she failed to appear for a hearing in 2008. In 2013, authorities apprehended her.

Wang Chen

Despite more petitions and appeals, ICE moved to send Chen back to China. In March of 2015, Wang brought their children and a suitcase for Chen to the ICE office where she was being held. After officers didn't let the family through to see Chen, Wang ended up "screaming and rolling around" on the floor, according to Immigration Services records.

"He did this for approximately 20 minutes, with several (ICE) officers standing by and intervening when it appeared he was attempting to hurt himself," records state. He was asked to leave the office.

Later that day, Chen was on the plane out of Columbus to Chicago, where she would then be flown back to China. As the plane taxied down the runway, she drank hand soap in the plane's restroom, making herself sick. Chen said she was trying to die.

"I choose to kill myself," she said. "I was desperate."

With a sick passenger aboard, the pilot was forced to return to the gate and Chen was released back to ICE custody.

She feared what would happen to her back in China, she said. The one-child policy was no longer in effect, but she was on record asking for help in the U.S. She could be jailed in China, according to Xing.

"We don't want those things to happen to her and her family," he said.

Not long after, Chen was sent to the Butler County Jail, where she has remained ever since. The federal government has a deal with Butler County to house ICE detainees, paying the jail about $8.2 million over the past five years for the service.

RELATED: Taxpayers spend millions on local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees

Xing urged for Chen to be released.

"Think about this happening to your family, what you'd feel," he said.

'Where's my mom?'

Without Chen, the family fell apart. Wang has been depressed and even considered suicide, but didn't want to leave his children without a father, he said. A psychiatrist and a licensed counselor examined Wang and said he had symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to Immigration Services records.

"She's the only one who can bring the family together," Xing said.

Wang is now in Alaska.

"I struggle," Wang said in Chinese, via a video app. "I'm sad and can't sleep every day because all in my mind is my wife and my kids."

Chen's children

Xing helped with the children for a time, but they are now with Chen's parents in China. Having spent most of their lives in the U.S., they are stronger at speaking English than Chinese.

"I want to be with my mom and dad in America," their girl said via a video app.

Chen said she hasn't seen her children in more than a year, but talks to them a lot on the phone.

'The kids need a mom'

Chen's future, and the whole family's future, is still up in the air. With her waiver application, Chen included drawings by her children and letters from their school teachers, her husband, the family's Bible teacher and two friends.

But officials still denied the waiver, writing in their decision that Chen had not proven Wang "would suffer extreme hardship" if she were back in China.

"The impact of your removal on your children can only be considered to the extent it indirectly impacts your husband," officials wrote.

However, another petition Chen filed last fall seemed to get a better reception. A pair of federal judges in California found that the Board of Immigration Appeals "failed to demonstrate meaningful consideration of all the evidence and claims before it" when it denied Chen's application. The judges granted Chen's petition for review of the board's order.

Last week, Chen met with an investigator from ICE who is helping federal officials review the case. It's possible that officials could release her from jail and let her return to Columbus under U.S. Immigration supervision.

"I have a hope. I feel like I'm fighting for my family. I feel like I have to be strong," Chen said. "As long as I'm in this country, there's a chance, there's a hope to get back to my family."