Alfonso Chanco had his ticket in hand: 7 a.m. on June 2, Hailey to Salt Lake, Salt Lake to Atlanta, Atlanta to Lima, Peru.
He’d packed his bag. He’d said his goodbyes, different to different people. He told his two young sons that he had to go back, that their grandparents were ill and they needed his help. His wife and two older daughters knew the truth, so that’s what he told them: There was no return flight. He told them that he’d tried, that he’d miss them like a part of himself, but that, after 17 years in the Wood River Valley, he was now on a deadline: June 2, 7 a.m.
Chanco was being deported. A week before the flight, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in charge of his case asked to see a ticket and a passport. As he drove to the appointment in Twin Falls, he thought of his family—the home they bought, the life they built, soon receding on an Embraer 175 airplane. And, he thought of Rubi, 17 years old and wheelchair-bound, the reason he crossed into America that first time, a lifetime ago.
She was why he came back then, and she was why he stayed. Then, two days before he was set to board Delta Flight 4660, Rubi was one reason why ICE granted Chanco another four months in the United States. Chanco has until Oct. 1 to leave, long enough, ICE said, to wrap up the legal proceedings around his case and, coincidentally or otherwise, long enough to bring Rubi to an appointment at a Salt Lake City hospital, her last before she turns 18.
But that time is running out. Last year, changes to national immigration enforcement pulled the rug on Chanco and others like him. As the federal government struggles to reunite families along the country’s southern border, many more are being pulled apart, far closer to home.
Absent congressional action, the United States’ immigration policy is a void filled and refilled with executive orders and department memos—documents, often obscure, that materialize at the far end of their reach as detainers, removal orders and one-way tickets out.
During his first week in office, President Donald Trump issued one such order. On Jan. 25, 2017, a 2,000-word document titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” effectively ended an Obama-era policy known as prosecutorial discretion—ICE’s ability to prioritize cases for deportation.
Less than a month later, then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly backed Trump’s signature with one of his own, instructing his agents in clear terms: “The Department no longer will exempt categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
“The executive order says everyone is priority, and Kelly’s memo reaffirms it—‘No, really, everyone here is a priority,’” said Kate Evans, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Idaho.
Kelly preserved prosecutorial discretion in theory, but, in practice, “it’s been really hard to come by” for Evans and other immigration attorneys. Once-mitigating factors, including time in country, lawful behavior, military service, hardship to family members and illness, no longer sway ICE agents or stay deportation orders.
Six years ago, when Chanco found himself battling deportation in immigration courts, that wasn’t the case. In December 2012, he received a final order of removal from an immigration judge. For five years after, ICE decided not to follow through.
“ICE, in an exercise of discretion, has granted him multiple stays of removal based on humanitarian reasons, and he has been able to remain in the United States for several years on an order of supervision, which includes regular reporting requirements to ICE,” agency spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell said. “ICE continues to focus its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security. … However, as ICE leadership has made clear, ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.
“At this point,” she added, “he must comply with the final order of removal, and depart the country by the extended deadline provided to him by ICE.”
Chanco still has his ticket. His bag is still packed. He knows he’ll likely use both, eventually.
“When I need to be leaving, I’m leaving,” he said. “But I tell my wife, it’ll only be me. If I don’t leave, maybe I can stay for one year, two years? And when they catch me? Arrest me? It’s better to stay working, in my country. But I don’t have anything in my country.
“Everything I have is here. Everything.”
Chanco was 27 when he and his wife had Rubi, their second child, on March 22, 2001. From her first breath, her condition was clear. She was born with a musculoskeletal disorder called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a rare ailment with symptoms right there in the translation of its name: “hooked joints.” The articulations of her arms and legs—ankles and wrists, elbows and knees—were contracted, fixed in curves that untreated would render her unable to walk, move her fingers and, Chanco said, lead a full life in Peru.
“As a father, it’s really hard,” he said. “When you see your daughter, and she can’t move—she can’t do anything—sometimes you think, ‘I want to die.’
“If there’s something I can do to make a change—for her to walk better, for her to move—I won’t stop working for it.”
His own father understood. When Alfonso was around the age his youngest son is now, the elder Chanco came to Blaine County to work the sheep pastures north of Carey. Throughout the early 1980s, he’d leave his family for six months at a time, sending money home.
After Rubi was born, he pulled his son aside. He had a thought, a difficult one to consider, and a place in mind to go.
“My father, he told me, ‘Come to this country. Work hard. Save money. And maybe you can do something different for your daughter.’ We’re not rich people. My family, we’re poor. I tried, but the hospital, everything, it’s expensive. That’s why I come here the first time.”
In 2001, six months after Rubi was born, Chanco took his father’s advice. And when the money came, he sent it to his daughter in Peru.
Rubi had six surgeries before her sixth birthday, trying to unlock her limbs and free her hands and feet. Nothing worked. Her mother tried to find a school that could accommodate her needs. She applied, but after the closest school learned of Rubi’s condition, they rejected her application. When her peers prepared for kindergarten, Rubi stayed home, nearly immobile save help from her mother and her sister. And all the while, the girls grew up, with their father a continent away.
The distance hit Chanco hard. So did each failed surgery, and the inevitable bill that followed. In 2004, he was arrested for misdemeanor DUI. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to unsupervised probation. Years later, with his probation served, the charge was wiped from his record.
But the arrest brought him to the attention of ICE, then a nascent agency under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. On Sept. 1, 2004, the department opened proceedings against Chanco, filing a notice to appear before the Executive Office of Immigration Review, an administrative office within the Justice Department. Five months later, a judge granted Chanco “voluntary departure,” according to court documents. He was ordered to leave. Sometime after—Chanco doesn’t remember when, exactly—he left, only to come back within a year, and continue working.
In 2006, he was landscaping north of Ketchum when a woman asked where he’d been. Chanco told her the whole story, from Rubi’s birth to his recent return. She told him she might be able to help.
The woman connected Chanco with Shriner’s Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, which provides specialized pediatric care for free. They heard Rubi’s case and took it on. The next year, Chanco’s family was granted a six-month visa to enter the country for her first appointment.
The doctors in Salt Lake crafted a treatment plan, regular surgeries and physical therapy that, they said, might someday let Rubi walk on her own. When she came back for her second appointment in 2008, they gave her something to help her get around in the meantime: an electric wheelchair.
“The first time she got a ride, I saw her face,” Chanco said. “It changed everything. She was so happy. In my country, she can’t move. When I look, and my daughter is smiling—it changed everything for her. And for me. That’s why—that’s why she’s not back in my country.”
Rubi learned to use the chair and she rode it into kindergarten, which, unlike the ones back home, was accessible. She attended class and went to therapy and Chanco set up another appointment, six months away. Before Rubi was scheduled to leave the country, a teacher found Alfonso in the hall.
“You need to make a decision,” he remembers being told. Did he want to keep Rubi in school, or keep restarting, six months at a time. “You need to decide.”
So, he asked his family. And together, they did decide. They never went back to Peru.
It went that way, for a while. His son followed his daughter into elementary school, and his family added another—this one an American citizen, born in Idaho.
But not long after, immigration called again. Neither Chanco nor his current attorney, Amanda Breen, know exactly why. Somehow, in October 2010, his name shuffled once more to the top of ICE’s deck. He received another notice to appear. Date: “To be set.” Time: “To be set.” That turned out to be two years later. On Dec. 14, 2012, an immigration court ordered Chanco removed to Peru.
Chanco didn’t appeal the ruling. He had no clear path to legal status, and, as a prior deport, the odds of a reversal were slim. But he didn’t leave, either. By then, he had another option: an application for prosecutorial discretion.
In 2011, President Barack Obama’s ICE was swamped with cases and strapped for resources. Building on a decade of policy documents, agency Director John Morton issued one of his own, laying out his view of the agency’s “enforcement priorities,” including when, how and which cases to pursue.
The Morton Memo included 19 factors for agents to consider when exercising prosecutorial discretion. Meeting one could be cause enough for agents to move on in favor of higher-priority cases. As both Rubi’s primary provider, and the father of a U.S. citizen, Chanco met two. Backed by a dozen letters from doctors, employers and Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall, he applied for a stay of removal from the Department of Homeland Security. It was granted; within a month of the decision to remove him, Chanco had won another year.
The next December, he did it again. And again, the year after that. According to immigration attorney Evans, such practice was commonplace nationwide, starting in 2011. For Chanco, it became ritual: Each fall, from 2012 until 2016, he’d apply for, and receive, another year to look after Rubi.
Things returned to equilibrium for the Chancos. Alfonso earned a pair of promotions, to manager at a grocery store and supervisor of his landscaping crew. He put the extra money toward a mortgage, and bought a house in Hailey. Rubi kept up with her appointments, each one granting incremental gains. She’ll always need help, and always need therapy, Chanco said. But last year, fitted with braces and a walker, she began taking steps, unaided, around the family home. Not for long, and not for long distances—yet—though in her father’s eyes, each brought Rubi closer to fulfilling the promise of her first appointment in Salt Lake, more than a decade ago.
Soon, she’d be 18, the cutoff for care at Shriner’s. So, Chanco prepped another application, his sixth, and searched for new doctors and therapists to help his daughter on her way.
He knew that the conversation around immigration—about immigrants themselves—had changed with the president. What he didn’t know was that policy had changed as well.
On Nov. 27, the Department of Homeland Security informed Chanco that it “would no longer exercise discretion to allow [him] to remain in the United States.” Stays of removal are meant to be temporary, according to an ICE official speaking for this story, not a permanent way of postponing deportation. So, they gave him a deadline: June 2.
His case was the same, and so were most of the officials deciding it. The difference, his attorney said, is at the top.
“Alfonso’s story hasn’t changed—nothing about his situation has changed,” Breen said. “It’s not like Obama was any great non-deporter. People called him ‘deporter-in-chief.’ But once Trump took office, the general policy is not to issue stays of removal, even in extremely sympathetic cases.”
On that, Evans agreed.
“It starts with an arrest and ends with whether you put someone on a plane,” she said. “At each of the points, the agency is making a decision. At each point, it has a choice: Do we actually execute this order? Previously, the answer was often no. Now, that’s changing.
“This administration is drawing a line towards deportation, regardless of circumstances, and consequences.”
“They gave him six months,” Breen said. “That’s longer than most people get.”
“Take your heart,” Chanco said, “and put a knife in the middle.”
After the ruling came down, Chanco turned in on himself, stunned. At first, he didn’t tell anyone. Then, only his wife. She’s the one who told Rubi. Their daughter knew her father, and she already knew something was wrong. She was waiting to hear what.
When shock subsided, Chanco did all he could think to do. He went to work. Eight hours landscaping, and four more in the grocery store, with eight-hour shifts on weekends. Nearly 80 hours in all, six days a week, as he’d done for the past 17 years.
Slowly, word reached his bosses, his neighbors, his friends. His sons’ teachers noticed a change—something was happening, they couldn’t explain. Chanco couldn’t either. Both boys began seeing a psychologist. The younger was plagued with anxiety and night terrors, and the older had hopes someone else could help explain the real reason his father is going away.
In May, Breen filed to reopen Chanco’s case in immigration court, appealing his original removal. And not long after, the Immigration Alliance of Idaho, a Hailey-based advocacy group, caught wind of Chanco’s story.
“If he goes, the family will be destitute,” said Patty Tobin, the group’s co-founder. “His wife can’t take care of these kids and hold down a full-time job. If you have a person like Alfonso, who has basically never broken the law, what purpose is there of taking him from the workforce, from his family, out of his life?”
Online, Tobin found 1,300 people asking the same question. She started a petition, “Let Alfonso stay with his wife and children,” directed at Sen. Mike Crapo, Rep. Mike Simpson and Thomas D. Homan, deputy director of ICE in Idaho. Signed with first names and last initials, 1,054 of the 1,301 respondents came from Idaho, according to the website.
“He’s a great person and a great father. Please don’t separate this loving family,” wrote Shery Q., Idaho.
“His daughter needs him,” wrote Daijsa F., Idaho.
“He is a member of our fantastic community, and it would be a shame to lose another Idahoan. Let him stay,” wrote Jordan S., Idaho.
And from Eleanor J., Idaho: “We all lose if he leaves.”
In Salt Lake, a 25-minute drive from where Rubi receives her treatments, Immigration Court Judge David C. Anderson was sympathetic, too. He recognized Rubi’s needs, as well as the strain removing her father would put on the family, and its citizen son. He acknowledged that deporting Chanco might really mean removing all of them. He read letters of support from Ketchum and Hailey, all in the record.
But on July 10, he told Chanco it was too late. Motion to reopen the case denied.
Chanco hadn’t appealed when the case was fresh. The policy he relied on instead is gone, and with it, his best option.
“We’re on to Hail Marys now,” Breen said.
In the shifting legal landscape of immigration policy, it’s not clear what that might mean. Breen is launching one last motion: an appeal under Pereira v. Sessions, a two-month old Supreme Court decision that found notices to appear for removal proceedings without a specific date or time—notices like Chanco’s—invalid. In June, the high court ruled 8-1 for Wescley Fonseca Pereira, an undocumented Brazilian handyman who brought the case against Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But that strategy is untested; neither Breen, nor any other attorney, knows how lower courts will apply it, though many are set to try.
“As a lawyer now, you don’t have guidelines,” Evans said. “There’s nothing telling you what works, and what doesn’t. Things that used to be important in assessing someone’s case no longer apply. Things that used to matter don’t. Immigration reform has been a series of attempts and failures by both parties for decades. As a consequence, there’s a massive space for executive decision making. We just don’t have proper statutes that guideline how the government relates to 10 or 11 million people. It’s a huge vacuum left by Congress.
“In many ways, it’s hidden in policy memos, until we have these dramatic pendulum swings that sweep down Main Street. These swings happen because there’s no proper law, and thousands of officers can be moved in any direction all at once. That has a huge impact on people’s lives.”
Alfonso Chanco’s is one of them. He knows there are more—more stories, families, more plane tickets booked to more places, far away.
“When I first come, I lived here for three, four years,” he said. “It was only me, in this country. My daughter, who’s right now 20? When she was a baby? I missed that. Right now, it’s the same thing. If I go, I can’t see my boys for—10 years? Maybe more? I don’t know. I can’t know. Just that I am missing, everything.
“If I leave this country, I don’t know if my wife can make payments on the house. Maybe we lose the house, to the bank. Right now, I’m working hard. We need to save money. If I put in money now, maybe she can keep paying it for three, four years. But I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. We’ll cross our fingers. We keep working. We need to keep working. It’s the only thing we have. You cannot change the government, to do something different. I don’t know.”
These days, he speaks about his future in maybes.
“Maybe that will work.” “Maybe that can change.” “Maybe I’ll be back soon.”
For seven years, he missed his daughters growing up while he sent money back home. So, on Mondays, his day off, he spends time with his children. Camping, fishing, jumping on the trampoline behind their house. In the winter, he would bundle them up against the bitter Idaho air and pile snow in the yard. He’d carry Rubi to the top, like he has so many times, so many places, and laugh as she slides, grinning, to the bottom. Because on Tuesdays, from 9 a.m. to 9:30 at night, he’d miss them, and those hours can feel like years.
On Aug. 28, Rubi will start her junior year at Wood River High School. Her therapy is working. She goes skiing, horseback riding.
“If I were in Peru, I wouldn’t be in school,” she said. “I couldn’t leave the house. Here, it’s like I’m free. I have a life here.”
It’s a life she knows her father worked to give her. A life they both want her to keep.
“They try to tell me I can’t do anything more for her,” he said. “But I’m never finished with my daughter. She needs me. I’ll never stop working for my family.
“My family, they’re everything. They’re my world.”