WASHINGTON -- Mike Burrows, who has been in the United States legally since 1962, could be detained by immigration officials at any moment. The 51-year-old, who lives in Los Angeles, was ordered for deportation in 2003, making him one of many immigrants to enter a pathway of rigidly-structured immigration laws and processes that can force deportation for even longtime lawful immigrants.
As the Obama administration steps up immigration enforcement, immigrant rights groups say situations like Burrows' are far from rare. Unlike in criminal convictions, non-citizens facing immigration charges have no right to an attorney and can face double jeopardy. A person born in the United States convicted of a minor crime often pays a fine or performs community service. For those born elsewhere, the same offense can lead to a life turned upside down.
"I don't think there's this guy in Washington who is picking on me, but this is how the machine works," Burrows told HuffPost. "This is the way the machine would treat -- and does treat -- anybody in my situation."
Burrows said his path toward potential deportation began in 1978, when he was charged as an 18-year-old with a misdemeanor after police found a stolen eight-track in his car. A friend had stolen it, but "in a misguided act of loyalty" Burrows took the fall. He was given probation and a 365-day suspended sentence. Burrows completed his probation and never served time in jail.
Burrows had the misdemeanor expunged in 1983 and thought he was done with the incident. But in 1988, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act created a new classification for crimes of non-citizens, called "aggravated felonies." The term is somewhat of a misnomer: the crimes do not necessarily involve violence, nor are they necessarily felonies. They include a far broader range of crimes, ranging from certain theft offenses to rape and murder.
Burrows' 1978 misdemeanor would fit into the guidelines for aggravated felony, had it happened after 1988. Because he was given a 365-day suspended sentence, the misdemeanor would be considered an aggravated felony under the 1988 law.
The government does not release data about who it has deported on aggravated felony grounds, but the charges were used in at least 156,713 cases, some involving legal permanent residents, between 1997 and 2006, according to data obtained by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
In 2001, Burrows discovered that he was in deportation proceedings. He said ICE claimed to have sent him a final order of removal, but said he never received it, making it impossible for him to meet a 30-day deadline to appeal the order.
When he finally went before an immigration judge to appeal his case, Burrows said the judge seemed uninterested in the details of his case, instead focusing on the fact that he had missed the previous deadline. Burrows was given a final order of deportation in 2003.
Burrows said the deportation ruling is based on his 1978 misdemeanor conviction and that an immigration judge told him one way to avoid deportation would be to get one day of his 365-day suspension dropped, making it too short to be classified an aggravated felony. Burrows also has three other misdemeanor convictions from between 1998 and 2001, but said none qualify as aggravated felonies. One, which he explains on his blog, was for violating a restraining order filed against him by his then-wife while they were moving toward divorce. (He said he called the woman's mother and left a message on her answering machine.) In 1998, Burrows was arrested for driving under the influence, a misdemeanor, and in 2001 he received a misdemeanor for failing to pay a fine for a vehicle operation violation.
Burrows declined to sign a waiver allowing ICE to discuss the specifics of his case publicly, but the agency defended its actions in a statement. "Ultimately, it is up to the U.S. courts to weigh the facts in these cases and determine whether an alien has a legal basis to remain in the United States. ICE is then responsible for carrying out the courts' decisions."
Since 2001, Burrows has been fighting his deportation charge, appealing multiple times to no avail. His most recent petition to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to consider his case was dismissed in October.
Now, Burrows said he feels "depleted financially, mentally and spiritually." There are only a few options: ICE could put off his deportation and allow him to stay in the United States indefinitely, although they could detain him for deportation at any time. Immigration reform -- unlikely in the next two years with little Republican support -- could change laws that would classify Burrows' convictions as non-deportable.
His best chance to stay in the United States could be receiving a pardon from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Although he has not yet applied, Burrows has a petition from Change.org with about 850 signatures aimed at persuading the governor. He plans to file an application with the governor once 1,000 people have joined the petition. Schwarzenegger has issued pardons in six cases since becoming governor in his seven years in office, but none have been for immigrants facing deportation.
There is some precedent for pardons for legal immigrants, like Burrows, who are facing deportation for criminal convictions. In New York, Gov. David Paterson (D) announced in March that he will issue pardons on a case-by-case basis for legal permanent residents who had served time for their crimes and could demonstrate they are not a danger to society. Paterson has since stopped deportation for six people.
A spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger told HuffPost the governor "seriously considers each request on its own merit," but has no time frame for making a decision on pardon requests.
Burrows said he is starting to lose hope that he will be allowed to stay in the United States, where his children, mother and girlfriend -- all U.S. citizens -- live. He said he always felt American and would never consider moving back to his native Canada.
"I'm sitting here peeking out my window waiting for them to roll up like I'm a bank robber or something," Burrows told HuffPost. "It's not a very settling way to live. I'm getting to the point where I don't think I'm ever going to get due process."