Update: On June 4, 2021, an immigration judge in Boston approved Yusuf Alptekin’s application for an adjustment of his immigration status. He is now a legal permanent resident.
Our original story:
Yusuf Alptekin is a slender man with deep-set eyes. His government-issued blue jumpsuit signals to guards and other prisoners at the Bristol County House of Corrections that the 53-year-old is a low-threat detainee.
Still, the door to the office we're sitting in needs to stay open for security purposes, and guards stand just outside.
Alptekin prefers to speak in English rather than through an interpreter. "I like to live in safe place, that's why I chose this country. Because I'm really honored to [be in] this country, because I really enjoy it all my 10 years," he says with a smile.
Alptekin was one of five people arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents last month in Lawrence while they were attending scheduled appointments at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office.
All five of those arrested, including Alptekin, had final orders to be deported, but were beginning the process of gaining legal permanent residency. ICE confirmed that none of those arrested has a criminal record.
'Why I'm Here?'
Alptekin left Izmir, Turkey, for the United States in 2007. He says his family was being threatened there by a terrorist group looking for retribution against him because of his work as a drug informant for the Turkish government.
He entered the country on a travel visa and spent some time in Florida looking for work. When he got word from his brother that the family was in danger, he went back to Turkey.
"I separate my family," he says. "My daughter, my brother, my sister and my mom, everybody is going to be separate address, separate location."
Alptekin says it was safer for everyone in his family if they split up. After about a month in Turkey he returned to the U.S. on another travel visa. He tried applying for asylum in Canada but was told he needed to go back to the U.S. to file for asylum. While he was detained in Canada, his U.S. travel visa expired. Upon reentry into the U.S., he was arrested by ICE officials and sent to a detention facility in Batavia, New York.
Alptekin applied for asylum while in custody, representing himself at the hearing. A U.S. immigration judge denied his asylum claim, citing a lack of sufficient evidence to back up Alptekin's claim that he and his family were in danger in Turkey. Alptekin's appeal was dismissed in 2010 and he was ordered to leave the U.S. within 60 days. Alptekin says he feared for his safety in Turkey, and chose to stay.
For the last seven years, he's lived largely under the radar — cooking and training chefs, opening new restaurants with friends, and doing odd jobs. He's started a whole new life.
With his hands folded on the table, Alptekin's face brightens when he mentions his wife Michelle, whom he met in Northborough, and some of the things they enjoy together.
"I was married five years ago, beautiful family," he says. "I never see before ski equipment but I'm skiing now. Fishing, ski, I have a great family. So, I don't know what's my mistake. Why I'm here?"
'They Blew It Before When They Broke The Rules'
Immigration lawyers say last month's arrests in Lawrence signal a distinct shift in enforcement priorities under President Trump. Under President Obama, someone with no criminal record, but who did have orders of removal, was not considered as high of a priority for deportation as a person with a serious criminal history. But the priorities have changed.
Jessica Vaughan -- director of policy studies with the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors curbing immigration -- says Trump's administration is not in the business of making exceptions when it comes to enforcing immigration laws. She says Alptekin's case is an example of that.
"Those who are not abiding by the rules and who are ignoring deportation orders and so on should have to pay some consequences for that," Vaughan says. "They blew it before when they broke the rules."
Alptekin and his wife were excited about their appointment in Lawrence. Because Michelle is a U.S. citizen, she's allowed to petition for her husband to become a legal permanent resident. Alptekin says his wife had been encouraging him for some time to get his status in order so that they could travel together.
What neither Alptekin nor Michelle fully understood was the risk they were taking on March 29. Because Alptekin disobeyed an order to leave the country in 2010, he was now considered a priority for removal.
Alptekin describes the interview with the USCIS official as cordial and said he was hopeful that this process marked a new beginning. "They ask a lot of questions about marriage, you know, how many kids, what she [his wife] likes, really friendly and nice conversation," he recounts. "So, she [the official] says, 'You guys all set.' I said, 'Thank you very much,' but she says, 'Give me your ID, I want to double check.' "
Alptekin was taken into custody by ICE agents. He handed his wife his wallet and his ring before leaving in shackles.
'What's My Fault?'
Christina Corbaci, Alptekin's immigration lawyer, filed an emergency motion for a stay on his removal and hopes to have his case reopened. Corbaci believes he has a very good case for asylum but she's working against the clock.
"I think what ICE needs to deport him is they need permission from Turkey, verification from Turkey, that they would actually accept him," she says. "Usually once they get that, they schedule the flight and send him out. But we don't get any notice of that, so I don't know how close they are to completing that process."
Corbaci says Alptekin has given her phone number to his cellmates, asking them to call her if he's deported in the middle of the night.
Alptekin and his wife have put aside plans to open a restaurant in Greenport, New York, called the Olive Branch Cafe. They hired 12 employees and there were even a few early reviews in the local news, but for now, the doors remain closed.
When asked what sort of ultimate outcome he hopes for, Alptekin pauses, years of frustration bubbling up to the surface. His eyes water and his voice cracks.
"I never see my daughter, more than 10 years. I didn't make anything bad," he says. "I need my daughter. See her one more time. My brother, my sister, nothing here, nobody here. But I'm here!" He looks around the office where we're sitting and down at his prisoner ID bracelet before raising his voice again. "What's my problem? What's my fault? I didn't do anything bad. What can I do?"
This segment aired on April 18, 2017.