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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Valentine’s Day isn’t the same when your partner is being detained

Zaquera Lanier and Aboubacar Dembele were married last

Zaquera Lanier and Aboubacar Dembele were married last year. Dembele, who was brought to the United States without authorization when he was 3 years old, was arrested by ICE agents on Feb. 8, 2018. Photo Credit: Zaquera Lanier

It’s going to be a different Valentine’s Day for Zaquera Lanier: Her husband was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents last week.

Aboubacar Dembele, now 27, was brought to the United States from the Ivory Coast by his mother when he was 3 years old. The barista and prospective community college student’s only interaction with the criminal justice system came in December after an altercation on a bus, according to his Legal Aid attorney, who said Dembele acted in self-defense. It appears to have been minor: the prosecution made motions to reduce the charge from felony to misdemeanor, and that was how things stood when husband and wife left a hearing at the Bronx County Hall of Justice on Thursday.

A group of ICE agents waited outside the courthouse to take Dembele into custody, saying “Your DACA got denied,” Lanier remembers. And so their plans changed.

We talk about ‘how much we miss each other’

Dembele is being held at a facility in Hudson County, New Jersey. Lanier says she speaks to him by phone every day.

“We just speak about how much we miss each other,” she says, “and what it’s like in there.”

She says he tries to stay positive, working out and reading and researching in the facility’s law library. He told her he sees “no white immigrants” around him, just “black people and Hispanics,” which strikes the couple as a sign of bias.

His young nieces speak to him by phone, too, relaying the good news Monday that they’d received student-of-the-month awards. When they ask where he is, they’re told Dembele is on vacation.

He is one of thousands of immigrants here illegally to be swept up under ICE’s new marching orders, far more sweeping than the Obama administration’s focus on convicted criminals. In New York, ICE’s efforts haven’t been halted by the city’s policies providing some sanctuary protections for immigrants. The NYPD and Department of Correction say they did not receive a detainer request for Dembele (though ICE claims one was lodged), meaning the agencies didn’t aid in the ICE arrest. In most cases, the agencies wouldn’t have complied with a detainer anyway. And ICE did not make the arrest inside the courthouse proper, a controversial tactic being employed across the nation since President Donald Trump’s administration stepped up immigration enforcement.

It didn’t matter. A single minor encounter with the criminal justice system meant Dembele is now separated from the woman he met in 2012 on the way to Brooklyn’s J’ouvert celebration, who became his wife just last year.

‘We would’ve been together’

Dembele tried to settle his immigration status. He even has a pending green card application through Lanier, who is a citizen.

He also applied for immigration relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2016 and 2017. (He started an application in 2012, too, but couldn’t afford the fees to finish the process.) Lanier says they were told he hadn’t established sufficient proof of residency. But they had sent a high school diploma and school records among other documents, she says, to show he’d been in the United States ever since he was a toddler: “All he knows is New York.”

Lanier says it has been a difficult few days, compounded by the fact that she’s feeling ill and upset. She went back to her work as a security guard in the Bronx on Monday: “The minute I got there, I started crying.”

A co-worker told her she shouldn’t be at work in such a state, but Lanier didn’t want to repeat the whole situation. “I just told her I got personal stuff going on in my life,” she said.

She doesn’t expect much to change in the four or six weeks that Dembele will wait for arraignment in immigration court, though Valentine’s Day will be particularly difficult.

“We would’ve been together,” she says. “He would’ve taken me out. He doesn’t celebrate these holidays, but for me he does everything.”

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Aboubacar Dembele had applied for admission to community college in New York City, but had not yet started taking classes.

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