Though he’d been deported once before, it was worth the risk for Florencio Millan to come back illegally to Kansas City, Missouri. He’d lived here off and on since he was a teenager. He had a son here, and he was not only a top chef in a well-known restaurant, but he’d found love.
Millan and Cheyenne Hoyt are still close. They FaceTime every night as she tucks their one-year-old daughter and his 11-year-old son in bed, because they have not been together since July 22, when two federal immigration vehicles boxed in their car just as they were getting ready to drive their daughter, who has special needs, to a doctor’s appointment.
Hoyt livestreamed what happened next: the driver’s-side window shattered by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Millan was forcibly removed from the car, forced face-down on the ground and handcuffed. The kids were in the backseat.
He was deported within two days, and has been living in his hometown in Mexico pretty much ever since.
It’s been a tough five months, Millan and Hoyt say, and a permanent reunion is likely only years down the road.
“There are no words to describe the feeling every night when I lay in bed by myself and wonder how they are,” Millan, 32, told KCUR in a telephone interview from Mexico.
Hoyt, 26, weeps frequently, worried about how she’ll be able to support the children alone.
One of many
Millan’s case underscores how the Trump administration has ramped up arrests and deportations of those living in the United States illegally.
Immigration lawyers say that, across the country, ICE is trolling for undocumented immigrants in schools, churches and courts with unusual regularity.
Though immigration arrests were down in parts of of the U.S. in 2019, deportation orders are projected to jump from 80,298 in 2016 to 290,214 nationwide in 2020, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. And deportation orders across Missouri and Kansas, which are heard in immigration court in Kansas City, rose from 1,057 in 2016 to a projected 4,278 by 2020.
“I still don’t understand why they even broke my window, because as far as I know it’s still my property,” Millan told KCUR. “They dropped me on the ground just because I didn’t want to open the door, which I felt was my right.”
Millan’s parents entered the country in the late 1990s seeking to escape pervasive drug violence and poverty, and landed in Kansas City, Missouri. They had no legal papers. Millan was 15 years old.
A decade later, he voluntarily moved back to Mexico. By then, he had a 3-year old son and a job in Kansas City. Without family or work in Mexico, he crossed into the U.S. again. Police at the border apprehended him and immediately deported him. In 2011, he slipped back into the country and had been here ever since, working his way up to become a top chef in a well-known Kansas City restaurant.
Millan said he did not choose to come to the United States originally, but his family and roots made it worth being here illegally.
“I am a family person, and (I) would do anything to be with my family, to give them a good life,” he said. “(Even if it’s) not the best life.”
Millan is renovating the family home in his hometown, which Millan asked KCUR not to identify, so Cheyenne and his children can come visit. He said he has been unable to find a job in the five months he’s been back in Mexico.
“A lot of people do construction, a lot are farming,” he said. “But the problem is I have very little knowledge of how to do any of that stuff, so I’m kind of stuck.”
He’s living off of savings and some money Hoyt is sending him from Kansas City.
“I have not made any money since I got down here,” he said. “I am trying to find something that I am good at, but I have dedicated my life to cooking. It’s very hard to find a job doing what I used to do.”
He said the emotional strains are harder than the financial ones. When he and Hoyt chat nightly, he said: “I get to watch my little girl, even though it’s only on the screen. It’s (painful) and a struggle.”
The last six months have been equally painful for Hoyt. She can’t talk about Millan without crying and she can’t get the July incident out of her head. The phone call she got from one of Millan’s fellow inmates at the Morgan County Detention Center in mid-Missouri is seared in her memory.
“He didn’t tell me his name,” she said. “He asked if I was Cheyenne and he’s like, ‘I’m here with Flor,’ and they’re taking him now and you need to get a lawyer. That was all he said and the phone just disconnected.”
Even though she and Millan now talk regularly, she said, it’s not the same – and it’s almost harder.
“There’s so much I want to tell him, but I don’t when the kids are there,” she said, weeping. “And his struggle now is, ‘How can I help you?’ and then he gets upset because he can’t do anything from over there.”
Hoyt said the couple often argued about the need to obtain legal status, but they were deterred by the cost and paperwork. Looking back, she said what hurts most was how things might have turned out differently.
“If we’d have put more (focus) on getting his status taken care of this might not have happened,” she said. “It’s not like we didn’t spend nights arguing about it, we just needed to save up some more money.”
Without Millan’s income, Hoyt has had to move out of their apartment and in with relatives. She works full time at an after-school day care, but still needs to supplement her income with government assistance, something she never wanted to do after growing up on welfare.
“We had food stamps, Section 8 (housing subsidies,)” she said. “I didn’t want that for my family and now that’s what we have to do.”
ICE officials told KCUR that federal immigration authorities are not required to have a warrant if they have a reasonable suspicion someone is in the country illegally. But the law does require officers to identify the suspect by name – which they did not do in Millan’s case – and also believe that the suspect is “likely to escape before a warrant can be obtained.”
Kansas City immigration attorney Rekha Sharma-Crawford said that makes Millan’s arrest problematic.
“In this instance, that (flight) risk was minimized because they had the family trapped, boxed in,” she said. “He couldn’t have been a flight risk unless he was going to run over their vehicle, making efforts by ICE to justify not having a warrant flimsy at best.”
Millan must spend at least 10 years out of the country before the government will consider letting him return. Under current law, he will then be eligible to seek waivers from the Department of Homeland Security for penalties he incurred by virtue of his illegal status and also because he re-entered the country after his prior removal.
Meanwhile, Hoyt is talking about moving the family closer to the Mexican border to make it easier to visit Millan. But their daughter’s developmental delays require medical attention and therapy, which are less likely to be accessible in small border towns.
Moving might be their only option: Millan is now a convicted felon. If he’s caught illegally in the United States again, he could face up to 20 years in federal prison.