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Deported activists allowed back into the U.S., saying ICE retaliated against them

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Once an immigrant is deported from the U.S., it's rare for authorities to allow them back into the country. It has happened twice, though, in recent months. The Biden administration has allowed prominent immigrants' rights activists back into the U.S. after they claimed immigration officials retaliated against them for speaking out. NPR's Joel Rose has the story.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Claudio Rojas was deported to Argentina in 2019 at exactly the same time that a film about his activism for undocumented immigrants was premiering in theaters. Rojas knew it was going to be an uphill fight to come back.

CLAUDIO ROJAS: (Through interpreter) My deportation was under the Trump administration. And as long as the Trump administration continued, it would be very difficult for me to enter. It would take a miracle.

ROSE: But Rojas' lawyers never gave up. In August, he landed in South Florida, reunited with his family and friends.

ROJAS: (Through interpreter) That door that was closed opened. That is why I say that it was a miracle to be able to come back.

ROSE: This is the first time Rojas has talked publicly about his return. He's one of several prominent activists who've been allowed back into the U.S. or had their immigration cases dropped after claiming that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had retaliated against them for their activism. ICE denies retaliating against anyone, but for years, immigrant advocates have been making similar allegations. And under the Biden administration, those claims are getting some traction. Alina Das is one of Rojas' lawyers.

ALINA DAS: Bringing people home who've been deported for their activism is a really important first step in correcting what has been a really outrageous assault on our democratic values.

ROSE: Das has another client who has also been allowed back into the U.S.

JEAN MONTREVIL: Unbelievable, man. I can't even describe that to you because I had came to a point where, in Haiti, I was afraid to go outside my house.

ROSE: Jean Montrevil is an immigrant rights advocate in New York. He was deported, too, in 2018 to Haiti. Montrevil, too, was allowed back into the U.S. under the Biden administration. He landed at JFK Airport in New York in October.

MONTREVIL: I'm nervous until I'm free. I'm in there. Maybe - oh, maybe there's a mistake. Maybe you have to go to detention - maybe this, maybe that. So when I finally walk out there to see my kids and the people that was there waiting for me, it was a sign of relief.

ROSE: ICE has denied retaliating against Montrevil and Rojas and did not respond to requests for comment on their return to the U.S. Under new guidance from the Department of Homeland Security, immigration authorities have been told explicitly not to take action against activists for exercising their freedom of speech. Here's what DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told me about that guidance when it was first announced in September.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We have an obligation to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of every individual irrespective of their immigration status. An individual's race, religion, national origin and exercise of their First Amendment rights cannot be a factor in deciding to take enforcement action.

ROSE: While both Montrevil and Rojas were allowed back into the U.S., their legal status is temporary. Their lawyer, Alina Das, wants immigration authorities to go further and grant them permanent legal status and a path to citizenship.

DAS: So long as immigrant communities remain in limbo under the potential threat of deportation, they can't truly feel safe. And that's why much more meaningful reform is needed. And what we've been seeing so far is simply a first step.

ROSE: And a tenuous first step at that. The new immigration enforcement guidance is being challenged in court by the states of Texas and Louisiana. They argue the rules are preventing ICE officers and agents from doing their jobs. The trial is expected early next year.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELLOTRON VARIATIONS' "143 I LOVE YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.