2 decades ago, Fanny Lorenzo got probation. Now, she’s been deported
The feds don't forget. Ask Fanny Lorenzo.
She was a legal U.S. resident when agents arrested her as part of her husband's secret indoor marijuana growing ring in South Miami-Dade. The year was 1997. Lorenzo pleaded guilty, cooperated with prosecutors and successfully served five years of probation.
Lorenzo maintained and renewed her legal residency, divorced her husband, bought a trailer home and raised a son who became a U.S. Army soldier. Lorenzo never was arrested again. She even traveled several times to her native Nicaragua to visit family.
But then last fall, while Lorenzo was returning to the United States after again visiting relatives in Nicaragua, customs officers at Miami International Airport flagged her, citing her two-decade old criminal conviction. Lorenzo was allowed into the country, but within weeks, authorities revoked her green card and she was locked up in a detention center, where she stayed for more than four months.
Finally, late last month, Lorenzo was deported back to violence-wracked Nicaragua — for her, a stunning turn because she thought the blemish on her record was ancient history. But under President Donald Trump's hardline stance on immigration, legal permanent residents with old criminal cases such as Lorenzo are increasingly being targeted for deportation, a crackdown that critics say tears at the fabric of immigrant-rich regions such as South Florida.
"I never thought they were going to deport me. I'm not a delinquent," the 50-year-old Lorenzo said this week via phone from Managua. "I thought for sure, this was 20 years ago, if they see my record, my record is impeccable."
Said her lawyer, Evelyn Alonso: "Fanny's case is unique because her deportation offense happened approximately 20 years ago."
Stricter immigration enforcement has been a signature issue for Trump, who also instituted a policy of "zero tolerance" for border crossings, prosecuting undocumented immigrants instead of immediately deporting them. That led to forced separation of parents from their children at the border, and kids being housed in detention camps that outraged the public.
Deportations have continued at a brisk pace, even to countries torn by strife and poverty, such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security started a task force targeting naturalized citizens who commit crimes or lie about their criminal past in applying for citizenship.
Then there's a wider net cast to go after legal permanent residents such as Lorenzo who have "deportable" offenses on their records.
According to data complied by the nonpartisan research center TRAC, between May 2013 and February 2017, over 75 percent of immigration court cases involved people who had only recently arrived to the United States. That coincided with the Obama administration, which — faced with gargantuan backlogs — prioritized deporting undocumented immigrants who had only recently entered the country.
But upon entering office, Trump issued a directive to essentially go after everyone who was in the country illegally.
The data from TRAC, which stands for Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, show an uptick in cases against people who have lived in the country at least two years or more.
For instance, in March, 43 percent of new immigrant cases brought by DHS involved people who arrived more than two years before. That's a sharp contrast to the last full month of the Obama administration, when only 6 percent of new cases were filed involving people who had been in the country at least two years, according to data from TRAC, which is compiled through Syracuse University.
The blanket enforcement policy strips immigration authorities of common-sense discretion, said Royce Bernstein Murray, the policy director at the American Immigration Council, which opposes Trump's policies.
"It's another of these tragic stories, an outgrowth of the way this administration goes about immigration enforcement," Murray said. "No one benefits when someone who is a long-time resident and is not a risk to public safety gets picked up and sent away. There is no focus or priority on public safety in a meaningful way."
A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spokesman declined to comment because of privacy laws. He stressed that in general, with CBP's "critical national security mission," officers can look at a host of criteria to determine whether someone can get into the country, including prior criminal convictions.
Lorenzo never thought her conviction for a non-violent offense would haunt her decades later.
She came to the United States from Nicaragua in the late 1980s, fleeing civil strife in the Central American country. She crossed illegally at Brownsville, Texas, and soon made her way to Miami, a hub for Nicaraguans. She became a legal resident in 1995 after meeting and marrying Endy Lorenzo, an American citizen from Puerto Rico.
It was two years later that federal agents arrested the Lorenzos and eight others for running a ring of clandestine marijuana growing operations inside homes in South Miami-Dade. Lorenzo said the operation was the brainchild of her husband, and she got caught along on the ride.
Fanny Lorenzo immediately cooperated with federal prosecutors. Because of her minimal role in the grow house operation, Lorenzo served no prison time, instead agreeing to five years of federal probation.
"I was young, and I didn't know any better," Lorenzo said. "I didn't feel I was the guilty one. My husband was the guilty one."
Lorenzo's husband went to prison for five years. Lorenzo's defense attorney at the time did not return a request for comment.
Today, because of changes in the law, attorneys and judges are required to specifically inform clients that they could face deportation after taking a plea deal. But in the late 1990s, that wasn't always the case — and Lorenzo's plea deal to keep her out of prison was a no-brainer.
"The government made an an agreement with a woman. She kept her end of the bargain and atoned for her mistake," said defense lawyer Philip Reizenstein, who is not involved in the case. "Nobody knew 20 years ago that this country would devolve into a society ruled by hate and fear of immigrants. That we could deport a woman who did everything right to make amends for her mistake is cruel and heartless."
Lorenzo acknowledges she was ignorant. "I thought I would be OK because I didn't go to jail," she said.
She completed her probation without any problems, court records show. Lorenzo said she paid back over $10,000 to Florida Power and Light for electricity stolen during the illegal marijuana operation.
Over the next two decades, Lorenzo set about rebuilding her life with her young son, also named Endy Lorenzo. She worked at a clothing warehouse for several years, while saving up money to buy a place at the Li'l Abner Mobile Home Park, a blue-collar community in Sweetwater.
Now, 23, her son graduated high school in Puerto Rico and joined the U.S. Army, where today he is stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas as part of the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade.
Lorenzo also went to school, earning her Florida license to become a dental technician. She worked for the same dentist for over a decade and even applied to become a U.S. citizen in 2014, a request that was turned down because of her conviction.
But the government did not seek to remove her until October, when she traveled to Nicaragua for a family emergency. Upon returning, Lorenzo said, she was detained for over eight hours before she was released in Miami, her passport stamped "paroled."
She was given an appointment at a "deferred inspection" CBP site at the airport in December. Lorenzo said she was told she did not need a lawyer. Lorenzo had to return for a second inspection on Jan. 29 — and that's when she was taken into custody.
Lorenzo spent most of the next four months at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Belle Glade Detention Center. A legal effort to get her asylum failed.
Now back in Nicaragua, she is staying with extended relatives while relying on remittances from her large family in Miami.
"I've given my life and my years to this country," said her son, who will be deployed along with his Army unit overseas to Japan. "It's frustrating that all of a sudden they are taking away the only person who's been backing me up ever since I joined."