A Naples man was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents as he left for work Wednesday morning and may now face deportation to Guatemala.

Otto Morales-Caballeros came to the United States alone as a teenager without legal documentation and is now 37 years old. He was being held Thursday at the Cumberland County Jail in Portland and could be transferred soon to a New Hampshire detention facility, said his wife, Sandra Scribner Merlim.

Merlim said the couple had been assured in the past by immigration officials that he would not be deported if he stayed out of legal trouble.

“He hasn’t been to Guatemala in 20 years and doesn’t have anyone to go back to,” she said.

It wasn’t clear why officials decided to arrest Morales-Caballeros. An immigration enforcement spokesman for the New England region said he had no immediate comment on the case.

Morales-Caballeros declined a request to be interviewed at the jail Thursday.

He is at least the second person in Maine to be detained by immigration officials this month.

Abdi Ali, a 28-year-old Westbrook man who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia when he was 7 years old, was detained April 6 at a Portland courthouse after a hearing on a misdemeanor drunken-driving charge, which is not typically considered a deportable offense. Federal agents gave him a document that states he is subject to deportation because of a 2013 misdemeanor conviction for cocaine possession.

Ali, who is a lawful permanent resident but not a U.S. citizen, had been held at the Cumberland County Jail but was moved by immigration officials Thursday morning, according to jail officials. It was not immediately clear where he was taken.

Otto Morales-Caballeros with his grandson. Photo courtesy of Sandra Scribner Merlim

COOPERATION BEFORE SURPRISE DETENTION

Immigration detentions have drawn attention around the country since President Trump took office in January because of his promises to ramp up enforcement. Although the U.S. typically deports hundreds of thousands of people each year, the new administration has detained people who were deemed a low priority under previous administrations, including undocumented immigrants with little or no criminal histories.

Immigration arrests in courthouses, such as the arrest of Ali in Portland, have generated protests from the legal community in Maine and other states because of concerns that immigrants will avoid reporting crimes and appearing in court.

Morales-Caballeros was stopped around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday by three or four ICE agents a short distance from his house in Naples as he left to go to his job at Sea Salt Lobster in Saco, his wife said. The detention came as a surprise to the couple because they had been working with Homeland Security for eight years to ensure that Morales-Caballeros could stay in the U.S. after helping federal officials with a criminal case against people who had provided him with fake working documents, Merlim said.

Morales-Caballeros came to the U.S. about 20 years ago from Guatemala after his brother was murdered and his niece was killed, his wife said. He lived for years in New Jersey and, despite being undocumented, didn’t run into legal trouble until he moved and was caught using fake documents to work at a company in Maine.

Merlim said her husband pleaded guilty to possessing fake documents and cooperated with Homeland Security in its investigation into the source of the documents. The federal case for fake documents does not appear in state criminal records, and Morales-Caballeros has no other criminal record in Maine, according to the state records.

After he agreed to help the agency, it provided Morales-Caballeros with a Social Security number and a work authorization card, she said.

“They know where he’s been every single day for the past eight years. They told us as long as he stays out of trouble, we’re fine,” Merlim said. “The guy just wants to work and fish. He’s not a troublemaker.”

HEAVIER ENFORCEMENT UNDER TRUMP

Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project, said she is not familiar with the details of Morales-Caballeros’ case, but federal charges related to false identification documents could be grounds for deportation. A person could also be deported for not having current legal status, Roche said.

“It’s really troubling that ICE would seek him out after he’s been assisting them, although we’ve seen in the past where people were assisting ICE for a number of years and then placed in removal proceedings or detained,” she said. “We have seen that happen.”

Morales-Caballeros and Merlim have been together for 11 years and were married two years ago. Morales-Caballeros has become part of his wife’s family, although they do not have children together. Merlim said that after their wedding they filed a Form I-130, a petition for a relative to become a lawful permanent resident of the U.S., but they are still waiting for a determination on that request.

Before immigration enforcement priorities changed under the Trump administration, Roche said the federal government might have allowed that request to be processed rather than start removal proceedings.

“Less discretion is being used,” Roche said. Factors such as having U.S. family members and no criminal history may not be considered, she said.

FEARS OVER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Merlim said a lawyer with the legal advocacy project was supposed to meet with her husband Thursday to discuss his situation. The Cumberland County Jail is not a federal detention facility, so ICE detainees in Maine are usually moved to other jails in New Hampshire or Massachusetts shortly after their arrests.

Merlim said she visited her husband at the jail Wednesday evening. Morales-Caballeros is upset and scared about what will happen next.

“Once he’s gone, there’s almost no chance to bring him back,” she said.

Morey Highbarger, an owner of Sea Salt Lobster, said Morales-Caballeros has worked in the company’s warehouse for the past five years, processing and grading live lobsters that are shipped around the world. Like all warehouse employees, Morales-Caballeros had to undergo a Transportation Security Administration background screening, which he passed, Highbarger said.

He said he was aware of Morales-Caballeros’ past legal issues and was shocked to find out about his detention because he thought Morales-Caballeros had filed the proper paperwork to stay in the U.S.

“We thought he was in good standing and waiting on final documentation,” Highbarger said. “(Morales-Caballeros and his wife) are not people who are trying to avoid the law. They were trying to work with everybody and were under the understanding that they were doing everything they were supposed to be doing.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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