By Francesca Paris
Berkeley nonprofit employee Daniel Maher is being held in detention awaiting a possible deportation to China, where he lived for the first three years of his life, because of a felony conviction from more than two decades ago.
Maher, 41, is the recycling director of the Ecology Center, where he has worked for nearly ten years. He leads a recycling crew and teaches at-risk youth about recycling in the center’s Youth Environmental Academy.
“I have been ripped away from my family and loved ones,” Maher said in a statement read over the phone to Ecology Center Deputy Director Debbie Beyea. Although he was not born here, he said, “I feel as American as anybody else who has felt the satisfaction of contributing to it.” Maher cannot read, write or speak Chinese.
On June 2, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested Maher outside of his house in Hayward as he was leaving for work, classifying him as a threat to public safety. After being detained for several weeks, first at the ICE detention center in San Francisco, and then the Yuba County Jail, he was transferred to the Adelanto Detention Facility in Los Angeles.
Maher was charged on three counts in Dec. 1994: kidnapping, attempted robbery and a firearms offense.
ICE detained Maher because of his felony conviction and the final deportation order that was issued to him after he was arrested 20 years ago, when his Green Card was also revoked. Anoop Prasad, Maher’s attorney from the Asian Law Caucus, said that ICE has broad discretion about when, and if, to detain immigrants with final deportation orders.
According to a statement from the Ecology Center, Maher and other detainees were denied food and water during the 24-hour transfer to Yuba County and forced to sleep on concrete floors during the 36-hour trip to Adelanto. Prasad said that Maher suffers from thyroid issues and has been denied access to medicine at Adelanto.
“For 15 years he has tried to turn his life around,” his brother, Anthony Maher, said at a press conference Tuesday. “He is kind-hearted and selfless. This is the only place he knows.”
Maher, who immigrated to the U.S. from Macau, China at the age of three, served five years in jail for the attempted robbery at age 20 and a year in a half in immigration detention after his deportation was ordered. He was released in 2001 after China refused to accept the deportation.
Before the attempted robbery that landed him in jail, Maher got in trouble as a teenager in the Bay Area for skipping school and shoplifting. After his arrest, he earned his GED while incarcerated and dedicated himself to helping others and the environment, Prasad said. Because of his felony conviction, however, he remained in the highest risk category of immigrants.
The Asian Law Caucus has started a petition directed to ICE Field Director Craig Meyer to release Maher. At press time, the petition was at 2,332 signatures out of a goal of 3,200.
Founded in 1969, the Ecology Center focuses on the environmental impacts of urban residents. It runs the city’s residential curbside recycling program and its farmers markets, among its many services.
The Ecology Center’s Board of Directors wrote a letter of support for Maher calling for his immediate release. They said that the center has been “deeply impacted by ICE’s cruel abduction of Daniel.” The center has promised to keep his job open for as long as it needs to.
Ecology Center program director Amy Kiser said that the center has kept in phone contact with Maher, except during two brief periods when ICE wouldn’t let him make phone calls. Co-workers describe him as “dedicated,” “selfless” and “vital to the community.”
“It’s crazy to think of Daniel as someone who is dangerous to society,” Kiser said, “because he’s the opposite. He’s such an asset to the community.”
Beyea, who has visited Maher at the detention facility in Los Angeles, said that he is the ideal co-worker. “He is strong and steady in adversity, tireless, the first to arrive and the last to leave,” she said. “He expects no-one to hand him anything.” Beyea said that the incident has demonstrated how “severely flawed” ICE is.
Prasad criticized ICE for focusing on Maher’s criminal record and ignoring the mitigating factors, like his rehabilitation and his ties to his family and the community.
“ICE just looks at a rap sheet,” he said.“You need to look at his life in its entirety.”
According to the Asian Law Caucus, Maher is one case among many in a wave of arrests and deportations in the U.S. of Chinese immigrants with criminal records. A crackdown on corruption in China has lead to increased deportation efforts and more ICE raids.
“These immigrants are being used as bargaining chips in high-level negotiations,” said Jenny Zhao, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, which is working to help Maher alongside the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Asian Prisoner Support Committee, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Chinese Progressive Association and the Ecology Center.
“There’s a lot of us working tirelessly,” said Cherry Maher, Maher’s sister-in-law. “We’ve put a hold on our lives to prioritize Daniel’s because his life is just as important as ours.”
Francesca Paris, a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, is a Berkeleyside summer intern.
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