Editor’s note: Today Civil Beat introduces a second Big Island columnist, Alan McNarie, who joins Bret Yager in tracking developments for us in Hawaii County.
WAIMEA, Hawaii Island — Graham Ellis doesn’t seem like much of a threat to national security.
The British-born juggler has been teaching circus skills to the Big Island’s children since 1981. He and his American-born wife are raising five American-born children. He’s ailing with leukemia, a form of blood cancer.
But under the Trump administration’s tough new rules for immigrants, none of that matters — only Ellis’s expired visa. After spending five days in the Hawaii Federal Detention Center on Oahu, Ellis was given 45 days to settle his affairs and leave the country.
Shortly after his release, Ellis spoke to Civil Beat at the home that he and his wife, Dena, have built near Waimea on the Big Island, with his daughter and four stepchildren playing around him.
“I was told probably five times in five days by officials that I was not a criminal and that this was an administrative procedure,” he recalled. “But like all the other affected immigrants, I was treated like a criminal in terms of shackles — that was handcuffs and anklets — the jumpsuit and a prison cell.”
Ellis helped to found Hawaii’s Hiccup Circus, a circus performer’s retreat called “Belly Acres,” and S.P.A.C.E. (Seaview Performing Arts Center for Education) in the Big Island’s financially challenged Lower Puna area.
His study walls hold accolades and thank-you letters from such political luminaries as Sen. Brian Schatz, former Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the late Sen. Daniel Inouye. But an old conviction on a marijuana charge in England had blocked his chances at U.S. citizenship.
In all his years here, he said, the closest he’d come to a brush with the law was a civil dispute over some unpermitted structures that other Belly Acres residents had erected when Ellis served as the nonprofit’s secretary (he says he hadn’t approved the structures and helped to tear them down).
Ellis praised the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and detention center personnel, who he said treated him ‘very courteously and respectfully,” and the prison, which he described as “state of the art.” He even praised the prisoners, who he said were helpful to him.
But like all undocumented immigrants subjected to “removal procedures” in Hawaii, he had been placed behind bars in the same facility, under the same rules and conditions, as violent felons.
People in Ellis’s situation are not considered criminals under the law, maintains his attorney, Kevin Block, who said overstaying a visa is “a minor civil infraction. I should get fined or something like that. But the punishment for overstaying his visa is a total upheaval of his life. He’s being torn from his family and his community.”
ICE had known about Ellis for at least 2½ years; two of the parties in the illegal structure dispute boasted online that they’d reported him. Under the Obama rules, he’d been left alone. But he recognized the change under the Trump administration, and was already preparing to return to England when an ICE agent knocked on his door and told him he could turn himself in to the Honolulu detention center or be hauled there in handcuffs. He reported to the detention center the next day.
His experience is not unique. According to ICE’s official website, the agency already this year has arrested “more than 41,000 individuals who were either known or suspected of being in the country illegally” — an increase of more than 37 percent over the same period last year.
Under the Obama administration, an executive order had prioritized illegal immigrants for deportation who were known criminals or national security risks, and had given low priority to residents with “positive equities” such as jobs and American families. But one of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was to rescind the Obama rules.
Now, according to ICE spokesman James Schwab, “There’s no class of alien exempt from removal.”
In the wake of his deportation order, Ellis does have one new freedom. Since he’s leaving anyway, he can now talk candidly about life as an illegal guest in the U.S.
“One of the issues that undocumented aliens have is you can’t go get a job in the normal fashion, because you don’t have a social security number,” he said. “You can’t get Medicare or Medicaid, because it asks you, ‘Are you a U.S. citizen?’”
Ironically, he could pay taxes; he found that IRS had a filing system specifically for illegal immigrants, using something called an Individual Tax Identity number. But the form required to get the number was so complicated, he said, that even with his native-born English skills, it took him months to get it filed.
That form also requires “documentation substantiating foreign/alien status and true identity for each individual,” which may cause some illegal immigrants pause.
He was diagnosed with leukemia about a year a half ago; his doctor had intended to put him on a new protocol this week to slow down the disease’s advance. Now, when he gets to England, “I’ll be on a waiting list to see an oncologist and start a treatment program.”
Did that mean his deportation is life-threatening?
“I can’t really answer that until I get to England and see what they have for me,” he answered.
Questions also remain about his family’s future.
“I’m hoping in the long run that I can establish visas for my wife and my kids to come to the U.K.,” he said, “But I have to establish that I can support her and the kids. There are challenges, but I’m not dead yet.”
Ellis has one more goal before he departs. When he and Dena were married, they didn’t have a wedding reception. On July 4, which is also their anniversary, they’ll be remedying that omission with a large gathering of friends.
Unfortunately, it will also serve as a farewell party.