WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES • In early June, in cities across America, immigration agents arrested over two dozen Chinese nationals with unfulfilled deportation orders, telling them that after years of delay, China was finally taking steps to provide the paperwork needed to expel them from the United States.
But, not for the first time, China failed to provide the necessary documents. Three months later, not one has been deported and many have been released from custody.
They form part of a backlog of nearly 39,000 Chinese nationals awaiting deportation for violating US immigration laws, 900 of them classed as violent offenders, according to immigration officials.
The issue, likely to come up during a state visit to the US later this month by Chinese President Xi Jinping, has further strained US-China ties already frayed by tensions over economic policy, suspected Chinese cyber hacking and Beijing's growing military assertiveness.
Meanwhile, China is pushing the US on a different immigration issue: the return of Chinese citizens it says are fugitives from corruption investigations at home.
Some of the Chinese immigrants awaiting deportation have been under orders to leave for well over a decade, and the backlog continues to grow. An apparent breakthrough came, officials say, at a March meeting in Beijing between Ms Sarah Saldana, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Mr Zheng Baigang, a top Chinese public security official. Their discussions produced a "memorandum of understanding" to help expedite the process.
In April, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson travelled to Beijing, where his Chinese counterparts "agreed to begin repatriation flights from the US for Chinese nationals with final deportation orders", said DHS press secretary Marsha Catron.
In the past, an ICE official said, China had explained delays by saying it can be difficult to verify citizenship, a process that might require visits to distant villages and towns. But one US official suggested another reason for the hold-ups: "They do not want these people back."
One of the immigrants detained in the recent sweeps was Mr Daniel Maher, who was arrested as he left for work on June 2. Four uniformed immigration officials pulled up behind his car, he said, shackled his wrists and legs and then drove him to a US deportation office.
There, he says, he was searched along with 13 other Asian men and put into a prison jumpsuit.
"We were told there was a 99.9 per cent chance the travel documents were arriving to deport us to China," said Mr Maher, who was born in Macau and convicted of holding up an auto parts warehouse, serving six years' jail before being ordered to be deported in 2000. He has since been released.
US frustrations over the massive deportation backlog come as Beijing is pushing for more help in tracking down and repatriating dozens of alleged fugitives living in the US who are wanted in China as part of a widespread crackdown on corruption.