When it comes to identifying priorities for deportation, Steven Reneau checks several of the Trump administration’s boxes.
He’s a convicted felon – for importing cocaine, no less.
His immigration status had expired, leaving him no right to be on American soil.
So when ICE agents picked him up outside his Broward County apartment in January, his wife and children had good reason to fear they would never see him again in the United States.
But then an unlikely ally came to the family’s aide – and ICE had second thoughts.
Jack Devaney spent more than 25 years arresting and deporting people for the U.S. government.
When it comes to protecting the borders, Devaney is no bleeding heart.
“I believe in the president’s ‘build a wall’ and deport criminal aliens. I believe in that,” he said.
But he also believes in the government keeping its word to those who risk their lives to help them.
And that’s exactly what Reneau did, Devaney said, after the feds in 1999 intercepted 20 kilos of cocaine from a ship at Port Everglades before it could get to Reneau’s apartment in North Miami Beach.
Instead, Devaney and his partners showed up on Reneau’s doorstep carrying a large quantity of counterfeit cocaine and asking a simple question: Is this yours?
Reneau invited them in and “we talked for about 10, 15 minutes and he agreed to cooperate with us and share with us his part in this drug smuggling conspiracy,” Devaney recalled.
It was a conspiracy reaching back to Reneau’s home county, Belize – a western Caribbean transshipment point for Colombian cocaine – and a drug trafficking organization the DEA alleged was headed by two brothers, Andrew and Floyd Brown, according to court records.
To help prove it, Devaney and crew relied heavily on Reneau, who led them to co-conspirators and recorded conversations the DEA tried to use to have the Browns extradited to the US for prosecution.
“You had conversations with Reneau and the Browns, basically implicating them in that drug smuggling conspiracy,” according to Devaney. (33)
Over six years, he estimated, Reneau helped them locate a Belizean fugitive, convict money launderers and provide enough other intelligence to support dozens of deportations to Belize.
“Technically, we made an agreement for him to work with us,” Devaney said.
But in exchange, the feds agreed to work with Reneau, helping him get a visa for cooperating witnesses, and perhaps a green card – permanent residence in the US – after he did his two years in prison for importing cocaine.
Reneau did his time, but Devaney retired in 2012 without filing the necessary paperwork to protect Reneau from deportation and Reneau’s case lingered.
“This went from agent to agent, assistant US attorney to assistant US attorney,” he said. “I can say it just fell through the cracks.”
Until January, when Reneau’s wife heard a knock on their door.
“I opened the door and I saw Steve standing at the side with three men there. One of them spoke to me he said, ‘We’re from ICE,” she recalled.
As she told NBC 6 Investigators in the days after Reneau was taken to a detention center, she feared the family would never see him again. Their young son would cry and ask, “Where’s Daddy? When is he going to come back?” she said. “I just tell him Daddy’s going to come home soon.”
The family feared Reneau would not survive if returned to Belize, because his role in the cases against the Brown brothers was widely reported there. The DEA’s extradition request was denied after the Belizean supreme court ruled the recordings Reneau made with the Browns were inadmissible.
“I personally believe he’ll be murdered if he’s returned to Belize,” Devaney said.
So when Reneau contacted him in January to say he faced being sent back to Belize, Devaney spring into action, He contacted the acting director of ICE by email, seeking to have the government follow through on what it had promised many years before.
And, much to Devaney’s surprise, acting ICE director Thomas Homan responded to his email, promising to look into it.
A few days later, ICE agents retrieved Reneau from a Monroe Country detention center and drove him back to the same doorstep where his wife last saw him weeks earlier.
He is now able to stay in the US while seeking a visa - the type offered to witnesses in cases like his.
Reneau’s wife said he was told not to discuss his situation publicly, so the family has declined to comment since his release.
But Devaney said he’s happy to so far keep his end of the bargain made with Reneau 18 years ago.
“I guess technically Steven Reneau does not belong in the United States, however, he cooperated with the US government and there was a deal made with Steve.”