Immigration Court Crisis Weighs on Lawyers, Families

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Alex Lora with son Alex III and wife Gabrielle. He says of his time in immigration detention: 'I do not recommend that even to an enemy.'

Adi Talwar

Alex Lora with son Alex III and wife Gabrielle. He says of his time in immigration detention: 'I do not recommend that even to an enemy.'

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This is the third part of a five-story series on the policy problems and human dramas that characterize immigration court in the New York City area. Be sure to check out the rest of the series.
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The notion that immigration court fails to provide due process is not something U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is prepared to accept. Asked about it, an ICE spokesperson replied, “All aliens in removal proceedings are provided with due process under the law. ”

But in immigration courts around the country, most people navigate that process without a lawyer, because there’s no provision of counsel to people who can’t afford their own. “Aliens who wish to be represented by an attorney may do so at no expense to the government,” the spokesman explained. “Aliens are also provided with a list of pro bono attorneys who may be able to represent them at low or no cost. There is also the NYIFUP program.”

That was a reference to the New York Immigration Family Unity Program, which the city launched in 2013 to provide lawyers to local people who are detained by ICE and face deportation. The amount of good being done by the NYIFUP crew is impossible to overstate. Without them, many of the people in local immigration courts would be representing themselves, as occurs at Elizabeth and elsewhere in the country, against a government lawyer whose goal is to get them deported.

But it’s not a cure all. The non-profit lawyers are very overworked. And the human stakes are so incredibly high that it puts unimaginable pressure on these individuals.

Michelle Born was a lawyer for one of the NYC-based non-profits affiliated with NYIFUP for a year before she left. “I still struggle,” she told me. “I still feel like I’m a much less joyful person than I was before I started working in immigration law. It puts everything in perspective. If my two-year-old is acting out and I’m at the end of my rope, I think about one of my female clients who hasn’t seen her son since he was two and half and now he’s four, and I think, ‘That must be absolutely devastating.’ I know it is. I see it in her.”

Having young children of her own, Born found herself agonizing over the devastating effects of detention on her clients’ children, most of them U.S. citizens. “My clients were missing precious moments of their children’s lives every day they were in immigration detention, all the while wondering if that deprivation was going to end after their next hearing, or just become a permanent reality upon their deportation.” If her clients were indeed deported, their children were faced with a terrible dilemma: stay in the U.S. –their home– and be permanently deprived of a loving parent, or go with them back to the very place from which their family had fled gang violence, domestic violence, or devastating poverty.

“How can you sleep at night with the knowledge that that’s what’s on your shoulders?” She asked, especially given that there is so much about a person’s immigration case that depends on their lawyer.

Even those with more bravado have their breaking point. I met Paul Grotas in the waiting room of the Varick Street court. Unlike the public defenders, he did not get into criminal immigration law—referred to by lawyers as “Crim Imm”—for ideological reasons. As he explained at a café at the Varick Street courthouse, he graduated law school in 2008—the year of the financial crash; a job offer was rescinded, and he was working per diem and making $30,000 a year when he read an ad on craigslist: “Immigration law—$60K a year!” Plus, he was living on 17th St—right around the corner from Varick Street. “I was like, ‘I get to wake up later! This is fucking awesome! What’s this immigration law? I could make $60K a year!’ I was like, ‘These are my cases from now on.'”

But his passion grew with time. “At the end of the day, you gotta beg, borrow or steal,” he said of getting his clients out of detention. “If you get someone out of jail, you’re a hero. Clients say there’s ‘Dios’ and there’s you if you get them out of jail. You’re right below God.”

But it’s not all great news. Grotas told me about a client who I’ll call Christina who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and alcohol dependence. She has been in detention for seventeen months. She barely knows who he is, he said. She needs services she’s not getting at the Hudson County Correctional Facility. “That case is upsetting,” he said. “There’s no reason she should be in jail.” She was arrested for a drug charge, but Grotas said he had beaten that. She was now in detention for two prostitution charges. “Someone told her—because she’s not all there—you have to sell your body,” he said. Even though New York City now handles prostitution through alternatives to detention, prostitution is a crime of “moral turpitude” as far as the immigration system is concerned..”

When we entered the courtroom, there was Christina—bloated, with light eyes and tightly braided hair down either side of her head, rocking back and forth over her shackled arms and staring desperately at the door in the hopes of catching sight of her mother, who’d been left behind in the waiting room in all the chaos. In her forties, Christina has the air of a child; another detainee told me that in detention, she was nick-named Christina Cry Cry because she cried all day. She has only one kidney—she donated another to a child of hers, who eventually died anyway at age three. In court, Christina licked her lips, chewed on them constantly, and asked everyone who passed if they had seen her mother. At the last minute, someone went to get her mother, Joanna, who had traveled five hours to see her daughter from rural Pennsylvania. When Joanna entered the room, Christina beamed at her broadly, her eyes glued to the older woman.

“My client is in no way competent,” Grotas told Judge Videla as soon as proceedings began.

“What’s your name?” Videla asked Christina.

“Martinez, Christina,” she said automatically.

The judge gave Grotas and the government attorney time to discuss the case, and they decided that if he could find a program to take her, the Judge would consider releasing Christina on bond. They set a later date for a bond hearing.

But Grotas’s bravado had left him. In the hallway, he despaired of finding a program that would take her. “I should have pushed for bond,” he kept saying, over and over. “I should have pushed for bond.”

The United Nations, behind bars

Over at 26 Federal Plaza, the atmosphere was very different. Judge Terry Bain, blond with a pageboy haircut and glasses, presided over a much bigger courtroom and as the lawyers had expected, granted bond to many detainees, to the absolute delight of their families. At one point the government lawyer asked a detainee’s lawyer why she had failed to get proof that the detainee would enter a drug rehabilitation program, and Judge Bain answered irritably, “Because of the haste with which this office scheduled the hearing.”

Then, in an orange jumpsuit, with her hands shackled at her waist, the I.C.E. agents led in Nneka Ifemesia.

Ifemesia was born in Nigeria, and came to the U.S. with her father in 1991 after school. He had a job here, but he needed medical care, and Ifemesia came to care for him on a visitor’s VISA, which she overstayed.

The early years here were hard. She was in culture shock. She had an accent. She found it difficult to find her way, and she started hanging out with a bad crowd. It ended badly, with six months in prison on a drug charge. Her lawyer at the time never bothered to explain to her that she was now deportable. While incarcerated, Ifemesia had a religious experience, and by the time she came out, she was born again. That was 20 years ago.

In the intervening time, Ifemesia became a mental health professional. She started a band and released two albums. She started a nonprofit called “Hairtastic” that donates hair and the proceeds of a bi-annual gala to cancer patients. She had a daughter, who is a U.S. citizen. The rest of her family came over from Nigeria. She is the primary caregiver for her now elderly parents.

Then, one day in March of 2015, Ifemesia was driving to the airport—she had a gig in Florida—when she was pulled over by the police for having expired plates and a suspended license. She was arrested, served a short stint in jail, but then wasn’t released. Instead, she was handed over to ICE, who loaded her into a van and drove her from Nassau County to the Hudson County Correctional Facility.

“That was the drive to hell,” Ifemesia later recalled. Her hands and feet were shackled. “I felt like a criminal.”

At the Hudson jail, Ifemesia heard stories from the other detained women there—”horror stories” she calls them—of women who got picked up by ICE at traffic stops, women who had encountered ICE agents posing as carpenters and electricians. There were women whose crimes were 30 years old, women who like Ifemesia had completely turned their lives around —doctors, lawyers, accountants, pharmacists, teachers. “A lot of good people were there,” Ifemesia said. “People who had work, people who had things to do.” The group fluctuated from 30 to 50. “50 women from different countries of the world—it was the United Nations in there!” Ifemesia recalled. “Everybody’s talking to each other with sign language, especially those who don’t speak English.”

Ifemesia had no idea how long she would remain locked up. Some women had been there for two and a half years. But even worse were the ones who would disappear in the middle of the night. Correctional officers would come to a woman’s bunk at two a.m., bang on it until she woke up, and tell her to pack her things. “And before you know it, you’re on the next plane back to your country.” Ifemesia’s bunkie was deported to Singapore. The woman who slept to her left was deported to Jamaica. Another woman was deported to Ecuador. It was terrifying. Ifemesia didn’t know if she would ever get out, or be sent back to Nigeria, where she had no one.

There were punitive measures at Hudson. There was no salt in the food. The immigrant detainees weren’t allowed to use the facilities at the jail. “Not only are you an immigrant, you’re in detention, so you’re the lowest of the low. You’re not allowed to touch anything.” Ifemesia successfully petitioned ICE to allow detainees to use one of the recreational rooms, and she successfully petitioned for salt.

To distract herself from the stress that stemmed from the threat of deportation, from the uncertainty and the boredom, Ifemesia created a timetable for herself. She would wake up and read the Bible. She would do power walks around the room with some of the other women, and then she would hold Bible study group. Ifemesia played a lot of Scrabble, which she loves. And she started a group for survivors of domestic violence. “There were a lot of women who went through abuse, period,” Ifemesia recalled. “Domestic abuse, sex trafficking, human trafficking. A lot of women.” She shook her head. “I was blessed that the women even wanted to talk about it. It’s not things people like to talk about. It’s not easy to relate, also. It’s not easy to share.” Ifemesia wrote 41 songs while incarcerated, and successfully petitioned jail officials for the detainees to be allowed access to recreation facilities, and be permitted to have salt in their food.

In February 2015—nine months after her arrest, she met the Brooklyn Defender Services team. Bridget Kessler told Ifemesia about her client, Alex Lora, and what the court decision about his bond hearing meant for her. That’s what led to Ifemesia’s appearance in court this fall.

At the hearing at 26 Federal Plaza, Ifemesia’s daughter, sister, cousin, and brother sat in the pews, gripping each other, their faces filled with hope.

The government lawyer began by telling the judge that Ifemesia may present a danger to the community. “Her criminal history spans 1996-2015,” she went on. She also believed Ifemesia to be a flight risk; she falsely or mistakenly claimed that Ifemesia had “no viable claim for relief.”

When she finished, Ifemesia’s lawyer, Talia Peleg, told the court in an impassioned voice that Ifemesia’s convictions were over 20 years old. She talked of her connections to her community and the church she has belonged to for over 10 years. She told her of Ifemesia’s non-profit, and that Ifemesia was the primary caretaker of her aging parents, and that she had started a domestic violence program in the Hudson prison for the other detainees. Finally, she told the judge that Ifemesia had a good, strong immigration case—meaning she would be able to pursue legal residence in the U.S. by going through immigration court. She had no reason to flee.

Judge Bain agreed. I’m releasing her on her own recognizance,” she concluded. Every member of Ifemesia’s family burst into tears. “Thank you, Jesus!” Ifemesia cried out, tears streaming down her face. She had spent six and a half months in detention.

A waste of resources

In 2011, ICE director John Morton published a memo arguing that ICE officers should take a wide range of factors into account in choosing who to detain and prosecute, and perhaps more importantly, who not to. The point was to focus limited agency resources on the most serious offenders, rather than wasting time on people who have been rehabilitated or have deep ties to the community. In November of last year, DHS published a new memo that explicitly called on DHS to take into account “extended length of time since the offense of conviction.” But according to advocates as well as the time I spent in court, this “prosecutorial discretion” isn’t being applied.

“It’s all such a waste of resources,” Peleg told me in her office on a different occasion. “I think if the public knew how many people were detained without bond and without the ability for a judge to consider whether their detention is merited, they’d be disheartened to know their tax dollars were being used in this way.”

Alex Lora now lives with his wife—the woman who was his girlfriend when he was detained—and his son, who is now four; it was no easy task getting his son back from the foster care system. He has a job working construction. His immigration case is slated for January, 2018.

When Peleg told him he was going to be released, he felt both happy and sad. “Because I was getting out,” he explained. “But there were so many other people in here who shouldn’t be in here. I’m getting out, but I’m leaving 63.”

He has found some peace at the end of his ordeal. “It must be a reason everything happens,” he explained. “I was the person that was chosen, that had to go through this for other people to get out. Then I realized, it ain’t that bad, because I’m still here, and without me going through that, they wouldn’t be able to get out. If it was somebody else, this wouldn’t happen, they wouldn’t have had Talia, Talia wouldn’t have convinced them, and everything happened at the right time to the right person.”

I asked how it feels to have his name spoken at the beginning of every case, so his bunkies know it was because of him in a way that they were getting out. “I like it,” he said, with a smile. “That part feels good. Being in there did not feel good at all. I do not recommend that even to an enemy.”

Read Part 4:
Those Seeking Better Life,
Agency Pledged to Detect Fraud
Clash in Immigration Court

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City Limits is grateful to the readers who donated to create this project along with the generous underwriting of Beacon.
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