December 18th, 2019
There is a building on the corner of Canal and Van Buren in downtown Chicago, not far from the river. There is nothing remarkable about this structure. It looks like most other office buildings, a place that could house any kind of business. This particular establishment is the home of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). This is where the immigration courts are located. This is where people get deported, or maybe not.
The EOIR is on the fourth floor of the building. Security is tight. I had to remove my belt and my shoes, and take everything out of my pockets. It was easier for me to visit somebody in the Taycheedah maximum security prison than it was for me to get into the EOIR. The guards seem to be full of themselves. Some of these rent-a-cops clearly savored their authority. That set the tone for rest of the visit. The message was: “We run this place. You don’t.”
The seal of the Department of Justice dominates the entrance, along with a photo of Donald Trump. He smiles like a shark.
The EOIR has no windows. There is just a winding corridor with bland, bureaucratic walls of baize. There are ten entrances to ten courtrooms. People sit in burgundy-colored plastic chairs. They stare at walls that are empty except for a few outdated notices from the Department of Justice. There are no vending machines. However, there are bathrooms. And there are people with guns.
Joanna, Linda, and I got there at lunch time. The courts were not in session. They would resume their work in an hour. The hallway slowly filled with people. A Russian family stood around talking with their Jewish lawyer. The attorney wore a kippah, so I assume that he was Jewish. I could be wrong. A varieties of Latinos showed up. Then a Chinese family came. The corridor became loud with a babble of different languages.
The three of us waited for a young Mexican woman who was scheduled to have her court appearance at 1:00 PM. This young woman was seeking asylum, along with her four small children. I had never met this woman before. Joanna knew her, at least a little bit. A group of us had been trying to help the woman with money and clothing. I don’t think that any of us knew her story. We might have heard bits and pieces of it, but we really didn’t know her.
In a couple hours we would know all about her.
As we waited for our young lady to arrive, I looked and listened to the people around me. I tried to be aware of who they were, and what they might be feeling. I could almost taste their stress. Some of them laughed and joked a bit too loudly. Some of them just stared straight ahead. Some of them looked around with tight smiles on their faces. Some of them stared at their phones.
All these people were worried. All of them. They knew that they were in a time and a place that would change their lives forever. They just didn’t know their lives would change.
The young woman arrived. She was without her children. Joanna greeted her with a smile and a hug, as did Linda. Joanna gave the woman a small pouch that probably held a rosary. The young woman was very nervous, and rightly so. We all sat down together, and I asked the young woman, in very broken Spanish, about her lawyer. She replied that he would arrive ten minutes prior to the court appearance.
That seemed odd, because most of the other people had lawyers already with them. In fact, one of the attorneys was busy playing with a little boy, while his legal partner discussed their case with the parents of the child. It seemed like the woman’s lawyer was cutting it close.
Her “abogado” showed up at the time he said he would. He was a young man, with a beard and eyeglasses. He wore a white shirt, plaid tie, baby blue vest, and a black jacket. He had worn loafers with rainbow colored socks. I guess that is professional.
Just before 1:00 PM, we all walked into the court room. It was a small room, and it lacked a bailiff and a jury box. Immigration courts are administrative courts. They are part of the Department of Justice, not part of the judicial branch of the federal government. As such, these courts play by different rules. In a federal court the government must prove a case against an individual. In an immigration court the opposite applies. The U.S. government is not required to show why a person should be deported. Instead, the immigrant must show why he or she should be allowed to remain in this country. The burden of proof is on the immigrant at all times.
There were only a few people in the court room. There was the young woman, an interpreter, the judge, the woman’s attorney, and the lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security. The lawyer for the DHS was a big, stocky man who looked like he should be coaching high school football. Oh, and there was our trio, observing the proceedings and supporting the young woman.
The young woman’s appearance actually consisted of three separate cases. First, she was applying for asylum, which is a real bitch to get. To get asylum in the United States you have to prove two things:
“Asylum has two basic requirements. First, an asylum applicant must establish that he or she fears persecution in their home country. Second, the applicant must prove that he or she would be persecuted on account of one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group.”
Just because somebody is trying to kill is not sufficient grounds to qualify for asylum. They must want to kill you for certain specific reasons.
Second, the young woman was trying to get relief of removal. That means she wanted to judge, at his discretion, to allow her to remain in the U.S, if he believed that she was in danger if deported to Mexico. This is assuming he denied her asylum request.
Third, she was trying for relief of removal based on the Convention Against Torture. That means she is trying to show that, if she returned to Mexico, she would be tortured, and therefore should be allowed to remain in the United States.
Using a baseball analogy, she gets three swings at the ball.
The immigration lawyer called only one witness, and that was the young woman. She was the whole show. The young woman wanted to blurt things out, much to the chagrin of the interpreter and the judge. The judge had to rein her in repeatedly. He told her, “You will get to tell you whole story.” She just needed to do that in small, digestible pieces.
The young woman’s story was as convoluted as it was passionate. Her partner/husband (they weren’t legally married) had worked for cartel. He had been selling gasoline that was stolen from Pemex to local ranchers. He actually mentioned his activities with the cartel in an affidavit. He spent his time selling stolen fuel, and then he spent his earnings on booze and loose women, as testified by this young woman. At one point the husband ran afoul of the local gang leader, who apparently wanted to kill the husband. The young woman, her man, and their kids left that location abruptly. They wandered from place to place in Mexico for a couple years, and then, when the young woman failed to hear from her partner for fifteen days, she fled to the United states.
That’s a very short version of the tale.
The judge often stopped the young woman in order to get clarification. She liked to talk about how “they said this” or “they did that”. The judge finally asked, “So who are ‘they’?”
At another time the judge halted the proceedings and said, “I’m confused”, and he asked her to go over the whole timeline of events because he couldn’t understand what had all happened. It’s not good to confuse the judge.
The young woman was not ready to testify. Her lawyer had not adequately prepped her. She needed to have a clear, convincing story, and she didn’t have one. I think that she was honest and sincere, but some things she said just did not make sense.
The lawyer from DHS questioned her. He harped on the fact that her partner was a criminal. The husband had admitted that he had worked with the cartel, but he wasn’t exactly El Chapo. The guy was a bottom feeder who got himself and his family into a lot of trouble. In any case, he wasn’t the person applying for asylum. This young woman was, and she didn’t commit any crimes.
To digress for a moment, the current administration likes to complain that immigrants are now often criminals. Maybe they are, but isn’t necessarily something new. For hundreds of years people have been fleeing to America to escape their pasts. My great-grandfather was an Austrian draft dodger, and he later became a bootlegger here during Prohibition. As a friend told me once, “Don’t look too close at your family tree, or you might find someone hanging from it.”
After all the testimony was done, the judge had everybody take a half hour break while he composed his oral decision. Nobody felt good about this.
When we all returned to the court room, the judge proceeded to systematically dismember the young woman’s arguments.
She struck out.
The application for asylum was denied because she couldn’t prove that she was covered under one of the five protected grounds. She tried to say that she was part of a particular social group (her family), but that didn’t cut it. She also could not prove that she herself had been persecuted or was likely to be persecuted. Her husband had been threatened, but maybe not her.
The judge did not agree to grant her relief of removal because she didn’t show that would be in danger in all of Mexico. She may have been danger from the cartels in certain places, but not everywhere. She had in fact lived in locations where she had received no threats.
The judge denied her request for relief under the Convention Against Torture, because she never showed that the Mexican government would be involved with the torture, either actively or passively. Even when threatened by the cartel, her family had never gone to the police. They feared that the police would tell the gangs, and there would be reprisals. She believed that the cops were cooperating with the cartels, but she couldn’t prove that. I guess the only way that she could have proven that the police were in league with the cartels is if they had tortured and killed her. However, then she would never have been in that court room.
The judge ordered that she and her children be deported.
Legally, the judge did what he had to do.
Morally, there is a problem.
Even if this young woman failed to meet the stringent standards of the U.S. government in order to remain in the country, she still needs help. She is terrified to return to Mexico, and the judge acknowledged that. She just wants her kids to be safe, and they won’t be safe if she goes back to Mexico. So, what does she do now?
Yeah, this sucks.