Paths to American dream converge in Immigration Court
The walls in Immigration Court are painted a friendly shade of blue. The judges there are often exceedingly polite -- even though the laws they enforce can be cruel and unyielding.
Many languages are spoken in its courtrooms, including Ibo, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic and Armenian. Very often, however, the proceedings take place entirely in English, spoken with fluent California accents by people facing deportation as undesirable “aliens.”
Juan Obed Silva was one of the English speakers in Immigration Court in Los Angeles last week. He arrived in his wheelchair and told Judge Anthony Giattina that he wanted to stay in the United States, though the official position of our government is that he should be deported to Mexico.
“My plan is to pursue my doctorate,” he said, before pausing to correct himself. “That is, if I am allowed to stay in this country.”
Readers of this column may remember the story of Silva, known to his friends as Obed. Now 30 and a legal U.S. resident, he was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. as a baby.
As an impressionable 12-year-old, he joined a gang, thinking he was embarking on a life of “adventure.” Instead, at age 17, he was shot in the back and paralyzed while running out of a convenience store with a stolen case of beer. Two years later, in 1998, he was arrested for shooting a gang rival in the leg.
The judge, who saw something in him, gave him a lucky break, just five years’ probation for the shooting. Obed took it as an opportunity to remake his life -- through literature.
In November, he earned a master’s degree in English, after immersing himself in poems many centuries old.
Still, the 1998 conviction caught up with him, and he found himself facing a deportation order to Mexico.
His story filled my inbox with about 100 letters of support, including invitations for him to speak to young people at schools throughout California.
Even conservative KABC talk radio host Al Rantel came out in Obed’s defense. “Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age,” Rantel told his listeners Feb 3. “But since he’s remade his life and become a scholar . . . I’d be inclined to let him stay.”
I went to Immigration Court last week to witness Obed’s Day of Judgment. The outcome was not exactly what I had expected.
He was not deported. His case was not dismissed. Instead, after two hours of often gut-wrenching testimony in which Obed’s past sins were dissected and his accomplishments celebrated, the judge ordered a recess -- until November.
“I wish it would have been over right then,” Obed told me later. “The anxiety of not knowing what will happen is hard. I’ve got nine more months of waiting.”
It turns out that nine months is a mere heartbeat in Immigration Court. Souls can linger in the purgatory of our nation’s immigration legal system for years or decades. I discovered this and other truths after hanging out for two days in a downtown office building where four floors house the Los Angeles branch of Immigration Court.
Each of 26 immigration judges presides over a tiny courtroom, with room for just a dozen or so spectators. On average, each judge hears more than 1,000 cases a year.
On those four floors I met people like Obed who have reinvented themselves as successful Americans, escaping lives of immigrant poverty to become educated professionals.
Nuria Perez Alvarado, 35, has been coming to Immigration Court for 22 years. She arrived in the U.S. from Guatemala in 1987 with her parents, who filed an asylum application soon after. The request was denied in 2007.
“We fought it for exactly 20 years, and we lost,” she said last week.
Over the long years of waiting, Perez Alvarado married and had four U.S.-born children. Two years ago, she applied for “cancellation of removal.” The last immigration judge she saw was impressed by a thick folder detailing her education in the U.S. -- she is now a technician in a medical laboratory.
“If it weren’t for my studies, I wouldn’t have been given any chance to stay here,” she told me.
But for each person who has embraced American ambition, there is a knucklehead who has complicated his U.S. life with so many missteps that not even the most compassionate judge is likely to help him.
“I brought my girlfriend’s pregnancy test,” one young man told Judge Philip DiMarzio, apropos of nothing. The judge ignored the unsolicited medical information and gave him until June to find a lawyer. Leaving the courtroom with him, his girlfriend rolled her eyes in embarrassment.
Some cases are epic dramas with an international cast of characters.
I listened to a Chinese man seeking protection from religious persecution. And I was asked to leave a courtroom in which an Arabic-speaking man was seeking asylum. He had been connected to the political elite in his country, and a government attorney was asking him to identify members of his country’s security forces in a photograph. My presence as the lone spectator in court was “making him nervous,” his attorney told me.
The vast majority of asylum applications are denied. So are most requests for suspension of deportation, thanks to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which took away much of the discretion judges used to have in such cases.
A judge’s ability to cancel deportation due to hardship, for instance, is now limited to cases in which an individual can prove that deportation would cause “exceptional and extremely unusual hardships” to a relative who is a U.S. citizen or legal resident. “If you have a healthy family, with kids in school, you can’t get that,” said Stacy Tolchin, an immigration attorney. “No one qualifies for anything anymore.”
Still, the judge in Obed Silva’s case seemed moved by his testimony. He questioned Obed in detail about his life as a teenage gangster. How and why, the judge asked, do young men join gangs?
“You’re kind of courted into it,” Obed explained. “You’re praised. You’re given things. You come to see them as people who care about you.”
Asked to summarize his past mistakes, Obed said: “If I would be able to relive my life, it is a path I would not choose. And it’s a path I would advise others not to choose.”
Obed’s attorney, Alan Diamante, gathered 21 witnesses on his behalf. Four managed to testify before the recess -- two university professors, a college administrator and a rehabilitation specialist at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, where Obed was treated and where he now plays in a wheelchair basketball league. All described him in glowing terms.
With the hour growing late, Judge Giattina then asked the attorney representing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security if she was prepared to waive the government’s right to appeal his decision if the court ruled in Obed’s favor.
“No,” she said.
“Have you been given marching orders not to?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” the government attorney said.
With the government unwilling to wave the white flag -- yet -- the case was continued until the next available date on the Immigration Court’s impossibly crowded calendar.
And so Obed Silva will wait, with 17 more character witnesses prepared to take the stand on his behalf when his hearing resumes long after winter, spring and summer have passed into memory.
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