Asylum-seeking Congolese father rejoins his family after nearly two years in detention
Though his family is still waiting to find out if they will be granted asylum, Constantin Bakala of Congo is finally home with his wife and children in San Diego.
Annie Bwetu Kapongo cannot stop smiling.
Her husband — who was separated from her and their seven children nearly two years ago by officials when they asked for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border after a grueling and perilous journey from their home in the Democratic Republic of Congo — is finally home.
Constantin Bakala was released from immigration detention in Georgia and reunited with his family on Monday at the San Diego airport surrounded by what has become known as the ConstanTeam, a group of Americans spearheaded by members of St. Luke’s North Park who have befriended the family and pushed for Bakala’s freedom.
“There was only joy, the pure joy of seeing my family,” Bakala said in French of the moment when he came down the airport’s escalator and saw his wife and children for the first time in 21 months.
Joy was also the word that came to mind for his wife Bwetu Kapongo, whose face has shed the tiredness that had been etched into it for months by the trauma of losing her husband just when she thought they were finally safe.
“Today is joy,” Bwetu Kapongo said in French, her smile glowing across her whole face at the family’s apartment in southeast San Diego on Thursday. “The joy I have, it’s been all day, all of the days [since he came back]. I don’t know what to say.”
Several of their children sat at the kitchen table, relaxed, the heaviness that had clung to the air of their home from missing their father now lifted.
Bakala marveled at how much his children, particularly his youngest, had grown. When he was split from his family at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in November 2017, his youngest was 3 years old. Now his son is 5, and Bakala can no longer put the boy up on his shoulders.
He’s been with his wife for two decades, he said, and all of his children were born at home. Before this, they had never experienced life without their father for so long.
Though none of their court cases are yet finished, meaning they don’t know whether they will ultimately be granted asylum, their relief at being a whole family once more is palpable.
Bakala and his family fled Congo after they were all targeted because of Bakala’s activity in a political party that promoted democracy there.
As Bwetu Kapongo first recounted to the San Diego Union-Tribune in February, Bakala was kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured in Congo. When Bwetu Kapongo went to the police to try to find her husband, she was beaten and raped.
Later, someone released poison into the house while the family was sleeping.
Finally they escaped, traveling to Brazil and then north to the U.S. border. On the way, they almost drowned in a shipwreck, but somehow, all of the family members survived.
When they went into the San Ysidro Port of Entry to request asylum, Bakala recalled Thursday, they were immediately separated. Bwetu Kapongo and the children were taken to a holding cell with other women and children. Bakala went into a holding cell with other men.
Bakala didn’t realize at first how permanent that separation would be, but he believes that it was in that moment that he first began experiencing high blood pressure, a medical condition that would stay with him through his time in detention.
He began to worry about when he would see his family again. When he asked an official, he was told that he wouldn’t receive any information until he reached the next detention center. He found himself on a bus heading to Arizona, where he stayed for a short time before transferring to a detention facility in Georgia.
It was through a psychologist there that he finally found out what had happened to his loved ones.
“I don’t have that type of problem,” he recalled telling the psychologist when the counselor began asking probing questions. “My problem is I don’t know where my family is.”
About a month after he had last seen them, Bakala finally had a phone number to call to find out how his wife and children were doing and where they had ended up.
They were released and living in San Diego, only a short drive from where he had last seen them at the port of entry.
Meanwhile, Bakala’s case was split from the rest of his family’s and it moved forward much more quickly because the government prioritizes the cases of those held in custody.
At his first hearing, the judge encouraged him to find a lawyer and gave him a list of free and low-cost attorneys to try.
Bakala said he called every number. No one answered.
Someone else gave him another list of attorney phone numbers. He tried every one — still no answer.
At the next hearing, the judge told him that he would have to represent himself.
Bakala did his best to fill out the asylum application in English, a language that he does not yet speak beyond a few phrases. He had access to an interpreter only when he was in front of the judge, but everything that he submitted to the court had to be in English, including the documents he wanted to present as evidence.
He couldn’t find anyone to translate them from inside the detention center, so he submitted the original French.
When the day to present his case before the judge finally arrived, the hearing lasted for hours. The judge refused to consider the evidence he’d submitted that was in French.
Because Bakala had not managed to write all the details of what had happened to him in English on the application, and despite the fact he told the judge about them in court, the judge denied his request for asylum.
Bakala appealed. The first time he sent in appeal paperwork, it was rejected because he hadn’t correctly followed the instructions that were written in English.
Using a red Larousse French-English dictionary that now sits on a bookshelf in the family’s living room, he tried again. This time it worked. He sent a brief asking the Board of Immigration Appeals to overturn the judge’s decision.
It was only after he had mailed his appeal that Bakala met Julie Hartlé, an attorney who had agreed to help the family after members of St. Luke’s North Park learned about the situation.
His appeal was dismissed, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement prepared to deport Bakala. Hartlé got to work with the help of other lawyers to write motions to stop his deportation and reopen his case.
Piece by piece, the outcomes began falling in his favor.
Bakala’s team, now a full community of supporters, pushed for ICE to release him on what’s called “parole” while he waited for his next hearing. When he learned of that request, Bakala said, he began to pray intensely.
Then, on Sunday, when he called his family at a time when he felt sure everyone would be home and able to speak to him, his wife asked him a question.
“Do you have some news,” she asked.
I’m in custody, he responded. I don’t have access to news.
Then his wife told him what she’d learned from her daughter when she got home from work. Bakala would be freed.
Bakala confirmed with his attorney. Then he called his wife back and confirmed with her. He would be getting out.
When he got off the phone, he said, he began to dance and sing and to thank God for helping him.
As he recounted his experience in their home Thursday, his wife, who sings in the St. Luke’s choir with daughter Marie Louise, sang to him a song of celebration.
The next morning, ICE let him go.
When asked for a statement on Bakala’s case, ICE confirmed that he had been released while his case is decided again in court.
“ICE is now awaiting the outcome of his legal proceedings to determine appropriate future steps,” said Lindsay Williams of ICE.
An attorney who had been helping the ConstanTeam picked him up where ICE released him and took him for a haircut.
Then they went to eat. He chose shrimp as his first meal of freedom.
Then another volunteer flew with him to San Diego.
Since then, he learned how much his family has already integrated into the San Diego community, he said. His children are active in church, playing sports and speaking English well.
Since he’s not yet allowed to work, he’s spending his time cooking dinner and helping with housework to support his wife.
Once he gets his permit, he plans to take professional courses to brush up on his skills in information technology and find work in that field.
“I hope to take responsibility for my family in my hands,” he said, “and help the children understand true integration into the American community, help the children grow in the respect of American culture and help them understand the value of respect for others and grow up with the feeling that they have to help those who have nothing.”
He heard about St. Jude’s, a U.S. hospital that helps children with cancer, while he was in immigration detention. He plans to donate to the organization as soon as he has income, he said.
After he was released, the family got another bit of good news. His case was moved to San Diego, which, statistically speaking, gives him better odds for winning his case than the Atlanta court, which is known for being especially tough on asylum seekers.
The family’s case was scheduled for its final hearing next month, but that was rescheduled for late next year to make room for San Diego judges to hear more cases from the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico” program.
Most asylum seekers who find themselves alone in immigration detention, without an attorney and without English language skills, do not end up where Bakala is today.
For his part, Bakala doesn’t think his miracle happened by chance. He credits God with bringing people into his life who could save him from a looming deportation and return him to his family.
Though his time in immigration court is not yet finished, he will now be able to face it as he did with the many other challenges he faced on his journey to the U.S. — with his family.
Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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