My heart was racing when I first walked into the immigration court lobby. The place was packed with people who like me, had faced the wrath of the Immigration and Customs Enforcers (ICE). I couldn’t help but wonder what their individual stories were. We all looked sad, defeated, and scared. It looked like we were all going to a funeral, our funeral. The only people who seemed relaxed and chipper were the lawyers who had come to defend their clients. Later on in the course of the court hearing, I would realize that its not really wise to take a lawyer with you on your first court hearing.
Looking around, it was really hard for me to ignore the demographics in the lobby. Most of the people there were Hispanic. These didn’t look like middle class Hispanics either. There were also a couple South Asians, a lone Arab, about 5 Africans and not a Caucasian in sight…well, except for one lawyer. With our lives in upheaval, we sat there silently waiting for 8:30 am to arrive.
At 8:30 every one of us was herded into a tiny courtroom. It had what looked like church pews and it was on them that we sat facing the judges bench. There was a knee high railing looking thing that separated us from the judge, the interpreter, the clerk and the ICE lawyer. The lawyer had walked into court, laptop in hand, dragging with her a huge cart filled with files that could only be dossiers of our life histories. I’m sure that in them were things we all had done in the past, were doing right now, and were thinking of doing.
On the left side of the judge’s bench was a table with two chairs for us “freeloaders”. The court interpreter who was a Spanish interpreter sat on that side too. On the other side of the bench was a table with one chair for the ICE lawyer and a whole lot of space for her files. In those files of course was enough rope to hang all of us. Also on that side, was the court clerks desk.
I think court clerks in immigration courts have got to be a special breed. This one seemed really jolly. She must have been having a good day. I personally didn’t think there was anything to be cheerful about. Except for her, the lawyers, the interpreter, and the judge everyones else’s life was hanging in the balance.
We all stood up when the judge walked in. He told us to sit, and then he got to work.
Typically the first group of people to be dealt with are those with lawyers. I noticed that there was an air of mutual politeness, and respect between the lawyers and the judge. He asked every lawyer if their client had given them permission to speak on their behalf to which they said “Yes”. Then the judge asked the accused what language they preferred to speak in. Most in the room said they preferred using the Spanish speaking interpreter.
Since everyone in deportation proceedings came into the US from some country or another, the judge would ask them whether they agreed to the changes and what country they’d like to be deported to if they were found deportable. Some lawyers gave the country of their clients origin but others said they repectfully declined. In the latter case the judge designated the country of the deportees origin as the place they would be shipped to, if and when he found them deportable.
On that day the judge kept asking the lawyers if their clients had relief. Now relief means convincing evidence that will make the judge let the accused continue to live in the US legally. Relief comes in several forms: United States citizen kids also disparagingly known as “anchor” babies, a family member who is a citizen or permanent resident and is your dependent, successful reinstatement to student status, or proof that you will be tortured when you go back to your country of origin. That said, having a Citizen or resident relative is no guarantee that you will not be deported. I have heard of cases where ICE gave children of deportees to relatives or even worse, put them in foster care. If you say you have relief and if the judge is convinced, he will then give you and your lawyer another hearing as well as deadlines to file applications.
All this back and forth between the two lawyers, judge, and deportee seemed to happen at lightning speed. I’m almost certain the judge took about 5-7 minutes on every person who had gone to court with a lawyer. As I sat there watching the expressions of my comrades whose cases were being tried at lightning speed, it was clear to me that they all had no clue what was happening because everything was moving so fast! By choosing to go to court with a lawyer on their first court hearing they had in fact unknowingly walked into an ambush and there was no way blood wasn’t going to be spilled.
NEXT: My First Immigration Court Hearing Part 2