Inside A Georgia Immigration Court, One Man Fights To Stay With His Family
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
You have the right to remain silent, to an attorney if you can't afford one, to a speedy trial with a jury of your peers. These are some of the protections that Americans have come to expect if they're ever charged with a crime.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
But in this country, we also have a separate justice system, one that has courtrooms, lawyers and judges but where none of those protections exists - immigration courts, where, on average, about 60 percent of immigrants actually win their cases and get to stay in the U.S. But in some of those courts, less than 5 percent win.
For the NPR podcast Embedded, NPR reporter Caitlin Dickerson went inside one of these courts. Here's the story.
CAITLIN DICKERSON, BYLINE: Thousands of immigration cases are heard every year in Lumpkin, Ga., where more than 97 percent of immigrants lose their cases and get deported. There are no working immigration lawyers in Lumpkin. Cell phone service drops off when you get into town.
Welcome to the city of Lumpkin.
JULIO MORENO: The city of Lumpkin.
DICKERSON: I'm in the car with Julio Moreno. He's an immigration defense lawyer, and he drives three hours from Atlanta a few times a month to represent clients. You won't hear any immigration judges or prosecutors in this story because immigration officials are barred from talking to reporters. We're going to follow one of Julio's cases to see how the system works from the inside.
MORENO: And that's the jail.
DICKERSON: It's a big white building, looks like one story.
The detention center holds nearly two thousand immigrants. That's almost twice the number of people who live in the entire city. We get there early so Julio and his client named Shawn can go over their strategy. Today is Shawn's final immigration hearing, which means a judge will decide today whether or not he gets to stay in the United States.
A guard walks us into a small room with concrete walls. On the opposite side of a big sheet of glass, in walks Shawn. He's tall, nearly 6 feet. He's wearing a red jumpsuit. His hair's cropped tight. He looks tired. We're only using his first name and his family members' middle names to protect their identities.
MORENO: What's going on, Shawn? How are you doing? I'm going to get your case out so we can start talking.
DICKERSON: Hi, Shawn. I'm Caitlin.
Shawn came to the U.S. legally from Guyana in South America when he was 10. He grew up in New York City, married his high school sweetheart. He has three kids, and in 2005, they moved the family to a suburb of Atlanta. Shawn was arrested at home in 2011.
He had four ounces of marijuana, two digital scales and plastic baggies. Shawn says he smoked weed but he didn't sell it, but he was convicted of possession with intent to distribute marijuana. He went to jail for a year and a half, and that conviction makes him a priority for deportation.
MORENO: Once you get in there, you have to make sure that the judge knows. I'm very remorseful; I'm ashamed that I put myself in here and my family.
DICKERSON: Julio wants Shawn to make two points very clear to the judge - one, that he's sorry for his mistakes - no denying them and no excuses - and two, that Shawn's family will suffer if he's deported. There's a lot on the line for Shawn today. If he wins, he could go home with his family. If he loses, he'll be deported to a country he hasn't seen in three decades 3,000 miles away.
MORENO: All right, Shawn - see you in there in a couple hours.
SHAWN: Thank you.
MORENO: All right, take care.
DICKERSON: We walk outside and see Shawn's family has arrived.
So how many of you are there?
MARIE: It ended up being - how many of us? - six and five - 11.
DICKERSON: Eleven of them packed into two cars and drove for three hours to get here. I talk with Shawn's wife, Marie.
So what happens today if you get a good outcome?
MARIE: We go home, and we live our lives. We have a party. We celebrate, celebrate my mom's birthday, celebrate his homecoming and...
DICKERSON: And what's the - did you guys talk about the plan if he doesn't get to come home today?
MARIE: I don't even want to think about that, so I have no plan if they deny him.
DICKERSON: Before we go in, I also talk to Joey, Shawn and Marie's 9-year-old son. He's wearing a blue dress shirt and a bowtie.
What do you tell your friends if they ask where your dad is?
JOEY: I say, on a business trip.
DICKERSON: Oh, you do. Why do you say that?
JOEY: Because, like, it's not really their business. And then my cousin said - his dad is in immigrant jail, too, and so he said, he - every time someone asks, he say on a business trip.
DICKERSON: Is it easier just to say that than to have to talk about it?
DICKERSON: If Shawn's deported, he won't be allowed back into the U.S. for 10 years. It's not clear if Joey understands this, but I can feel Shawn's family's anxiety growing.
MORENO: Let's start heading out there.
DICKERSON: Ready. OK, we're going to go find out whether Shawn gets to stay in the U.S. or not.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today is January 14, 2016 at the Stewart Immigration Court, Stewart Detention Center.
DICKERSON: The courtroom's tiny, windowless. I couldn't record inside, so you're hearing the official government audio. Quality is pretty bad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Zero-three-nine-zero-six-two.
DICKERSON: Here's Julio's strategy. He thinks he convinced the judge to considers Shawn a low-level drug offender rather than a drug dealer. The distinction is important because being a drug dealer will get you automatically deported. His argument is a little complicated, but it's based on a Supreme Court decision that supports his position.
OK, but even if Julio does that, he also has to convince the judge to use his discretion to keep Shawn in the U.S. This is another difference between criminal and immigration law. In immigration court, once you win your legal argument, then judges are supposed to consider all of the positive and negative things about you and decide whether or not they think you deserve to stay.
There are guidelines for what the judge should consider in making this really important decision, but ultimately it's a subjective. Remember; less than 3 percent of people here in Lumpkin succeed at this. Julio's track record is better. It's more like 20 percent, and he's feeling good about Shawn's case. He calls Shawn to the witness stand.
UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Why do you believe this court should give you a second chance to remain in the U.S.?
SHAWN: I promise you that I will never be back in none of these courtrooms ever again. I apologize for my mistakes I've made in the past, and I'm a changed person. I need my family, and they need me. That's all I have is my family in America here.
DICKERSON: When the prosecutor questions Shawn, he brings up something that wouldn't fly in criminal court - that Shawn has been charged with attempting to sell marijuana four times since the 1990s. He's only been convicted once.
UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: Now, Sir, looking at your arrest history, a person might draw the inference, since you've been arrested in four different states for possession with intent to distribute drug crimes, that you had been dealing drugs. Have you ever dealt drugs in the United States?
SHAWN: No, Sir.
MORENO: Your Honor, I'm going to object to that question.
DICKERSON: In criminal court, a prosecutor would not be allowed to bring up these earlier charges. They were never proven, and they make the defendant look really bad. But in immigration court, the rules are different.
UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Overruled.
DICKERSON: Shawn has to answer. He says no, he's never dealt drugs. And then the prosecutor uses that answer against him.
UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: OK, but why did you plead guilty to possession with intent to distribute if you were not possessing with intent to distribute marijuana?
SHAWN: Because they're trying to give me 10 years in prison. I, you know - I can't afford to do 10 years in prison for something, you know? So I just took the guilty plea.
DICKERSON: Julio calls Shawn's wife and then his stepmother and his mother-in-law. Their testimony is supposed to help convince the judge that Shawn deserves to stay.
FRANCIS: This whole family is going to fall apart. We're falling apart already, and it hurts. Shawn is a loving boy, and I know he's going to do better. We can't live without Shawn, Sir. It's taking a toll on everybody.
DICKERSON: After closing arguments, the judge goes back into chambers to deliberate. He's gone an hour and 15 minutes. The courtroom is silent. The government prosecutor sits, typing away at his laptop. Marie and Shawn steal looks at each other once in a while, but they're not allowed to speak. Joey looks down into his hands, kicks his feet out in front of him the way kids do.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're back on the record.
DICKERSON: When the judge walks back in, everybody, including me, sits straight up, and the judge does not bury the lead.
UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Sir, I am not going to grant your relief this afternoon. I'm going to order that respondent be removed from the United States to Guyana.
DICKERSON: Shawn lost. I look over at his family. They don't react. They just stare at the judge. Some silently hug the person next to them.
UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Paragraph applications colon, paragraph exhibits colon, paragraph one...
DICKERSON: The judge's decision is incredibly technical, but the point is, Julio won his legal argument. He got the judge to think of Shawn as a low-level drug offender. But he failed to convince the judge that Shawn deserves to stay.
UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: To the respondent - Sir, I wish you the very best of luck, and we are adjourned.
DICKERSON: Back outside, Julio explains to Shawn's family what will happen next. Marie and Joey both have tears running down their faces. You can hear Shawn's stepmother.
MORENO: ...Criminal convictions which, you know - that's the reason we're here. Everybody's conceding that he has been convicted
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Crying) Yeah, of course.
MORENO: But the whole point of this defense is that he's changing, he's ready to make a...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Crying) Of course.
MORENO: ...A full change in his life, so...
DICKERSON: We get in the car and start heading back to Atlanta. It's going to be a long drive home and an even longer one for Shawn's family.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: This call is subject to recording and monitoring.
DICKERSON: A couple months later, I get a call from Shawn in jail. His appeal with the immigration courts is still pending. He says he feels like the only country he's ever known is turning its back on him.
SHAWN: What happened to all these years that I've been in this country, paid taxes and all this stuff, you know? Just to hell with me, you know?
DICKERSON: To hell with me, he says. Two days later, I get a call from Julio. Shawn lost his appeal. He'll be deported to Guyana any day. I ask Julio what he thinks convinced the judge to rule against them, but he doesn't have any answers. In fact, he says he just won a really similar case the other day. He says this kind of thing just happens all the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MCEVERS: That that was NPR's Caitlin Dickerson. You can hear more from Lumpkin on the NPR podcast Embedded.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.