(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
Sitting in the fourth floor waiting room of Miami’s immigration courthouse, Emma and I nervously watched the clock tick further and further past 10:00. It was our third day interning Catholic Charitable Legal Services, the largest nonprofit provider of immigration legal services in Florida, and the work we had done so far ranged from organizing intake profiles of clients to translating newspaper articles from Spanish to English. That Thursday, we were welcomed to observe attorney Cassandra’s individual case hearing at the courthouse, which we eagerly agreed to. The most meaningful task we had completed so far was a country condition report on Colombia for this case, and we had stayed up the night before translating an article that Cassandra was to use in court to defend her client’s right to stay in the U.S. Emma and I were eager to see the tangible value of our efforts and potentially save a man and his family from getting deported. Additionally, we had observed short master hearings in court before, but never a longer individual hearing where the defendant has the opportunity to testify.
We sat in the waiting room with Cassandra and Stephanie, another representative from CCLS, along with Cassandra’s client, his friend, and his two small children. “Take her jacket off before we go in,” Cassandra instructed her client, pointing at his daughter, maybe 5 years old. I then asked Cassandra why it mattered whether or not the little girl was wearing a jacket in the courtroom. She explained that the kids looked cuter when they matched in their yellow school uniforms. She was willing to take any possible measure to win the sympathy of the dreaded judge the case had been assigned. Looking around the waiting room, I realized I was the only Caucasian person there. I could detect that Spanish and Creole were being spoken, but no English. I felt like I was in a foreign country even though I hadn’t left the United States.
Cassandra was nervous, but Stephanie was confident. “Cassandra wins every one of her cases,” Stephanie whispered to us. Cassandra explained to us that it wasn’t too difficult of a case, and with any other judge it would be a shoe-in, but she was nervous going up against this particular judge.
After waiting 40 minutes, the attorney from the Department of Homeland Security came into the waiting room, motioning that she needed to speak to Cassandra. Cassandra returned moments later, clearly flustered and angry. She whispered something to Stephanie and grabbed her files before hurrying off. When we asked Stephanie what happened, she whispered, “Order of removal in absentia. But be quiet, we don’t want to scare the client.”
The previous case in our courtroom had run over, so we waited for the interpreter to fetch us as was standard procedure. However, the interpreter never came and because the client wasn’t present in the courtroom, the judge ordered deportation. The judge even admitted to having seen Cassandra in the courthouse earlier and knew that she was present for her case. Stephanie explained to us that basically, the judge just didn’t want to have to deal with the case today, and his actions meant that Cassandra would have to refile what should have been an easy case and it would be pushed back for potentially another year.
I’ve never really thought favorably about the U.S. court system, but after this experience I grew incredibly frustrated. I had only learned about the case the day before, but I’m sure the client had been worrying about this day for months and what the outcome would mean for his family, especially his two little children. I found it incredibly unfair that the client was powerless against a bureaucrat who hadn’t even met him, without a chance to defend himself. Cassandra had been working on this case for weeks and had stayed up until 4AM the night before preparing every last detail, and the judge wouldn’t even give her the time of day because he didn’t feel like it.
While there isn’t anything I can do to change how our judicial system works, what I also realized was how lucky the Colombian man was to have such a dedicated attorney as Cassandra representing him. I was told by a CCLS employee yesterday that having an attorney in immigration court makes it 8 times less likely that an undocumented immigrant gets deported, and the majority of immigrants CCLS represents have fled domestic violence, rape, trafficking, or extortion, often at the hands of a partner or gang. Even though some of the tasks I’m given may seem mundane, taking a load off of an overworked employee or doing some organization to help the office run a bit more smoothly in the end has a significant impact on the lives of the immigrants CCLS serves, especially when the consequences of not receiving legal representation mean risking their lives.