The wheels of justice turn slowly. That maxim has never been truer than in the case of Chay Ixcot. A 44-year-old native of Guatamala, Ixcot was arrested on February 13, 1989 almost immediately after he crossed the border near Tijuana. He gave a false name, lied about his age, and told the authorities he came from El Salvador. A judge ordered Ixcot to be deported, but the ruling was appealed and Ixcot's legal status left in limbo for the next two decades--until last week, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals finally ruled that he gets to stay in America.
But thousands of refugees seek asylum in the U.S. every year. That doesn't even come close to explaining why Ixcot's case took so long to work its way through the courts. The culprit, it seems, was a bureaucratic clustercuss of epic proportions.
Ixcot was released from detention five days after he filed his initial appeal in 1989. A year later, he failed to file the proper court documents, so his appeal was dismissed. By all accounts, Ixcot should have been deported then and there . . . yet nothing happened for the next three years.
He filed his application for asylum in 1993, then returned to Guatemala for three weeks to get married. Absolutely nothing happened with his asylum request for the next 12 years. Remarkably, Jorge Barón, the director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which represented Ixcot in the recent proceedings, says such inaction is not outside the norm.
"It's unusual but it's not all that uncommon," Barón says. "Generally what happens with these cases, they were filed by someone and they sat on some pile somewhere in some office and just never got processed. We do see these sorts of cases where things were filed and just got lost in the bureaucracy."
In 1996, there was an key change to U.S. Immigration law that permitted the government to "reinstate" an immigrant's deportation order if they re-enter the country after being deported, without giving them the opportunity to apply for citizenship or, like Ixcot, political asylum. Such is the situation now, and in 2005 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) finally got around to reviewing Ixcot's application for asylum.
It took four years for ICE to interview Ixcot three times to determine his eligibility for asylum. At the last of his interviews in 2009, he was arrested by ICE, who wanted to reinstate his original deportation order. Ixcot resides in the Puget Sound area, so the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project offered to fight on his behalf.
After two years of legal wrangling, Ixcot's case was finally heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The judges ruled against ICE, pointing out that Ixcot filed his application well before the new rules took effect in 1996. (Click here for full text of their decision.)
Barón estimates that the ruling affects "hundreds" of immigrants, mostly from Central America, who are in currently the same situation as Ixcot, waiting for rulings on immigration applications that were filed in the early 90s.
Incredibly, after waiting 22 years to find out whether he'd be sent back to Guatemala, Barón says Ixcot might still be unaware of his legal triumph. "I'm not sure we've been able to establish contact with him in the last few days," Barón says. "We don't even know if he knows about the decision."
But hey, if he's waited this long to find out his fate, what's a few more days?