In a courtroom behind a locked door, Julio Gonzalez sits on a bench waiting to hear whether he will be allowed to stay in the country where he has lived for nearly half a century. He’s wearing a blue jumpsuit provided by the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, the privately run federal holding facility for immigrants the government wants to deport. The proceedings of the U.S. Immigration Court take place inside the detention center.
A courtroom officer calls for Gonzalez by the number he has been assigned: “Nine-zero-eight, your honor.” He steps forward, a graying, plump 47-year-old with a mustache and glasses, and passes his wife, Charlotte, a woman with long, dark hair sitting quietly on a bench across the aisle. He shrugs at her with his eyes, the kind of look you give to someone who has shared your life for no small amount of time.
Julio and Charlotte Gonzalez, whose marriage certificate was signed 21 years ago at the Precious Memories chapel in Huntington Park, Calif., are up against a challenge of Kafkaesque proportions. Julio’s late mother was an American citizen, according to the Gonzalezes and a copy of a birth certificate documenting the arrival of baby Raquel Sandoval in Santa Fe, N.M., on April 4, 1934. Her parents were born in New Mexico, Julio says. Julio’s father was a legal resident who worked at a chroming factory for 25 years in Arizona, where he died. Julio’s wife is an American citizen, with a California birth certificate to prove it. Julio and Charlotte have four children, ranging in age from 24 to 16, all born in the U.S.
Julio has lived in this country since he was a baby, he says. Before he was born, however, his mother spent some time in Mexico, where she delivered Julio, one of her 10 children, most of whom were born in the U.S. She returned to this country in time to give Julio memories of waking up from naps and being fed orange juice and peanut butter crackers in a Los Angeles kindergarten.
But to immigration officials, his Mexican birth is what matters. One rainy day in early February, Julio drove to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to pick up his wife and oldest son, also named Julio. A month earlier, the younger Julio, who lived in Idaho, had fallen into a coma, the result of a staph infection. Charlotte was bringing him home.
Somehow, Julio veered into the wrong place at the airport and was stopped by a security officer, who discovered through a background check that Julio had a warrant out for his arrest due to driving with a suspended license. He was taken to the Kent City Jail. “An immigration officer was right there,” Julio recalls. “He asked me where I was born. I said Mexico.”
The next thing Julio knew, he was on his way to the detention center in Tacoma.
Nationwide, the detention population has been booming in response to a backlash against illegal immigration that began in the mid-1990s and has grown ever more intense since 9/11. In 1994, the federal government detained 7,444 immigrants on any given day, according to Detention Watch Network, a D.C.-based group that advocates for detainees. The government today has bed space to detain 22,000 immigrants, and those available beds tend to be used. President George W. Bush’s fiscal year 2007 budget allocates money for an additional 6,700 beds, which would make the increase since 1994 almost fourfold. The number of removals every year from the U.S.—whether formal or “voluntary”—is even greater. In 2004, they totaled 1,238,319, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics.
The intense debate over immigration now playing out in Congress, provoking unprecedented demonstrations by immigrants in Seattle and across the country, is over proposals to further increase the number of people detained and deported. The House passed a measure that would criminalize all illegal immigrants. Legislation proposed by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., which offers a chance at citizenship for many of the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants believed to be here, was supposed to be a compromise but nevertheless contains toughened enforcement provisions that would allow indefinite detention and create new grounds for deportation. It was attacked for being too lenient. Said U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., author of the stricter House bill: “This is a slap in the face to those who are following the law and taking the right steps to enter this country.” Such a statement implicitly references people most of us undoubtedly have in mind when we think of immigrants that face, or should face, deportation: lawbreakers who recently snuck across the border.
But many immigrants at risk for deportation are deeply integrated into American life after numerous years here. They are surrounded by American citizens, who may be their spouses, children, parents, brothers, sisters, or, as in the case of Julio Gonzalez, all of the above. They may not even have come here illegally.
“My typical day is having someone call me on the phone in disbelief that this could be happening to them,” says Aarti Shahani, co-founder of Families for Freedom, a New York–based organization supporting families torn apart by immigration laws. When an immigrant—legal or not—is convicted of what is known in immigration law as an “aggravated felony,” that person is subject to mandatory detention and has little recourse to deportation. It used to be that only severe crimes like murder and rape constituted aggravated felonies. But in 1996, Congress expanded the aggravated felony category to include a laundry list of crimes, including, paradoxically, certain misdemeanors like assault. Says Shahani, “I see people go into court all the time and say, ‘But your honor, I have a 3-year-old, I have a 7-year-old.’ The judge will consistently say, ‘Listen, it’s not in my hands. Go tell Congress to change the laws.'”
Congress’ current get-tough approach includes, under Specter’s proposal, expanding the aggravated felony category yet again to include repeat drunken driving offenses.
Under existing law, immigrants can also be deported for minor crimes including shoplifting and drug possession, although judges have more discretion in those cases.
Immigration law consists of statutes that are not intuitive. “It gets complicated,” says Gary Garman, who works out of the Tacoma detention center as the assistant field office director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for investigating and deporting illegal immigrants. “Most Americans have no knowledge of it.” Even figuring out whether someone is a citizen or not can be tricky. Asked about Julio Gonzalez, Garman says he can’t discuss specific cases but pulls out reference material. Garman discovers that if a baby is born today to an American citizen outside the country, that baby is automatically an American citizen. But because Julio was born between 1952 and 1986, he is only an American citizen if one parent was a citizen and was physically present in the U.S. for 10 years, five of which occurred after the parent was 14.
Get caught in this maze and you can find yourself whisked away from your family, with your only future contact through a glass window and a phone—if your family is able to travel to Tacoma from as far away as Alaska. You are treated like a criminal, except that a criminal has far more right to due process.
It used to be that the federal government ran a detention center in Seattle that held between 100 and 150 people. A few years ago, the government contracted with a private company called Correctional Services Corp., later subsumed by the GEO Group, to build and operate a new, expanded detention center. The facility would house potential deportees not just from Washington but from Alaska and Oregon. Opened in 2004 on the industrial no-man’s-land of the Tacoma Tideflats, the facility averages 525 detainees a day, according to Garman. The detention center is set to expand to a population of 800.
“It’s like a hub with the airlines,” Garman says. Authorities in the three-state region send their detainees to Tacoma with the intent of ultimately shipping them out to their various homelands.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Garman tells me when I request a tour of the detention center, noting that people go in and don’t come out. He doesn’t say it in a menacing way. With a surprisingly cheerful disposition despite his surroundings, Garman is not a menacing man. But he doesn’t seem to be entirely joking, either. He is simply stating a fact.
After the facility opened in 2004, Gwynne Skinner, a human-rights lawyer who teaches at Seattle University and practices with the Public Interest Law Group, received a number of calls from detainees complaining of abuse. She filed a lawsuit against Correctional Services Corp. on behalf of two detainees— one who claimed that she had been sexually harassed by an officer, the other who alleged he had been beaten by an officer until he bled all over the floor and was nearly unconscious. “It was so outrageous and so egregious that over 100 inmates filed grievances about it,” Skinner says, referring to the alleged beating. The corporation denied wrongdoing but agreed to a monetary, confidential settlement late last year, according to Skinner. She says she also engaged in productive discussion with Warden George Wigen about problems at the facility. “On the one hand,” Skinner says, “I think he takes complaints seriously and is trying to do something about them. On the other hand, I think he, like most, sees it as a prison.” Wigen declined to be interviewed.
As Garman begins to show me around, he maintains he doesn’t see it that way. “In state prisons, there are all these people hanging out with tattoos,” he says. So the people in Tacoma don’t seem like they should be prisoners. But the facility turns them into just that.
An officer in the command center buzzes Garman, another ICE officer, and me into a hallway dubbed the “gray mile.” Gray is the color of the polished cement floor, which stretches into the distance. The walls are stark white. The effect is sensory deprivation.
On our way to the room where new detainees are processed, we pass a couple of black canvas bags. They are property bags, Garman explains, into which detainees are obliged to put everything that belongs to them. In exchange, they are given jumpsuits—blue, orange, or red, depending on whether they have committed crimes and how severe those crimes were, red being the most severe. Criminals have completed paying penalties or serving time before coming here. This week, 325 of the facility’s 508 detainees are wearing blue, the color of noncriminals.
The processing room looks like a police station, with a big open space where officers take information. Around the circumference of the room are single and group holding cells, where a number of men stand listlessly or use telephones that are provided. Some of the cells contain televisions hanging from the ceiling, which no one seems to be watching. Also in the cells are metal toilets behind half-walls, offering token privacy.
The housing quarters contain similar cells, but sized for two people, measuring maybe 5 feet by 10 feet. There are bunk beds with thin mattresses, a few pegs for hanging towels, and square shelves of desks that are too small to invite any serious reading or writing. Detainees may also be housed in quarters that are built like open dorm rooms.
Everything is spotless. Detainees are expected to clean their own cells but get paid $1 a day to clean the big communal spaces—one for each 60-person “pod”—where they are free to congregate at any time during the day. As we walk around a women’s pod, Garman struggles a bit as he tries to think of the right word to call the compensation detainees get for cleaning duties. He alights on it happily. “Stipend,” he says. “That’s how we get around the minimum wage laws, by calling it a stipend.”
There are TVs hanging from the ceiling here, too. On either side of the room, there are little outdoor courts for playing ball, covered with a metal grid. Garman says that board games are available, and he points to a small bookcase filled with cheesy paperbacks. Detainees are not allowed to bring in their own books to pass the time, although family members might be able to donate books to the facility’s library.
The options are apparently not inviting for most people, who sit at long tables doing nothing much at all except drinking coffee and snacking on items they can buy from the commissary. They barely talk to one another. “They do a lot of sleeping here, I’ve noticed,” Garman says, which is remarkable, really, considering the glare of the fluorescent lights off the polished cement and white walls.
We leave the women’s pod to see the men’s quarters, which are similar, and a segregation unit, an eerily quiet place where detainees are kept isolated in cells for disciplinary or administrative reasons. Then we reach the door for the outdoor yard. Peeking out, we see a barren field surrounded by barbed wire. A group of men is getting ready to come in. They stand lined up facing a wall. An officer shouts a command in Spanish, the dominant language among detainees, and the men put their hands against the wall. The officer then proceeds to pat down each man—looking for contraband that a detainee might have somehow picked up from the barren field.
Manuel Rios, a prominent immigration attorney who works closely with the Mexican consulate in Seattle, says conditions make people “swallow the pill of deportation.” Often, his clients get tired of spending weeks, months, or even years in the detention center while fighting their cases and opt for “voluntary” departure. For others, that’s not much of an option.
“I’m going to be in the street,” says Julio Gonzalez of the possibility of returning to a country he feels as if he’s never been to. He’s speaking by phone from the detention center during one of several conversations. “I don’t know nobody over there,” he says of Mexico. “How can they just separate me from my wife, my family, my job, everything I have here and throw me into the street like a dog?”
Temporarily, Gonzalez could return home to see his family in Kent if he could afford $3,000 in bail. He says he can’t. Before he was detained, he was earning about $400 a week as a gate technician at Union Pacific Railroad. Charlotte makes about the same stocking orders at a Starbucks roasting plant.
Gonzalez’s option is court.
U.S. Immigration Court is supposed to be open to the public. But the public rarely sees what goes on. Unlike most courts, there is no place people can go to look up a file. You can make a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Government officials attribute that and other oddities of the court to the fact that it is an administrative court, not a criminal one. It is overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice—the executive branch of government, not the judicial branch.
When I arrive at the detention center one Monday morning to sit in on court proceedings, the officer at the reception desk is momentarily flustered by a reporter’s presence. He makes a call and gets the OK to allow me in. I get to take a notebook; most everybody else has to store belongings in lockers. I pass through the waiting area, where family members sit until their loved one’s case is called, and am escorted by an officer through the locked door that leads to the courtroom.
It takes me a few minutes to figure out what’s going on and why this courtroom seems so different. On one side of the aisle are rows of detainees in their blue, orange, and red jumpsuits. On the other side, for most of the time, is nobody but me. Occasionally, one or more family members will be ushered in to sit on my side of the aisle. Once, a lawyer comes in to sit there.
Most strikingly, the judge’s chair is empty. Immigration Judge Victoria Young is presiding by video link from the court’s Seattle location 30 miles away. That’s one reason so few lawyers are in the room. Immigration lawyers have to choose whether they want to be in Seattle with the judge or in Tacoma with their client. “For us, it’s a lot easier to represent a client when you’re face-to-face with the judge,” says lawyer Vicky Dobrin. “The downside is clients are sitting there by themselves.” And when you want to ask a client a question, you do so over the video link, allowing the whole courtroom to hear.
There’s another reason that the Tacoma courtroom is so devoid of lawyers. Unlike criminal court, a detainee is not entitled to free representation. “I would guess about 80 percent of people don’t have an attorney,” says Andrea Crumpler, who supervises a program of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which advises detainees of their legal rights. Gonzalez says he can’t afford a lawyer, either.
So that’s why he now faces the judge, via video, on his own. “I’m trying to go through documents that the family has brought,” Judge Young says to the prosecutor-like figure, an ICE attorney named Thomas Molloy. Charlotte had come with a bevy of American birth certificates, including Gonzalez’s mother’s, his older brother’s, hers, and their children’s. That, she says, goes above and beyond what she was instructed to bring by another ICE attorney who was present at a previous hearing.
Flipping through documents, Molloy indicates that he is not satisfied. He announces the rule that requires Gonzalez to document his mother’s presence in the U.S. for 10 years, including five years after she was 14. The judge sets a date for another hearing and advises him to bring relevant documents and witnesses.
Afterward, outside the detention center, Charlotte lets loose, distraught. “His mother lived like a gypsy,” moving from New Mexico to Arizona to California, Charlotte says. She doesn’t know how she is going to find documents for dates that rely on Gonzalez’s memory of a childhood nearly 50 years ago. “They ask you for things that are almost impossible,” she says. “Today I’m tired.”
“What you have is a very unusual, entirely unrepresentative case,” says Steven Camarota, hearing the details of Gonzalez’s entanglement. Camarota is research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a D.C. think tank that presses for stricter immigration enforcement. “We should be willing to make exceptions,” he says, maintaining nonetheless that the bigger problem is the people who escape detention and deportation. Judging by interviews with detainees and immigrant advocates, Gonzalez’s case is indeed atypical—though not unprecedented, according to Garman—in that Gonzalez’s mother was born in the U.S. It is not unusual for someone to be detained whose parents were born elsewhere but have become legal residents or American citizens. It is absolutely commonplace for a detainee to have children who are American citizens and who thus risk losing a parent to deportation. “Children often pay the penalty for their parent’s indiscretions,” Camarota says. Adds ICE spokesperson Lori Haley: “People who come here illegally know what they’re doing. They know what the consequences are for their children.”
Ceasar Keymolen recently spent six months in the Northwest Detention Center, during which time he was separated from now 8-year-old daughter Allisa and 4-year-old son Ceasar Jr. It is unlikely that Keymolen knew what the consequences would be for his children when he immigrated here illegally. He was around 2 years old. His mother, Gena Mejia, brought him and his sister here from Mexico on a legal visit, then overstayed. When immigration reform in the mid-1980s offered the possibility of amnesty to illegal immigrants, Mejia and her children all became legal residents. Keymolen is now 30 and works as a welder at a Woodinville fabrication shop.
“I’m not an angel by any means,” admits the beefy, tattooed Keymolen, sitting in his mother and stepfather’s pink rambler on an acre of land in Monroe. Growing up, he got into trouble often and accumulated convictions for assault and forgery, among other charges. Court documents and a copy of an ICE report given to me by his attorney suggest some gang involvement. His criminal past obliged him to wait a number of years before applying for citizenship, while his mother and sister have gone on to become citizens.
“I’ve grown up since then,” Keymolen says. He says that a turning point was in 1998, the year his oldest child was born, the year that a cousin of his was fatally shot, leaving three fatherless children behind. “I looked at that and said that wasn’t going to be me.” Keymolen’s responsibilities deepened two years ago when, on Father’s Day weekend, his on-again, off-again girlfriend and the mother of his children died of a medication overdose. “Ever since then, they’ve been with me,” he says of his kids, who are now running in and out of the room.
Police and court records confirm that Keymolen has almost no offenses on his record since he was a teenager. He does, however, have one assault charge—a misdemeanor—from 2001. Last summer, four ICE agents showed up on his mother’s doorstep. According to Mejia, they first demanded to know her status, then showed her a picture of her son, and, after she called him and he agreed to meet them, took him away. Four years after the fact, officials informed Keymolen that the misdemeanor assault was a deportable offense. He had received no jail time for the crime—just a 365-day sentence that was entirely suspended. Under immigration law, “crimes of violence” that result in sentences of 365 days or more, whether suspended or not, count as aggravated felonies, requiring mandatory detention and all but certain deportation.
While relatively minor, the assault offense does not look pretty on paper. Keymolen’s erstwhile girlfriend, Liberty Bell, told Bellevue police that he had hit her on the chest while she was pregnant with their second child after a fight about him leaving for the night. She had also previously accused Keymolen of abuse. In a 1999 statement she filed while seeking a protection order, she wrote that Keymolen “has beat me continuously because he says I deserve it. He has stripped me down and thrown me outside.”
Keymolen, however, says Bell suffered from bipolar disorder that made her prone to violent outbursts. “It was a two-way street. She’d flip out and come at me. I would grab her and push her away from me,” he says.
He is backed up by Bell’s mother, sister, and aunt, all of whom have filed statements on Keymolen’s behalf with the immigration court. “You’d have to have known my daughter,” Cindy Conley says of Bell. “When she was in her rage and craziness, she would hit me, she would go after people.” Conley, an American citizen, is already raising a grandchild who lost her dad due to deportation—a 13-year-old who, in fact, has never seen her dad. She doesn’t want Allisa and Ceasar Jr. to lose their dad, too. “Ceasar was a gangster type of guy. But when Liberty died, we had a reversal of a person,” she says. “He’s wonderful. He stepped up to the plate.”
After Keymolen was detained, his attorney submitted the statements from Bell’s family to a King County District Court judge in an effort to retroactively modify the sentence. If the judge would agree to take just one day off the sentence that Keymolen never had to serve anyway, his prospects before immigration court would change dramatically. The judge agreed. With the slash of a pen through the number 365 on Keymolen’s sentencing report, above which has been written 364, Keymolen was able to bail out of the detention center. He still faces possible deportation. But the immigration judge is now allowed to consider factors like rehabilitation and the care of his children, who, one year after their mother’s death, saw their father disappear for six months.
“There’s only one thing we don’t understand,” Keymolen says after telling his story. If he committed a deportable offense in 2001, why wasn’t he taken then by immigration officials? Somebody, he believes, called those officials on him. And he thinks it has something to do with a property dispute his family has been having with a Monroe neighbor who, on at least one occasion documented by police, assailed Keymolen with racist remarks and a garden hose. “I got you wet ’cause you guys are wetbacks,” Daniel Sanford told Keymolen, according to the police report. Sanford later pleaded guilty to assault, and Keymolen obtained a protection order against him dated Aug. 22, 2005. Monroe police say they didn’t call ICE. Yet the very next day, four federal agents came looking for Keymolen.
Keymolen was lucky in one respect: He found a judge who was willing to revise a past case. Byron Alvarez had no such luck.
Like Keymolen, Alvarez was brought here as a kid by his mother. He was eight when he left Guatemala and arrived here as an illegal immigrant. Now 28, with close-cropped hair and a slight mustache and goatee, Alvarez says he attended school in Tacoma and graduated from Mount Tahoma High School. Then, he says, he got stuck, unable to go to college because of his illegal status. He worked a series of fast-food and roofing jobs before landing a job at a Sumner distribution center serving Wal-Mart. He rose to the level of manager there, supervising 100 employees. He also married an American citizen whom he had known since they were teens. Together, they cared for their now 2-year-old child and three other children from previous relationships, two of them his.
Meanwhile, his mother had become a citizen and was in the process of sponsoring him to become legalized. Last August, police stopped Alvarez for speeding as he was on the way to work. Shortly after, he found himself headed for the detention center. Unbeknownst to Alvarez, he had been ordered removed from the U.S. in absentia. According to legal papers later filed by his attorney, immigration authorities had sent Alvarez a notice for an interview about legalization to the wrong address, and the order was issued when he failed to appear. Alvarez’s attorney reopened that case to clear up the mistake.
But Alvarez had an even bigger problem. During a traffic stop in 2002, police found a small bag of methamphetamine on the floorboard of his car. Although he claims the bag wasn’t his, Alvarez pleaded guilty to drug possession in exchange for a sentence of one day in jail. His public defender, Alvarez says, neglected to tell him that such a drug conviction would be cause for deportation. While not considered an aggravated felony, it might as well be for illegal immigrants, who cannot in such cases seek a waiver.
So while still in the detention center, Alvarez’s attorney sought to vacate his guilty plea on the grounds that he had not been informed, as required by law, of the consequences of his plea. Pierce County deputy prosecuting attorney Stephen Trinen fought the motion, arguing that the consequences were contained in the paperwork. “It’s a technical, legal issue at this point,” says Trinen, who also hinted at other things on Alvarez’s record. When he was 18, he was convicted of vehicle prowl and possession of stolen property. A Pierce County Superior Court judge let the 2001 guilty plea stand.
“Are you kidding me?” his wife, Leah Alvarez, says after the verdict. “It just doesn’t make any sense.” For that matter, she has a hard time making sense of her husband’s entire predicament. “He can’t be deported. He has a home, a wife and kids here. Hel-lo.”
Byron Alvarez is still eligible to apply to have the crime expunged from his record in 2008. But if he were to wait for that, he would have to spend two more years in the detention center. By late last month, he had spent seven months there already, during which time he had been unable to hold his baby while she grew from a 1-year-old into a 2-year-old. He decided to “voluntarily” depart.
Although he will be escorted out of the country by ICE officials, his wife is allowed to travel to Guatemala with him. She says she will only stay for a couple of weeks. She has a job here at a staffing agency. For Byron, having his wife and children move to Guatemala seems untenable given the poorer conditions of life there. “That’s the whole reason we came here,” he says.
But how Leah will cope without him is an open question. In an age when the prevailing political sentiment endorses self- reliance, the government is removing a working parent that kept a family functioning. Already, Leah is feeling the strain. “Not only do I have to take on the role of single mother, but I have the role of managing the apartments,” she says. In addition to his warehouse job, Byron served as the manager of their apartment building. The apartment- manager job gives Leah free rent. “Otherwise, we’d be screwed.”
In a down-at-the-heels apartment complex in Kent, Charlotte Gonzalez and the three children that live with her are also feeling the strain of losing a working parent to the detention center. “The phone bills are over there and I’m scared to open them,” she says, pointing to a table jammed between the small living room and even smaller kitchen. She’s not sure she can pay the light bill, either. Her 19-year-old daughter, Desiree, wanders in with an almost-empty shampoo bottle and asks if there is more. “Mix it with a little water,” Charlotte says. “I can’t buy no more.”
Charlotte and Julio did not have perfect lives and a perfect marriage. He was a gangbanger when he was a teen, according to Charlotte. Gonzalez admits he got into trouble when his mother tended bar at night. While still an unruly young man, he would walk by Charlotte’s house in Bell Gardens, Calif. They noticed each other. Eventually, they would sit on her porch talking through the night. While they had a strong connection, their subsequent married life was dragged down by drugs, drinking, and lost jobs.
Four years ago, Gonzalez finally listened to a brother who lived up here and belonged to a church that ran a men’s home for people looking to change their lives. Gonzalez spent a year there. Charlotte and the rest of the family followed. “We’ve been serving God ever since,” she says.
“We were doing OK,” Julio says, “paying our bills.” He was well regarded at the railroad. Says his supervisor there, Glenn Strieker, when I call him: “I would put him back to work on Monday.”
But there was the rainy night last February when Gonzalez was taken away from the airport. Charlotte and their son, weak from the coma, waited for hours to be picked up. The 24-year-old Julio, now recuperating at his parents’ apartment, still hasn’t seen his father. While Julio can seem cavalier, joking that now he can call immigration if his dad messes with him, he turns serious to explain why he hasn’t visited the detention center. “When I see Dad, I want to hug him and say, ‘Dad, I love you,’ without speaking to him through an artificial thing,” he says of the glass partition.
And so he waits. The whole family waits to see if the government will let his father out. Julio Gonzalez’s next court hearing is May 18.