Extreme Vetting

Extreme Vetting

Extreme Vetting
February 2019
Day 1 (Wednesday)

Livia Holban arrived at the Seattle Immigration Court that morning determined to fight like hell for Félix Dominguez’s children. Sixteen-year-old Cruz and thirteen-year-old Clara Dominguez sat beside her at the counsel’s table looking terrified at the prospect of being sent to Honduras, a country they didn’t even remember. At the government’s table, Immigration and Customs Enforcement trial attorney Josh Henderson appeared relaxed, as if he’d already secured the kids’ deportation.

“Any submissions for today’s individual hearing?” Judge Carolyn Felsen said.

Livia handed over a manila folder with pictures from Félix’s murder scene. He had been Livia’s client prior to his deportation, a good man who had lived in Washington State for many years, worked hard, and paid his taxes. But last October, Judge Felsen had denied his asylum application and ordered him deported to Honduras. Félix’s plane landed in Tegucigalpa. He hitchhiked from there to Choluteca, where he had family. By mid-November, he was dead—murdered by MS-13 as a warning to other Hondurans who thought they could escape the gang’s grip by fleeing north.

Judge Felsen leafed through the photos. The courtroom was so quiet that Livia could hear the ceiling lights buzzing. A bench squeaked as someone in the kids’ foster family shifted in an otherwise empty gallery.

Cruz bit his lower lip. Clara stared down at her hands. Livia imagined her own fourteen-year-old daughter Alice sitting at a table like this, terrified, while a judge decided her fate. As an immigrant herself, Livia knew how frightening it was to be at the mercy of a bureaucrat while your whole life hung in the balance. In 2001, her then-husband Adrian was offered a job at Microsoft, and the two of them left Romania for the U.S. But in the wake of September 11, their corporate-sponsored green card applications—and Livia’s work permit—had been delayed for six long years. While Adrian went to Microsoft every morning, Livia was legally forbidden to work. So she stayed home, miserable and alone at first, and then with baby Alice—her tiny American citizen.

By the time her work permit arrived, she’d earned a paralegal certificate, was fluent in Spanish, and was finishing up her J.D. at the University of Washington School of Law. Her first job interview was for a paralegal position at an insurance law firm. It ended as soon as it began.

“Language,” the middle-aged white male interviewer told her, “is our professional tool. And I’m sorry but we can’t possibly have you at our firm. If our clients hear your accent, they’ll think we’re running a freak show here.”

There were plenty of accents in immigration law, though. Still, once in a while a judge would squint and lean forward when Livia spoke, as if making an extra effort to understand her. Which made her work twice as hard to ensure that her accent didn’t place her clients at a disadvantage.

Judge Felsen closed the folder, then reopened it and examined the photos again. Livia took a deep breath. She had a hard time keeping her English steady and efficient when her emotions ran high. Her brain would sputter. Unable to find the right words in English, it would default to Romanian. For Livia, keeping her cool in stressful situations was vital, because her words could make a crucial difference in the lives of her clients. And at the moment, she was anything but cool.

Last night, she cried while printing out the murder scene photos. Félix had been found in the driver’s seat of a gray Toyota pickup, head tilted back, eyes closed. There was a gunshot wound in his throat, and his white shirt was soaked with blood. Close-ups showed one blood-spattered hand clutching the steering wheel, and two bullet casings on the sidewalk. Another picture showed a blood-stained photo of Cruz and Clara, taped to the truck’s dashboard. Livia also printed out a photo of Félix in Seattle, wearing a green-and-blue Sounders T-shirt. He was a big soccer fan, with a nice smile.

Judge Felsen rubbed her forehead. “Let me get this straight, Counsel. Are you implying that I’m responsible for the murder of your former client?” Her voice was calm, but her hand shook a little on the manila folder.

“No, I’m not implying that at all,” Livia said, jolted by dread. She thought her best approach would be to show the photos—but had she gone too far? “Those pictures show what might happen to Cruz and Clara if they’re deported.” She hated saying it in front of the children.

“Your former client,” Judge Felsen said, “was just… unlucky. The asylum rules changed shortly before his hearing.” She tapped her finger on the bench. “As you may recall, the U.S. attorney general wrote a formal legal opinion stating that victims of domestic and gang violence no longer qualify for asylum.”

“Félix Dominguez was unlucky, yes,” Livia said. “Especially since a federal judge subsequently struck down the asylum rules that were used to deport him. But by that time, my client—”

“This is preposterous, Your Honor,” the government attorney said.

“Don’t call me Your Honor, Mr. Henderson,” Judge Felsen snapped at him. “This isn’t a court of law. It’s an administrative tribunal.”

“I’m sorry… Judge,” Mr. Henderson said.

Immigration judges seldom drew attention to the fact that their courtrooms operated under administrative law rather than the formal judicial system. Their job was to apply rules and procedures created by government agencies. When it came to immigration court, the government didn’t have to prove that Livia’s clients should be deported; she had to prove that they shouldn’t be.

Livia took a deep breath. “I hate to bring up Mr. Dominguez’s tragic story with his children present, Judge. But if the Department of Homeland Security denies their application, they…” She didn’t want to say the words again in front of Cruz and Clara. They looked terrified enough already. “But the evidence I provided at their father’s hearing last year is just as relevant today. Perhaps more so.”

“Circumstantial evidence, at best,” the government attorney said with a smirk.

“Circumstantial, Mr. Henderson?” Livia said. “Félix had been stabbed before. At his hearing last October, I entered graphic pictures of his stab wounds into evidence. I even asked him to lift his shirt and show his knife scars. Those wounds were inflicted in Everett, Washington, long before his deportation.”

“He was involved with MS-13,” Henderson said.

“He was terrorized by MS-13. He fled Honduras because he didn’t want to work for them. They found him here and—”

“And you believe that?” Henderson said.

Judge Felsen rapped her gavel. “Order! This is the last time you’ll interrupt, Mr. Henderson.” She turned to Livia but didn’t look her in the eye. “And you, Counsel, make your arguments without throwing accusations at the court, or it will not bode well for this asylum application or any other you may bring before us in the future.” Her voice cracked. “Because… I want you to know that I do my best to follow the law, even when it breaks my heart.”

Livia knew that Judge Felsen could be fired if she didn’t meet the standards of efficiency set by the current administration. It was a conflict of interest well understood by all involved. The many lawsuits challenging the system’s legality would remain unresolved for years to come.

“I know, Judge,” Livia said, trying to sound warm.

“No, you don’t,” Judge Felsen said. “Day after day, I handle—” She struggled to speak. “—death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.”

Livia couldn’t agree more but remained silent.

Judge Felsen cleared her throat. “Please continue.”

“If my clients are deported to Honduras, their lives are at risk,” Livia said. “And one can hardly argue that they’re involved with MS-13.” She nodded toward the folder before the judge. “I think we’ve established a higher than ten-percent likelihood of harm in this case. Under current law, Cruz and Clara Dominguez should be granted asylum.”

Cruz stared at the judge, begging with his eyes. Clara’s lips moved a little, as if in prayer. Livia remembered the phone call she’d received last November, the second worst call of her entire life. Cruz was choking on tears as he told her that Félix had been killed in Choluteca. Everyone knew MS-13 would kill him, so why did they send him back?

“What does the government have?” the judge said.

Henderson still looked confident, though he’d lost the smirk. “Judge, to your previous point about Mr. Dominguez’s deportation, neither you nor the department are in any way responsible for his tragic death in Honduras. Mr. Dominguez never reported the MS-13 death threats to the police in Everett. Therefore, I must ask: Is this how someone in fear for his life really acts?”

Livia thought to argue that undocumented immigrants avoided the police because local authorities cooperated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And that under the current administration, ICE was permitted to arrest undocumented immigrants who’d never been accused of any crime.

The gavel struck again. “Trying to get on my good side, Mr. Henderson?” the judge said. “Do you think I was born yesterday?”

“Judge,” Henderson said, “there’s no proof that Mr. Dominguez’s children will be targeted by MS-13 in Honduras. As far as we know, they’ve never been threatened by MS-13 while living in Everett. And Honduras is their home country after all.”

“For God’s sake, they’re kids, Mr. Henderson,” Judge Felsen said. “Mr. and Miss Dominguez, welcome to your adoptive country.” She banged her gavel.

The children looked confused. They rose to their feet and Livia gave them a hug. “You’re safe now,” she told them, and they broke into timid smiles.

She sent them to their waiting foster family. When she turned back, Judge Felsen was already gone. Livia looked to Henderson, who was closing his briefcase.

“You’re going to appeal?” she said.

“I’ll let the boss decide,” he said, and headed for the doors at the back of the courtroom.

Another man nodded at him in passing: Mason Waltman, Seattle chief ICE prosecutor. He wore a black suit and blue tie and didn’t look much different from the people he deported for a living. Dark eyes and tanned skin. Dark curly hair, short-cropped and graying.

Livia was packing up her black leather tote bag when Waltman approached.

“You might have won this case, Counsel,” he said. “But you made an enemy today.”

“I thought we were already enemies,” Livia said. She’d never stood so close to Waltman before. She noticed an old scar on his left cheek.

Waltman laughed without mirth. “I’m not your enemy, Ms. Holban. I actually admire your idealism, though I don’t condone your lack of respect for the law.”

“Outdated law, Mr. Waltman. Passed to protect people against oppressive governments. Now refugees need protection from gangs and drug cartels their governments can’t control. The law hasn’t kept pace with the times.”

“I meant you made an enemy of Judge Felsen,” Waltman said. “She’ll go home tonight and tell her husband of thirty years that an immigration lawyer with an accent accused her—to her face—of murdering an applicant.”

Livia’s stomach turned cold. “That never crossed my head.” She heard herself and hurried to fix the Romanian leaching into her English. “…crossed my mind. Judge Felsen—”

“Judge Felsen is a human being.” Waltman smiled with the excitement of a kid plucking wings off a fly. “Word will reach the other judges, here and in Tacoma. They’ll blackball you, Ms. Holban.”

“Are you implying that our judges cannot remain impartial, Mr. Waltman? If word of your doubts gets around, they may blackball you.”

“Very funny, Ms. Holban.”

But his threat felt real. The five judges assigned to Seattle and Tacoma were a tight-knit group.

“Will you appeal today’s decision?” Livia said.

“Appeal? Haven’t you heard the good judge? They’re just kids, Ms. Holban. What kind of man do you think I am?”

The kind who chose to destroy families for a living, Livia thought. No, that wasn’t quite true. Waltman also deported dangerous criminals and disrupted illegal trafficking in people and goods. It seemed there was nothing simple about what either of them did for a living.

“I’ll see you soon, Ms. Holban. Because ICE never rests in its mission to clean up the country.”

He said “clean up” as if immigrants like Livia and the Dominguez children were filth. But after her nerve-racking exchange with Judge Felsen, Livia was too spent to come up with a clever retort. Next time, maybe.

But if Waltman was right, there might not be a next time. Or a next win, anyway.

About the Author

Roxana Arama

Roxana Arama holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Her writing has placed in the San Antonio Writers’ Guild Annual Writing Contest, the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest, and the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards, and has been published in outlets including The Write Launch, Dilema Veche (Romania), European Weekly, SIFF’s Reel News, and Goddard’s The Pitkin Review. She maintains a nonfiction website called Rewriting History: How writers turn history into story, and story into history.

Read more work by Roxana Arama.