In 1999-2000 I was working a six-month stint as an attorney at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle, filling in while the financially-struggling NWIRP sought funding for a permanent removal defense attorney position. I was waiting to go to El Salvador on a Fulbright fellowship to teach trial advocacy at the Jesuit university’s law school; the school term would start in six months. I had less than two years experience in removal defense, and I knew that I had no chance of adequately representing clients in complex removal cases without a mentor by my side. Removal defense is the most complex, intellectually challenging, rewarding, frustrating, and high stakes area of immigration law; throw in any criminal charges and prior removals, and it becomes an intricate puzzle that must be solved under pressure of court deadlines, imminent departure dates, and clients often in immigration detention.
Jonathan Moore was NWIRP’s long-time accredited representative (non attorneys who pass an exam administered by the Board of Immigration Appeals, and who work as attorneys for nonprofit organizations), and the most knowledgeable person in the Pacific Northwest in removal defense. He is a wiry man with shoulder-length graying hair, a uniform of t-shirts and jeans and sneakers (he put a suit jacket over this outfit when he had to go to court), a New York accent, and nervous energy. He is passionate about defending immigrants in an increasingly hostile immigration law environment, and has a grasp of case and statutory law that is unparalleled. He also had time to answer my questions, despite having at least a hundred cases at various stages of preparation. We shared a tiny office, perhaps 24 square feet of crumbling plaster walls that leaked moisture, sloping wood floor covered with a thin film of stained, ancient shag carpet, and a warped wooden window that wouldn’t open and a view of a parking lot. We had word processing computers, no internet connection, and law books and updates that came by mail, for our research.
In my first days on the job, Jonathan gave me a stack of cases to review for basic facts and deadlines. We met by turning our office chairs to each other while I balanced the files on an unsteady typing table between us. I told him the facts of a case, and he told me next steps, and where to start research. He was seldom too busy, too tired, or too stressed-out to give me direction, but he was a fearsome sight when he read another bad judicial decision limiting immigrant rights. And those cases were coming down every day. Jonathan would read a new decision, then jump up from his desk with the decision in his hand, tear into the hallway from which the rest of the staff offices opened, then stomp up and down shaking the crumpled decision in each doorway, shouting “The f**ers! The absolute f**ers! You will not f**ing believe this!” When Jonathan tried to give a summary of the week’s legal decisions at our case meetings, he was often overcome by emotion and could not continue. Every one of the attorneys and legal workers in the organization understood. It was the worst time ever in US history to be an immigrant. Jonathan’s angst, his very public rage and despair, gave the rest of us permission, in a way that we understood but did not articulate, to let Jonathan bear our anger, so we didn’t have to put ourselves through the physical effects. Jonathan was expressing anger for all of us.
Congress had passed the Immigration Reform Act and Illegal Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA – pronounced eye-rah eye-rah) in April 1997, changing the immigration landscape dramatically. Among other provisions, it slapped “unlawful presence” on millions of intending immigrants, requiring that those who were in the country unlawfully must leave the country in order to request an immigrant visa; they could only return to the US by winning a waiver. The waiver is based on a showing of “extreme hardship” to a US citizen or permanent residence parent or spouse, and is denied more than half the time in Mexico, less often in other countries. IIRAIRA also imposed a “permanent bar” on those with unlawful presence in the US who had more than one illegal entry, changed the standard for winning a visa in deportation proceedings from “extreme hardship” to “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” and limited such visas to 4,000 a year for the entire country, and barred those with certain types of crimes, including simple misdemeanors, from ever getting a visa.
It was a grim time, and requests for NWIRP’s services – disability waivers for citizenship applicants, asylum, family-based visas, visas for victims of domestic violence, suspension of deportation for Central Americans, and court representation for those detained in immigration detention who had a good chance of winning a visa – skyrocketed at same time as funding began to dry up. NWIRP, between executive directors and staff, was too busy with the flood of clients to work on fundraising. New callers were carefully screened to determine if they fit the criteria for representation and the financial guidelines, and many more than half of the callers had to be turned away or placed on long waiting lists.
One day in January, caller Brian Collins made his way through the phone screening. He was detained at the county jail in Kent, about 30 miles south of Seattle, not accused of a crime, but housed there with other immigrant detainees. In 2000, the new immigrant detention center in Tacoma that would house 1200 detainees by 2003 was not yet built, and detainees overflowed the old Immigration building near downtown Seattle. That building was never intended to be a detention center when it was built in the 1920s; it was an office building. It looked and felt like a surreal boarding school with barbed wire where detainees often slept on mattress in the hallways. Detainees would hang out the windows on the upper floor where they were housed, and call and wave to the people walking on the street below. It was pre-September 2001, and the building had relaxed vibe that is almost unimaginable today. Immigration detention looks and feels exactly like prison, now. In the late 1990s, the Immigration Service took to buying space in county jails to house the overflow detainees, where they lived side by side with criminal defendants, and under the same conditions.
Brian called the main NWIRP phone number, and like all those detained, was connected to a screener at once, since we couldn’t call detainees in detention. Normally, the detainee would be told that a NWIRP paralegal or attorney would visit him the next time we had a scheduled visit to the Kent Jail, and the detainee’s name and basic intake information would go onto the detention visit list. That is when the staff would make the decision about if we would represent, and at what stage of the proceedings, or if the client would be referred to a pro bono attorney, or a list of private attorneys, or given information on representing himself. But whatever Brian said, it must have been persuasive and urgent, since the screener forwarded his call to me. “He really needs to talk to an attorney right away,” our screener told me.
Brian said that he was an Irish Catholic, from Northern Ireland, and had come to the US less than a year ago on a visa waiver (no visitor visa needed for nationals of certain countries) to escape retribution from the British government for his service as a young teenager for the Irish Republican Army, a guerrilla group opposed to British rule of Northern Ireland. He said he had refused to work for the IRA after he was 16, and had gone into hiding in the Republic of Ireland so that the IRA couldn’t find and punish him for leaving them. But the British government had him on a wanted list, and someone gave information on his whereabouts. So he went in a disguise to the airport in Belfast and flew to Boston, then rented a car and drove to Seattle where he had some cousins.
He didn’t have time to look for the cousins, since the Seattle police stopped him for speeding on a side street when he had just arrived in town. In the car, the police found three passports from three different countries – the UK, France, and Germany – in three different names and with his photo, and two different US driver’s licenses with different names and his photo. The police charged him with identity fraud, and jailed him at King County Jail in Seattle for a few weeks until Immigration put a detainer on him and transferred him to immigration detention. The county prosecutor didn’t want to prosecute, and Immigration didn’t know what to charge him with. Immigration would not release him until they knew he was. The cousins could not be found, Brian said, and there was no one to bail him out. Immigration bail was set for $10,000.
Brian was sure he could prove his identity and get out of detention if he had some help to contact some friends in Ireland who could get his birth certificate and other identity documents. He said he was afraid of asking the British Consulate to prove his identity since he was on a wanted list, and that he had all the passports and driver’s licenses in order to confuse his identity and throw the British government off his trail; he had ditched his own passport when he got to the US. He had already been in immigration detention for a month.
Brian had a soft voice, a charming accent, and told his story well. I was riveted. I told Jonathan right away about the case and the need for delicacy; we could contact the Irish friends, get the correct identity documents, ask the judge to reduce bail, and get him out with few of our resources. Jonathan visited him a few days later; he too was eager to help, and we started calling and writing the Irish friends. But the phone numbers didn’t work and the letters went unanswered. We began taking phone calls every few days from Brian. He always began, “Hello. Brian Collins speaking.” If Jonathan wasn’t available, Brian would ask for me. Both of us enjoyed talking to Brian; he had stories of being recruited at age 12 by IRA operatives who made him swear in a blood ceremony never to betray them, and who burned his fingerprints off with acid after he was caught once by the British, so they couldn’t identify him again. He gave us more names of people to contact in Ireland and Northern Ireland who could help us prove his identity but we couldn’t locate even one.
To be continued...