Nicolas was 17 when he was arrested on a drunk driving charge in January 2010, but he hadn’t been driving. He had been drinking though. The boy who was driving did a quick scramble under Nick, who was sitting on the passenger side of the car, and pushed Nick into the driver’s seat after the state trooper pulled the car over. It was dark and the trooper didn’t see the move. Nick tried to explain that he didn’t drive, didn’t have a license, hadn’t been driving, but his speech was muddled. The trooper arrested him when he failed the walk-the-line test by the side of the road and booked him into jail in downtown Seattle. When I got to know Nick, I could see how it happened, his being shoved into the driver’s seat, and taking the blame for drunk driving. His high school classmates had called him “clueless,” among other more unflattering names. He was so guileless that he didn’t think the other boy had done anything wrong.
Nick’s public defender advised him not to try to defend himself by pleading that he hadn’t been driving, since the judge wouldn’t believe him. This was Nick’s first criminal offense, so he’d get a deferred sentence. That would mean no jail time and the conviction dismissed if Nick had no probation violations for five years. All this sounded good, and sounded good to Nick’s parents, too, so he pled guilty, then waited in jail for his sentencing hearing a few weeks after his arrest. The judge had set bail, but Nick’s parents didn’t have money to pay it, or any collateral to offer to a bail bond company. Even if they had bailed him out, he would not have been released. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had placed a detention hold on him. He was charged by ICE with being in the country illegally.
Nick is an undocumented immigrant. His parents brought him at age three from Mexico, walking with him through the Arizona desert. Nick had never done well in school; in high school he flunked nearly all his classes, and finally dropped out at age 16. His parents repeatedly asked him to get a job, but even though he seemed to try, filling out applications for fast food restaurants and factories, he never got a call back. He was a tall, thin boy with a gentle manner, and amiable. He would have been good looking but for a vagueness about him; he didn’t look one in the eye, and his speech was disjointed. He answered a question, “Did you know that it was ICE who interviewed you in jail?” by saying “I was just sitting on the bunk, you know, and there was someone calling my name, and then I just went to a room and I sat there with a woman, who I thought I knew. I thought she was Mrs. Allbright, from the high school, and we talked for a while. She was nice.”
I met Nick in the Northwest Detention Center, and represented him in a bond hearing in April 2010. We got bail of $3000, the lowest bail usually given by judges in detention. Nick was only 18, was a first time offender, and had been in the country since he was a toddler. All that weighed in his favor. His parents’ church held a fundraiser for the bail money. His first immigration hearing was scheduled for Seattle in December 2010. Nick seemed unworldly to me, not able to connect actions with consequences, but his parents said he was just lazy; he needed to be responsible for himself. They told me to work directly with Nick; he needed to give me all the information necessary to prepare a request to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to drop the immigration charges against him. They seemed to wash their hands of him after he got out of immigration detention.
I told Nick that we needed to prove four things before we could ask DHS to drop charges: first, that he was getting a GED and enrolled in community college; second, that he was a volunteer for community organizations and had the support of many members of his community; third, that he was abiding by all the terms of his probation, including going to Alcoholics Anonymous and meeting with a counselor, and fourth, that he had the full support of his probation officer.
If we couldn’t get the Department of Homeland Security to withdraw the charges, and thus stop the deportation process, I would have a file an asylum claim for Nick. Such a claim had a zero percent chance of winning in court; federal courts in no instance that I could find had granted asylum to Mexican deportees from the US who feared that they would be targets for criminal gangs if they returned. Nick had no family in Mexico willing to take him in; he would be a homeless, destitute deportee who spoke Spanish with a US accent. It was clear to me that he would be easy prey in Mexico. It was equally clear that it didn’t matter a hoot to his chance of getting asylum. The only saving grace was the possibility, after we lost the asylum claim, that ICE would agree not to deport him, at least for long enough to benefit from immigration reform, that ever-receding chimera.
Nick called me every month to report on his progress with his four tasks. Every call was similar. I’d say, “So how’s it going with your number one task of getting into the GED program, Nick?” Nick would tell me, each time, a version of the same story. He had made calls, he had gone to the program to apply, he had filled out paperwork, and yet for a reason he didn’t know, somehow he was still not in a class. It was the same for the other tasks. He had asked at the youth program if he could volunteer, but the program director had not called him. He tried to find out where Alcoholics Anonymous was meeting, but he couldn’t get the information. He had the name of a counselor but the counselor had not called him.
Nick was unfailingly polite and cheerful during our calls. He always began them by saying, “Hello Margaret! How are you today? Do you have sun (or rain, or wind) over where you are? Over here, it’s really sunny.” He never reflected on his experiences, or seemed to learn new methods of achieving his goal. He didn’t blame anyone either, or seem bitter at his lack of success. In October 2010, I told Nick that we had one month left before I had to have all the information that I needed to show DHS that he deserved to have the immigration charges against him dropped. He had made no progress in getting any of the information I requested. I called his mother for help, but she said that Nick needed to learn that he was responsible for helping himself. She said she would ask people at their church for letters of support for Nick, but wouldn’t do more.
To be continued...