When Maria Magdalena Oseguera woke up her son Ramiro and told him officers were asking for him at the front door of her Roy home, he didn’t want to see them. Maria told 37-year-old Ramiro he should speak to the men. Neither she nor her son knew what the initials ICE on their shirts meant.
“She always wanted us to respect the law,” says her daughter Mercedes. “Now she feels very guilty. She knows she just turned him over to the wolves.”
Before Immigration and Customs Enforcement came knocking at 6 a.m. on Sept. 29, 2010, the Oseguera family was the embodiment of the immigrant American dream. Ramiro Oseguera Sr. had brought his wife and five children, including Ramiro Jr., then 5, from Michoacán to the United States in 1978.
His daughters remember how bright the stars were in the early summer mornings when they picked cherries in Utah orchards for local farms. When the children were older, the family worked the onion fields after school, back-breaking migrant labor Ramiro Jr. says he was ashamed of as a child. But their father, Mercedes says, “was teaching us how to work with our hands, to understand that there was always some way to earn money.”
In 1984, deportation cast its first shadow over the lives of the family, when the eldest son, Jesus, was picked up on a traffic violation. He agreed to self-deport, but first married his American-citizen girlfriend in a Magna Catholic church, before taking her on a honeymoon to Mazatlán. He had planned to apply for a green card from Michoacán, but while driving in their car on a narrow mountain pass, he and his wife were crushed to death by a large trailer. One week later, their coffins lay in the church where they had just been married.
The family became naturalized citizens in 1987, thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty law. All, that is, but Ramiro, who, being an apathetic teen, elected to become a legal permanent resident two years later instead. “I didn’t know the consequences of not being a citizen,” he said during a jailhouse interview.
Ramiro’s three sisters all graduated from college and pursued careers—one is now a corporate-training manager, another is a clinical-development analyst. Ramiro struggled with alcohol, depression and prescription drugs, but still managed to graduate from Weber State University in 2006 with a Bachelor in Fine Arts. However, a 2002 third-degree felony conviction for theft, which he successfully got reduced in 2010 to a class A misdemeanor, not only hampered his searches for work, but, the family say, ultimately led ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations [ERO] agents to his door.
When a sobbing Maria Magdalena called her daughters to tell them that Ramiro had been arrested by immigration, “I remember hearing her cry in exactly the same way,” as the day they learned Jesus had died, Mercedes says. “She felt like she was losing another son.”
Held in Spanish Fork jail for 18 months while his family spent $23,000 fighting his case through the courts, Ramiro said his feelings the day ERO handcuffed him were equally bleak. “It felt like I was being picked up by the Gestapo, that I had no rights whatsoever.”
THE RETURN OF JIM CROW
In the complex and ever-changing labyrinth of federal immigration law, there is no statute of limitations on crimes that individuals have committed, been convicted of and served their time for. Even decades later, they can be used by Homeland Security attorneys to justify deportations. It is just one of the many dark, toxic elements that fuel the deportation machine that, under President Barack Obama, has reached unprecedented proportions, with 400,000 expelled each year. “The only people to blame for all these people being deported is U.S. Congress,” says well-respected immigration attorney Leonor Perretta, liaison between the court and members of the Utah Chapter of the Association of Immigration Lawyers of America [AILA]. “Each immigrant has parents, spouse, children, an employer, a church and a community that also suffers the consequences of their deportation. I think Congress needs to look at this bigger picture.”
The local consequences of the federal government’s failure to find a solution to broken immigration policies are visible in a building west of Redwood Road, guarded by a sinister black metal fence. Little wonder that when clients of outspoken immigration attorney Aaron Tarin’s finally find the imposing building, they refuse to go near it until he’s there. “It looks like a jail,” he says.
No words identify what the building is or what it houses. Along with Atlanta and Omaha, it’s one of only three immigration courts nationwide that are located in commercial facilities with ICE. That collocation underscores a long-held perception among some critics that Salt Lake City’s immigration court is tantamount to a deportation assembly line.
The Executive Office of Immigration Review [EOIR], based in Washington, D.C., oversees the courts. According to EOIR figures City Weekly received in response to a records request, between 2009 and 2011, Salt Lake City’s immigration judges, William L. Nixon and Dustin B. Pead, decided the fate of 8,098 people. They allowed 407 to stay, terminated 278 cases because the state couldn’t prove its allegations, and deported 7,383, the vast majority of whom were Mexican. Tarin says these figures demonstrate how brutal the odds are against the immigrant.
Randy Neal was a Salt Lake City ICE prosecutor for 18 months until 2010, when he became an Idaho-based defense attorney. He cautions that the statistics don’t automatically mean the judges are harsh. “I think it reflects a law which is harsh. A significant number of defense cases are weak, usually as a matter of merit on their specific individual facts, but sometimes because of a lack of, or weak, representation.”
Immigration court is an intimate universe all of its own, akin, as one West Coast immigration judge put it, to “holding death-penalty cases in traffic court.” With a choking workload of 1,173 cases pending, extraordinary dramas play out there every day. But even as a core group of 15 immigration attorneys—some of whom served Spanish-speaking missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South American countries—fight to keep families together, ERO agents—some also with Spanish-language missionary work in their background—work the jails and, less frequently, the streets. “We have a vested interest in keeping Utah safe,” an agent told KSL TV.
Whichever side of the immigration court you are on, Neal says, “You can’t be human and not see the terrible effects that are going on. It all comes down to where people were born. There’s no fairness in that, it’s just such a random thing.”
Ramiro knows that firsthand. “I’m an American,” he says, “I’ve lived here since I was 5.” He and other legal permanent residents with misdemeanors or felonies in their past (three of whom agreed to tell their story to City Weekly) tend to be the only detainees who fight deportation, Ramiro says. Most unauthorized aliens, attorneys say, lack resources to hire counsel, and break under the pressures of incarceration, signing away their rights to get out from behind bars.
In this court of second chances—one that is supposedly civil rather than criminal—legal counsel and constitutional rights for the jumpsuited, manacled detainees are in short supply. Some attorneys complain that ICE’s ERO agents are targeting the low-hanging fruit of aliens with minor violations, despite recent government memos to ease off the deportation throttle. Tarin argues that what occurs at 2975 Decker Lane forms part of a larger nationwide stain. He and his Nigerian-born, veteran-attorney partner, Hakeem Ishola, insist immigrants’ rights is the new civil-rights struggle.
“We believe in 60 years [the time it took to end segregation in American schools], we will look back at the way immigrants and their families were rounded up and treated for civil infractions, and see this as a dark time in our history,” Tarin says.
A TALE OF TWO JUDGES
After U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pushed to open a local immigration court, Salt Lake City’s immigration court opened in 2005 in a strip mall, next to a taekwondo studio, with Judge Nixon first appointed, unopposed, to the bench. Both Nixon, a former U.S. attorney, and Pead, a former head of Utah’s immigration prosecution unit for the U.S. attorney’s office, Leonor Perretta says, are friends of Hatch. That history rendered the judges, in the minds of some immigration attorneys, as being pro-government. That’s not a view she shares. “For the most part, both judges are very fair-minded and willing to consider arguments,” Perretta says.
While immigration court judges are “fact-finders,” Perretta says, the two courts, attorneys argue, vary dramatically. Pead is always “very well-versed, he studies the cases,” Perretta says. “I am amazed how well he understands issues, reads everything I write, often quotes it.” That depth of preparation leads to a perception among some lawyers that “he comes up with his own evidence, his own case law,” Perretta says. Tarin, for one, questions whether Pead is always able to remain impartial, describing him as “sometimes a more formidable advocate for ICE’s positions than the government’s attorneys themselves.”
Attorneys view 78-year-old Nixon with a mixture of fondness and despair, characterizing him as unpredictable in both mood and decision-making. When Nixon started the Salt Lake City court, the rate of his denial of asylum cases, according to TRAC Immigration statistics, was at 49 percent, below the national average of 53 percent. But Nixon’s denials in 2009 and 2010 hit 70 percent, while Pead has dropped consistently below the national average for asylum denials at around 50 percent.
Attorneys question whether, as Tarin puts it, the aging Nixon “should hang up his gloves,” a conclusion he supports by pointing to a 2010 10th Circuit decision on an asylum case that found a Nixon asylum ruling included “rather baffling findings ... accompanied by an impenetrable one.”
Perretta acknowledges, “There is a perception among local AILA members that Judge Nixon has been a good judge in the past, but maybe he should consider retiring.”
But if the judges’ approaches to their courts and workload vary, so does that of immigration attorneys. “Some attorneys do a terrible job, which adds to the court’s frustration,” Perretta says. Several have been repeatedly reprimanded for unethical behavior by the Utah State Bar and yet continue to practice before the court. Such attorneys, “just don’t take it very seriously,” she continues. “They do very poor work,” leaving judges to fume over late submissions, inadequately briefed cases and inept presentation.
Shuffling into this fraught world of sharp and not-so-sharp intellects several mornings a week are manacled, undocumented, foreign-born nationals and legal permanent residents with criminal pasts, picked up by ERO agents from Utah’s jails or at their homes.
For 45 minutes prior to their first immigration court appearance, each detainee is interviewed by a pro bono attorney to see if they have any chance of fighting their removal. Unlike a criminal court with its presumption of innocence, detainees facing removal proceedings are effectively guilty in the eyes of the court and do not have the right to counsel. Rather, they have to prove to the court that they are entitled to relief.
From removal statistics received through an open-records request, out of 7,383 people the Salt Lake City court ordered deported between 2009 and 2011, 6,020 did not have counsel. Neal points out that within 10 days of aliens with criminal records getting into the system, typically 80 percent are deported.
After the hurried consultation, they listen to a judge recite their rights while a Spanish interpreter leans over the banister to translate.
Look across the detainees’ blank faces and you sense, as Neal says, “They are at a grave disadvantage. You can tell them all the rights in the world, but they often have no real understanding of what you are saying.”
TENSION IN THE COURT
When the court moved from its cramped quarters by the Salt Lake City International Airport, it was perhaps inevitable that tensions would arise over its collocation in summer 2011 with ICE, its detention agents and ground-floor holding cells. “There is a perception they all work together, especially now they are in the same building,” Perretta says.
According to the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, which speaks for the Executive Office of Immigration Review and for the immigration judges, it is "not uncommon for government agencies to collocate in commercial buildings, and such tenancy has no effect on the impartiality of our immigration judges."
At an October 2011 extrajudicial meeting of immigration attorneys, ICE attorneys and the two judges, tensions flared when Tarin stated that he and his peers used one type of legal challenge to removal proceedings as “a tool for delay”—at least that was how the judges interpreted it, attorneys say.
The judges, Perretta argues, “had to react” to a comment they saw as meaning attorneys were in the business of selling stalling tactics to clients. “I think they probably overreacted,” she says. That overreaction was for the court to ask for evidence up front in cases that often can take years to develop. In a motion, Ishola labeled the new filing requirement as “a naked attempt to intimidate lawyers, as well as an unnecessary restraint on the right to effective assistance of counsel.”
Judge Nixon also went on the offensive by threatening disciplinary proceedings against Tarin for filing a deportation-cancellation application for a client “that does not meet [Nixon’s] standard of hardship,” his partner Ishola wrote in a motion. That meant, Tarin says, he had to either “save my own skin” and sacrifice his client by withdrawing the claim, or face a complaint proceeding. He chose to do the latter.
While the court characterized the new evidence requirements as a way of evaluating how much time each case needed, a furious Ishola filed three long, pointed motions that assailed the court’s impartiality. The court backed down on its requirement and Ishola withdrew his motions.
“I think it’s good what [Ishola] did,” Perretta says. “You never know how far the court is going to go. It may reach the point it does affect people’s rights.”
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs cannot comment on specific cases, but told City Weekly in a statement that immigration judges "adjudicate cases on a case-by-case basis, according to U.S. immigration law, regulations and precedent decisions."
Tensions were further exacerbated when, on Nov. 1, 2011, an ERO agent arrested an undocumented man attending court to support his brother, who was in deportation proceedings. ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice in an e-mail states the man was arrested “briefly after evidence surfaced of a possible immigration violation.” The man was released the same day and, as a consequence of the arrest, attorneys say, his brother’s deportation case was also dismissed. Neal was surprised by the incident. “It has a chilling effect on the ability of the defense to put forward a case if they can’t call on anybody who has an illegal status. It was kind of an unwritten rule that you didn’t take action against immigrants who came in to testify,” he recalls.
Attorneys worry that the arrest means that witnesses without papers can no longer rely on unwritten rules to protect them from ICE’s handcuffs. ICE’s Kice will only say, “The determination about when, where and how to affect an arrest depends on a variety of factors, including safety and security considerations.”
A COIN TOSS
Immigration attorneys argue the government’s greatest deportation weapon is detention. “You lock them up, they are ready to throw it away,” says Tarin.
Ramiro Oseguera knew that feeling of despair all too well. He spent his first days in Utah County Jail, “looking at the clock, placing the events as they happen in your life.”
Unlike state detainees, who know when they will be released, the hardest thing for Ramiro to endure was “not knowing when it’s going to end. People tell you that you will be out in a month or two and it just stretches on and on.”
Deportation detainees complain they are treated like animals. Maximum-security prisoners—typically the most violent or troublesome—are incarcerated for 23 hours of the day. Immigration detainees say they are incarcerated for at least 21 hours a day.
Lane Goold is one of thousands of deportation detainees who accept expulsion without a fight each year. He did a year in Draper State Prison for drug possession, before being transferred by ERO to Utah County Jail prior to a deportation hearing. He complains that while Draper was “terrible,” Utah County, with its endless waiting, is worse. Exercise is restricted, weather permitting, to one or two half-hour sessions walking around a safety-glass-walled and cinder-blocked room with a grate over the top.
Like Ramiro, Goold held legal permanent residence. He’s also the father of five U.S.-citizen children through two marriages. But he was born in Costa Rica and adopted at age 4, along with his younger brother, from an orphanage by an LDS couple in Delta, Utah. With his Costa Rican birth and two drug-possession convictions, the U.S. government viewed him as ripe for deportation.
He spent many nights crying, “trying to figure out how to put my life back together.” Essentially, “I have to prove to the United States that I can stay here,” he says. “How do you prove to the U.S. you’re supposed to be here, when you didn’t ask to come here?”
An attorney told him it was 50/50 “that I could stay. I don’t want to serve a year in here and on a coin toss get deported.”
On Jan. 24, 2012, Goold told Judge Nixon he wouldn’t fight deportation to San Jose, Costa Rica. He couldn’t stomach more time in Utah County Jail. “I realize we are criminals, we made bad choices, it’s not supposed to be a fun thing to be in jail, to enjoy it. But I feel like basic privileges —even if we have to earn them—that would be great. But they aren’t there.”
Goold doesn’t speak Spanish, but believes deportation will make him a better man. He says quietly, “I’ve learned it’s not where you live, it’s the choices you’re making.”
“I WANT TO SEE HIM”
One of immigration attorney Lance Starr’s biggest complaints about the system is that there “is no statute of limitations” on how far back the U.S. government can go to find crimes that render aliens and legal permanent residents deportable. “It can become really heartbreaking,” he says.
ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice in an e-mail says Ramiro faces deportation “based on his lengthy criminal history.” The key offenses she cites, however—two DUIs, drug paraphernalia possession and three thefts—apparently all took place between 1996 and 2002.
Ten years ago, Ramiro stole $80 from a woman’s purse she had left at the Chevron station where he worked. He was convicted of felony theft and did 38 days of a work-release program. His attorney told him, he says, not to worry about the consequences of his conviction on his immigration status, as he was a college graduate who had lived in the United States since he was 5.
Eighteen months since his ICE arrest, his family still struggles to comprehend how 10-year or older misdemeanors can come back to haunt him. “It took place so long ago,” Ramiro says.
Fellow incarcerated detainee Sergio Ortiz, who was brought to the United States at age 5, has also been revisited by his past. In 1999, Ortiz, who became a legal resident that same year, had just turned 19 when he had sex with his high school sweetheart, Erika. At that time, she was a few weeks shy of her 16th birthday. Ortiz took a plea-in-abeyance for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. He and Erika moved in together and raised their son, conceived the night he was sentenced over.
In an affidavit, Erika stated, “it breaks my heart to see him being deported for having started our lives together so many years ago.” When they look into their 12-year-old son’s eyes, “we both know that we share something special.” If Ortiz were deported, she wouldn’t know what would happen to their son. “I fear that he will grow up thinking his dad was deported for bring [sic] him into this world.”
Along with the 1999 conviction, Ortiz was also convicted of voyeurism and trespassing in 2007, after going into a neighbor’s house intoxicated and falling out of a window. Judge Nixon denied him a bond and ordered him deported to Mexico. Tarin and Ishola went to federal court to try to get a judge to order Nixon to give Ortiz a bond hearing.
As Erika talks about her former partner outside federal court, their son paces behind her. He struggles to talk about his father, blinking back tears. “I want to see him,” he forces out, then chokes into silence. His mother and grandmother wipe away tears.
Ortiz’s mother, Olivia Ortiz-Martinez, is fearful for her son. His only relatives in Mexico live in Colonia Juarez, part of the Mormon colonies that polygamists populated in Mexico back in the beginning of the 20th century.
She says her own mother was kidnapped in Colonia Juarez in September 2011 and held for ransom for four days. She subsequently fled to Phoenix. The gang threatened “if they ever saw any of us down there,” they would suffer a similar fate, Olivia Ortiz-Martinez says. “I know if he goes there, he has no chance.”
DEATHS IN "La Familia"
Until recently, immigration judges typically frowned on asylum cases for Mexico. But with 47,500 dead after five years of President Felipe Calderon’s “war on drugs,” the balance may be shifting in favor of Mexican nationals who argue they fear persecution and death if they return.
In September 2011, Tarin filed a compelling brief highlighting the murderous reign of drug gang La Familia in Michoacán as part of a Convention Against Torture [CAT] claim for Hugo Lopez, a Mexican national and former LDS bishop. Mexico’s violence marked Lopez personally when his brother, a law-enforcement officer in Rosarito, Baja California, was found murdered in his home on Jan. 5, 2012, his body hastily buried without any investigation.
The CAT claim cites a numbing litany of murders of men, women and children, law enforcement and human-rights advocates by drug cartel-soldiers and cartel-corrupted police and military in Mexico, the government of which, Tarin argues in the motion, “has increasingly demonstrated a pattern of gross, flagrant, and mass violations of human rights perpetrated by, or at the acquiescence of, government actors.”
Ramiro Oseguera’s family comes from a small town outside of Zamora, Michoacán, an area dominated by La Familia. After the husband of Ramiro’s 42-year-old cousin refused to pay money to a gang, his wife and 15-year-old daughter were kidnapped, raped and, along with their 8-year-old boy, had their throats slit.
Nevertheless, his family believes Zamora should be his first destination. When it appeared Ramiro was to be deported last September, his mother, Maria, went to the Mexican side of the border to meet him and take him to relatives in Zamora, so he could start paperwork to reclaim his Mexican nationality. She intended to stay with him and care for the “baby” of the family.
Maria Magdalena Oseguera doesn’t speak during an interview with her family, her red-eyed gaze in her lap. But the threat of her absence hangs heavily over the dining room. “She’s the core of our family, the lifeblood of our house,” daughter Mercedes says.
Ramiro had steeled himself for deportation. His sister Mercedes takes small comfort in the prospect of his qualified freedom. “At least he will be in the open, smelling cut grass instead of cleaning products.”
Ramiro Sr. is proud of his family’s accomplishments. “The United States opened a door for us to enter,” he says in Spanish. “We have triumphed in the United States. We started with nothing and we have four college graduates. We never asked anything of this government.”
Finally Ramiro’s mother speaks. “It’s our country,” she says firmly.
While the number of Mexican nationals attempting for the first time to enter the United States illegally has dropped by 60 percent in recent years, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, deportees who left behind family members still try to come back. That wasn’t Ramiro’s plan, however. He intended to go to a Mexican resort city, perhaps Puerto Vallarta. “An American city with a Spanish accent,” he said. Other detainees told him with his English, he had better job possibilities than most deportees. “They gave him ideas, they gave him hope,” Mercedes says.
His only fear of deportation was what would happen to him emotionally and spiritually if he were by himself. “I didn’t realize the bond was ever there with my family until [deportation] started pulling on it. My family keeps hope alive for me. I know things will work out.”
And that is the most important lesson, he said—what this experience has taught him. “Knowing I have my family, it makes the world seem a lot smaller.”
The day after City Weekly interviewed Ramiro, Maria Magdalena’s phone rang. It was a collect call from a bus stop in Mexican border town Matamoros. Ramiro told his mother he had been deported. He had no money, no change of clothing, no identification papers, yet he sounded relieved. “He was so tired of being in that jail,” Mercedes says.
His mother, however, was devastated. For the third time, Maria Magdalena’s voice rang with the indescribable grief her family heard at the death of her first son and Ramiro’s arrest. His sisters called bus stations in Matamoros, trying to find him, but no one answered. “We’re hoping he stays in the lobby of the bus station, so we can find him,” Mercedes says. But she and the family are scared of criminals who lie in wait for the deported at the border, knowing they have money from their family, or that relatives will try to wire money to them.
One of his sisters eventually wired him money for food and a bus ticket to Zamora. Accompanied by one of her daughters, Maria Magdalena flew down to Mexico days after his deportation on a one-way ticket.
While Ramiro’s plans to work in a resort are all well and good, Mercedes says, “It’s not that easy. He’s a foreigner there. He’s going to need paperwork, police reports, so he can apply for work.”
So the family’s gnawing uncertainty over Ramiro’s future continues. “We need to get him back on his feet right now,” Mercedes says. “He’s like a deer in front of headlights. He’s helpless.”
They also have to deal with matriarch Maria Magdalena’s absence. Now that she is gone, the parents’ home, so long the center of the extended Oseguera family, “seems desolate,” Mercedes says. “The house is a shell without her.
City Weekly has obtained court documents that spell out one family's battle to stay in the United States through the "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" argument, as well as a Convention Against Torture motion that describes, in detail, why a client of Aaron Tarin's was so afraid of returning to his native Mexico.