This is terrible. -Patricia
Aaron Nelsen | The Monitor
August 24, 2008
Juan Larin-Ulloa has been fighting his entire life.
As a government soldier in his native El Salvador, he fought against the advance of the Communist Farabundo Marti National Liberation front.
As a refugee of the same bloody war that ravaged his country and uprooted his family, he fought for asylum in the United States.
But his toughest battle of all was surviving four-and-half years locked up in a South Texas immigration detention facility for a crime that he had already served probation years before.
"It felt like the sky was closing with the earth," Larin said of the experience. "I had never been separated from my wife and kids before."
Larin moved his wife and three children from Los Angeles to Wichita, Kansas in 1997 to open Templo de Poder Sinai church for the city's burgeoning Spanish-speaking population. Two years later, the pastor was charged with battery for his involvement in a fight that erupted outside his home. Larin maintains the fight involved local gang members.
Larin paid the fine and served probation, but, in 2002, on a routine visit to renew his green card, federal officials resurrected his battery conviction - the only blemish on his record after 20 years in the country.
As far as Immigration and Customs Enforcement was concerned, Larin's misdemeanor was justification enough to have him deported. Larin is among thousands of legal permanent residents who are detained and put into removal proceedings for past crimes, often-minor offenses.
The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibilty Act penned by President Bill Clinton took effect in 1997 and made entire classes of crimes deportable offenses, including some misdemeanors.
In addition, it was applied retroactively, making decades old offenses relevant again.
Even more damaging in Larin's case was a provision added later that established mandatory detention for certain violent crimes.
Of the more than 285,000 people deported last year, 97,279 were for criminal convictions, and 74,826 have been deported for crimes this year, according to ICE. The government does not specify how many of those deported were permanent residents.
The removal of longtime permanent residents has been largely overlooked, but their plight underscores the government's commitment to expel immigrants no matter the cost. The day Larin was taken into custody, his wife and children, all U.S. citizens, had no idea that he'd been arrested.
They were unaware that he would be stripped naked, doused in cold liquid, called filthy and sprayed with a hose shoulder-to-shoulder with other detainees. When the family got home that evening, they would receive a scared phone call from Larin.
He'd been arrested, he told them, and he didn't know exactly where he was or where he would be going. They needed to act fast to find him a lawyer, as the government would provide him none.
On any given day, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security holds more than 31,000 people in hundreds of publicly and privately operated facilities across the country. South Texas has the distinction of housing one quarter of them, or just shy of 7,900.
Critics of the government's efforts to detain immigrants say the crush of so many detainees has not been met with commensurate growth in the legal infrastructure of the Rio Grande Valley. Even if a detainee has the resources and good fortunate to secure legal counsel, incarceration can drag on for years, as was the case for Larin.
"It's all part of the government's end plan for immigration," said Jodi Goodwin, a Harlingen-based immigration lawyer.
With fewer than 30 immigration attorneys in the region, thousands will go through proceedings without legal assistance of any sort.
Larin's case was the ill-fated confluence of bad luck, a colossal paperwork error and the federal government's stepped-up efforts to detain and deport immigrants who fall under more stringent measures in the era of fighting terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. soil.
Larin got caught up in these circumstances, and for years battled his way back to freedom.
All the while, his family back in Wichita struggled to keep afloat as he sat in an immigration detention facility.
Without his income, the Larin family lost their home. The family business, a Christian bookstore, went bankrupt. And his two school-age children, one in high school and the other in junior high, dropped out to work and raise money to hire another attorney.
Meanwhile, inside the Port Isabel facility, Larin felt his life slipping away.
To keep his mind occupied, he gave the other detainees haircuts, cleaned offices and every evening he offered lessons from the Bible, frequently citing passages from Romans, Chapter 8.
"It's a dangerous thing," Larin said of being incarcerated for so long. "You can go crazy with nothing to do other than stare at the four walls and think of your problems, of all you've lost."
Plotting Legal Measures
In addition to creating a backlog and slowing down the legal process, the detention build-up could also be partially responsible for the high number of writ of habeas corpus filings in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas - a legal action seeking relief from an unlawful detention.
Compared to zero habeas cases in 2006 and 2007, there were already eight habeas petitions through July of this year. What had been a legal maneuver reserved for desperate circumstances is quickly becoming a common procedure.
A trial can drag on for years, but once the immigration court has issued a final order for removal the clock starts ticking and the government has 90 days to remove that individual. A number of arrangements must fall into place, including cooperation from the home country and lining up travel documents.
However, if after six months removal still does not appear imminent, the government is expected to grant a release.
The reality is more complicated.
Scores of immigrants await deportation that may never come and yet they remain behind bars.
As long as the government can effectively argue that removal is likely in the foreseeable future, it claims detention is within the boundaries of the law, according to Judy Rabinovitz, senior staff counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrant's Rights Project.
There are several ongoing lawsuits in the U.S. 9th Circuit that are fighting the prolonged detention of people disputing their removal on meritorious claims.
Alone and largely without legal representation, many immigrant detainees are helpless to stop their removal. Under pressure, some will choose to speed up the process by agreeing to self-deport to avoid a protracted legal battle, said Lisa Brodyaga, a longtime Harlingen-based immigration attorney.
The prevailing logic for an immigrant, Brodyaga said, is to avoid spending years in prison, and instead leaving and taking another chance to re-enter the country illegally.
Trying To Hold On
Deportation wasn't an option Larin allowed himself to consider. He would gain nothing by going back to El Salvador. Besides, he had nothing in El Salvador to go back to.
His life and his family were waiting for him in Wichita.
So, he fought and he waited.
During the court proceedings for the Kansas fight, Larin managed to plead the charge down to a lesser conviction, but the change was written sloppily over the original, making the document nearly illegible. Standing in front of an immigration judge years later, Larin's lawyer, who was unfamiliar with the prior case, mistakenly admitted his client had indeed been convicted on the more severe charge.
Larin was deported and he suddenly found himself without an attorney.
In detention, Larin was allowed 20 minutes every Saturday to speak with his family. During one of those conversations, he learned of his mother's death. In another conversation, he was told of the death of his brother.
Once a year his family visited him in Los Fresnos. Separated by glass, for a half-hour they exchanged teary stories over the phone.
Larin finally caught a lucky break.
Another detainee helped him get Brodyaga's telephone number. He scribbled the number on a scrap of paper.
She agreed to take his case, and even after losing his petition for habeas, she assured him that she would fight all the way to the 5th Circuit if necessary, a prophetic promise as it turned out. The U.S. 5th Circuit ordered that Larin be given bond. Still, his case dragged on for another year as the government sought to unearth additional evidence to deport him.
Without Brodyaga stepping in to pay his $1,500 bond, he may have been subjected to another year in detention. After living a nightmare for so long, when he got the call that he'd finally won his release, he said, it felt like the beginning of a dream from which he has yet to wake. Despite the outcome, Brodyaga said, in a sense the government won too.
Behind bars, Larin's life had been put on hold. On the outside, life marched on. In his absence, his wife of 30 years had begun to lose sight in one of her eyes, the result of her untreated diabetes aggravated by stress.
His children had become parents and he a grandfather of five.
"He's back to being a permanent legal resident," Brodyaga said of Larin, "as if nothing had ever happened."
But it did happen.
Back home, he has slowly begun to pick up the pieces of his life, one day at a time. He now spends most days with his family and at church. There are moments he can't believe he is home, rapt in familial warmth. And there are days he struggles to regain what he lost.
"There are people out there that commit terrible crimes every day," Larin said. "Our biggest crime is to have not been born in the United States."