By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Owen is a relative newcomer to El Centro and the immigration law business, but she knows efficiency when she sees it. And what used to be one semi-chaotic immigration system under one federal agency, the Department of Justice, is now split into two bulging federal agencies that are not so keen about talking to one another — or the public. In 2002, the behemoth Homeland Security swallowed the enforcement, detention and removal branches of the old INS, while administrative judges stayed behind in Justice to answer to Ashcroft. “[Homeland Security] has nothing to do with our process and we have nothing to do with theirs,” explains Immigration Review’s Komis.
But together these government agencies have a lot to do with the quandaries facing Owen’s clients: immigrant detainees who have drug convictions, domestic violence tendencies and glitches in their identification papers that can be difficult to iron out.
“I’m always worried when I come here,” Owen says. “The client is going to tell me a story, and I’m sensitive to their problems. I look at the law and I’m not sure I can help them. Even if I can, it takes a long time. There’s no way to speed it up. They don’t understand that. They say, ‘Why can’t you get me out? I have a family to feed.’”
Not all detainees here are as SYMPATHETIC as Gilmer Leyva. Heroin dealers, wife beaters and general schemers are all tossed in with hapless immigrants who have done little wrong except fail to understand and abide by the vagaries of U.S. immigration law. Yet many have experienced the same kind of diminished due process, which in some cases borders on inhumane treatment.
Jose Reyes, 33, is a Mexican national who has lived in the United States since he was four, attending public schools in Garden Grove until he dropped out during his second year at Santiago High School to help support his family. He is a construction worker and a legal resident with a 1995 drug conviction for possession and sale of heroin and cocaine. Reyes served two and a half years in county jail and was out on parole when he was convicted of misdemeanor spousal abuse in 2001, for which he served 17 days in county jail. In 2002, he says, he had a non-malignant brain tumor partially removed and was recovering from surgery when the judge in his domestic violence case told him to hold off completing his family counseling requirements until he recovered.
In February, Reyes was caught coming back into the country from Tijuana. Now, the government is using both the drug conviction and domestic violence conviction — which by forgoing counseling he failed to clear — to detain him without bond and line him up for deportation. He has a wife and seven kids, he says, and has paid his debt to society. “I was doing good,” he says.
Once in detention, Reyes started experiencing debilitating seizures several times a day that lasted up to 20 minutes each. He went without medication for three weeks and was forced to wait three months before undergoing an MRI to confirm that the tumor had not grown back. His doctor would prefer that he be permitted to rest at home pending the outcome of his deportation hearing. “It is very stressful here,” Reyes says. “There are fights all the time and I sleep on a metal bunk and have a brain tumor. If I have a seizure and fall down or get hit in the head I could injure my brain.”
Guys like Reyes arrive at the detention center looking like lost chickens, according to Mario Avendano, who has been detained here more than a year. Some of them sign a form upon arrival that waives their right to a hearing and then get deported before they know what hit them, Avendano says.
Avendano found himself a lawyer who was willing to help, but the lawyer, Harold Goldstein, turned out to be a phony and has been indicted for fraud. Goldstein represented more than 60 detainees in this facility, many of whom have been deported already. Avendano says he has seen it all go down here. Because he speaks English and can type, he often helps other detainees who are trying to represent themselves. “They call me ‘Little Goldstein,’” he says with a sheepish grin. He also acted as interpreter for other detainees interviewed for this story.
Originally from Guatemala, Avendano, 36, was raised in Texas and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s. He became a permanent resident in 1990. He has a wife and four children who live in Los Angeles. Acting on retroactive Homeland Security guidelines, INS picked Avendano up after his two-year stint at Soledad for domestic violence. Now, he’s stuck at El Centro, having fallen into the chasm between immigration enforcement under Homeland Security and the immigration court under the Justice Department.
“[Homeland Security] doesn’t have authority to release him or remove him. He pled guilty to crimes that were not deportable offenses at the time but now are under the new guidelines. The court can’t remove him because he has proceedings under way. The immigration court and the appeals court keep pointing to each other to resolve his status,” says Thomas Logan, who is his attorney and who, in some indication of the weirdness around these parts, also represents Avendano’s indicted former counsel, Goldstein. “Mario could give up and leave voluntarily, but he’d be leaving his whole life behind.”
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