In a courtroom full of illegal alien teenagers, he was the only one with red hair.
Further, he was the tallest, the thinnest, had the best English by far, and was the only one appearing without a family member or lawyer. He was also the only non-Central American appearing a couple of days ago before one of the immigration judges in the Arlington (Va.) court.
From a policy point of view he had another distinction: he was the only one willing to leave the country voluntarily (at his own expense) and the judge quickly granted him Voluntary Departure, a legal status meaning that there will be no deportation report on his U.S. immigration record. The judge said something to the effect "It's nice to have someone willing to leave on his own."
Six of us, mostly interns, were observers in the courtroom and we stayed till the last case was finished; so did Hans (not his real name) who apparently was curious about the process beyond his own case. The judge then asked if we were observers and, speaking for six of us, I said that we were, and had come to the courts to learn more about what they did.
The judge then spent some time with us, explaining the nature of the hearings we witnessed, and answering questions. When it was all over, I invited Hans to have lunch with us.
Hans told us that he was in the country on a nonimmigrant visa that had expired, and that his father was here on an L visa, for executives of international corporations; during the hearing, we learned that Hans had been in South Texas when he was detained by the Border Patrol.
Bearing in mind the occasional charge that the Patrol uses racial profiling, and being aware that he surely would not be singled out for his Hispanic looks, I asked him what caused his apprehension.
Hans had been on Padre Island, the vacationers' island just east of Brownsville, and on the drive north the car he was in came to one of the Border Patrol's traffic stops. The Patrol found that he was not in legal status and detained him.
My sense, from my own experiences with these traffic stops over the years, was that I often was waved through without a conversation. I was always alone and driving a new or fairly new rental car, in short, I present a profile of no interest to the Patrol. (I look like the aging, US-born citizen that I am.) Hans probably would have received the same treatment had he been driving alone in a newish car. But there were others in the car, so they were interviewed.
Hans said that he was detained in a cell at the traffic stop for a couple of hours, and then was herded into a bus with other illegals and taken to another facility for a couple of days. He was then given a court date and released, something that had also happened to all the Central Americans in the courtroom that day.
While the rest of us were watching, Hans had told the judge that he wanted to fly back to Germany, and in response to a question from the judge, said that he had enough money to do so.
At lunch we learned that he was a horse trainer; asked if he had any trouble getting a job, given his lack of papers, he said that the racing and related industries were "very relaxed" about such formalities. (I have heard that from other sources as well.)
The court session we witnessed was a master calendar hearing, a mass-production event which established the alienage of those who appeared, and that set a date (for all but Hans) to appear in court again. The judge encouraged those without lawyers to get a lawyer, and saw to it that each alien (if not represented) had a list of organizations that would provide "low cost, and sometimes free legal services." There was a pile of these lists at the table for the aliens.
Immigration courts also have merits hearings in which the alien in question (and his or her lawyer) can argue that the alien should not be removed from the U.S. These last an hour or two each. The only such hearing that had been scheduled for that morning in Arlington had been cancelled or postponed so the six of us did not witness one, something I have done many times in the past.
Master hearing can be monotonous – but also full of nuances – as I was reminded at the time. They follow pretty much the same pattern, and, as a colleague noted, each case took, on average, one and a half minutes.
The judge in these cases is supported by a clerk who handles files and seldom speaks, and a translator, who is busy all the time (except in Hans's case). The young woman handling that assignment in that courtroom always signals to the aliens to pick up the ear phones at the aliens' desk; she then whispers (I assume in Spanish) into a microphone while the judge speaks in English to a recording system, and then she translates what the alien says to the judge. In merits hearings the translation, when needed, is a more time-consuming process, with the conversation in the courtroom, essentially, handled twice, once in the alien's language and once in English.
This day's hearing was a special one for young people, almost exclusively from Central America, who had been picked up (or who surrendered themselves) at the Texas border. In every case, other than that of Hans, the alien was told to appear on a date in December of this year for what will be another master hearing, usually before the same judge. At that time, having been given months to find a lawyer, the aliens will be given a date for a merits hearing.
This is the strung out, but in the eyes of the courts, it is an "expedited" schedule for the young Central Americans. Other non-detained illegals are told to report to the court as much as two years later for the next stage of the process (and remain free during the interim); the court is obviously extremely under-staffed, and has remained so throughout the Obama administration.
Each case involved the judge (speaking on and for the record) giving his own name, the time and place of the hearing, and the name of the alien. Though not a native Spanish-speaker, this judge often spoke Spanish and seemed to revel in his (to my ear) mastery of the language as he pronounced the full name of each alien. The other people involved in the case – the lawyers and/or relatives – are also identified. He then asks about the nationality of the alien before him, outlines the legal situation, and gives the aliens a chance to ask questions (none did). After a while it becomes monotonous to the observer, and it must to the judge as well.
Nuances. But there are patterns on display at these master hearings as well as a lot of sameness.
All participants are supposed to show up at the same time, in our case at 8:30 in the morning. The court first hears the cases with lawyers involved, and then those accompanied by relatives (or in Hans's case, alone). This gives the lawyers a chance to get back to work while the relatives have probably shot the day for the appearance anyway. (Some have driven hundreds of miles from elsewhere in Virginia; the court also handles D.C. cases.)
The clerk calls out a number, and the people involved come through a little gate, and sit to the judge's left. The USCIS attorney sits at a separate table, with a pile of files, to the judge's right.
As the proceeding gets under way, the judge records the presence of an attorney if there is one. If not, he says the alien "apparently is accompanied by a family member." How does the judge know which is which?
In these courts, at least, there is an almost ironclad (if unspoken) dress code. The illegal rarely, if ever, wears a tie, nor do the older relatives of the illegal. The lawyers, if male, always wear ties and jackets and the female lawyers are dressed for the office.
The adults accompanying the illegals rarely speak English, many presumably illegals themselves; sometimes they are a parent of the alien, or an uncle, or a cousin, or simply a friend. Once their cases were finished they leave the room.
I noticed some other patterns. The illegals, with two or three exceptions, were male. The lawyers, male and female, tended not only to be well-dressed, but also slim (or that was the case that day.) The alien relatives were mostly heavy-set to over-weight. The young aliens in the dock almost always appeared to be taller than their older relatives, probably because of improvements in nutrition in Central America over the last generation.
There was an exception to some of these patterns. He was, I must say, a winsome 12-year-old dressed in vest, the youngest of the lot, and shorter than his accompanying relative. Bright as a button, bringing smiles to courtroom faces, and clearly not yet in the labor market. I doubt if he will be forced to leave the country.
The Larger Picture. Every time a number was called, someone came forward. At first it looked as if there was a total response to the calls to appear that day in court; later I learned that the only cases called were those that had previously signed in that morning. I should have counted the cases heard and compared that to a list of those on the docket, but only thought of that later.
As my colleague Jessica Vaughan reported last month, most of the illegals from Central America who are given immigration court dates fail to show up for them. So we in Arlington were looking at the subset of that population that responds to government missives, and, by definition, one that wants legal status and has some expectation of receiving it. We were not seeing a cross-section of the Central American illegals nor of the teenagers among them, but we were, given the presence of all those relatives, seeing chain migration at work, even among a population of illegals.
Further, I wrote above that this was a courtroom full of teenagers; I should have written that all said they were below 21, though some looked a tad older. And while the judge asked everyone how old they were, there was no attempt made there to document those ages.
Finally, the immigration courts are, nationwide, badly overworked, understaffed, and without the powers that they need to do the job, as a former immigration judge, Mark Metcalf, spelled out authoritatively in the CIS Backgrounder "Built to Fail: Deception and Disorder in America's Immigration Courts".