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“Arriving aliens” on a bridge to limbo

Adela Catalina* had plenty of reasons to leave. Forgive me being somewhat vague in the following account, but she still has vulnerable family in her home country, and we may be sending Adela herself back there soon.

Adela’s father was killed when she was a child, so her mother moved the family from place to place to place. One of her brothers was killed a few years ago. As had been the case with her father, Adela had a pretty good idea of who was responsible, but she received a warning. If you tell anyone about your suspicions, the same thing will happen to you as happened to him. One of her sons, José Luis* was also threatened; her other son, Juan Miguel,* is the target of frequent harassment on account of his mannerisms and perceived sexual orientation. Although Adela, her sons, and her husband left their country together, a disability prevented her husband from getting very far.

When Adela Catalina approached that body of water some people call the Río Bravo and others the Río Grande, she decided to walk with her sons across the bridge. This evening in the chilly Karnes lawyer visiting room, I began to explain the consequences of that choice. But Adela had already figured it out. “Yo sé,” she told me, eager to enumerate her reasons for taking the bridge.

First, to get help crossing, she would have had to pay someone, and Adela had no money. She knows of people being disappeared for not being able to pay the money they owe.

Second, she was afraid of the river, especially as one of her sons is small and the other frail, with a congenital heart condition. It would be safer – at least physically – to walk across the bridge.

And third, Adela reasoned, it would be best to present herself to the authorities. Just come right up and introduce herself, tell the officials that she and her sons were applying for asylum, and explain why.

Her reasoning all makes sense to me. Moreover, the asylum officer who interviewed Adela found her to have a credible fear of returning to her native country, a plausible enough claim for asylum that she deserves to have a full hearing on the merits of her application. That’s good, right?

No, not exactly. Because Adela Catalina, José Luis, and Juan Miguel presented themselves to the officers as they arrived into the U.S., rather than crossing and attempting to evade immigration authorities, the law deems them “arriving aliens.” As ICE refuses to set bonds for any Central American mothers with their children, we’ve had to go to judges in every single instance. This route is unavailable to Adela, however.

At about 1:30 p.m today, an immigration judge was quietly leafing through Adela’s bond materials. (I had finished assembling them only an hour or so before, at the Fed Ex on Broadway across from Incarnate Word, in between the morning docket in another court and this one. Not a happy way to practice.) Apparently the judge liked Adela’s plan for where she would go, with whom she would stay, and how the family would eat and be clothed. Perhaps he appreciated the warm, respectful letter from Adela’s disabled US veteran brother-in-law, as well as the military honors earned and taxes paid by the same man. He ordered that Adela could leave Karnes on a $7500 bond, with no bond required for José Luis or Juan Miguel, provided that the three of them left together.

In this particular court, $7500 is a low bond.

But then the judge realized that the US Department of Homeland Security classifies Adela Catalina as an “arriving alien.” This classification means that the judge lacks jurisdiction to set any bond at all. He vacated his own order; our small triumph proved ephemeral.

Adela took the high road, the bridge, because of her humble finances, her maternal caution, her honesty, and her sense of propriety. You could even call it courtesy. These attributes, together with the law, however, conspired against her.

The documents that lawyers write for courts are called “pleadings,” but what I’m going to write to ICE feels more like begging than pleading.

* Not their real names

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