Immigration court sometimes the last resort for criminal detainees

Hartford — In immigration court, clients are referred to by their nine-digit "alien numbers," also called "A numbers," and have the option of hiring an attorney at their own expense.

On Wednesday, during what staff characterized as a typical morning on the sixth floor of the U.S. District Courthouse on Main Street, Immigration Judge Michael R. Straus ordered the deportation of convicted criminals to El Salvador and Mexico and conducted removal hearings for men who had come to the United States from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala and Jamaica.

The 20 so-called "criminal aliens" on Wednesday's Immigration Court docket were being held at the Franklin County Correctional Facility in Greenfield, Mass., since Connecticut does not have a holding facility for ICE detainees. When the court clerk called their case number in Hartford, the men, dressed in blue prison scrubs, were led to a chair in a cinder block hearing room 65 miles away. They sat in front of a monitor to argue for another chance at living in the United States. In several cases, their wives or the mothers of their children sat in the courtroom in Hartford.

Leigh Mapplebeck, an attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, represented the government. A few of the detainees had hired attorneys, and the rest went "pro se," representing themselves.

The hearings took place the day after the Trump administration made public its plans to aggressively enforce immigration laws and amid growing fears that people who are undocumented would be snatched up during ICE raids. There was no mention of the stepped-up enforcement on the sixth floor Wednesday, and interested parties comported themselves calmly, but for the occasional quiet sobbing of a distressed family member.

A 39-year-old native of Ecuador who had been twice convicted of drunken driving appeared to have been detained while reporting to visit his probation officer. He was seeking cancellation of his deportation order.

"So you've been (in the United States) close to 20 years?" the judge asked.

"Sí," the man said, or "yes" in Spanish. A Spanish interpreter, sitting next to the judge, translated for the court.

"And why did you come?" the judge asked.

"Looking for a better future for my family," the man responded. 

A few minutes later, the man hung his head and answered "sí" again when the judge asked him if he had a drinking problem. The father of a 15-year-old daughter who was born in the United States, and is therefore a citizen, he said he worked at a concrete company in South Windsor. He said his employer filed immigration paperwork on his behalf in 2009, but his application was denied and it was too expensive to continue the process.

The judge told the man his only chance of success is to get the mother of his daughter to his next court hearing.   

As the morning wore on, the judge scheduled bond hearings and scheduled asylum hearings for detainees who said they feared they would be tortured or persecuted if they returned to their country of origin. At least two of the detainees said they weren't fighting their deportation orders.

"I don't want a lawyer," said a man from Mexico. "I want to go to my country."

The man had lived in the United States since 2002 without documentation and had been convicted of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, resisting arrest, threatening someone with a handgun and failure to appear in court, according to testimony. The judge ordered him deported, and he stood up and left the room without comment.

The country's 58 immigration courts are operated by the Executive Office of Immigration Review. The judges are appointed by the U.S. attorney general. The files of the clients are not available for public review, but many of the court proceedings, including removal hearings for those who have been detained by U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement agents, are conducted in open court.

One of the last cases of the morning was that of Jonathan Lopez of New London. The 34-year-old native of the Dominican Republic had been detained when he went to New London Superior Court on Broad Street on Jan. 24 for a pending court case, according to Jennifer O'Neill, the mother of three of his children.

Lopez is a lawful permanent resident who has a Social Security number and driver's license and pays taxes, and he has lived in Connecticut since he was 13 years old, according to O'Neill. His entire family lives in the United States, she said, and he has no ties to the Dominican Republic. He works as an appliance repair technician.

"He's not perfect," she said, but their children need him.

Even with a green card, Lopez is subject to deportation because he has previous convictions — some of them for felonies — that include assault, burglary and drunken driving, according to court records. He has eight pending court cases in which the charges include attempting to strangle his teenage son during a domestic dispute, selling cocaine from his home at 13 Brainard St., interfering with police and calling a former girlfriend 73 times over the course of one night.

 k.florin@theday.com

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