They’ll remember their tears: tears of anguish when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials snatched Pedro Guzman from outside his family’s home in Durham and sent him to immigration hell in a remote Georgia prison.
Tears of despair as Emily, Pedro’s wife, thrashed for months against an immigration court that seemed anything but just. Tears of gratitude when, after 20 months, Pedro was granted a hearing on his deportation order, and he and Emily could hardly speak from the witness stand as they looked at each another, afraid of what would happen.
Most of all, they’ll remember their tears of shock and joy when the new judge, not the one who’d seemed determined to have Pedro deported back to Guatemala, returned shortly after the hearing to say, “I’m going to grant the order.”
It was, both say, “a miracle.” After what they’d seen, neither thought Pedro stood a chance.
Last Tuesday, one day after the hearing, Pedro was released from jail and was granted protected status as a legal immigrant who is eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship in five years. Reunited with Emily and their 4-year-old son, Logan, Pedro broke down in the car taking them back to Durham.
Logan never understood why people had taken his daddy. Now he was asking, “Am I dreaming?”
No, Emily told him. Daddy’s here. Their bad dream was over.
But their fight for immigration reform is just beginning.
Pedro was arrested in September 2009 and sent to a 2,000-bed immigration detention center in Stewart County, Ga. His mother, a legal immigrant from Guatemala when she brought Pedro, then 8 years old, to the U.S., had reported to ICE authorities for what she told Pedro was a routine renewal of her work permit. The Guzmans realize now that she should’ve gone to the ICE offices with a lawyer, because the meetinggiven the national nervous breakdown over immigrationwas not routine.
His mother answered some questions badly. ICE officials refused to renew her work permit and instead handed her a deportation order.
Rather than be deported to Guatemala, a dangerous place even for the locals, Pedro’s mother departed the U.S. quickly for Mexico.
What the Guzmans didn’t understand is that, although Pedro is 31 and married to a U.S. citizen, his immigration status continued to be dependent on that of his mother. Until the DREAM Act passes Congress, adults whose parents brought them to this country as children have no standard process for seeking citizenship.
Thus, ICE mailed a court order, and a subsequent deporation order, to the wrong address. He received neither, as the government later acknowledged. Nonetheless, Pedro went to prison.
The Guzmans’ legal struggles were mind-boggling. Pedro seemed to be eligible to stay in the U.S. under NACARA (the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act), which requires applicants to show that they have good character and that returning to their country would be a hardship and place them in danger.
He qualified under all three provisions: Returning him to Guatemala would endanger him and be a severe hardship. And he is a person of good charactermarried for seven years with a steady job as a cook before becoming a stay-at-home dad for his son. Emily is a mental health professional who works for Durham County.
Under NACARA, however, a felony conviction is proof of bad character. Pedro had no such conviction, but he was arrested for marijuana possessiontwo misdemeanorsas a teenager. The first judge, who listened briefly to his case from Atlanta via a video feed to the prison, decided that two misdemeanors equaled one felony and ruled Pedro ineligible under NACARA. An immigration appeals court overturned that decision, but it returned the case to the same judge.
So the Guzmans hired a lawyer and successfully had one of the misdemeanors expunged. Then the family prepared to face the judge again.
Meanwhile, Emily started a blog and worked to draw public attention to their ordeal. There was a demonstration outside the prison. Emily wasn’t arrested, but her mother, Pamela Alberda, was among eight protesters who were.
“A wonderful mother-in-law,” Pedro says.
And then the Guzmans got a break. Pedro’s case was moved to the court of a new immigration judge, but a scheduling snafu cost him three more months, and the judge denied Pedro’s appeal for bail. But last Monday, the judge heard substantive testimony for the first time since Pedro’s arrest.
This was Pedro’s final hearing, and he entered it thinking he had no chance. “I was not going there to win,” he says. “I was just going to get a decision. I wanted an answer, I wanted it to be done.”
On Friday, four days after his release, the Guzmans sat and talked at a Brier Creek restaurant near their home in Southeast Durham while Alberda listened and played with Logan.
For almost two hours, they shared their stories about the immigration system and about each other. For example, Emily knew that when Pedro’s hearing ended, the government’s lawyer had announced that she was reserving the right to appeal, which meant that Pedro would be back in prison forwell, they didn’t know how long.
What Emily didn’t know was that when Pedro heard the news of his release the next day over the prison loudspeaker, he was doing his weekly job issuing toiletries and supplies to his fellow detainees. He was summoned to the prison office. First, though, he finished his job. “I was in the middle of something. I wanted to make sure it was done,” Pedro said. “I was still in shock.”
Emily related how she heard the news. She was in the car with Logan and her mother and her mother’s fiancé. Her phone rangan unfamiliar number but with a Georgia area codeand when she answered it Pedro said he was being released. Emily shrieked, and they pulled off the highway at the next exit, calling another friend who could meet Pedro in a few minutes.
Emily cried as she recounted the story. When she told Logan that Daddy was free, Logan asked her, “Are all the other mommies and daddies going to be released too?”
“So I explained to him,” Emily said, sobbing as Pedro squeezed her arm and hand, “that we’re going to keep fighting for all the other mommies and daddies. We’re not going to take the website down. We’re not going to stop fighting, because this isn’t just Pedro, there’s a lot of people with good cases who don’t fight because they’re just getting tortured.”
Emily and Pedro talk about how the other grew stronger in the ordeal. Friends sent Pedro books like Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and Elie Wiesel’s Night, a story about a German concentration camp. Not much of a reader before, Emily says, Pedro absorbed them along with a hundred pages of material she sent about prisoners’ rights. He became the leader and legal expert among the prison’s detainees.
Pedro says he’s still hurting. “But I am slowly going to recover, slowly going to heal,” he says.
Emily, Pedro says, organized an extensive support network in Georgia, nine hours away, while working full-time and raising their son. “I saw how much strength she has,” he says.
Emily says the biggest change in herself is, “I didn’t believe in God before. Now I do.” So many friends prayed with her, she explains, including at the hour of Pedro’s hearing.
Before his arrest, neither Emily nor Pedro knew much about immigration law. Now they’re expert, and Pedro especially has a hard-won understanding of the immigration detention system that he wants to share with the world.
The basic facts are that the immigration courts are overwhelmed by caseloads; most detainees have shaky legal representation, if any; and even when they do, they don’t speak English well and translators are scarce.
Often, Pedro says, the families of his fellow detainees had no idea where they were being held. The food was terrible. Prisoners were shown an orientation film from 1992. Immigration officers told detainees that they could get out of prison quickly if they signed the paperwork to be deported.
Pedro, despite having legitimate grounds for appeal, heard this offer too many times to recall. He says he maintained his sanity by vowing periodically to sign the paperwork if he wasn’t out in, say, two or three months. He saw what his imprisonment was doing to Emily, their son and her mother. “I never wanted to put my family through any of this,” Pedro says.
The Guzmans estimate that their battle cost $46,000, including day care and therapy for Logan. A lot of the payments went on Alberda’s credit card.
“Nobody knows the struggle that my family and I have been through,” Pedro says. “People say, ‘I can relate to it,’ but unless you’ve been therethey’ve seen about deportation, but they have never seen how detainees are treated.”
From now on, he’s making it his job to tell them.