At The Mercy Of The Courts

In 2014, Elvis was working at the internet cafe he owned in a small town outside Guatemala City, when he noticed a girl who kept coming around to print out homework assignments. Her name was Wendy. They started flirting, then started dating, and eventually got married. They settled into a quiet, happy routine.

Less than a year into their marriage, their lives were interrupted when Wendy’s mother received an extortion call. The caller was from one of the largest gangs in Central America, and he demanded close to $2,600. If the family didn’t pay, the caller threatened to kill Wendy and her younger brother.

This was the first in a series of threats that would lead Wendy and Elvis to seek asylum in the United States in early 2019. In the process of seeking safety, they would find themselves navigating a complicated and maddening immigration court system—that has become the norm under the Trump Administration.

Illustration by Alex Charner for Latino USA.

On this episode of Latino USA, we partner with Documented, a nonprofit news site that covers immigrants in New York City, to go behind the scenes into the courtrooms of the U.S. immigration system under Trump.

In 2019, Documented set out to report on the impact of a slew of recent policy changes and Department of Justice rulings on the courts system. Six reporters took turns observing New York’s immigration courts from morning until close, five days a week, for three months.

Over that period, the reporters sat in on more than 200 hearings and witnessed a system that was clearly overwhelmed. Judges were rushed, the court’s scheduling system was rife with errors, and videoconferencing technology would often malfunction. Federal policy changes also made it harder for judges to make decisions on a humanitarian basis.

Elvis at a friend’s home in Guatemala. (Photo by Santiago Billy for Documented/Latino USA)

These problems would have serious real-world impacts on immigrants and their cases. During one hearing, an ICE prosecutor announced they had lost a woman’s file, forcing her to start her case again. In another, a judge apologized to a man who’d been kept in detention for an extra month because the court had sent correspondence saying he was free to leave detention on bond to the wrong address.

By the time Latino USA and Documented met Wendy and Elvis in the winter of 2019, Elvis had been in immigration detention for almost a year and had slowly watched the asylum process tear his family apart. Through court recordings, extortion audio, and other records of their family’s life, an intimate picture emerges of the toll it takes for immigrants, after fleeing violence or threats, to navigate an asylum system increasingly stacked against them.

Maria Hinojosa sat down with co-founders of Documented, Max Siegelbaum and Mazin Sidahmed, to talk about what they observed in New York’s immigration courts, and how federal policy changes have impacted the people moving through them.

Read more about Documented’s reporting in the courts here.

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Credits


Produced by Alissa Escarce, Max Siegelbaum and Mazin Sidahmed. Edited by Sophia Paliza-Carre

This story was reported in partnership with Type Investigations’ Wayne Barrett Project. Ralph Ortega, Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo, Hannah Beckler, Irene Spezzamonte, Grace Moon and Irene Tang contributed reporting.

Illustration by Alex Charner. Photos by Santiago Billy for Documented/Latino USA.