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.

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.

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.

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

This episode originally aired in 2020.

Illustration by Alex Charner. 

Latino USA is celebrating 30 years, 30 años, and we would love to hear from our listeners. Would you share with us your favorite Latino USA episode? Maybe it’s the one you remember the most, the one that kept you company during a road trip or the one you most shared with others. Or maybe you just have a birthday wish for us. Please leave us a voicemail at 646-571-1224 and we might feature your message in an upcoming show. Gracias.

Related posts:

3 thoughts on “At The Mercy Of The Courts

  1. Good morning. I listened to a rebroadcast of “At the Mercy of the Courts” on WAMU today – Saturday, September 2nd. Very well done. We drove out of range with 15 mins to go. What happened to Elvis? Was he ever reunited with Wendy and Emily? Thanks, Rob

  2. Is there an update on this story? I hope they’re doing okay. Did Wendy get her Asylum? Are they still safe? Thank you for the story and reporting on this.

  3. I just heard “At the Mercy of the Courts” episode. I appreciate your show whenever I get to hear it, and this one was no exception.
    But once it was apparent that the show was already several years old, I kept waiting for an update as to what happened to Elvis and Wendy, and where they are now. I was very disappointed that there was no such update.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.