Jose Gonzalez Ochoa has been behind bars since he was pulled over for speeding on Easter.
A 19-year-old Guatemalan immigrant without legal papers, he didn’t have a driver’s license.
Brought into the United States when he was 13, he worked in his father’s Columbus mechanic shop until 11:30 at night after going to school each day.
His father kicked him out of the house when Ochoa was a junior in high school. With the help of a pastor and others, Ochoa got a job and paid for his own apartment, said his attorney, Britt Thames.
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Ochoa graduated from high school last year.
He is one of many immigrants facing deportation proceedings at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, about a hundred miles southwest of Macon.
A judge denied bond in his case last week.
Thames, a Macon lawyer who specializes in immigration law, said a shift in immigration policy priorities has created an increase in cases going before immigration courts and a subsequent judicial overload.
While undocumented immigrants committing certain serious crimes, DUIs or multiple significant misdemeanors were prioritized for removal during Barack Obama’s presidency, now the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is detaining people for lesser violations.
“Even if you’re an occupant of a stopped vehicle, ICE will put a hold on you and put you in immigration proceedings,” he said.
Ashley Deadwyler-Heuman, another Macon immigration attorney, said the number of calls her office is receiving from people with loved ones in immigration jails has doubled and nearly tripled in the last few months.
What’s more, Georgia’s two immigration courts only grant a small percentage of asylum cases, she said.
“A lot of them are people who show up at the border and say, ‘The cartel killed my husband and they’re threatening to kill me and my children. Please help me,’ and those are people who are losing asylum cases,” she said. “They’re getting deported.”
Attaining legal status
Ochoa’s father was arrested in September on a domestic violence charge and deported to Guatemala, Thames said.
“He’s made threats that if Jose ever returned (to Guatemala) he would kill him,” the attorney said. “He blames his son for his deportation.”
The younger Ochoa, as a victim in the domestic violence incident, could qualify for a U visa as a crime victim. If granted, the visa could lead to Ochoa becoming a legal permanent resident, Thames said.
While his application is pending, Ochoa would be able to remain in the United States and work, he said.
But there’s not an established process for all undocumented immigrants to be granted legal status, said Jennifer Moore, another Macon immigration attorney.
“There is no line to get in,” she said. “Many people get stuck in a position of having been here and working and living and raising their children and going to church … for a long, long time with no way of regularizing their status.”
Many undocumented immigrants are married to U.S. citizens, but have never been sponsored for legal status, Thames said.
“There’s a visa immediately available to them,” he said.
But they’re afraid, fearful that filing documents will reveal their locations to immigration authorities and that they’ll be deported, Thames said.
For the most part, immigrants Thames, Deadwyler-Heuman and Moore see in their offices work and pay taxes, without getting public benefits.
“These are people who are here working and trying to take care of their families,” Thames said.
Taking hard, manual labor jobs in farming, construction and landscaping, “they’re doing the jobs nobody else will do,” he said.
Wanting to help
When undocumented immigrants are taken into custody they’re typically taken to a local jail and then transferred to an immigration detention facility.
Days may pass before a person can call a family member or is entered into a computer system where they can be found, Thames said.
Meanwhile, family members often have difficulty in talking with local authorities and ICE agents due to a language barrier.
“They’re trying to figure out what’s going on and they speak a little English, but not a lot,” Thames said. “A lot of times, the person being detained will speak enough to get by but the mother or the children … a lot of times they’ll depend on a child to do the interpretation for the family.”
Because immigration proceedings are considered civil hearings, the government doesn’t provide indigent detainees with a free lawyer. Instead, they’re given a list of low cost attorneys, he said.
Thames said he started taking immigration cases four years ago and made them the focus of his practice after going to hearings with a friend and seeing how families are torn apart.
“A lot of times, you’ve got U.S. citizen children who are children of these people who are being removed,” he said. “Typically, it’s the father who is being removed who is the primary financial earner for the family.”
A lot of times families are under-represented, can’t afford a lawyer or don’t know where to turn.
“It tugged at my heart strings and I got involved,” Thames said.
Moore said she’d worked on refugee and asylum cases in a clinic during law school and continued handling the cases when she opened her law office in 2011.
A dozen years ago Deadwyler-Heuman began mentoring a kindergartener, a girl who’d come to the United States from Mexico when she was five years old.
When she opened her law practice in 2013, Deadwyler-Heuman wanted to find a way to help the girl and she was Deadwyler-Heuman’s first immigration case.
Now 17, the girl is making plans to attend college, Deadwyler-Heuman said.
Another client, the man stopped in Perry earlier this year, was separated from his family for three or four months before getting a bond, she said.
It’s cases like his that show how people — U.S. citizens — are impacted by the changes in immigration policies, Deadwyler-Heuman said.
The man’s family, including his 3-year-old son attended his bond hearing.
Wearing a bow tie, the child had been running around before his father entered the courtroom.
As soon as he saw his dad “he got dead still and silent and just stared and stared at his daddy,” Deadwyler-Heuman said.
When the judge announced the man would get a bond, his family cried and later shook the lawyer’s hand.
She said the boy reached up and shook her hand like a little man and said, “Thank you. My daddy coming home tonight.”