Sixteen years after swimming through human waste to enter the United States from Mexico, Ramón was living the American dream, having worked his way up in a local company over the past 12 years and earning enough to send $500 a month back to his family.
In early June, a chance encounter put that dream on hold, however. A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer was looking for his roommate in the parking lot of their apartment complex and instead found Ramón.
Although he had no criminal record, the ICE agent later told Ramón to turn himself in and pay a $5,000 bond, or else he would be arrested without any possibility of bond and deported back to Mexico. The officer also texted him a notice to appear in the Chicago Immigration Court, though the spaces for the date and time to do so were left blank.
Thinking that this sounded like a scam, Ramón — whose full name is being withheld because of potential legal complications — did not turn himself in.
The next week, the ICE officer came to his warehouse at work, put him in handcuffs and drove him to the ICE detention facility in Boone County.
Ramón would spend his birthday, the Fourth of July, in an overcrowded Boone County jail.
Upon hearing about his dim prospects from the officers in the jail and fellow immigrant detainees in his cell, Ramón had given up any hope of being free in America again.
“When they first arrested me, I thought I was done,” Ramón told Insider Louisville. “I was like, ‘Take me wherever you want to take me.’ I had no hope.”
After telling his cellmates that first night that he had no wife or children in Kentucky, “They said, ‘Oh, you’re going to get deported.’ I felt terrible. I say: ‘I want to stay, I don’t think it’s time to go back.’ ”
If Ramón was like thousands of other undocumented immigrants swept up by ICE who don’t have any legal representation, are unable to pay a bond or can’t speak English, he would likely still be in that same jail cell and counting down the days to deportation.
But he was not.
Days after being confined to his overcrowded cell — where he slept on the floor for the first two weeks — Ramón was told that he had a visitor.
This visitor turned out to be Marian Cochran, the managing counsel of CafePress — the company that Ramón began working for 15 years ago in California. He was among a select few promoted and transferred to Louisville 12 years ago to train its warehouse workers.
“He was shocked when he saw me at the detention center,” Cochran recalled. “His eyes welled up, my eyes welled up. We laughed that it was our first time in jail, both of us.”
Cochran told Ramón that she was personally taking his case pro bono, not on behalf of the company, and that she was going to try to get him out of jail — even though she knew almost nothing about immigration law and had actually never filed a motion in any court in her entire corporate legal career.
After his arrest, Cochran has visited the website of the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), which administers the 60 federal immigration courts, to locate the agency’s map of pro bono legal service providers who could come to Ramón’s aid, only to find that there are none in Kentucky and Indiana.
“That was one of the reasons that I decided to help Ramón because that’s just not right,” Cochran said. “I went on (the website) looking for resources to send him information about, and I was like, ‘I guess I’m his resource!’ ”
Five weeks later — after a crash course in immigration law and the filing of her first bond motion — a federal judge in Chicago granted Ramón a $2,000 bond, and he was picked up outside the jail by Cochran the day after it was posted.
“I just could not let this man that had worked for the same company I’ve worked for 15 years and was a model employee that everyone loved just be deported without a fight,” Cochran said.
Ramón’s fellow immigrant cellmates — almost all of whom had no lawyer — were shocked that he got a bond hearing so soon, let alone such a low amount, as several had been in that same cell for three or four months, and those who did get a bond had to pay as much as $12,000.
“Everyone said, ‘Get your attorney to help me!’ ” Ramón told Insider. “I said I can try, but she’s not an immigration attorney, she’s just helping me out.”
While Ramón is out on bond, his legal fight is far from over. He still faces removal proceedings and is without any legal status. Cochran will continue to represent him free of charge, optimistic that she can have his legal status adjusted so that he may remain in the country and gain a valid work authorization.
But Cochran and other attorneys in Louisville have a larger goal, as they witness so many other immigrants who, without a lawyer, have little chance of success in a legal system that is backlogged with deportation cases and ramping up prosecutions with unprecedented speed — including the creation of a new immigration court in Louisville in April that churns through over 150 cases a week.
With many immigration law firms at full capacity and unable to take on additional clients, the Louisville Bar Association is increasing its efforts to train attorneys, paralegals and law school students in the basics of immigration law, so they can help the many detainees and asylum-seekers in Kentucky who face little chance of avoiding deportation without legal counsel.
Cochran herself has decided to create a legal bond clinic to organize and train volunteers who want to help those immigrant detainees in the Boone County jail, and she wants to name it after Ramón.
With heartache comes action
In late June, the Louisville Bar Association’s human rights section and the Louisville Urban League hosted an “Immigration Law Boot Camp,” prompted by the news of children being separated from their parents seeking asylum at the Mexican border and detained because of a new “zero tolerance” policy of the Trump administration.
ICE detentions of immigrants with no previous criminal record have tripled under the administration of President Donald Trump, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has attempted to make asylum claims more difficult for the thousands fleeing gang violence and domestic violence in Central America.
Just as many local attorneys had reached out wanting to know how to help immigrants after the Trump administration instituted a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries in 2017, these family separations spurred another impromptu information and training session, letting those interested know what practical ways they could help.
While not much can be done locally to help these child detainees in the headlines outside of traveling to the border and staying there for an extended period of time, local immigration attorney Ted Farrell told the audience that there were already plenty of immigrant families right here in the city and throughout Kentucky who were desperately in need of basic legal assistance to keep them together, and even those with little knowledge of immigration law could help.
Referencing the new Louisville Immigration Court, Farrell — who works at the Russell Immigration Law firm in Old Louisville — noted that up to 50 immigrants are facing removal proceedings in the city every day, “and only half of them are represented by attorneys.”
Farrell added that “many, many more people are arrested every day by ICE.”
“They are taken into custody, and because they don’t have an attorney to represent them in bond hearings, they are being deported — despite the fact that they might be married to a U.S. citizen, despite the fact that they might have U.S. citizen children that they’ve been supporting,” he added. “And what we can do as attorneys is we can represent these people.”
For attorneys with no experience in immigration law, Farrell explained that immigration attorneys can walk them through how to get qualified by the court, how to write a bond motion, or how to represent a juvenile immigrant in a special family court hearing.
He went on to cite examples of a UofL law student, a criminal defense attorney and a personal injury lawyer who all were able to successfully get their clients bonds, despite having no previous experience.
“(My firm) gets calls all the time, and we have to send people away because we just don’t have enough people power to represent folks,” said Farrell. “So the more that you can do, the better … You can do some real good in representing these folks.”
Studies point to the necessity of representation
Whether an immigrant seeking relief from deportation is currently detained or free until the conclusion of that case, studies and statistics on EOIC courts across the country show drastic differences in outcomes, depending on whether or not immigrants have an attorney, which court they are in and which judge is assigned their case.
A study in the University of Pennsylvania Review of immigrant detainees from 2006-2012 found that only 14 percent had attorneys, and those who did not have legal representation were overwhelmingly likely to have a negative outcome to their case.
Nearly half of detainees with attorneys were released from detention while their cases were pending compared to only 7 percent without attorneys. A third of detainees with representation applied for asylum or some type of relief from deportation and 21 percent won their case, but only 3 percent of those without an attorney managed to apply and only 2 percent won their case.
While not as drastic as detainees, an extensive database of EOIR removal cases compiled by Syracuse University found that attorney representation factors highly into the outcome of all immigrants seeking asylum. The database includes cases from 2012 to 2017.
Nationwide, only 20 percent of asylum-seekers are not represented by an attorney. While nearly 60 percent of asylum-seekers were denied by a judge in the last fiscal year, those without attorneys are denied 91 percent of the time, compared to roughly half of the time for those with attorneys. The denial rate by judges has steadily increased each year since reaching a low of 45 percent in 2012.
The Syracuse database also shows that while 52.8 percent of asylum cases were denied from 2012 to 2017, the outcomes of these cases varied widely depending on what city the proceedings were in and what judge was presiding over the case.
For example, only 17.3 percent of asylum requests in the New York Immigration Court were denied compared to 93.4 percent of requests in Atlanta.
In Kentucky, there are two main types of courtroom settings for those in removal proceedings of the EOIR, depending on whether or not they are detained.
Those who are under ICE detention at their contracted facility in Boone County — like Ramón was for 36 days — go before one of the judges at the Chicago Immigration Court via video conference with their defense attorneys often connecting by phone. These judges preside over a detainee’s bond hearing and then the rest of that person’s removal proceedings unless a transfer to a closer court is requested.
Since its creation in April, non-detainees in Kentucky now go before the Louisville Immigration Court — located on the 11th floor of the Heyburn Building downtown — whereas before they all went through the immigration court in Memphis.
The creation of this new court in Louisville is part of an effort by the U.S. Department of Justice to speed up removal proceedings and end its huge backlogs of cases, which has multiplied by five times during the past two decades to nearly 750,000 with the typical wait time of a case now lasting nearly two years. While EOIR Assistance Chief Immigration Judge H. Kevin Mart has been assigned to this new court, it largely consists of rotating judges flown in from around the country.
These removal proceedings at the Louisville court include both juveniles and adults who are seeking various types of temporary or permanent relief from deportation. Most are seeking asylum, arguing that they are unable to return to their country of origin because of fear of future persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
As of Friday, there were 5,185 pending removal cases in the new Louisville court, including 1,649 involving juveniles. The most common country of origin in these pending cases is Guatemala – followed by Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.
Many of the juveniles and young mothers fleeing horrific gang violence sweeping Central America countries during the past three years have been granted relief by EOIR courts from their claims to belong to a particular social group — such as women fleeing abusive marriages or youth targeted for kidnapping and extortion by gangs.
However, Sessions made a ruling in June that directed judges to not consider the victims of domestic or gang violence as part of such a social group that could claim protection under asylum, arguing that this criterion had been broadened too far to protect the victims of private violence, instead of just government-sponsored violence.
The attorney general expressed concern over possible fraud, citing the nearly tenfold increase in asylum claims during the past decade as a basis for this ruling, but immigrant legal advocates have countered that this interpretation could serve as a potential “death sentence” for thousands of vulnerable women and children fleeing violence.
Children line up for Tuesday Immigration Court
One weekday morning in early July, a line made up of more children than adults had formed at the metal detector on the 11th floor of the Heyburn Building, stretching down the entire hallway of elevators outside.
Once screened and past the guards, many had to wait in the lobby outside the small EOIR courtroom, which had three rows of benches filled to capacity.
The judge would call a name, and an attorney would step forward to the table with his or her client, who put on headphones that would feed the audio of the interpreter sitting next to the judge.
The civil defendants would listen to their attorney explain why they were worthy of asylum or some other type of relief from deportation — such as threats of violence, extortion and kidnapping from criminal gangs — but would often hear accompanying skepticism from the judge, opining on why such a claim for asylum was legally doomed to failure.
Most of the children that morning were high school teenagers who ventured to American from Guatemala without their parents at some point in the last two years, though some were much younger — including an 8-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy whose attorneys pleaded for their haven in the United States.
This is the scene that plays out every Tuesday morning at the Louisville Immigration Court for its master calendar hearing of juvenile cases, where the judge for that day speeds through dozens of cases so the young defendants can enter their pleas and a date for their next hearing can be scheduled.
On this particular morning, the judge is Richard R. Ozmun from the Dallas Immigration Court, the latest EOIR judge randomly selected to rotate into Louisville.
Attorneys for most of the children indicated that they were seeking asylum on the basis that they belonged to a particular social group that has a credible fear of persecution and violence if deported back to their home country. Based on that same fear, some lawyers also sought “withholding of removal” — a less-permanent relief that still allows possible removal to a third country — or protections under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
The judge was told by attorneys that gang members threatened to kidnap or murder the children unless they worked for the gangs or their family paid them off, which initiated the decision to send those kids north to seek asylum. The identified social groups varied, ranging from “young impoverished males opposed to gangs” to those of perceived affluent families being extorted, shaken down and threatened with violence.
Judge Ozmun in almost every case did not issue a ruling, instead, he simply scheduled the next hearing to go before another judge, but when hearing such claims, he repeatedly questioned if these could still be considered valid social groups that a judge should approve for asylum.
The Syracuse database of judicial outcomes highlights the luck of the draw when it comes to what court and judge an immigrant in removal proceedings is assigned to, and Ozmun’s statistics suggest he’s a tough one to get. Ozmun denied asylum in 83.5 percent of cases between 2012 and 2017. His rate has increased with each year; he denied asylum in more than 90 percent of cases in both 2015 and 2016 and then in more than 95 percent of cases in the 2017 fiscal year.
The master calendar hearing under Ozmun also showed the peril of not having an attorney, which was the case for a handful of immigrants by that July afternoon.
Ozmun stressed to a 17-year-old Guatemalan that it’s “very important to go get help.”
The 17-year-old who left his parents in Guatemala two years ago to seek asylum in the United States did not yet have a lawyer, and he was told by Ozmun that if he needed a pro bono attorney, he would have to seek one in Memphis, as no such services are provided in Louisville. The judge also told the 10th-grade student, who currently lives with his half-brother, could hire a local attorney.
That importance of having a lawyer was made apparent in the last case of the day, a 19-year old from Guatemala who had entered when he was 17 and was now working at a Mexican restaurant and sending money back to his parents.
When told that the young man did not get an attorney despite having well over a year to do so, Ozmun went ahead with questioning the defendant, who told the judge that he came to America because he was poor. Ozmun replied that he might be acting like a good son by doing so, but what he was doing is illegal and not a basis for asylum.
The judge said he could either accept voluntary departure — paying an immediate bond and agreeing to leave the country in 120 days — or he would issue an order for him to be removed, with no possibility of coming back into the country for 10 years. He took the offer.
‘It’s still really bad’
Alexandria Lubans-Otto, an immigration attorney based in northern Kentucky, told Insider that immigration judges are getting increasingly jaded when it comes to asylum cases from countries like Guatemala that are crippled by gangs.
“Judges hear the same thing over and over again, but it’s still really bad,” said Lubans-Otto, who was representing a client at the Louisville court that same day. “I think the judges would treat them as more legitimate asylum-seekers if they were there and saw it for themselves.”
Lubans-Otto said she has seen the same attitude among some judges when it comes to women with children seeking asylum because of domestic and gang violence, citing a case where a judge denied a client after she had described her rape to the court.
In the face of more barriers to asylum-seekers, she said attorneys have to be “more creative” with their arguments for those coming from countries with no jobs, no effective police and gangs demanding the service of male kids with the threat of murder as a system of “economic terrorism.” She added, “It’s not ‘gang recruitment,’ it’s slavery.”
In addition to this challenging environment, immigration law firms are increasingly overloaded with clients and have to turn many away, especially detainees who are seeking bond — as Ramón said happened to several of his cellmates who were unable to hire an attorney.
Insider observed one local immigration lawyer represent eight juvenile clients in a row in the rapid-fire master calendar hearing in the Louisville court.
Farrell of Russell Immigration Law told Insider that his firm currently represents 450 clients with open cases, despite the fact that they only have three attorneys.
“We get six calls a day from people asking for help, saying ICE got their relative and they are detained,” Farrell said. “We can’t take bond motions, we’re just too busy. There just aren’t enough attorneys to do that.”
He added that non-immigration attorneys volunteering pro bono work for such detained clients is a great help, but it still takes some valuable time for well-versed lawyers to walk them through what can be a complicated process.
For example, the immigration attorney Duffy Trager, who works in the same law office as Farrell, showed Insider a 150-page motion that was only for the continuance of his client’s asylum case. He added that for immigrants without strong English skills, this shows “there’s almost no way that those without attorneys can win in these courts.”
“The speed that these cases are going through is unlike anything we’ve seen before, but there has to be a balance between efficiency and fairness,” Trager said. “We are there to slow down the process and get fairness for our clients.”
While there are no pro bono attorneys listed on the EOIR website, there are seven nonprofit organizations listed as resources that can connect immigrations with low-cost representation — including Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities in Louisville — but those, too, are at or near their capacity to help.
“We have good nonprofits, but they are overwhelmed right now, and the courts are speeding through these cases, and ICE keeps picking up more detainees, so it’s really hard to keep up,” Farrell said.
Sarah Mills, a senior immigration lawyer with Kentucky Refugee Ministries, told Insider that the organization has been able to increase the number of asylum cases it handles with the hiring of a third attorney, currently representing about 35 clients for a fee that is much lower than the market rate.
However, the nonprofit has to refer detainees to private attorneys and will have to turn down a lot of asylum cases unless they’re able to raise enough to hire more attorneys.
“We’re kind of reaching capacity,” Mills said. “We’ll still be able to take new cases for a while, but at a certain point, we probably won’t be able to take new asylum cases, we’ll have to stop for a period of time.”
While the moves by Attorney General Sessions are making asylum cases harder for those fleeing gang and domestic violence, Mills said that “creative” arguments by attorneys can still overcome those hurdles.
For example, Mills cited one asylum case they won in which their juvenile client was being abused by his grandfather, where they identified his particular social group as minor members of that person’s family. Kentucky Refugee Ministries also has been successful going to family court to declare Special Immigrant Juvenile status for clients, which grants relief from deportation for kids who have been abused or neglected.
Still, Sessions’ action will often mean “you’re going to have to appeal multiple times, and not all clients have the financial resources to keep appealing,” she said.
Mills said she hopes that other large firms in Louisville will follow the lead of Frost Brown Todd, which agreed to take three pro bono cases from Kentucky Refugee Ministries and devote a significant amount of resources to those clients.
Frost Brown Todd “got two or three attorneys and two paralegals on each case, whereas mine are just me,” Mills said. “So even though they are not immigration attorneys, they put a lot of resources into it. I think the clients got really great representation, and I hope other firms see this and help.”
Trump follows through on a campaign promise
The arrest and detention of individuals like Ramón, who’s had no criminal record during his 16 years in the United States, has significantly increased since President Trump’s first week in office.
Following through on a campaign promise, Trump signed an executive order that did away with former President Barack Obama’s policy instituted in 2014, in which federal immigration agents were to prioritize detaining undocumented immigrants who had committed serious crimes or were threats to national security.
While Obama’s first term brought a massive increase in total ICE detentions and deportations — along with a significant decrease in illegal border crossings — the percentage of those arrested by ICE with no criminal record dropped to 14 percent by 2015 and 2016.
That trend changed in 2017, when the total number of noncriminals arrested by ICE tripled to more than 43,000, while the percentage of detainees without a criminal record jumped to 33 percent.
Father Charles McCarthy, a Franciscan Catholic priest who leads Latino outreach for St. Peter the Apostle in southwest Louisville, has gotten to know Ramón in his three years with the church, where he has been an active congregant.
Despite what currently appears to be bleak odds, McCarthy said that the United States needs comprehensive immigration reform that no longer devotes the resources of its justice system to kicking out skilled people like Ramón, who has worked his way up through the same company for 15 years and been a model citizen.
“He is friends with all of the community that comes (to St. Peter),” McCarthy said. “He comes to mass. He roasted chicken at our parish picnic two days in a row out in the sun. He’s just a really good guy, a go-to guy. People are very happy to know him.”
McCarthy added that Ramón’s arrest was the second ICE-related incident his largely Latino congregation has had to deal with this year. In March, a mother of two was stopped in Jeffersonville because her taillight was out, then arrested by the local police and turned over to ICE.
“She’s got two kids, has her own business,” McCarthy said. “She’s very active in the community, she has a Zumba class, and she’s active in the church. One of her kids is diabetic, they are both U.S. citizens, and she’s been applying through her mother for legal residency for many years … These things are happening constantly.”
In July, “Occupy ICE” protesters gathered for weeks in an encampment outside the Louisville headquarters of ICE in opposition to the Trump administration’s family separation policy and ICE detainment tactics, culminating in the arrest of nine protesters who blocked the elevators of the Heyburn Building that provide access to the Louisville Immigration Court.
Sen. Mitch McConnell has taken the opposite position toward the federal agency, stating on the Senate floor that he will “continue to proudly stand with ICE, stand with the rule of law and stand with all the American families who would rather have fewer drugs and less crime in the communities where they’re raising their children.”
After hearing Ramón’s account of cellmates stuck in jail for months without any hope of even hiring an attorney to help them request a bond hearing, Cochran has hatched a plan to start her own bond clinic, hoping to attract more volunteer pro bono attorneys like herself. She says one colleague has already volunteered her services, despite voting for Trump.
“I think we can handle several cases a week and still just do it in our spare time,” Cochran said. “And the only costs associated with it is the $25 to run the criminal background check. We’re going to do this, and I want to name it after Ramón … We don’t need money, we just need volunteers.”
Ramón’s path to an American dream, then a nightmare
Unlike many of the young asylum-seekers coming from Central America in recent years, Ramón was driven north by his family’s extreme poverty — crowded in a house with no water or electricity — and the possibility of changing his fate.
“I stopped school and started working in the second grade when I was 7 years old … I was a shepherd until I was 15,” said Ramón, who taught himself to speak serviceable English. “I have 12 brothers, and I had to help bring income to support the kids … I was the fourth. My mom tried to send me to school, but with the tuition, it was really hard for her to afford food.”
Ramón heard about a friend who had come to California and found a job that paid him enough to send money back to his family and decided to take that journey himself in 2002 when he was 21 years old. In addition to supporting his family back home with roughly $500 a month since that time, he was able to pay for his brothers’ schooling, which he had been unable to pursue himself.
Cochran said that the government’s position is that he first obtained work by using fraudulent documents, which Ramón does not dispute, but she added that he has paid his full state and federal taxes every year that he has been in the country, which is often an issue for long-term undocumented immigrants who now find themselves in removal proceedings.
Ramón had started looking into acquiring a GED, but now, he has lost his CafePress job, which he said he was always afraid of losing “because it was a secure job with benefits, vacation time, holidays. The health insurance was really good.”
He is now alternating between staying with Cochran and her husband and other friends, uncomfortable about imposing too much on either. Grateful for all that she’s done, Ramón calls her “my angel.”
“You’re family now,” countered Cochran. “You’re going to be part of our Thanksgiving every year that you want. We have a small family, and we’re always happy to add good people like you.”
“He’s made me feel useful again when it comes to practicing law, and I’m doing something I’ve never done before. But I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to help someone in a tangible way,” she said. “He’s worried about taking too much, and I don’t think he realizes how much he’s given.”
Although there is always the chance that Ramón will not get the outcome he wants before the court in Chicago, Cochran said she is confident about his ability to gain legal standing and work authorization based on the advice and assistance she’s received from other immigration attorneys like Ferrell, hoping to speed up a process that can often drag on for years.
“I want Ramón to be able to fully participate in our society,” Cochran said. “I want him to be able to enjoy all the benefits of living in our society. So I really want to see him get everything he can possibly get, in terms of being able to stay here and have permanent status and hopefully citizenship. He certainly deserves to be here.”
When asked if he considers himself an American after all of these years, Ramón answered that he does.
“I’ve been living the American dream,” Ramón said. “I was living comfortable, keeping my job, learning a lot about American culture. I don’t get in trouble, tried to do my best, tried to be a good citizen. Yeah.”
Cochran said she views it as her moral and patriotic duty to keep that dream alive.
“I just can’t let my government run roughshod over these people who matter so much to so many of us and not step in and try to do something,” Cochran said. “I can protest, I can fuss, I can complain, I can cry, but if I don’t do something, I’m failing. And if they’re coming for him, they’re coming for me, too.”