Blue lights had a habit of making Li nervous. They made him feel naked, as though the illumination would let anyone see right through him. So when the rearview mirror of his girlfriend's car lit up with a silent, blue and white strobe, Li held his breath.
They did not fade.
Understanding that he was to pull over to the shoulder of the highway to avoid the imminent wail of the siren, Li complied. The cruiser coasted into the breakdown lane behind him and halted with the lights still flashing. A moment passed and no one moved, as though the officer was giving Li a chance to figure out his response to “license and registration”. He had no idea what to say.
Finally, the officer approached Li’s car and peered in through the open window.
“Do you know why I pulled you over tonight sir?”
“No I do not”
“Your left taillight is out. Can I see your license and registration?”
Li swallowed the dry in his throat, “Um, I have the registration but this is my girlfriend’s car sir. I don’t have a driver's license.”
The officer paused for a moment, “Do you mean you left your license at home, or do you just not have one?”
“I’m here on a visa sir, I do not have a license.”
There was another pause, much longer this time, Li could feel the wave of U.S consequence about to crash.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the vehicle.”
As Li sat in the cell-like backseat of the cruiser, he thought of Chen. They met five years ago in a small restaurant in Atlanta. Their shared background of being Chinese immigrants had granted them an instant connection. Chen came over to Georgia with her parents at a young age. When her parents were naturalized, Chen was still a minor, granting her citizenship. Now, Chen and Li have a child, just six months old. Chen was trying to plan a wedding so Li could be granted citizenship, but the process was too complicated to do by herself. In between working full time and raising a child, the marriage plans have been put on hold. Despite not being a legal permanent resident of the U.S, Li considers himself fortunate considering how far he has come. Before meeting Chen, Li had moved from apartment to apartment with his limited belongings, taking whatever jobs he could. Li came to Atlanta on a visitors visa that expired over nine years ago. Once he found Chen, she offered him a place to live five years ago, and a steady job. Chen owns a small market in South Atlanta. She sells groceries, newspapers and some other home goods. It’s a small business but it has provided them a happy life. When Li moved into Chen’s apartment, he was able to help grow the business at her market. He’d often run the cash register, open, close and converse with patrons and vendors alike. On the weekends Chen and Li volunteered at the Atlanta Animal Shelter. As Li rode in the back of the cruiser he considered how he came to be in this position. The baby was running a small fever this afternoon, so Li decided to go to the pharmacy while Chen was finishing up at the market. He had borrowed her car before and thought nothing of it. The drive was short with just a small stretch on the highway. Maybe it was unnecessary to go all the way to the pharmacy for a small fever, but Li was constantly worried about his child, and was proud to take the extra step for their son. As he had driven to the pharmacy, the task itself seemed mundane, he was not really worried about the health of his baby, the chore was more out of a fatherly necessity. Yet as he sat in the back of the cruiser, his mind was racing. What if the fever got worse before Chen returned home? Would he be able to contact his wife? How would Chen take care of a newborn baby and run the busy market simultaneously? Being so disconnected like this for the first time made every thought a torturous burdon. Every detail was pounding in Li’s mind as he rode through the lonesome night.
Li was brought to the Atlanta police station to be processed, this was his first time in jail. The officer exited the cruiser at a lot in front of the main entrance to the station. He came around to Li’s side of the door and opened it for him. The officer firmly grabbed Li’s arm to escort him out of the cruiser and up to the front doors of the Police Station. With the handcuffs tightly around his wrists Li looks up at the station unsure of what was to come.
First, Li was brought to a small room where he was stripped of all his personal belongings and searched. He was issued new clothes - a blue prison uniform and prison shoes. His mugshot was taken and they recorded his fingerprints. They sat him down in a blank room and asked a multitude of questions about his personal information and his life. It was revealed that Li was an unlawful resident of the United States as he had overstayed his B2 Visitors Visa by over nine years. At this point in the processing the ‘Delegation of Immigration Authority Section 287 (g)’ came into effect. This imigration code allows local law enforcement to contact ICE - the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency - about an “immigrant of interest.” Because Li had been illegally in the country for an extended period of time it was up to ICE to detain and begin to process Li as an undocumented immigrant. His risk of being deported was emerging at this point in the process, and it will only become more formidable as time goes on without action. Once the local law enforcement officer contacts the appropriate ICE agent to delegate power of the situation, ICE has 72 hours to pick up the immigrant. Although Li could be bonded out of the county facility at this point (he is only there on a charge of driving without a license) ICE would arrest and detain him upon his exit. ICE is an immigration agency whose purpose is to work on national security and immigration law. They dedicate their work towards three operational directorates: Homeland Security Investigations, Enforcement and Removal Operations and Office of the Principal Legal Advisor. As the processing officer contacted ICE at their local facility, in this case the Stewart Detention Center, Li was led down a narrow hall to a pair of imposing metal doors.
In his new clothes, Li was brought to a holding room, a large, icy room that’s purpose is to hold the new inmates while the officers prepare the detention process. This particular Wednesday night the groom was quite empty, just another man sat on the opposite side. There were thick glass windows lining the rectangular room and lee could see an assortment of officers and an occasional inmate walk by the adjacent narrow hallway. After an hour or so the other man in the room was called out into the hallway and was walked out of sight. More time passed in the cold room. Li sat alone thinking of Chen. He worried about her not only running the shop by herself, but raising a child alone for an extended amount of time. He missed their small apartment, the ratty dogs of the volunteer shelter, the customers he saw every day, but most of all his son. It was always a risk when Li drove, but this night he felt as though it was his duty as a father to get medicine for his child. Li was then taken to a small office where he was given a quick physical by a doctor. Li made sure to act polite the entire time. He addressed all the officers as “Sir” or Ma’am” and even said “thank you” when he was given some water after his exam. Once this was finished, Li was escorted to his cell where he would stay until ICE came to detain him in the morning. Before they reached his cell block, Li and the officer escorting him passed the phone bank, and the officer asked if he would like to make his one phone call.
Being able to hear Chen’s voice cast a single ray of light into an otherwise colorless hurricane. Although it was two in the morning Chen picked up the phone before the second ring. Li explained the situation, and through stifled tears he illuminated that the situation was much more serious than merely operating a vehicle without a license. Chen listened intently to every word and understood the gravity of the situation. Through the storm she stayed positive, and assured Li that she would contact law firms tomorrow, and he would come back home. After so many hours of uncertainty, Li finally felt like he could breathe.
His room consisted of a toilet, sink and bunk bed with zero privacy. His cellmate was a younger man who did not speak but resided on the top bunk. As Li layed down he thought of Chen alone in her apartment, and another wave crashed on his consciousness.
Early the next morning Li was removed from his cell. He was led to outtake portion of the jail and was returned his personal belongings. An officer informed him that ICE was here to pick him up, he was no longer in the hands of the GA police, but a federal immigration organization. The officer led him out a side door to a small lot enclosed with a barbed wire fence. The fence was opened and Li was escorted to two men in black uniforms labeled ‘POLICE ICE’ standing just on the other side. They instructed Li to place his palms on the hood of their cruiser. As one agent opened the back right door the other took Li’s hands by the wrist and put them in cuffs. Once again, Li felt drowned in a sea of consequence.
Chen did not sleep that night. As soon as she felt it was somewhat acceptable (around seven am) she called the law offices of Alien Attorney. The call was a relished moment of comfort, as the Attorney Chen spoke to specialized in cases just like Li’s and felt confident about providing a bond approval. Li would be able to apply for bond as soon as he was placed in a cell, yet a collection of evidence would be imperative to the success of that request. The attorney offered a professional investigative package for a low cost that would help them determine the true nature of the case, and prepare evidence that would be necessary for the bond hearing. Although the firm could not know if the bond case was something they would take after a brief phone call, this collection of evidence would prepare them to professionally advise Chen about the next step for her and Li. Through the phone call Chen and the attorney both felt confident that Li would have a successful bond hearing. As Li had no prior criminal record and was a central part of his community in many ways, it would be likely that a judge would feel comfortable letting him return to his home for the time leading to the principal hearing. During the conversation the attorney was impressed by Li's daily life. He was described as a friendly face to Chen’s marketplace that brought joy to the other members of the community. He was fluent in English and would make new friends with patrons in the store. It was obvious that he cared about others well being through his devotion to hard work in the market as well as his volunteer service in the animal shelter. Most importantly though, Chen vowed that Li was an outstanding father and wonderful partner in her life. Through Chen’s many concerns through the conversation it was apparent that Li’s absence at home was going to be a problem. For a number of years now Li had been Chen’s partner in what has become a busy Atlanta market. Running it all by herself, while taking care of a child was going to present a challenge. What was most comforting to the attorney was the deep connection Chen and Li had developed through this small Atlanta market. One of the most beneficial pieces of evidence the attorney hoped to present was that Li would not flee the state or the country upon receiving bond. Chen just wanted Li back home, and no one would believe he had his heart set anywhere else.
As the conversation closed, the attorney asked Chen to complete two very important tasks. First, it was important that Chen does not bond Li out of the county jail. As he is just in there for driving without a license, the bond cost would be low and his release would be immediate. As it had been requested that ICE detain Li, if he was bonded out ICE would find and arrest him immediately. It would turn into a waste of money and create an uncomfortable situation. There was a chance ICE had already detained him and Li was on his way to the Stewart Detention Center. Second, it was imperative that Chen began to gather evidence for the bond immediately. She could start by collecting his personal history, such as his birthday, immigration history, work history and other things of the sort. Something else that would be necessary for a successful bond hearing would be evidence of Li’s community ties. This would most likely be one of the deciding factors in Li receiving his bond approval. He would need to collect evidence of this, among which were letters from members of the community that could attest to Li’s outstanding character and history in the US. People like regular patrons of the store Li connected with, the owners of the animal shelter they volunteer at and most importantly a testimony from his U.S citizen spouse, Chen. Once all this was gathered, the attorney would be able to develop a strong case that would give Li the best odds at receiving his bond. It was excellent that Chen was beginning this process immediately, and it would give the attorneys at the firm the time necessary to create a formidable case. Once the investigation was finished, Chen planned to hire Alien Attorney to fight for the bond as she felt confident that Li would receive the best results.
Just a few hours after Chen’s phone call, Li was at the end of his journey to Stewart. The grey skies met a flat dead-grass horizon that stretched all around. The only notable part of the landscape was the terrifying facility itself. The building was monstrously large compared to the county jail he had been in the night before. A light tan concrete building sprawled across the field in front of him as they approached. Barbed wire sood at the top of towering fences. The building was void of character, the windows were black, the only architectural discrepancy was the crimson block that served as an entrance to the detention center with the name in bold white letters. Li and the agents escorting him passed through two different barbed wire gates that they had to buzz into just to get to the front doors. Li entered the facility in handcuffs. Upon entering he was searched via a metal detector, unlike the strip search that was performed in the county jail.
This lack of a proper search presents one of a few issues with ICE detention centers. A metal detector will not detect any nonmetal objects a detainee is hiding. There are a multitude of ICE detention centers that are notorious for their drug problems.
Li’s personal belongings we transferred to a staff member and he changed into an orange Stewart County Detention Facility jumpsuit. He was brought into a room with concrete desks where he went through a similar booking process as the county jail’s back in Atlanta. Still in handcuffs he was asked questions about his personal history, travel history, and time in the US. At the conclusion of the questioning he was led down a white and tan barron hallway. On each side of the walls in twenty foot intervals were large, windowless, metal doors. At one hundred yard intervales a large barred gate split the hallway in half. The ICE agents would have to use a key to open and then close the massive gate that split the hall into different sections. After three of these gates the agents approached a door on the left hand side with Li. The door was opened to reveal a large room with 9 other inmates already settled in. The room was furnished with bunk beds lining the walls. There was a breeze of light chatter between a group of three inmates sitting on the floor that ceiced as the door was opened. Li was eyed up and down by all of his new roommates. Li immediately realized he was stuck with strangers from all walks of life. Some looked intimidating, people he’d avoid eye contact with on the streets. Others were young and timid, they looked like they could be in highschool. One man was much older, and sat on his bunk, looking at Li with observant eyes.
A common criticism of ICE detention centers is that inmates are held in large cells with an unorganized assortment of detainees. Oftentimes age and ethnicity are disregarded, yet more concerning is the vast assortment of charges. Li who is charged with an overstayed visa and driving without a license is sleeping in the same room with multiple inmates charged with violent crimes and felonies. Although Li is a quiet and nice man who would keep himself as safe as possible, this discrepancy has the potential to create chaos.
The food was what he expected for the type of place he was in. Even if it was a cold meal, Li ate it gratefully, alone in his bunk. Li kept to himself for the rest of the day and there was no trouble. He planned to continue this mindset for as long as it took to step out of these gates to his old life. Although it was hard, he fell asleep that night confident that both Chen and a professional attorney were doing everything they could to help.
The Immigration Bond Hearing
Li has been in the Stewart Detention Center for more than a month now and has been looking forward to this specific date since he was notified of its significance more than 20 days ago. On April 1st, Li’s attorney received a letter in response to his application for bond. The letter informed Li, Chen and the attorney that the bond hearing is approved and scheduled for April 20th in the Stewart Detention Center. If Li’s bond is approved this morning, he can sleep in his own bed tonight. This hearing will play an important role in Li’s future. If the judge decides he is adequate to be let back into society, it will bode well for his principal hearing in two months. During that time Li and Chen are planning to do everything they can to secrete themselves as small, but necessary parts in the Atlanta community, as well as making Li’s hopes of permanent residence come to fruition.
Over the past thirty-five days the attorneys at Alien Attorney have been gathering key evidence to insure a successful hearing this morning. They’ve met with both Chen and Li in person at the detention center, and they all feel confident about today's result.
Not long after sunrise Li is escorted deep into the Stewart detention center, through unassuming double doors, to a dull, unfurnished, but brightly welcoming courtroom. Li and his lawyer sit on one side, while on the other sits the prosecuting attorney. At the front of the room behind a tall wooden desk sits the judge. The judge strikes the gavel twice, signifying the court to rise. He officially announces the beginning of the proceedings for Li’s bond hearing. As he closes his last sentence, he strikes the gavel again, hard, to seat the court.
As the hearing begins the defence presents their evidence in support of Li’s bond. The first piece of evidence sets the pace for the rest of their lineup - Li’s community ties. Having a U.S citizen wife and child legally residing in the U.S, his ties to the city of Atlanta are legitimate. Having a legal family residing in the U.S that Li actively cares for is the strongest reason for his bond, and sets the foundation for the rest of the hearing. Chen established that Li’s propensity for care as a husband and father furthermore extend to his community. As someone who is often confused as the owner of Chen’s market, Li has a reputation for being friendly, helpful, and caring of strangers. Li knows all his regular customers by name and often cracks jokes as he helps bag their goods. Chen has been able to collect four letters from different regular customers that know Li well. They all exemplify Li’s outstanding moral character. One talks about how Li always makes them smile as they enter the market while another reminisces on a time Li helped them change a flat in the parking lot. Yet the personal testimonies to Li’s character do not stop there. The owner of the Atlanta animal shelter wrote about Li’s selfless nature and love for animals. He comes in as often as he can to work selflessly for creatures who need help. She implores in her letter that both the strays, and the Atlanta community, need Li home.
Establishing that Li is not a danger to the community or a flight risk were thankfully both easy tasks. Li has no prior arrests and a total lack of criminal record besides his current situation. Furthermore this arrest was over a broken taillight and lack of license, it was a simple mistake. His community ties speak for themselves, Li is a hard working man who cares about his community and family. It is plain for all to see, he is no criminal. To address the concern for being a flight risk, Li’s entire life was in Atlanta, there was nowhere else he would go. Atlanta is the home he’s outwardly longed for every second of being in detention. There is no doubt that upon receiving his bond the first place Li would go would be back to their small apartment. He would love to go to work in the morning.
The fact that Li indeed entered the US legally on a visa is a huge help. It establishes that he wants to follow the laws, and is someone seeking a better life. With his love for Chen, and their job, Li has a legitimate case. If Li was to be deported, Chen’s wellbeing, and the happiness of their small community would diminish.
The note that the attorney ends on is Chen.
This past month without Li has been monumentally difficult for her. She’s struggling without her partner. She has to work more than twelve hours straight every single day to keep the market running at its normal hours. At the same time she’s raising a baby not even a year old. The stress of her partner being locked away for a mistake she feels responsible for is insurmountable. The right thing to do is let Li go.
As the defence’s argument closes, Li, Chen and the attorney feel confident they will be returning for the principal hearing from home in Atlanta. Li has been nothing but polite and respectful to every officer he’s interacted with, and his virtuous character is clear to the judge.
After a short rebuttal by the prosecution that focuses on Li’s long illegal status in the U.S it was time for the closing remarks. Both sides summarized their arguments in just a few sentences and the focus was turned to the judge to present his findings. The judge spoke highly of Li’s character while commenting on his illegal presence in the U.S. In conclusion though, the judge finds Li deserving to go home and his request for bond is approved. The bond price is set at two thousand dollars and Li is able to leave Stewart detention center without ever looking back.