Reporter’s notebook: a visit to detention court

On today’s All Things Considered we update the story of David Soto, first profiled on MPR News in 2009 when he was one of several hundred immigrant detainees spending the night in a Minnesota jail.

On Jan. 2, 2013, he received word that he qualified for “Deferred Action,” a temporary status that allows him to live and work in the United States for two years.

Same guy, (now 27, no criminal record, some college, good work history) same set of facts (entered the country illegally with his parents at age 6), different outcome (instead of deportation, a temporary work permit).

While updating the story, I looked back at my notes from 2009 when I first visited immigration court in Bloomington. It’s one of the most interesting places I’ve been as a journalist. Microphones and cameras aren’t allowed, so here are some of my observations from November 2009.

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(The ICE office in Bloomington is housed in this building, and detention court is in the basement. MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian)

Court is a chance to see your family

I meet Salvador Pleigo through thick plexiglass. In the hour he waits for his hearing, he can visit with his wife Sonya. Salvador has been locked up since May 27. His young wife is overjoyed to talk with him. They haven’t been able to afford the expensive phone calls from jail. (Phone calls are run by a private vendor) .

A place not used to journalists

The fact that I’ve even made it to the waiting room is a small miracle. When I showed up at Immigration and Customs Enforcement with my press pass around my neck I was told the “open court” wasn’t open to journalists. ICE put in a call to the court administrator who works for the Justice Department who had to contact headquarters in DC in order to inform the judge that a journalist would be in the room. I was told “judges don’t like journalists just showing up to observe.”

Killing time people watching

I sit on a bench in the foyer and chat up a friendly female security card. She continually has to redirect people who show up for court to enter through the security doors next door. She explains that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they had to create a new entrance for all the people coming through to be screened. “There’s a couple hundred people waiting here in the morning,” she says. In the winter, they need a place to accommodate the crowd inside.

A court employee enters and exits the foyer several times. He jokes with the security guard that he needs a pneumatic tube because he makes so many trips back and forth to the other Immigration Court across the street.

“Now I have to do a deportation,” he says with a sigh. “Have to go tell a family.”

“Never fun,” agrees the security guard.

“Here I go,” he announces. “My big moment.” I catch sight of him later in the waiting room for the detention court, but never see the person or family he gives the bad news to that day.

A flight with no farewell

I am allowed into the waiting room of the Immigration Court while we await clearance from Washington. What was supposed to be a simple in-and-out hearing has now gotten mired by a journalist’s presence.

I’ve also asked the press office for permission to accompany detainees on a the regular Wednesday flight to Laredo, Texas where they’re ushered back into Mexico. No one can remember a journalist from here getting to do this. In the waiting room, I ask Richard Baquero of the Baquero Law Office if I can accompany him to the airport to see what the departure looks like. “You can’t see anything,” he says. Years ago, Baquero says he used to bring families of deportees out to see them off at the airport. He says he can’t do that anymore. Security has been tightened.

“See that corridor behind the glass?” asks attorney Mary Baquero. “That’s all you’ll be able to see. They are lined up and shackled and you can glimpse them as they’re led out to the underground parking and taken to the airport tarmack.” I won’t be able to get a glimpse of them there.

“I’m a flight attendant on those flights,” says a voice behind me. I whirl around to see a blond pony-tailed woman in a loose sweatshirt. “It’s really weird,” she says. She’s a flight attendant for Sun Country Airlines. Twice she’s been assigned to be a flight attendant on the deportation flight to Texas. One of the attorneys in the room jokes about the service on those flights.

“They don’t get anything,” she says. “We’re not supposed to talk with them. There are guards on board.” It’s a quiet flight, she says. The detainees sit and wait. The flight attendants are required by the FAA to be on board. They don’t do any of the cheerful things I associate with this fun t-shirt wearing airline.

When an ankle bracelet means freedom

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(MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian)

David and Jorge Soto’s mother borrows $12,000 to pay the bond to get her sons out of detention so they can continue to press their case from the outside. One of the conditions of their release is participation in the ISAP program, which stands for Intensive Supervision Appearance Program. They’ll be fitted with electronic ankle bracelets.

ISAP is run by BI incorporated out of Boulder, Colorado. The office where the brothers will be fitted with the monitors is across the street from detention court. It looks like the lobby of a dentist office, beige and nondescript. I follow along to record the moment when the ankle bracelet is snapped on.

Instead, the vendor hands me a post-it note with a media number in Washington D.C. and kicks me out of the waiting room. I’m not allowed to wait in the lobby while the Sotos are processed inside. As I step out, I notice a big, framed poster of the Statue of Liberty hanging on the wall.

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