On that Wednesday morning in February 2019, Laura Holban arrived at the Seattle Immigration Court determined to fight like hell for Felix Dominguez’s children. Seventeen-year-old Cruz and thirteen-year-old Clara sat beside her at the counsel’s table, looking terrified of being sent to Honduras, a country they didn’t even remember. At the government’s table, Immigration and Customs Enforcement trial attorney Josh Peterson appeared relaxed, as if he’d already secured the kids’ deportation.
“Any submissions for today’s individual hearing?” Judge Carolyn Felsen said.
Laura handed over a manila folder with pictures from Felix’s murder scene. He’d been Laura’s client prior to his deportation. He was a good man who’d lived in Washington State for many years, worked hard, and paid his taxes, but last October, Judge Felsen had denied his asylum application and ordered him deported to Honduras. By mid-November he was dead—murdered in his hometown of Choluteca as a warning for those who thought they could escape the local gangs by fleeing north.
Judge Felsen leafed through the photos. The courtroom was so quiet that Laura could hear the ceiling lights buzzing. A bench squeaked as someone from the children’s foster family shifted in an otherwise empty gallery. In the corner of Laura’s eye, Peterson was adjusting his tie, as if getting ready for his performance. He had a reputation for using technicalities and precise legal terms to counter the flesh and blood of the cases presented by immigration lawyers.
Laura took a deep breath to quiet her nerves. When her emotions ran high, her brain sputtered, unable to find the right words in English and reverting to her native Romanian. In immigration court, the government didn’t have to prove that Laura’s clients should be deported—she had to prove they shouldn’t. Keeping her cool in stressful situations was vital because her well-chosen words could make a huge difference in the lives of her clients. And at the moment, she was anything but cool.
She’d cried last night while printing the murder scene photos. Felix had been found in the driver’s seat of a gray Toyota pickup, head tilted back, eyes closed. There was a gunshot wound in his throat, and his white shirt was covered in blood. Close-ups showed a red-spattered hand clutching the steering wheel. Two bullet casings on the sidewalk. A blood-stained picture of Cruz and Clara taped to the truck’s dashboard. For contrast, Laura had added to the file a cheerful selfie of Felix in a green-and-blue Seattle Sounders T-shirt, a busy soccer stadium in the background.
Cruz bit his lower lip. Clara stared down at her chewed fingernails. Laura imagined her own fifteen-year-old daughter Alice sitting terrified at a table like this while a judge decided her fate. As an immigrant herself, Laura knew how awful it was to be at the mercy of a bureaucrat while her life hung in the balance.
Judge Felsen rubbed her forehead. “Let me get this straight, Counsel. Are you implying I’m responsible for the murder of your former client?” Her voice was calm, but her hand shook a little on the manila folder.
“No, I’m not implying that at all,” Laura said, now worried. Had she gone too far by sharing the photos with the judge? “Those pictures are . . . they show what might happen to Cruz and Clara if they’re deported.” She hated saying that in front of the children.
“Your former client,” Judge Felsen said, “he was just . . . unlucky. The asylum rules changed shortly before his hearing.” She tapped her finger on the bench. “As you may recall, the US attorney general wrote a formal legal opinion stating that victims of domestic and gang violence no longer qualified for asylum at that time.”
“Felix Dominguez was unlucky, yes,” Laura said. “Especially since a federal judge later struck down the asylum rules invoked to deport him. But by that time, my client—”
“This is preposterous, Your Honor,” the government attorney said.
“Don’t call me Your Honor, Mr. Peterson,” Judge Felsen snapped at him. “This isn’t a court of law. It’s an administrative tribunal.”
“I’m sorry, Judge,” Mr. Peterson said, sounding contrite.
Laura braced herself. Most judges didn’t mind being called “Your Honor,” so for Judge Felsen to point out that immigration courts operated under administrative law rather than the formal judicial system, applying rules and procedures created by government agencies—that meant she was angry. “I hate to bring up Mr. Dominguez’s tragic story with his children present, Judge. But if their application is denied, they . . .” Laura swallowed her words. Cruz and Clara looked terrified enough already. “The evidence I provided at their father’s hearing last year is just as relevant today. Perhaps even more so.”
“Circumstantial evidence, at best,” the government attorney said with a smirk.
“Circumstantial, Mr. Peterson?” Laura said, slowing down so she wouldn’t make mistakes. “At the hearing last October, I entered graphic pictures of my client’s stab wounds into evidence. I even asked him to lift his shirt and show his scars. Those wounds had been inflicted in Everett, Washington, long before his deportation.”
“Because he was involved with PSB,” Peterson said, meaning the Puget Sound Barrios gang, which was active in the Pacific Northwest and had connections with Mexican and Central American cartels.
“No. He was terrorized by PSB. He fled Honduras because he didn’t want to work for a drug cartel there. They found him here and—”
“And you believe that?” Peterson said.
Judge Felsen rapped her gavel. “Order! This is the last time you interrupt, Mr. Peterson.” She turned to Laura but didn’t look her in the eye. “And you, Counsel, make your arguments without throwing accusations at the court. Or it will not bode well for this asylum application or any other you may bring before us in the future. Because . . .” Her voice cracked. “I want you to know that I do my best to follow the law. Even when it breaks my heart.”
“I know, Judge,” Laura said, trying to sound warm. Judge Felsen could be fired if she didn’t meet the standards of efficiency set by the current administration. It was a conflict of interest challenged by lawsuits that would remain unresolved for years.
“No, you don’t know,” Judge Felsen said. “Day after day, I handle death penalty cases in . . . in a traffic court setting.”
Laura couldn’t agree more but remained silent.
Judge Felsen cleared her throat. “Please continue.”
“If my clients are deported to Honduras,” Laura said, “their lives are at risk. And one can hardly argue that they’re involved with PSB.” She pointed at the folder before the judge. “I think we’ve established a higher than ten percent likelihood of harm in this case. Under current law, Cruz and Clara Dominguez should be granted asylum.”
Cruz stared at the judge, begging with his eyes. Clara’s lips moved a little, as if in prayer. Laura remembered the phone call she’d received last November, the second worst call of her entire life. Cruz was choking on tears as he told her that his father had been killed in Choluteca. Everyone knew the narcos would kill him, so why had the government sent him back?
“What does the government have?” the judge said.
Peterson still looked confident, though he’d lost the smirk. “Judge, to your previous point about Mr. Dominguez’s deportation, neither you nor the Justice Department are in any way responsible for his tragic death in Honduras. Mr. Dominguez never reported the PSB death threats to the police in Everett. Therefore, I must ask: is this how someone in fear for his life behaves?”
Laura thought to argue that undocumented immigrants avoided the police because local authorities cooperated with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and because the current administration allowed ICE to arrest undocumented immigrants who had never been accused of any crimes.
“Trying to get on my good side, Mr. Peterson?” the judge said. “Do you think I was born yesterday?”
“Judge,” Peterson said, “there’s no proof that Mr. Dominguez’s children will be targeted by drug cartels in Honduras. As far as we know, they’ve never been threatened by PSB in Everett. And Honduras is their home country after all.”
“For God’s sake, they’re just kids, Mr. Peterson,” Judge Felsen said. “Mr. and Miss Dominguez, this is your home country.” She banged her gavel.
Laura could breathe again, but the children looked confused. They rose to their feet, and she gave them a hug. “You’re safe now,” she told them, and they broke into timid smiles. She sent them over to where their foster family was waiting. When she turned back, Judge Felsen had already left, and Peterson was closing his briefcase.
“You’re going to appeal?” she asked him.
“I’ll let the boss decide,” he said, heading for the doors at the back of the courtroom.
The man who nodded at him in passing was Mason Waltman, Seattle chief ICE prosecutor. He wore a black suit with a blue tie but didn’t look much different from the people he deported for a living—dark eyes and tanned skin, dark curly hair, short-cropped and graying.
Laura finished packing her leather tote bag, when Waltman stopped at her table.
“You might’ve won your case, Counsel,” he said. “But you’ve made an enemy today.”
“I thought we were already enemies,” Laura said. She’d never stood so close to Waltman before. She noticed an old scar on his left cheek.
Waltman laughed without mirth. “I’m not your enemy, Ms. Holban. I actually admire your idealism, though I don’t appreciate your lack of respect for the law.”
“Outdated law, Mr. Waltman, passed to protect people against oppressive governments. Now refugees need protection from gangs and cartels their governments can’t control. The law hasn’t kept pace with the times.”
“I meant you’ve made an enemy of Judge Felsen. She’ll go home tonight and tell her family that an immigration lawyer with an accent accused her—to her face—of murdering an applicant.”
Laura’s stomach turned cold. “That never crossed my head.” She heard herself and hurried to fix the Romanian leaching into her English. “Crossed my mind. Judge Felsen—”
“Judge Felsen is a human being.” Waltman smiled with the excitement of a kid plucking wings off a fly. “Word will reach the other judges, here and in Tacoma. They’ll blackball you, Ms. Holban.”
“Are you implying that our judges cannot remain impartial, Mr. Waltman? If word of your doubts gets around, they may blackball you.”
“Very funny, Ms. Holban.”
But his threat felt real. The five judges assigned to Seattle and Tacoma were a tight-knit group.
“Will you appeal today’s decision?” Laura said.
“Appeal? Haven’t you heard the good judge? They’re just kids, Ms. Holban. What kind of man do you think I am?”
The kind who destroyed families for a living, Laura wanted to reply. No, that wasn’t quite true. Waltman also deported dangerous criminals and disrupted international trafficking of drugs, arms, and people. There was nothing simple about what either of them did for a living.
“I’ll see you soon, Ms. Holban. Because ICE never rests in its mission to clean up the country.”
He said “clean up” as if immigrants like Laura and the Dominguez children were filth. But after her nerve-racking exchange with Judge Felsen, Laura was too spent to come up with a clever retort. Next time, maybe.
But if Waltman was right, there might not be a next time. Or a next win, anyway.
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