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Feb 15, 2020

Six years separated

Co-produced with PRX Logo

An asylum-seeking migrant girl is separated from her family at the border and enters U.S. custody at 10 years old. Now, she’s 17 and still in a shelter, even though her family is ready to take her in. They just can’t find her. They turn to reporter Aura Bogado for help.

The rest of this episode originally was broadcast April 6, 2019.

Our last story examines the record of one of the toughest immigration judges in the country, who for years rejected nearly every asylum claim that came before her. Patrick Michels reports on the impact Judge Lorraine Muñoz’s decisions had on one specific community: transgender asylum-seekers.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Migrant kids separated for 6 years from family by US government

Credits

Wilson Sayre produced this week’s show. Andrew Donohue and Brett Myers edited the show. Reporting by Aura Bogado and Patrick Michels.  

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Our sound design team is Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda. They had help this week from Kaitlin Benz, Katherine Rae Mondo, Amy Mostafa and Najib Aminy.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:

Before we get started with today's show, we wanted to let you know that a story that started right here on Reveal is now heading over to TV. Reveal reporter, Trey Bundy, has been exposing a child abuse coverup inside the Jehovah's Witnesses religion since 2015. The result is The Witnesses, a two night television event that shows what happens when a powerful institution protects its reputation, instead of protecting kids. You can see it on the Oxygen network. The Witnesses premiers Saturday and Sunday, February 8th and 9th, at 7:00 and 6:00 central. For more information about how to watch, go to revealnews.org/witnesses.

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Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. In September, the head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Jonathan Hayes, testified before Congress on how they were handling unaccompanied minors.

Jonathan Hayes:

I believe that a child should not remain in ORR care any longer than the time needed to find an appropriate sponsor.

Al Letson:

Hayes said migrant kids were being reunited with their families much more quickly.

Jonathan Hayes:

As of the end of August of this year, the average length of time that a child spends in HH's custody is approximately 50 days, which is a dramatic decrease of over 40% from late November 2018, when the average length of care was 90 days.

Al Letson:

What Hayes didn't tell Congress is that some kids are being held much longer. Reveal immigration reporter, Aura Bogado has learned about a girl from Honduras who had been in custody for more than six years, since she was 10 years old. This girl has spent a big chunk of her childhood being moved around from shelter to shelter. Aura found out that the girl had family here in the U.S., a family she wanted to be with, and that family wanted to be with her. For reasons we can't figure out, the United States government cut off communication between them. The last time they were in touch was five years ago. As Aura was reporting on this case, she found out about an important hearing that was about to happen.

Aura Bogado:

It's Thursday, January 16, around 11:00 in the morning. I'm here in Portland because I found out that the girl has an upcoming court date. It's today.

Al Letson:

Aura couldn't bring her recorder into the hearing, so she taped these notes in her hotel room, across the street from the immigration courtroom in downtown Portland.

Aura Bogado:

So, it's heavy energy in that room. I've heard from several sources that she wanted to voluntarily deport herself.

Al Letson:

Aura joins me now in the studio. And Aura, who is this young girl that you're talking about?

Aura Bogado:

The girl whose case I've been following, we're not going to use her name because she's a minor and she's experienced an incredible amount of trauma. She's 17, she's originally from Honduras and she migrated to this country with her brother, and he's 14 now. They were in a foster family, but then they were torn apart, and have had a very different experience from one another in the system. His story is a whole other case in and of itself, but today we're going to focus on the girl. She's spent longer in federal immigration custody than any other kid I've ever heard about and at immigration court, she was asking to leave the country voluntarily.

Al Letson:

She's been in U.S. Immigration shelters for six or seven years, that's nearly half her life.

Aura Bogado:

I had to wrap my head around it at first because her case has thrown into question for me just how little the government is really doing to try and reunify these children with their families.

Al Letson:

Also, I'm doing a little math here, and that means that she was separated from her family during the Obama administration.

Aura Bogado:

Right. So we usually associate family separation with the Trump administration, and we know that it happened under Obama. I just didn't know what that exactly meant, until I heard about this girl.

Al Letson:

So you said you've talked with her family.

Aura Bogado:

Right, and they told me that they hadn't heard anything about her for five years. So when I told them that I was going to Portland for the case, it was the first time that they'd even heard that she had a court date and they asked me to relay a message to her.

Al Letson:

And while you were in your hotel room, you were getting those materials together to share with her?

Aura Bogado:

So, I've printed out a photo of a couple of people that I think that she probably will remember, and I think I'm going to write that message on there. It basically tells her, "Don't sign your deportation order." More specifically, "You can't sign that deportation order, because we're still here. We miss you so much. We can't wait to see you again." The family very much wants to have her back, so I'm looking forward to seeing her today, but we'll see how it goes.

Al Letson:

Okay, so let's pause on the court case for a minute and just go back. How did this girl get to the point where she's asking to be deported? What happened to her?

Aura Bogado:

This is exactly what I wanted to know from the moment I heard about the case. I didn't have much to go on. I only knew that the girl had been in the system for more than six years, and that she'd mentioned the name of an aunt who was possibly living in Honduras. I was finally able to find that aunt. She wasn't in Honduras, she was right here in the United States.

Aura Bogado:

So this aunt helped raise the girl, along with [Aujulita 00:06:20], with the grandmother, and I came to find out, that she's the person that's named on government documents as the girl's potential sponsor back in 2013 and 2014, which means that she's the one that the US government was supposed to give the girl back to, after they separated her from her family at the border. I should say that we're not naming many of the people in this story because they're victims of trauma or underaged, or simply worried about being deported. Some people have wanted to be named, like the girl's grandmother, Doña Amalia. She lives with the girl's aunt, in North Carolina.

Aura Bogado:

I went to visit them. They live in the countryside, where agricultural fields dominate the landscape. She lives in a very small home, with a big brood of chickens that she feeds kitchen scraps to and three little puppies lope around, they're still learning how to run.

Aura Bogado:

Hello, hello.

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

[Spanish] That's Doña Amalia. Every time I meet her, she wears really bright clothing, with her hair tucked under a kerchief, and she wears these big frilly aprons and the wrinkles on her face and her hands are deep, and at 94 years old, they give us a preview of how much life she's seen.

Aura Bogado:

From her and from other family members, I've learned the backstory of how some of the family came to the U.S. In 2012, Doña Amalia's grandson was brutally murdered. He was shot and the vehicle that he was driving was set ablaze, melting off whole parts of his body. His death marked one of roughly 7,000 homicides in Honduras that year.

Al Letson:

And we should say Honduras is a pretty small country. Yeah, so 7,000 is a big number.

Aura Bogado:

Yeah, it's about the size of Louisiana. As the family made arrangements for his funeral, they also mapped out their escape. They'd sometimes received threats to their lives and wellbeing, which they previously pushed aside, but now those threats no longer felt hollow. Doña Amalia and the family made their way first to the capital in Honduras, then north to Mexico, and then finally to the United States.

Aura Bogado:

They wanted to be here first, so that they could set up for the others who were still on their way. A few weeks later, the girl, her brother, another aunt and a cousin arrived at the border and the girl and her brother are separated from that aunt and cousin pretty much right away. This isn't uncommon. In fact, it's standard practice to separate any child from an adult who isn't their birth mother or their birth father.

Al Letson:

Did Immigration officials keep the kids together, though?

Aura Bogado:

At first, yes. The two kids were shuffled around together. First to foster care in Oregon, and then sources tell me, to foster care in Massachusetts. The girl had a really tough time being away from her family, and it kept getting worse the longer she was in. The brother and the sister would call Doña Amalia from time to time and tell them how they were doing.

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

Doña Amalia here she was telling me the girl, yeah, she'd hit herself. She'd cut herself with knives.

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

[Spanish]

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

"They kept putting her in the hospital," she told me. "A lot of times, not just once, lots of times," and so I asked her, "What kind of hospital?" and she said, "Who knows?"

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

"She hit herself, she hit herself with something sharp," she told me. "Like one of those." So she was pointing at the wall and I asked her, "Do you mean the wall?" "Yes, like the wall. And from there, we never knew anything else about her. Nothing, nothing at all."

Al Letson:

Does the family know why she was hurting herself?

Aura Bogado:

They told me that she had never harmed herself before coming to the United States. One family member says that the girl got the idea that if she hurt herself, she'd get attention and they'd release her back to her family.

Al Letson:

So up to this point, the brother and the sister were together and U.S. policy is to release minors to their family members or a suitable sponsor. Do we know why they were never released to their family?

Aura Bogado:

That's unclear, Al. There's one theory that because the girl isn't blood related to Doña Amalia and the aunt, government officials didn't want to turn her over, but her brother is blood related, and so that theory sort of flies out the window. It could be that the government thought the family wasn't fit for some reason. The family says they don't know, that they didn't hear any explanation from the government and I haven't been able to get an answer either.

Al Letson:

Did the family have any documentation of this?

Aura Bogado:

Absolutely. They had a lot of documentation that they tried their best to prove to the government that they were indeed the family of these two children and that they were fit and that they wanted the children back. So there's no doubt that the government identified this family as the sponsoring family. The girl was in touch with the family through the beginning of 2015, but then the phone calls stopped. The family didn't hear from them, or anything about them, for five years.

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

That's Doña Amalia again, telling me, "They buried her. The government buried her," and that line has really stuck with me. She's saying that the government buried this child, they silenced her underground. The family says they kept calling the phone numbers that they had for the case manager and the case worker, that they had previously been in touch with but nothing, no one answered. Weeks went by and those turned into months, and at some point, the phone number that they had was disconnected. I recently tried calling two phone numbers that I found on documents associated with the case worker at the time. One was out of order and the other belonged to a new user.

Al Letson:

So this family is no longer hearing from the kids, they can't get anyone from the government to respond. So what was it like for this family?

Aura Bogado:

For this family, Al, this wasn't family separation. For them, these children were disappeared.

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

"We didn't know where they were. That's the thing, I was dying from tears. I'd ask, 'Are they dead? How are they?' My god, how must those children be suffering, naked, hungry?" The family was so petrified of the government itself, not just of government officials, but also of contractors associated with the whole shelter system, so attorneys and advocates and case workers and case managers. For Doña Amalia, she called on the one authority she's always placed her faith in, God.

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

"I called on my God, I called on him, "Jehovah, you are powerful. You are wonderful, father. Relieve me from this. Please bring down an angel from the sky."

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

"They said on television that all of the children that were taken from their families, have to be returned. They said that."

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

"Jesus, it's truly terrible. In the end, there is really no equal comparison. It's as if they were dead. As if they were dead. We knew nothing, nothing."

Aura Bogado:

It was clear over several days, talking with her in person, that she thinks about the kids all of the time. It's not like there were certain things that reminded her of the kids, it was constant. None of the family out in North Carolina or in Honduras had heard anything about the girl or the boy. until I started poking around.

Al Letson:

I'm talking to Reveal's Aura Bogado about a case of a 17-year-old girl from Honduras, who's been held in U.S. custody for six years. When we come back, Aura tracks down what happened to her during that time, and what comes next. This is Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

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Male:

Hey, hey, hey. It's time for Al's podcast picks. In this installment, the newest season of the Uncover podcast looks at Satanic panic. Throughout the '80s, a bizarre phenomenon was sweeping North America. Rumors swirled about underground Satanic cults torturing and terrorizing children, forcing them to take part in gruesome rituals. Everyone, even the FBI, believed children were under attack. But were they? The latest season of Uncover, from CBC Podcast, looks at the ways fear and paranoia can twist our best intentions and lead to terrible injustice. Uncover Satanic Panic, find it wherever you get your podcasts.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Reveal immigration reporter, Aura Bogado, has uncovered the case of a brother and sister separated from their family for more than six years. They've come to the U.S. from Honduras with family members. Typically, children would only be separated from their family for a few months. Aura joins me in the studio, and Aura, the children were initially together. The girl's now facing deportation. Can you take us through what's happened to the girl over the years?

Aura Bogado:

She's been placed and transferred a bunch of times. She started out with a foster family in Oregon. Then, as far as I've been able to reconstruct, went to a different foster family in Massachusets, then to a residential treatment center in Florida, and then she went to Shiloh, a residential treatment center in Texas.

Al Letson:

Wait, wait. You mean the Shiloh that we reported on, that has been forcibly drugging children?

Aura Bogado:

Yeah, that one. Twice. I just mentioned the first time that she was sent to Shiloh. Sources have told me she then went to a shelter in New York, and then she was sent back to Shiloh. Then, a few months ago, she was sent to a shelter back in Oregon, and at some point in all of this, the girl started to believe that her family abandoned her, that they didn't want her, that they didn't care for her, when during that whole time, they were thinking about her and they wanted her back.

Al Letson:

Doesn't the girl have a representative or a lawyer that would stop this from happening? Who's at fault here?

Aura Bogado:

Since we still don't know why the government cut off contact, its hard to say exactly who's at fault. We do know that the girl has had a number of people representing her over time. I don't yet know the total number of attorneys that she's had, but that's one of the challenges that comes with prolonged detention, the inability to have stead legal representation. Attorneys came and went, and the girl stayed. The girl also has an advocate. The advocate is different than the attorney that represents her. She supports what's best for the girl. The attorney represents what the girl wants, and what the girl wants and what's best for her aren't necessarily the same thing.

Al Letson:

So that brings us back to the hearing, that you flew out to Portland to watch, where you heard that the girl was going to ask to be deported.

Aura Bogado:

Right. So this is this really important hearing and I'd heard so much about the girl, but I'd never seen her, much less talked to her.

Aura Bogado:

Check. Check. Check. Okay. So, I'm back in my hotel room.

Al Letson:

So this is what you recorded after you witnessed the girls' court proceeding?

Aura Bogado:

I recognized the girl right away, as soon as she walked in. She came in wearing, I think like black pants, but she had this really pretty cream colored top with flared sleeves on the arms, and then kind of black lacework going down the middle and just black piping over some parts of the blouse. She had her hair totally pulled back in a ponytail and she had a whole bunch of pink barrettes on with... I don't know if it was hearts or bears or something.

Al Letson:

Was there anything else that you noticed about the girl?

Aura Bogado:

She seemed nervous, she was constantly fidgeting and looking around. They called the kids into the courtroom and since these hearings are open to the public, I just went in after them. Inside there was a big Department of Justice seal on the wall behind the judge, and there was wood paneling on the walls and there were about a dozen kids listening in the courtroom.

Aura Bogado:

Okay. So the judge called a case and the attorney for the respondent said that she wanted this other case to be heard first and it turns out to be the girl, the girl whose case I'd been following. So the girl steps to the front, she takes her seat, she puts her headphones on so that she can understand the interpreter. He reads out her name and he asks her if that's her, and she says yes, "Si." So this girl has been here from the age of ten and she's 17 now, and she still needs an interpreter. Clearly, she can say some words in English, but she is most comfortable communicating in Spanish.

Al Letson:

The thing that I'm caught up on here is that she's been in the U.S. for years, but she hasn't had consistent access to real education. She's not allowed to access social media accounts. What are they doing to her? She doesn't even have a cell phone where she can contact anybody.

Aura Bogado:

Yeah. That's what we're trying to figure out. I know that the shelter that she's at now, Morrison, like many other shelters, it's sort of a revolving educational program, because these shelters, again, they're not designed to hold kids for more than a few months, maybe a year, certainly not six years. So I've wondered how many times has she learned the ABC's? How many times has she learned two plus two is four? And it's impossible to know. There have been so many layers and there hasn't been a layer where I'm like, "Oh, this makes sense." They've kept her. They've kept her away from her family. Remember, she came here seeking asylum. Her uncle was brutally murdered, that's no joke. I've seen the death certificate. I've talked to enough people to know what happened, what that was like, and her family is trying to bring her here so that she has a life and look at the life she's had.

Al Letson:

Yeah. What happens when she's in front of the judge?

Aura Bogado:

The girl requested voluntary departure. She wants to leave the country before a decision on her asylum case has been reached, which sources say she filed nearly two years ago. Her attorney filed the request for voluntary departure on the girl's behalf and her advocate, the one who's charged with doing what's best for the child, wrote a letter in support of that request for a voluntary departure, and recommended four safeguards for when she's taken back to Honduras. I only know about one of the safeguards, because that's the only one that the immigration judge referred to and that safeguard is for ICE to simply provide the girl with 60 days of prescription medication in her travel bag.

Al Letson:

Was this related to the mental health concerns her grandmother shared with you?

Aura Bogado:

What I know for sure is that the family has told me that they don't know what medications she's on, but I do know, from previous reporting, that Shiloh, where she stayed for a while, would put kids on powerful drugs without family consent. The advocate's letter in court was simply requesting for the government to provide a short supply of critical medication, but the immigration judge, Richard Zanfradino, said he couldn't order Immigration and Customs enforcement to provide the two months supply of medication. He said he could just tell ICE to makes its best efforts. I know that ICE's rules say they do provide deportees with up to 30 days of medication.

Al Letson:

So, the judge ends up granting the girl voluntary deportation. Aura, did it seem to you like she understood what was happening with these proceedings?

Aura Bogado:

She seemed to have a clear understanding of what was happening. She wanted to have a voluntary departure. She seemed pleased with the outcome, and so I don't want to take this agency away from her that she's exercising in this moment.

Al Letson:

So has she been deported?

Aura Bogado:

Nope, not yet. Not as of today at least, but it can happen any day now, and it should happen before May 15 at the very, very latest. That's the date that the immigration judge set.

Al Letson:

Where will she go if she's sent back to Honduras?

Aura Bogado:

What will likely happen if she's sent back, is she'll go with her birth mother, who didn't raise her and who the government only reconnected with a few weeks ago, and only after I essentially got the family in touch with the girl.

Al Letson:

Is this case an anomaly? Is she the only child we know about that's spent years alone in federal immigration custody?

Aura Bogado:

That's what I'm trying to figure out right now. I know of several other cases where kids were kept in custody for years, that's just from my own reporting. Some were, or are still right now, being kept in for more than two years. I know of one child who was kept for five years. The federal government has those answers, and I've filed public records requests. They haven't meaningfully responded, they've basically stonewalled me, and so now we're suing to get that information. We're hoping to learn a little more, because we assume there may indeed be more kids who've experienced, or maybe are still experiencing prolonged custody. I reached out to government and shelter officials to better understand this story, but so far, no one has agreed to comment directly on the girl's case. The Office of Refugee Resettlement did say that it would be inaccurate to generalize its operations based on one case.

Al Letson:

Were you able to talk to the girl at the court hearing?

Aura Bogado:

Well, I wanted to give her this message from her family, and their phone number and the photos that I printed out. So I decided to stand in the elevator lobby, where I thought that I'd probably have the best chance of being able to hand this over to her.

Aura Bogado:

I hear them. I hear them coming out, and I say her name, I tell her my name, I tell her I'm a reporter and I tell her, "This is your family. I know your family, I've been in touch with them." Right away, the minder says to her basically to ignore me. Then I'm telling her, "Take this. Take this." She takes it and her expression just completely lights up, and she says to the woman, she's like, "This is them. This is them." With just this just elated joy, but remember, I'm giving her this message just moments after she asked to depart the country, thinking that her family has abandoned her and soon after, they walked around a corner and I left.

Al Letson:

Where does this leave things?

Aura Bogado:

A lot has happened since the immigration judge approved this girl's request for voluntary departure. She talked with her family for the first time. Doña Amalia explained to me what that first and only recent video call with the girl was like.

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

Doña Amalia told me that the girl said, "Hi Abuela," and she said, "Hello my child," and that she was crying and that she'd spent seven years crying for her. The girl said, "Oh Abuela, but I've already asked for my deportation, and I'm going to go," and Doña Amalia told her, "Come over here. Come with us. What are you going to go do in Honduras?"

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

Doña Amalia learned in this conversation that the girl hasn't learned how to read. She's been in the United States for more than six years and she still doesn't know how to read. She also shared that most of her days are good, but that she's still self harming sometimes. Doña Amalia also said that she pushed back when the girl said that she wanted to go back to Honduras.

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

"What is she going to go do over there? To lose herself? To raise children? She's going to get passed around from man to man. That's what she's headed to."

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

"She was lost to us. We didn't have hope, we didn't have anything and today we do, because we know that the kids are alive. They might be well, they might not be well, but they're alive."

Al Letson:

So, has this interaction with her family changed the girl's desire to leave the country?

Aura Bogado:

It's unclear if the girl has formally asked, legally asked, to change her petition to the courts. The case manager has also been in touch with the family, so there's finally this connection between the government and the family members in the U.S., who are still willing to sponsor her, but after some initial contact, the family says the case manager is mostly ignoring their calls.

Al Letson:

Obviously, they're worried about losing contact again. Assuming she does go back to Honduras, does her family there know when she might be coming?

Aura Bogado:

Well, I have been able to talk with her birth mom.

Female:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

She hasn't been in contact with her daughter since she left Honduras eight years ago. She heard from her for the first time, a couple of weeks ago.

Female:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

The birth mom told me that the girl said she didn't want to go back to Honduras after all, that she wanted to stay with her aunt and with her grandmother, Doña Amalia. "They're the ones who raised her," she told me. "and since they decided to try and give this girl a future, I don't want to see it twisted around," that's what she told me. She said that the girl should be with her family, and her family is Doña Amalia.

Female:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

She told me that the people who called her, likely the case manager and maybe the attorney or advocate, said that there's nothing that can be done now. That the girl's orders have already been signed.

Aura Bogado:

The U.S. government, which lost contact with the girl's family for five years, right here, in the United States, in its own country, is somehow going to get this 17-year-old to her birth mother in this tiny, rural place in the hills of Honduras, and if the girl is deported back, she could also be sent to a shelter there, which, if you think they're bad here, it's just a whole different level of awful over there. Unless something stops the deportation.

Al Letson:

Wait. I thought the immigration judge already granted her request to leave the country? So are you saying that that can actually be stopped?

Aura Bogado:

For immigration law especially, it ain't over until it's over. What I know to be true is that until that girl sets foot in Honduras, anything, literally anything, can happen. Immigration law is full of bureaucratic ins and outs. The girl could request a motion to reopen or reconsider her deportation and the girl's grandmother, Doña Amalia, she's hopeful but she recognizes the gargantuan forces that her family is still trying to fight.

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

"Since they have the power," she told me, "Since they run things, they're the ones who run things, not with God, but here, they do. They do whatever they want."

Doña Amalia:

[Spanish]

Aura Bogado:

"And it wasn't this government," she told me. "It was Obama. Obama was in when we got here. It was him. They let us in, but they took our children. We thought it would be a temporary thing, but no. Look how much time has passed."

Al Letson:

That's Reveal's Aura Bogado. Aura, thank you so much.

Aura Bogado:

Thanks, Al.

Al Letson:

To read more and to get updates on this story, sign up for our newsletter at revealnews.org/newsletter. When we come back, the story of an immigration judge who turned down 97% of cases that came before her court. This is Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. In downtown Los Angeles, at the corner of Sixth and Olive, a long line of men and women in suits, and families with small children, stretches out the front doors, down the black and around the corner. This is Immigration Court. What happens inside is a bit of a mystery, because hearings are often closed to the public. Decisions are rarely published and most judges aren't allowed to talk to the press. But today, we're going to hear from one immigration judge who served for 20 years. She was allowed to be interviewed because she had recently retired when we first aired this story last April. Reveal's Patrick Michaels is on his way to meet with her. But first, Patrick stops by that line of people waiting to get into court, and chats with two lawyers.

Patrick Michels:

Hi, excuse me. I'm a reporter covering immigration for a radio show called Reveal.

Al Letson:

He's curious if they know the judge he's about to interview, Lorraine Muñoz.

Patrick Michels:

I'm going around the corner to interview a former immigration judge.

Female:

Oh, good. Which one?

Patrick Michels:

Lorraine Muñoz.

Female:

Oh, wow. Okay. Yeah, okay.

Patrick Michels:

Why do you say that?

Female:

No. I'm not going to say anything.

Male:

Yeah, no comment.

Female:

No comment.

Al Letson:

That's the kind of reaction Patrick got from a lot of lawyers he asked about Judge Lorraine Muñoz. She has something of a reputation. She's known for being tough. Her rulings had a huge impact on one specific community, transgender people who had fled their countries because they were afraid for their lives. They came to the U.S. seeking asylum and almost every time, Judge Muñoz turned them away, rejecting more asylum claims than almost anyone else in the country. How can one judge hold so much power? And was she fair? That's what Patrick wants to find out.

Patrick Michels:

Lorraine Muñoz never planned on becoming a judge.

Lorraine Muñoz:

The only lawyers I ever knew were what you saw on TV. I had never met a lawyer in my life. That's a good thing, I guess.

Patrick Michels:

She grew up in East LA, as a second generation American. Her grandparents immigrated from Mexico. She taught elementary school while she studied law at night and when she got her degree, she was an advocate. She represented immigrants, farm workers and refugees fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Honduras. Then when her son was just a few years old, her husband died. She knew about a government job with better pay and more security. In 1997, she became an immigration judge.

Lorraine Muñoz:

I was a single mom. I had a child to raise, and the immigration court was hiring, but I was shocked at how many people thought it was like, "Oh, you're selling out."

Patrick Michels:

It was a huge shift. As a lawyer, she represented individual immigrants, fighting to get them status. As a judge, she was the gatekeeper.

Lorraine Muñoz:

I was no longer an advocate. I now had a responsibility to maintain a system.

Patrick Michels:

She spent a few days at judge school, then found herself on the bench in her own courtroom.

Patrick Michels:

The first time you sit up there in your own immigration court, running the show, what's that like?

Lorraine Muñoz:

It's really awkward. It's so self conscious. You're sitting there and everybody's staring at you.

Patrick Michels:

The stakes were high, and she was under pressure to move through her cases quickly. She started hearing them so fast, people called her court the Rocket Docket.

Lorraine Muñoz:

There really were lists that were published every week on where your cases were, how many were over 60 days. These were country-wide.

Patrick Michels:

Her court got a reputation, not just for how fast she churned through cases, but also because of her decisions.

Patrick Michels:

I've got the numbers here, because I wanted to quote them. 2013 to 2018 you've made 617 asylum decisions-

Lorraine Muñoz:

Wow. Really?

Patrick Michels:

... and rejected 600 of them, which is a pretty high denial rate. Did you recognize at the time that that was a high rate, compared to other judges?

Lorraine Muñoz:

Well, I don't know that report, so I can't really say how its analyzed, but I was in a detention center by then.

Patrick Michels:

Well, she wasn't in a detention center. What she means is she only saw people who were being held in detention and judges across the country tend to reject those cases more often. Still, in that six year snapshot, Judge Muñoz denied 97% of asylum claims, meaning she turned people down 40% more often than the national average. We've got another window into her courtroom. A lawyer's group sued the Justice Department to see complaints filed against Immigration judges. After years in court, when the DOJ finally released them, the judges' names were redacted, but one lawyer figured out how to un-redact them, including nearly 800 pages of complaints against Judge Muñoz. Most are about the way she treated people in court. One lawyer described a hearing as an inquisition and said Judge Muñoz was unfit to be on the bench. Another described overwhelming hostility, sarcasm and intimidation. Judge Muñoz tells me people just misread her.

Lorraine Muñoz:

Yes, I was a tough judge, if that's how you want to characterize it. I was a demanding judge. I have standards. It's just something that I felt was a duty to do your best and I demanded that from my lawyers, and not everybody likes that.

Patrick Michels:

These documents show she wasn't only tough on lawyers. That's because in immigration court, you're not guaranteed an attorney. So lots of people represented themselves.

Rocío:

[Spanish]

Interpreter:

"The moment I stood in front of her, it was so difficult. I didn't know how to explain my situation to her. I felt lost."

Patrick Michels:

That's Rocío. She's a transgender woman from Guatemala. Were not saying her full name, because her applications for permanent status are still pending and her lawyer's worried she might be punished for speaking out about Judge Muñoz's court.

Rocío:

[Spanish]

Interpreter:

"Well, I tried to explain to her the things that had happened to me in my country. But she simply said that she did not believe any of it. It was a story that I was simply repeating from others that had been in front of her. She said that she already knew this story. Her way was always cold, rude."

Rocío:

[Spanish]

Patrick Michels:

Immigration courts deal with all kinds of human suffering. War, genocide, political persecution, and that suffering gets divvied up unevenly. New York judges get the majority of asylum cases from China. Judges in Miami decide most of the cases from Haiti and for years, Judge Muñoz saw a huge portion of asylum claims from transgender women like Rocío.

Rocío:

[Spanish]

Interpreter:

"The moment I was in front of her, she made an assumption about me, saying she didn't believe that I was a transgender woman."

Patrick Michels:

Form inside detention, without a lawyer, Rocío managed to submit almost 200 pages of evidence with her asylum claim. She says she suffered horrible abuse in Guatemala, that her father attacked her with a machete, that gang members threatened her, and that police raped her, all because she was transgender. But in court transcripts, when Rocío tries to testify about that violence, Judge Muñoz never really lets her explain what happened. At one point the judge asks Rocío for details about a trip she took in Guatemala and Rocío tries to explain what happened on that day. The two policemen kidnapped and raped her, but Judge Muñoz cuts her off, saying, "I don't know why you feel that's important." In the end, she ruled that Rocío's story was not credible, and ordered her deported.

Rocío:

[Spanish]

Interpreter:

"This destroyed me. Seeing her face, the way she looked at me, the way she talked to me. I knew I was going to lose my case."

Patrick Michels:

Attorney [Talia Inlander 00:45:00] has worked on hundreds of cases in Judge Muñoz's court.

Talia Inlander:

It was a hostile environment for family members, witnesses who came, and it was of course most hostile for people whose lives were in the hands of Judge Muñoz.

Patrick Michels:

She says it was bad for lawyers too. Some would refuse to take cases before Judge Muñoz.

Talia Inlander:

It literally deprived people of council, because they knew that the experience was going to be so difficult in front of her. Some people gave up their cases because they just didn't want to have to deal with the trauma of sharing their story in that environment. Some people ended up being detained for years.

Patrick Michels:

She says the judge would sigh or get up and leave in the middle of someone testifying about something traumatic and she says it was worse for her transgender clients. When one transgender woman struggled to explain an incident in her past, Talia says Judge Muñoz asked if her memory had been impaired by hormone therapy. And with trans women, Judge Muñoz insisted on using the wrong pronouns, calling them sir and addressing them by their former names.

Talia Inlander:

The judge would say, "You know if Peewee Herman were in my courtroom, I wouldn't call him PeeWee. I would call him Paul."

Patrick Michels:

After she started seeing more of these cases, in 2011, Judge Muñoz says she asked her bosses for guidance about which pronouns to use, but never heard anything. She says she even asked one of her clerks to research what the law said about it, and didn't find anything, and she says there was a practical reason why she referred to transgender women using male pronouns like he and him. That she had to keep the written record consistent.

Lorraine Muñoz:

It's not a social issue. I'm not in there trying to change the world. I'm just in there trying to deal with the law.

Patrick Michels:

One of the big complaints against her was that she didn't understand the basics, that gender identity is totally separate from sexual orientation. Immigration officials are trained about this, but judges don't get that training.

Lorraine Muñoz:

I'm not an expert on trans, and the history of cases were based on just gay asylum cases. So when trans evolved as a more common type of case, we didn't have any training or background or materials.

Patrick Michels:

Talia and other lawyers I talked with say if Judge Muñoz wanted help she could have read their evidence and listed to experts who explained that discrimination against transgender women is different from discrimination against gay and lesbian people.

Talia Inlander:

I will say there certainly is more awareness generally in society now than there was 10 years ago and yet there's still a line, I think, between mockery. It felt like an attack.

Patrick Michels:

For years I sent hundreds of trans women before Judge Muñoz, a judge with one of the highest denial rates in the country. A judge whose records showed regularly cast doubt on people's gender identity. After years of filing complaints and seeing no discipline, no change, a few lawyers decided to fight back. They picked a case that was scheduled for Judge Muñoz's court and set it up for an appeal. They wanted to force higher courts to say she was wrong.

Judge:

I think I got this. Were the same IJ in all three of these cases?

Female:

Yes, Your Honor.

Judge:

Miss-

Female:

Judge Muñoz, Your Honor.

Female:

Muñoz.

Male:

Muñoz, yeah.

Female:

Yes, Your Honor.

Patrick Michels:

Arguing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015, lawyers described the case of Carry Avandano Hernandez, a transgender woman who'd been raped by police in Mexico. Judge Muñoz denied her claim, ordering her to return to Mexico, partly on the basis that courts there were beginning to legalize gay marriage. She reasoned gay marriage was a sign the country was safer for transgender people, but the lawyers who challenged her, argued that reasoning was flawed.

Female:

In addition to refusing to refer to the applicant by their preferred pronouns the judge doesn't seem to understand the difference between what it means to be a transgender woman and a gay man and that difference is of course crucial.

Patrick Michels:

Lawyers had evidence showing the risks for trans women are especially grave. As many as three quarters of trans women of Mexico have been a victim of violent crime, most often sexual violence. After a while the judge has heard enough.

Judge:

All right, thank you very much.

Judge:

Thank you all very much.

Judge:

We appreciate the arguments by everyone.

Judge:

Very well argued.

Patrick Michels:

The court ruled that Judge Muñoz and the Board of Immigration Appeals or BIA, which also denied the case had been wrong, that the law should recognize there are distinct risks that trans gender women face. I asked Judge Muñoz about that.

Patrick Michels:

So one of the things that the Ninth Circuit said was that your court, that you and the BIA both-

Lorraine Muñoz:

Missed the ball.

Patrick Michels:

What'd you say?

Lorraine Muñoz:

Missed the ball.

Patrick Michels:

Yeah, that there is a distinction between sexuality and gender identity.

Lorraine Muñoz:

I really didn't feel that I understood the difference.

Patrick Michels:

The Appeals Court ruling was a landmark for transgender immigration law. Now immigration judges would need to treat trans people as their own protective group and lawyers now use that precedent to win transgender asylum cases all over the country.

Patrick Michels:

In Judge Muñoz's court the ruling did not seem to make a big impact. Remember Rocío? Judge Muñoz rejected her asylum claim months after the Appeals Court ruling. After that Rocío spent another nine months back in detention. Then she used that precedent from the Ninth Circuit to file an appeal.

Rocío:

[Spanish]

Interpreter:

It was the best thing to ever happen to me.

Rocío:

[Spanish]

Patrick Michels:

With the help of a lawyer, Rocío was assigned to a different judge and she won.

Rocío:

[Spanish]

Interpreter:

Thank God. I've received so much help since the day I got out. I work now. I've moved ahead. I go to school. My entire life is so much better.

Patrick Michels:

Now Rocío lives in LA and goes to cooking school, something she says she couldn't do in Guatemala because of discrimination. Two years after the Appeals Court ruling Judge Muñoz retired. In talking to her you can tell she found her time on the bench frustrating. She told me the job wears you down, eats away at you. She says she's thought a lot about her legacy and the complaints against her.

Lorraine Muñoz:

When you hear something over and over and over again, if you don't address it, if you don't embrace it and question it, then you're just being naïve and that's just not responsible. So yeah, I've had to think about it. I've concluded that it's a handful of people who are very vocal. I'm okay with it.

Patrick Michels:

Since Judge Muñoz retired the department has grown. The Trump administration has hired more than 170 new immigration judges. I reach out to the president of the union for immigration judges. I asked her whether these new judges get any training about using the right pronouns and about the dangers transgender people face around the world. Her response? A big, "No."

Al Letson:

Since this story first aired the Trump administration has appointed more than 70 new judges. In fact, President Trump has now hired more than half of the nation's immigration judges. Thanks to Reveal's Patrick Michaels for that story.

Al Letson:

Wilson [Sayer] produced this week's show, Andy Donahue and Bret Myers edited the show. Victoria [Baranetski] is Reveal's general counsel. Our production manager is [Muendez Inhosa 00:53:04]. Original score and sound design by the Dynamic Duo, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, [Yo-Aruda 00:53:11]. They had help this week from Kaitlyn [Venz] Catherine [Ray Mondo 00:53:14] Amy [Mustafa] and [Ajeeba Meeny 00:53:15]. Our senior supervising editor is [Taki Telaneetus 00:53:19]. Our CEO is Christa [Sharfenberg 00:53:21], Brad Thompson is our editor in chief and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Comarato Lightening 00:53:27]

Al Letson:

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva & David Logan Foundation. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Johnathan Logan Family Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The [Hesing] Simons Foundation, The Democracy Fund, and the Ethics in Excellence and Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production for The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX I'm Al Letson and remember there is always more to the story.

Female:

From PRX.