As far as questions go, they don’t get much simpler.
When was Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro going to have his deportation hearing?
The 26-year-old Lawrenceville man had come up in our investigation about immigrants busted multiple times for drunk driving, yet still allowed to stay in the country.
Lara-Rostro was on his third DUI before the Mexican-born high school dropout was finally detained by immigration authorities in 2015. He had already been convicted of drunk driving in 2012 and 2013. His last arrest happened after he led Lilburn police on a chase through their city late one night, running multiple red lights, eventually crashing in a ditch.
“He’s all over the road,” you can hear one deputy radioing dispatch. “If he doesn’t stop he’s going to kill somebody.”
I wasn’t sure whether Lara-Rostro was here legally. According to the court transcript, he claimed he was a resident alien. His family told me he was born in Mexico but here legally. Plus, he had a deportation hearing coming up that Friday. They didn’t know what time. They really didn’t want to talk to a reporter.
Turns out, they were just as helpful as the immigration folks.
“What time is Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro’s deportation hearing?” I asked the public information officer for the Executive Office of Immigration Review. That’s the section of the Justice Department over the immigration courts.
The PIO said she couldn’t tell me without a signed privacy waiver from Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro, a man I calmly pointed out happened to currently be in federal custody.
I had entered the sometimes maddening world of immigration courts, where privacy takes precedence over the public’s right to know.
If any of us is ever arrested and charged with a crime, the records are public. That includes the date and time of any court hearing.
But the immigration courts aren’t part of the judicial branch of government. They’re considered an administrative proceeding under the Department of Justice. And when you’re being administratively deported, you have automatic privacy rights, even if they don’t make a lot of sense.
I had Lara-Rostro’s immigration identification number from some other documents I’d obtained. With that, the PIO confirmed he had a deportation hearing that Friday. But she couldn’t tell me the time without that waiver.
When I got down to immigration court the next day, Lara-Rostro’s hearing was already over. Yet there was the time posted on the bulletin board where anyone could see if they walked in that day. 8:30 AM. So why couldn’t someone tell me that the day before?
What happened in the hearing? Was Lara-Rostro deported? Judge Michael Baird was friendly, but said he couldn’t tell me. Privacy. Neither could the public information officer unless I produced that signed waiver from Lara-Rostro.
In his controversial immigration executive order, President Trump said he would order agencies to exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act. But that might not have helped in a case like Lara-Rostro who apparently had legal status to be here.
Luckily, as an investigative reporter I had other ways to get the information, ways the general public probably wouldn’t know about. More on that in a minute.
Even with the privacy concerns, most deportation proceedings are open to the public. Cameras are not allowed. So a few days later I sat in on judge Baird’s master calendar. They take place in an unmarked dark brick building in downtown Atlanta near the city detention center. That makes sense since many of those held on immigration charges are housed there.
Judge Baird’s tiny courtroom was filled with detainees wearing orange jumpsuits with ACDC stenciled on the back. Others appeared via closed circuit television from ICE’s detention center in Irwin County. Most could only speak Spanish and used an interpreter who sat to the judge’s left. When a detainee answered “si” to a judge’s question the interpreter always said “that’s right” instead of “yes.” She said “that’s right” a lot. Few of the immigrants that morning disagreed with the evidence against them.
Maria Morales appeared by video. She was brought here illegally from Mexico as a seven-year-old, but the Obama administration had made her eligible for a work permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. Now she was an adult, being deported because she had been convicted of family battery.
“I don’t know nobody in Mexico and I’ve been here my whole life,” she pleaded with the judge in English.
“You had DACA and you blew it,” judge Baird quietly responded. He gave her the choice of waiving her appeal and being deported now, or sitting in jail for another hearing. She took deportation.
“God bless you,” Morales said to the judge as she stepped away from the camera.
Many of the other detainees in Irwin County also chose deportation rather than remain behind bars in south Georgia.
The seven detainees sitting next to me in court were there for their first appearance, six of them women. Judge Baird explained their option to seek asylum or to get a lawyer, but stressed in immigration court you don’t get free legal representation if you can’t afford an attorney.
Most said they’d be back with a lawyer, but some said they had no money and asked to be sent home as soon as possible.
And what about Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro, the man who was apparently here legally when he crashed his truck after committing his third DUI?
Through another source, I confirmed judge Baird also ordered him deported the same day of his hearing, January 20, 2017.
A day that many other immigrants will probably not be celebrating, either.