“Your Judge Is Your Destiny”

Agnelis L. Reese has presided over more than 200 hearings during the past five years as an immigration judge. Unique among her peers, she has rejected every single case.

Oakdale, a sleepy town of 7,600 in Louisiana, is home to a drive-through daiquiri stand, two Mexican restaurants, numerous shuttered storefronts, and, on its northeastern border, the Oakdale Immigration Court. This single-story building is white with a blue metal roof; one person described it to me, not unfairly, as resembling a large shed. Tucked deep inside a sprawling prison, the Oakdale Federal Correctional Complex, the immigration court is designed to be overlooked. There are no signs at the prison’s entrance to indicate there’s a court inside, and if you plug the court’s address into your phone, you will be directed to a location a quarter mile away, down a dead-end country road, where you will find yourself staring at a row of pine trees.

I arrive at the court on a damp April morning. A few minutes later, Homero López Jr. pulls up, dressed in a sharp gray suit and matching vest. López is one of the few immigration attorneys who frequently represent individuals at Oakdale, and he draws his clients from a nearby detention center, the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center.

“You found it,” he says, cracking a broad smile. I follow López, who lives in New Orleans, some 185 miles away, into the court’s small lobby, where a portrait of Donald Trump hangs on a far wall. A guard informs López that the asylum hearing for his client, a Cuban immigrant named Luis, has been pushed back to later in the day, so López and I drive to a nearby McDonald’s to chat.

López, who is 34, has a neatly trimmed beard, thin black glasses, and the cheery disposition of a stubborn underdog. He previously worked at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, where he mostly represented undocumented immigrants who had been released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as their cases proceeded. (Unlike in criminal court, individuals in immigration court do not have a right to legal counsel.) But he watched as the number of detained immigrants in Louisiana began to rise—and then soar. ICE has more than tripled the number of beds reserved for detainees in Louisiana, putting it among the top five states with the largest number of migrants held in detention centers, including California and Texas. Last year, López and a colleague founded a legal services organization, ISLA, and they represent clients at Pine Prairie, where a mumps outbreak this year forced mandatory quarantines, because the 1,094-bed facility is “one of the most isolated detention centers in the country,” filled with people who have few resources to call on.

Asylum seekers who arrive at the US-Mexico border and demonstrate what is deemed a credible fear of returning to their home country are either held by ICE in a sprawling network of detention centers and jails or released on parole or bond while their cases are pending. (Children and unaccompanied minors must be released after 20 days, due to a federal court settlement that dates back to 1997.) The decision to release individuals is supposed to be made on a case-by-case basis, taking in factors like flight risk; ever since Trump took office, the percentage of people who are detained in the US has risen sharply, from about 34,000 during Obama’s last year in office to more than 52,000 today. According to a lawsuit filed in May by the Southern Poverty Law Center, within the New Orleans ICE field office—which covers Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee—the rate of parole approval for asylum seekers dropped from 76 percent in 2016 to just 1.5 percent in 2018. In March, asylum seekers at a newly opened Louisiana detention center launched a hunger strike to protest their confinement.

Once in detainment, it is much more difficult for migrants to win asylum. Cases move quickly, which gives asylum seekers less time to gather evidence related to their persecution; in detention, gathering evidence from the outside, such as affidavits from witnesses, can be all but impossible. Detained immigrants are also less likely to have a lawyer, especially if they are locked up far from metro areas, a fact that further decreases their chances of being granted asylum. Pine Prairie is about three hours from New Orleans and Houston, and about two hours from Baton Rouge.

Asylum seekers at Pine Prairie also face one of the toughest immigration judges in the country: Agnelis L. Reese, 63, who was appointed to the court in 1997 by then-attorney general Janet Reno. (Reese is a registered Democrat.) The judge keeps a low public profile, but among attorneys in Louisiana, her reputation is feared. According to data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees our nation’s immigration courts, Judge Reese has presided over more than 200 asylum hearings during the past five years. The applicants who have stood before her have come from all across the globe: Somalia, Eritrea, Mexico, Cameroon, Honduras. Some have lawyers, some do not; it makes little difference. Unique among her peers, during the past five years, Reese has rejected every single case.


Modern asylum protections are based on the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, which grew out of the global effort to protect the millions of refugees and displaced persons after World War II, and which defined a refugee as someone with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” The US Refugee Act of 1980, signed by President Jimmy Carter, adopted this definition, and in a 1987 case, INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca, the United States Supreme Court ruled that an asylum seeker needs to show that “persecution is a reasonable possibility” if they are forcibly returned to their country, with Justice John Paul Stevens going so far as to suggest that an applicant with even a 10 percent chance of persecution might be eligible for asylum.

Asylum seekers at Pine Prairie face one of the toughest immigration judges in the country: Agnelis L. Reese, who keeps a low public profile, but among attorneys in Louisiana, her reputation is feared.

Today, driven by gang violence in Central America and armed conflicts around the globe, a record number of people are seeking safety in the US, arriving from a wide range of countries like Honduras, China, and Venezuela. In fiscal year 2018, according to TRAC Immigration, a nonpartisan research center, immigration court judges decided 42,260 asylum cases, more than double the number from 2015. The 2018 record will likely be broken this year: as of May, with five months left in the fiscal year, the number of cases has already reached 39,423.

Last year, judges across the country denied 65 percent of asylum applications. But that figure obscures significant disparities between courts, and even among judges within the same court. In 2008, for example, a Government Accountability Office study found that asylum seekers in Atlanta were 15 times more likely to be denied asylum than in San Francisco, and eight times more likely than in New York City. A follow-up study, in 2016, reported that little had changed. And a 2017 investigation by Reuters, which analyzed more than 370,000 immigration court cases across the country, concluded that whether a person is deported or not “depends largely on who hears the case, and where.” One attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking to the Christian Science Monitor in April, was more blunt: “Your judge is your destiny.”

Try our new streaming service for free.
No algorithms. Just the best television + film hand-picked from around the globe.

At McDonald’s, López tells me that the previous week, on April 19, he had been scheduled to represent a Cameroonian man seeking asylum in front of Judge Reese, but planned to ask for an extension because the mumps outbreak had prevented him from meeting with his client. “We weren’t fully prepared, but then I learned that Reese was going to be out,” he explains. (The hearing fell on Good Friday, and López assumed that Reese, a devout Christian, took the day off to observe the holiday.) The hearing went forward with a substitute judge, who participated via video from a court in Fort Worth, Texas, and who granted the man asylum. (He has since been released.)

I ask López how he manages his clients’ expectations, given Reese’s record. “I don’t know that we can manage their expectations,” he tells me. He says that once detainees arrive at Pine Prairie, they hear about Reese from other detainees who have already gone before her. “Even though they know all of these odds are against them, they are still like, ‘I’m going to show her my case and she’s going to realize that this is true, and this is the case she’s going to grant,’” López says. “Unfortunately, it still isn’t.”

López says the resiliency of his clients, who can sometimes wait more than a year in detention while their cases proceed, indicates that their claims are legitimate, despite the criticisms of President Trump, who has called the asylum process a “big fat con job.” Trump believes the asylum process is rife with fraud and has taken unprecedented steps to discourage people from seeking asylum in the US; in the past year alone, his administration has attempted to restrict the ability of people fleeing domestic or gang violence to receive asylum, forced some asylum seekers from Central America to remain in Mexico while their cases proceed, sought to keep ever more asylum seekers in detention, and this year threatened Mexico with tariffs if they fail to stem the flow of migrants.

“Even though they know all of these odds are against them, my clients are still like, ‘I’m going to show her my case and she’s going to realize that this is true, and this is the case she’s going to grant,’” López says. “Unfortunately, it still isn’t.”

Some of the Trump administration’s proposals have not yet been implemented or have been halted in court, but they all rest on a central premise: that amnesty seekers today deserve less mercy than that previously granted to others. In May, when someone at a Trump rally in Florida recommended shooting people who arrive at the border, Trump let out a chuckle as the crowd cheered.

I ask López if he has a gut feeling about how today will go. He explains that some of his previous cases appeared to start out well, with Reese asking questions without a tone of obvious skepticism. Seated next to his client, the attorney would feel his hopes momentarily rise. “And then there’s a shift, and it’s like: Oh, there it is. Goddamn it!” López laughs. Still, I sense that López, like his clients, harbors what others might consider an irrational sort of optimism. A case could go either way, right?

Judge Reese isn’t able to consent to an interview for this piece; as an employee of the Department of Justice, she is barred from speaking to the media. Emails and calls to her friends, family, and church members requesting interviews went unanswered or were declined, so I scour the internet and newspapers for the broad outlines of her biography. I learn that after graduating magna cum laude in 1989 from the Southern University Law Center, in Baton Rouge, Reese was hired immediately as an attorney for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a precursor to ICE, where she worked until she was appointed judge in 1997. Poking around on Facebook, I also discover that Reese is an ordained pastor at St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church in Montgomery, a village about 80 miles north of Oakdale.

Serving as an immigration court judge is not easy. The courts are notoriously backlogged—there are currently nearly 900,000 cases waiting to be heard—and the Trump administration is pushing judges to close cases quickly. The heavy case load and emphasis on speed makes mistakes by judges more likely, which in asylum hearings can have serious consequences; in 2018, one frustrated immigration court judge likened her work to conducting “death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.” This is because the courts aren’t actually part of an independent judicial system; instead, they are run by the Department of Justice, with the judges appointed by the US attorney general to act “as the Attorney General’s delegates in the cases that come before them.” If the attorney general doesn’t like a decision, he or she can simply overrule it.

Reese snapped. “And when you lied to the asylum officers or failed to disclose your sexual abuse, what do you think Jesus thought about that?”

Afsaneh Ashley Tabaddor, a judge in Los Angeles, can speak to the media in her capacity as the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, which has long sought for the creation of an independent court. She tells me that one of the fundamental challenges immigration judges face during asylum hearings is the lack of evidence to corroborate an asylum seeker’s claims. “When you’re fleeing, you’re not going to be able to get an affidavit from the person who is trying to kill you,” she explains. “The traditional sources of evidence that we might rely on are in large part unreasonable to expect.”

During asylum hearings, judges listen to personal testimonies, which they check against the human-rights reports issued by the US Department of State for the home country of the asylum seekers. “Does it make sense?” asks Tabaddor. “Is it plausible? Are they able to answer questions outside of the four corners of their story?” Tabaddor says that a core task of an immigration judge is to assess an asylum seeker’s credibility. This can be accomplished by probing discrepancies between an individual’s testimony and previous interviews given to asylum officers—and this is where it seems to get particularly subjective—by noting the person’s body language. If a judge concludes an asylum seeker is not credible, their application will be denied.

I ask Tabaddor about the vast disparities in asylum grant rates among judges. She acknowledges that each judge has a unique philosophy and perspective that they bring to the bench, and that it is therefore important to have judges with a diversity of backgrounds. But she emphasizes that each asylum case is also unique, with its particular set of circumstances and facts, and that broad comparisons between judges ignore this reality. She also pushes back on the notion that vast disparities are indicative of a problem with questions of her own: “What is the correct percentage? Is there a number that you would be happy about? Would you be happy in a court where somebody made up that number?”

Reese’s courtroom feels less like part of the US justice system than like a small set built on a tight budget for a television legal drama. There are wooden benches for observers and two tables in the front of the room: one for López and Luis, the other for the government attorney, Howard Oestry, a severe-looking man with a shaved head and bushy goatee who appears to be in his 50s. Judge Reese faces López, Luis, and Oestry from an elevated desk, upon which rests a statue of a bald eagle. She wears a black robe, pearl necklace, and Fitbit on her wrist and has wavy, shoulder-length hair parted on the side that frames her round face.

I am ushered to the rear bench after Luis enters, so my view is of the back of his head, which is covered with short white hair. He is dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit, with chains around his ankles, waist, and wrists. At the beginning of the hearing, when his asylum application is presented, he has to maneuver awkwardly to sign the paper.

López asks Luis a series of questions about the particular set of circumstances that led him to flee Cuba on August 21, 2018. Through a Spanish interpreter, Luis says that he and his father had a contract to grow tobacco for export with the Cuban government, but in 2017 they decided to grow only fruits and vegetables for local markets. In response, five people, including the local police chief, threatened to take his and his father’s land if they didn’t plant tobacco. They refused, and the land, located in the province of Pinar del Río, on the west end of the island, was confiscated. Several months later, his father suffered a heart attack and died.

“I went crazy after my father’s death,” Luis says in the courtroom. “I told farmers around me that there are no human rights in Cuba, and that the government killed my father.” A few months later, he tells Reese, the same police chief showed up and beat him with a baton, separating one of his ribs, and pushed his teenage son, who broke his arm in the fall. Luis was then taken away and jailed for 72 hours in a cell below a police station in Pinar del Río, where he was stripped to his underwear and threatened with more beatings if he didn’t plant tobacco. He was later locked up a second time and warned that he would be put on trial for speaking out against the government. He left Cuba in the summer of 2018 for Mexico and turned himself in at the US border in Laredo, Texas.

“When you’re fleeing, you’re not going to be able to get an affidavit from the person who is trying to kill you.”—Judge Afsaneh Ashley Tabaddor

Oestry takes over the questioning. He notes that Luis had filed for a US tourist visa in 2016, which had been denied. On the application, he listed his brother as a US citizen, wrote that he was an engineer, and that he had previously traveled to Panama. “I don’t know why it says that,” Luis says.

Throughout his testimony, Reese sits behind her desk, carefully observing Luis while occasionally taking notes with her left hand. She interrupts Luis a few times to focus the conversation, or to cut off long answers. Nearly two hours into the hearing, she begins her questioning.

“Did you consider the breaking of your son’s arm serious?” she asks.

“Yes, more serious than what happened to me.”

Reese asks why he didn’t mention the injury during a previous interview with an asylum officer. By now, the mood in the courtroom has shifted. Luis tells her that the trauma he suffered makes it hard for him to concentrate. “I’m lost and I can’t think straight,” he says. Reese looks directly at him, no longer hiding her skepticism, and lets out a loud sigh.

“I don’t know if you can understand, being locked up, being beaten, it’s a lot to handle,” he continues.

Luis left Cuba for Mexico in 2018, after receiving a tourist visa. Reese asks if he planned on visiting Mexico or if he was using the visa to get to the United States. He explains that he was headed to the US. “You committed fraud,” she tells him, a statement that López objects to.

López concludes the hearing with several more questions, to which Luis testifies that his cousin in the US filled out his application for the US tourist visa that contained the errors. Then, at the prompting of a guard, Luis stands up and is led out of the courtroom in chains. I finally catch a glimpse of his face: it is finely featured, encircled by a white beard, and has an expression of utter defeat. The decision, issued two weeks later, doesn’t surprise him or López: his application has been denied.

The Pine Prairie detention center, where Luis is held, is located 15 miles east of Oakdale. On the phone, Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesperson based in New Orleans, emphasizes that detainees are held in civil detention—not criminal—though from the outside it’s not easy to spot the difference. From the parking lot, a low-slung building runs the length of several football fields and is surrounded by multiple layers of tall fencing threaded with concertina wire and topped with barbed wire. Warnings notify visitors that they are subject to body-cavity searches. “It’s a beautiful building, isn’t it?” one staff member asks me at the entrance, apparently in earnest. “We try our best to make it welcoming.”

The previous week, Cox had rejected my request for in-person interviews of asylum seekers at Pine Prairie, citing “the nature of their claims pending before the immigration court.” I run this rationale by several groups, including the ACLU, which calls it “ridiculously bogus,” but Cox doesn’t budge when I follow up, so I spend an afternoon in my Oakdale motel, struggling to hear detainees over a muffled and crackly phone line.

Among the people I speak with is N., a 51-year-old from Cameroon with a deep, steady voice. N. is from one of two English-speaking, or Anglophone, regions of the country, where residents have complained for decades about a lack of basic services and the appointment of French-speaking teachers and judges. In the fall of 2016, largely peaceful protests in the regions were met by violence by government forces. In the fall of 2017, activists staged a series of larger marches to promote greater autonomy, and the crackdown by the military intensified. According to Amnesty International, in October of that year, security officers fired indiscriminately into crowds of protesters in several towns, killing more than 20. The crackdown also gave rise to violent Anglophone separatist groups who targeted both security forces and locals they viewed as collaborators. Entire villages have been burned, and nearly half a million people have been displaced in the past three years.

Luis tells the judge that the trauma he suffered makes it hard for him to concentrate. “I’m lost and I can’t think straight,” he says. Reese looks directly at him, no longer hiding her skepticism, and lets out a loud sigh.

Before we spoke, I had read N.’s asylum hearing transcript. He was a member of the Social Democratic Front, an opposition political party that sought greater autonomy for Anglophones. He told Reese that in 2016 he was arrested in the city of Bamenda and held for nearly four weeks in the cell of a local police station, where he was beaten by officers; he was freed only when a crowd stormed the prison. Following his participation in the large protests that roiled the country the following year, he was arrested in October and jailed. On the third day, the police told him he was being transported to Kondengui, a notorious prison, where they would “take care of [him].” In court, N. told Reese that his brother had previously been sent to Kondengui and was never heard from again, and N. was certain that he would suffer the same fate.

As it was en route to Kondengui, an unknown group attacked the convoy and N. escaped and returned home. Police showed up at his house several months later, brandishing a warrant for his arrest, but he was warned in time by a neighbor and hid. Police beat his wife and three children and said they would kill N. when they found him; he fled Cameroon soon after. During the hearing, he told Reese that ever since his arrival in the US, police have visited his house in Cameroon numerous times looking for him, and that during one search they shot his brother-in-law, who survived. He also told Reese that his wife had received a note threatening to kill him, which he thought was from one of the violent separatist groups who believed his party, the Social Democratic Front, was not sufficiently militant.

In February, Reese denied N.’s asylum, deeming him not credible in part because during the “credible fear” section of his asylum interview, held the previous September, he hadn’t mentioned an earlier arrest, in 2006, or the fact that his brother had been disappeared. She also described his two escapes as “miraculous” and “a little bit too coincidental.”

Over the phone, N., who is appealing the decision, tells me that “everyone here who has gone before [Reese] comes back in tears. I keep asking, of the hundreds of people that passed before her, none of us are credible?”

I ask N. about the current situation in Cameroon, and he goes momentarily quiet. His kids have gone into hiding, he says. Earlier this month, he got an update from another family member. “The people who left the note came back and shot my wife. She’s in the hospital now.” He begins to weep. Then our time is up and the line goes dead.

On my last morning in Louisiana, a Sunday, I drive to Montgomery, where Reese has served as a pastor at St. Luke AME Church since 2014. The small single-story building is painted white and located down a wooded road, with roses and carnations planted at the entrance. Though a sign announces services at 9:30 and 11:00, there is not a car in sight when I arrive at nine. I knock on the door, which is locked. A neighbor tells me they sometimes begin late, so I wait until I’m absolutely certain that services, for some reason, have been canceled for the day.

I don’t know exactly what I think I might learn by hearing Reese preach. Because she is unable to grant interviews, and because I haven’t had luck in getting others who knew her to speak with me, I guess I hoped that a day in her church might offer insight into how she goes about her job as a judge. We take our perspectives and beliefs with us, and for Reese, her Christian faith seems to be an important core of her identity. In videos posted to the church’s Facebook page, I watch people crowd into the church to praise her humility, compassion, and commitment to living a Christian life. I also find videos of sermons she’s given; gone is the cold courtroom demeanor, replaced with charisma and passion. “We thank you, oh God,” she says in one prayer, her head bowed and eyes closed, “for those moments when our backs are against the wall, when we are facing our own Red Sea, and pharaoh’s on our track and it looks like there’s nowhere to go. You will make a highway in the middle of the sea.”

Over the course of the three months I report this story, I also pore over court transcripts of asylum cases Reese has rejected, which together run to nearly 700 pages, speak to a number of attorneys, and attend Luis’s hearing. I’m still not always certain what I am seeing. At times Reese simply appears to be especially thorough, determined to analyze the smallest of details and probe any inconsistencies. Other times she seems blind to the possibility that human beings, especially human beings who might have suffered unimaginable trauma, sometimes forget things, or get confused, and don’t always have the ability to acquire original affidavits or medical records from the countries they have fled, often in haste. But it is the last case I read that haunts me the most, and makes me wonder if the simple act of presiding over so many cases, year after year, might result in a more profound sort of blindness, one that can make it impossible to view asylum seekers as anything more than people to break down.

“Everyone here who has gone before the Judge comes back in tears. I keep asking, of the hundreds of people that passed before her, none of us are credible?”

The particular case involves a 33-year-old man from Eritrea, S., who came before Reese last year without an attorney. After converting to Pentecostal Christianity, a religion outlawed by the government, S. was arrested by the military in early 2005 for failing to show up for military service because it conflicted with his religious beliefs. “They gave me an option either to hold a gun and kill people … or be in prison,” he told Reese, citing Matthew 5:39.

During the hearing, which took place on February 27, 2018, Reese asked S. to quote the passage. “Jesus ordered me that whoever slaps me on my face, I have to give him the other face, too; whoever takes my jacket, I have to give him my sweater, too,” S. said. “So those are the directions that I was given from Jesus, so I cannot kill people.”

S. explained that he was taken to Karshali prison, in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, where he was beaten daily for six months. Reese asked if he had suffered any other harm. While detained at Pine Prairie, S. had disclosed to a doctor that he had been sexually molested at Karshali. “I’m embarrassed to tell this. It’s very hard for me,” S. told Reese. The court took a break and went off the record. When the hearing resumed, S. explained that two soldiers at Karshali had taken him into a cell and “covered my nose with plastic, and they inserted their genital organ in my mouth.” As they did so, he told Reese, they said, “Where is Jesus to save you?” He said guards did this on three separate occasions, and also inserted a stick into his anus.

Reese asked if he had ever told anyone about this before revealing it to the doctor at Pine Prairie. “I did not,” he said. “This is very shameful for me to tell.”

Later, S. said that, despite daily beatings, he refused to convert to Orthodox Christianity. “And every time you said no?” asked Reese.

“Yes, based on Matthew 10:22,” he replied.

“I didn’t—sir, I’m not asking you to quote scripture,” said Reese.

“Jesus is asking me to talk for him.”

Reese snapped. “And when you lied to the asylum officers or failed to disclose your sexual abuse, what do you think Jesus thought about that?” The judge followed that up with a lengthy diatribe, chastising S. for not revealing the abuse earlier.

S. testified that he then spent 12 years at a forced-labor camp near the Sudanese border until he escaped. He didn’t know the name of the prison, only that it was near a military base called Sawa. Reese found his lack of knowledge of the prison’s name implausible, though if she had looked at a map of secret prisons in Eritrea published by Amnesty International, she would have found one at Sawa, which is reported to hold religious prisoners of conscience. Though he continued to refuse to renounce his faith, S. explained he began to pray aloud to various saints, as Orthodox Christians in Eritrea do, instead of directly to Jesus, so as to lessen the attention guards paid him.

“Well, wasn’t that a lie?” Reese interjected. S. answered that after a good friend died in prison, he had begun to lose hope.

“Do you know what Corinthians 15 and 54 says?” Reese asked, now asking him to quote scripture. S. apologized to Reese, saying that he didn’t remember.

“It says to be steadfast and unmovable and always abounding in the work of the Lord. So starting to pray to the saints, which you said you no longer believe in, that doesn’t sound steadfast. Does it?”

I read the transcript three times. I try to imagine being in S.’s situation, struggling to recall a particular passage of the Bible and then being lectured about my lack of faith. What bearing does such a line of questioning have on an asylum claim? What other purpose does it serve Reese than to assert her dominance over another, in a tiny courtroom with no observers? My thoughts turn to Trump, who has ridiculed asylum seekers, and to former attorney general Jeff Sessions, who has described the asylum system as “subject to rampant abuse and fraud.” Both men would no doubt consider Reese’s record a model for judges across the country. And in a judicial system controlled by the executive branch, I wonder how many more judges will be installed who harbor an instinctive belief that asylum seekers, rather than seeking safety, have arrived to game the system, and who, after too many years of misplaced mercy, need to be put in their place.

As I was finishing up my reporting for this story, I learned that on June 21, 2019, after serving on the bench at Oakdale for more than two decades, Judge Reese retired. I reached out to her to seek an interview—as a retired judge, she’s allowed to speak to the media—but didn’t hear back. When I asked López whether her retirement might improve the chances of his clients, he wasn’t particularly optimistic. He said that as far as he knows, the newest Oakdale judge, Scott Laragy, a former military lawyer and federal prosecutor who was appointed last summer by Sessions, hasn’t approved a single asylum case. “The best I can say is that it can’t get any worse,” he said.

Even with the departure of Reese, López will continue representing clients whom she has denied. That includes S., from Eritrea. Reese denied his asylum on April 25, 2018. She found that S. lacked credibility when it came to the date he went into hiding to avoid military conscription—at first he said it was in 2005, at the beginning of the year—but under questioning by Reese, he acknowledged it might have been September of 2004, a difference of several months. She also faulted him because he hadn’t previously disclosed the sexual abuse he claimed he suffered.

When I asked López whether Reese’s retirement might improve the chances of his clients, he wasn’t particularly optimistic. “The best I can say is that it can’t get any worse.”

Even if Reese had found S. credible, she wrote that she would have still denied his application because she couldn’t be certain of his identity. S. only had a baptismal certificate—he testified that his birth certificate was destroyed during the 1991 war for Eritrean independence from Ethiopia—and the US government was unable to determine the certificate’s authenticity. Reese determined that S.’s decision to not join the military was based on personal beliefs, not his religion. She concluded: “Respondent relocated to the US to avoid harm; there is no indication he cannot do the same within Eritrea.”

S. appealed the case, but last October the appeal was denied. He spent more than a year at Pine Prairie and is now being held at the Etowah County Detention Center, in Alabama, where I reached him by phone in early May. He told me that during the break in the transcript, when the court went off the record, he spent ten minutes in the bathroom, crying and praying for guidance. A month after the hearing, he had surgery for internal bleeding, which he attributes to stress.

“I came from darkness,” S. says in a shaky voice. “I was a young boy seeing all of this horrible stuff. She asked me, ‘Why did it take you so long to run away [from prison]?’ I was scared! I was scared to have a bullet in my head.” Back in Eritrea, his parents were overjoyed when they learned he had arrived in the US. Now they struggle to understand why he’s back in prison. ICE wants to deport him but can’t, because Eritrea isn’t accepting deportees. At Etowah, about 300 migrants are held in the county jail, sometimes for years. López has filed for S.’s release, hoping to prevent his indefinite detention. (I learn later that S. has since been released and can live and work legally in the US, but if conditions in Eritrea change and ICE is able to send him back, he will be deported.)

For now S. spends 23 hours a day in his cell, with an hour of recreation inside an indoor cage. He tells me he hasn’t seen the sun for two months.

Share this story