Eight-year-old Hector Medrano was a figure so small that his red-black-and-gray sneakers barely brushed the floor as he settled into the witness chair.
“Hi, Hector,” Immigration Judge Mimi Tsankov said.
“Hi,” Hector said.
“Thank you for coming to court,” the judge said.
Hector is too young to take the usual oath. The judge instead asked him if he understood the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie.
“Telling a lie is when you’re not telling exactly what’s true,” Hector said. “Telling the truth is when you’re saying exactly what happened.”
The windowless chamber on the 11th floor of the federal building on Varick Street seemed to pause for a collective heartbeat.
“That’s a very good definition,” the judge said.
The boy’s father, 30-year-old Henry Medrano, sat behind him, gazing upon his only child as proudly as is possible when you are in an orange prisoner’s jumpsuit and your manacled hands are affixed to a chain around your waist.
The father had been arrested back on August 1 of last year for making unwelcome advances on a woman in a bathhouse at a public beach on Long Island—kissing her and briefly keeping her from getting away. He had already pled guilty in criminal court to unlawful imprisonment and harassment and served 75 days. Henry Medrano had then been placed in ICE custody and the matter now at hand at this April 3 hearing was whether he would be deported to his native El Salvador after 14 years in America.
The father’s lawyer, Livius Ilasz, began the direct examination of the son, who is a native-born citizen of the country whose flag stood to the right of the judge. The seal on the wall attested that the proceeding was under the authority of the Executive Office for Immigration Review of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“How is your school?” Ilasz asked.
“My school is fine,” Hector answered.
“What grade are you in?”
“Did you go to school today?”
“No, because I had to go in to my dad, check to see if he is coming out.”
“You always live here in New York?”
“I was always here and I was having a happy life here growing up.”
The pride in the father’s eyes was distilling to tears.
“You know your father is being questioned by the government so the government can decide if you father can stay…” Ilasz continued.
Hector completed the sentence.
“Or be deported,” Hector said.
The boy had wanted to be the one to say it. His words were made all the more wrenching by his even, steady tone.
“You understand that?” Ilasz asked.
“Yes,” the boy said.
He then said of his father, “Sometimes, he’s tired. I always try to cheer him up. And if he’s down, I start hugging him.”
The judge spoke.
“I don’t want him to get too emotional,” she said. “Let’s take a break. This is tough.”
Hector sat silent and still during a brief pause. He remained preternaturally composed as the lawyer for the government questioned him about how long he had lived in New York and when he had been diagnosed with asthma. The judge then informed Hector that he was done.
“You did such a good job,” she told him. “You gave us a lot of helpful information. I know your dad is very proud of you.”
The father was weeping, tears streaming down his face. Hector’s eyes were welling, but he was not so much crying as brimming with more than any boy should feel.
“I don’t know what we did with all the tissues,” the judge said. “We should have them on hand.”
A court officer stepped out for a moment and returned with a box of tissues. The officer offered them first to Hector, who took one, though his cheeks were still dry. The officer then held the tissues out to the father.
“Thank you,” the father said.
The father dabbed at his tears, but they kept coming. The boy slid out of the witness chair and a court officer asked if he wanted to wait outside the courtroom as the hearing continued. He chose to stay and joined his grandmother and aunt and his father’s girlfriend and two grownup cousins in the spectator benches.
And there he sat, dry-eyed, twisting the tissue in his hands. His sole, slender chance of returning to his previously happy life was offered by Section 240A. 1/(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, by which his father could avoid deportation.
The statute states: “The Attorney General may cancel removal of, and adjust to the status of an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence, an alien who is inadmissible or deportable from the United States if the alien has been physically present in the United States for a continuous period of not less than 10 years immediately preceding the date of such application; has been a person of good moral character during such period.”
There was more. The applicant cannot have “been convicted of an offense under section 212(a)(2), 237(a)(2) , or 237(a)(3), subject to paragraph (5) 2a/ 5/,” generally including violent felonies, narcotics violations and crimes “of moral turpitude” that carry a penalty of a year or longer. The applicant cannot have been convicted of two crimes of moral turpitude carrying whatever penalty.
And the applicant must establish “that removal would result in exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to the alien’s spouse, parent, or child, who is a citizen of the United States or an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence.”
The judge’s call for a break and for tissues might have seemed an acknowledgement of extremely unusual hardship to the child in this case. The father had testified earlier that he was effectively Hector’s sole parent, saying the mother had left the home and essentially departed from the boy’s life when he was just 13 months old. One of the grown cousins now took the stand and added a detail the mother was not available to confirm or deny.
“His mother left with somebody else,” the cousin said.
Hector stared straight ahead, his face giving no sign he had even heard it. He continued twisting the tissue in his hands as his father returned to the witness chair and gave additional testimony.
The father had already acknowledged that he had been arrested for driving while intoxicated on New Year’s Day in 2010. He now admitted to the government lawyer that he regularly drove without a license, being unable to obtain one for the same reason he could not secure full legal custody of his son.
“To go to court and have custody of my son, I need a social security number,” the father testified.
“Does your son ever see his mother?” the father’s lawyer asked
“She went to see him one time when I was working,” the father said. “They told me she came to see him.”
The government’s lawyer asked the father about his subsequent arrest involving the woman at the bathhouse at Jones Beach.
“I tried to kiss her and she told me to let her go,” the father said. “I told her I was sorry. I was attracted to her.”
The government’s lawyer asked if he had persisted after she made it clear his attentions were not welcome.
“I don’t deny it,” the father replied. “I tried to continue talking to her.”
“Isn’t it true you took her to an area secluded by plastic barriers?” the government’s lawyer inquired.
“Yes,” the father said.
The father was on paper a criminal illegal alien, the very bugaboo that Donald Trump had invoked to fire up his rallies and was now invoking to justify The Wall across the very border that the father testified to having crossed on September 15, 2002, at the age of 16. Never mind that the father had done so from Mexicali in Mexico to its sister city of Calexico in the United States, where there already is a wall.
The father had made his way from the border to join his parents, who had come before him and settled in Brentwood, Long Island. That suburban town is a hotbed of the murderous MS-13 gang, though nobody in the family is believed to be a member. Henry testified that his own father—Hector’s grandfather—went into hiding after gang members here in America came to suspect the grandfather had been speaking to the police.
Henry Medrano had worked in a restaurant and then in construction, most recently as a carpenter, arriving home in time to ensure his son did his homework. He testified that on weekends he took his son to the movies or for ice cream or to the park “to any game a kid likes to play.”
“I let him know I am there for him in the good times and the bad times,” the father told the court.
There remained the question of his behavior with the woman at the beach, which would not and should not be excused just because a number of women have accused Trump of having done much the same in years past.
Henry further testified that he no longer had family in El Salvador and would have no place to live there.
“If you were ordered deported from the United States by this court, would you take your son with you?” the father’s lawyer asked.
“As much as it hurts, I would have to leave him here, because if I take him with me, I would pretty much be taking him to his death,” the father said.
Hector ceased twisting the tissue and his hands went still, but he otherwise evidenced no reaction to his father’s words. The lawyer, Ilasz, asked the father another question.
“Is there anything else you want to tell this court to support your application not to be removed?”
Henry Medrano said, “I would like to apologize to the court and to the girl and to my son and my mom and my girlfriend for the mistakes that I made.”
The apology seemed hardly adequate, but it was also all the father could offer. The government’s lawyer questioned whether the father had demonstrated the necessary “good moral character” and whether he had always been completely truthful in his encounters with the police and whether what the boy faces “rises to the level of extreme hardship.”
“It’s a sad case,” the government’s lawyer acknowledged. “I don’t want you to think the government isn’t sympathetic, but…”
The judge noted that she does not wear the usual black robes to court because she often handles cases involving juveniles and does not wish to be intimidating. She seemed the very personification of sympathy, of justice gentled by mercy.
Yet, she was still bound by the law. And guidelines set by precedent hold that the required “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” be “substantially different from or beyond that ordinarily expected,” that it be “very uncommon” and “limited to truly exceptional situations.”
The very absence of the robes and the judge’s indication that there should always be tissues available at such proceedings suggested that a heartbreaking situation involving a child is not all that uncommon in immigration cases.
The judge wondered aloud if the father might agree to depart the U.S. voluntarily before he was officially deported, thereby leaving open the possibility—however slim—of him someday returning legally. Deportation would mean the door that closed behind him would stay closed.
The father’s lawyer indicated that his client was not prepared just to leave the U.S. and therefore his son. The judge could have just issued a verbal ruling on the case right then and there.
Instead, she announced that she would be issuing a written decision. The son looked across the courtroom at his father in the orange jumpsuit and the manacles.
Hector said not a word as he then left the courtroom with the other members of his family. He had the tissue clenched in his right hand.
They rode down in the elevator and went out past the metal detectors. A 53-year-old security guard named Idrissa Camara—an immigrant from Ivory Coast—had been shot to death there in August of 2015 by a crazed native-born American armed with two revolvers. Camara had a daughter serving in the U.S. Army at the time.
Hector and his family minus his father continued on into a city that has the biggest immigrant population in the country and the lowest crime rate of any major American city. He returned to suburban Brentwood, where murderous members of MS-13—a gang spawned in America—do in fact terrorize innocents, most particularly at the high school where Hector can expect to go if he remains there.
MS-13 is believed to have committed eight homicides in Brentwood in 2016 and a quadruple homicide just this month in neighboring Central Islip. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to visit Central Islip and make a speech on Friday. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that he is dispatching a “high intensity gang unit” of 25 state troopers to the area. A good many MS-13 members remain at large while Hector’s father is being held along with other ICE prisoners at the Hudson County jail in New Jersey.
As of Wednesday evening, the son was still awaiting word of the judge’s ruling. Hector will in any event remain a native-born citizen who is as American as anybody. He will also have given us a succinct definition about the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie that our new president and the rest of us should more often honor.
And, as few people of any age are as brave and stoic as this astonishing eight-year-old, the new federal budget for the immigration courts should include an extra allocation for tissues.