Dateline Dallas

Salvaging People

Ken’s Salvage, a surplus retail and junk store a few concrete-covered miles east of downtown Fort Worth, is a bit off the main road to the American dream. To get there from Interstate 35, take the Highway 121 exit up and away from the abandoned red brick housing projects on the west side of the highway and east, toward the Trinity River. Take the first exit past the doleful, murky channel of the Trinity (Sylvania Avenue) and head north past used-tire stores and discount appliance-repair shops, into a neighborhood of modest postwar frame houses, chainlink fences, and treeless yards, until you see the yellow plastic sign and unwashed plate glass window of Ken’s. The woman behind the counter, Emilyn Proctor–short, olive-skinned, with bright green eyes and thick, sandy hair down to the small of her back–has spent the last decade fighting to stay in this place. A native of the Philippines, she has been on the lam–wanted for deportation by the I.N.S.–since October 30, 1992.

In reality, aside from a three-week stint in an east Texas state park, holed up in an RV with her husband and two kids, Proctor has not been a very creative or resourceful fugitive. The I.N.S. could have found her at the store easily enough, if they had bothered to pay a visit; she and her husband are the only two employees. She has spent most of the past five years behind the counter, selling cans of Comet, cold sodas, imitation Swiss army knives and, lately, Pokémon trading cards. “They gave me two choices,” Proctor says. “Go to the Philippines, or go to jail. I said jail. I thought at least I would be here near my kids.” Then she was told that the U.S. has no facilities for immigrants in limbo, that she would simply be held in county jail with the general population. She would be living with criminals.

But Emilyn Proctor has never been accused of a crime. She entered the country legally in 1987 as the wife of a U.S. citizen she married in the Philippines. She left him after a year, fleeing physical abuse. But when she allowed him to file for a divorce, instead of doing it herself, she fell afoul of one of a variety of ill-conceived anti-immigrant laws enacted in the Reagan era. This particular law, the beginning of all of her problems, was subsequently repealed, but only after creating countless bureaucratic nightmares across the country. It was originally intended to discourage sham weddings between citizens and would-be immigrants. In 1989, she met Kenneth Proctor and remarried. To guide them through what should have been a routine hearing in immigration court, the couple hired Arlington attorney Terry Rombaugh. In the fall of 1992, after the Proctors dutifully appeared for two hearings (only to have them rescheduled by unprepared I.N.S. attorneys), Rombaugh failed to notify the couple of a third scheduled hearing. According to allegations in a lawsuit Proctor filed against Rombaugh, he covered up that and subsequent mistakes, keeping the Proctors in the dark about their deteriorating case until it was too late to rectify the situation. As a result, Emilyn Proctor did not learn she had been ordered deported until a letter was mailed to her in the spring of 1993, by which time she unknowingly had been on the lam for four months. When the couple took the letter to Rombaugh, he advised them to stay our of sight for a few weeks until the heat was off, according to allegations in the lawsuit.

For the next five years, as Rombaugh ostensibly worked on their case, the Proctor family lived in constant fear of a sudden visit by the authorities. I.N.S. agents would periodically raid the Henderson Street flea market, where the family rented a stall some weekends. “You’d see Mexicans swimming the Trinity River” to get away, Kenneth Proctor recalls. As her case dragged on without resolution, the laws coming out of Washington became increasingly punitive. Under terms of legislation enacted in 1996, Emilyn learned, she would not be able to return to the United States for ten years, by which time her son and daughter would be in their early twenties. The Proctors did not learn the full extent to which Rombaugh had failed them until Kenneth Proctor confronted him in his office in 1998 and physically demanded access to his wife’s file. “We deny all of those allegations,” said Rombaugh’s attorney, Mark Bukaty. “The case is going to go to trial and we don’t believe their allegations have any merit.”

After Rombaugh had billed them for an estimated $25,000, the Proctors said they decided to try someone new. Dallas immigration attorney John Wheat Gibson specializes in the type of bureaucratic nightmare the Proctors brought to him in 1998. From his modest downtown office, a block from Dealey Plaza, the 53-year-old Waco native has carved a niche for himself by working the cases nobody else will take. Once a professor of journalism at Eastern Illinois University, he applied to law school in the early eighties to add a J.D. to his résumé, planning to teach communication law. His stint at Baylor law school coincided with one of the sorriest chapters in I.N.S. history, and Gibson found himself drawn into the controversy. The agency was repatriating–without even the benefit of a hearing–thousands of El Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees fleeing the U.S.-sponsored dirty wars. Gibson got involved with Proyecto Adelante, a non-profit refugee legal aid service in Dallas. There he learned how things worked at I.N.S.

In the mid-eighties, an immigration judge issued a memo explaining why Salvadoran refugees could safely be returned home, to wit: the Salvadoran government attempted to protect the rights of its people, the court system was fair, and the people had a viable recourse if they felt their rights were being violated. “Well, that was just insane,” Gibson says. On a daily basis, he and his colleagues heard the truth from the refugees themselves: tales of torture, rape, and murder of civilians of all ages. The stories began to take their toll on Gibson. “Eventually I had to stop. I was becoming impossible to live with,” he said. He went into private practice in Dallas, where his bread and butter became amnesty work for those refugees who were fortunate enough to take advantage of a 1986 general amnesty.

Especially since the Gingrich Congress came into power in 1994, there has been no shortage of work for immigration attorneys. The 1996 Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Reform Act (retroactive for all immigrants no matter how long they have legally resided in the U.S.) changed the definition of crimes for which a convicted alien may be deported, as well as the definition of “conviction.” Thus Gibson has a client fighting deportation over a ten-year-old misdemeanor “weapons offense” that involved a nail gun. A second client agreed to deferred adjudication (which technically involves no finding of guilt) over fifteen years ago rather than fight a minor charge filed against him–with the explicit understanding that his plea would not affect his immigration status. Now the I.N.S. has interpreted the definition of conviction in the 1996 law to include deferred adjudication, and has ordered his deportation some fifteen years after the fact. It seems a clearly unconstitutional ex post facto punishment, but in the trenches of immigration litigation the Constitution takes a daily beating.

Reagan-era appointees created a new culture in the Dallas district I.N.S. office, Gibson says, “where you got ahead by brutality, obstinacy, and obduracy.” A good deal of that culture remains, because the people who were part of it are still making up the lower echelons of the agency. One of those people is the I.N.S. District Counsel, James T. Reynolds, the lead attorney for the district since the late eighties. Reynolds declined to cooperate with Gibson’s effort, in May of 1998, to reopen Emilyn Proctor’s case before the Board of Immigration Appeals. Gibson went over his head to District Director William G. Harrington, to no avail. The Board itself, meanwhile, ignored Gibson’s filings, despite an unambiguous provision in the law that requires an alien to receive notice of a hearing before deportation can be ordered. When Gibson took the case before a federal judge, he bumped up against another legacy of the eighties: over half of the current federal judiciary are appointees of the Reagan-Bush administrations. A district judge rejected Gibson’s habeas corpus plea (a legal argument arguing that a citizen is being illegally held), ruling, despite considerable case law to the contrary, that a deportation order did not constitute enough “custody” for Proctor to have a case. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to hear the case.

In the months that followed, members of Proctor’s church petitioned the I.N.S. for mercy. Her own daughter made a desperate phone call to the district office, begging them not to deport her mother. Proctor was ordered to report for deportation on December 20. Gibson appealed one final time to Harrington, but could not even get his call returned. He advised his clients to take the extraordinary step of purchasing a ticket for the Philippines, in the hopes of cooperating with the deportation order and receiving a waiver of the ten-year prohibition against re-entering the country. After thirteen years in the U.S., Emilyn Proctor was scheduled to return on January 4 to the island on which she was born.

Two days before Emilyn’s deportation, John Gibson’s relentless and impassioned faxes to the news media paid off: her story was reported by Channel 4 News in Dallas. Her two children at her side, Emilyn explained her situation. The decision, Gibson told reporters, rested in the hands of the District Director, to whom he appealed by name: William C. Harrington.

The next morning, Harrington phoned Gibson: Let’s talk, he said. After nearly ten years and over $25,000 in legal fees, Harrington and Gibson settled the case in a thirty-minute meeting in the director’s office. Proctor’s case will be reopened, the I.N.S. will support her appeal, and the Board of Immigration Appeals will almost certainly rescind her deportation order.

At Ken’s Salvage on January 3, which would have been Emilyn’s last full day with her family, everyone is elated. Amazingly, the couple is not inclined to blame the I.N.S., nor to assign malice to the bureaucrats who refused to listen to their pleas. More than anyone they blame their original attorney. Gibson is representing the Proctors in state court, in a lawsuit against Rombaugh.

Kenneth waves a stack of unpaid bills, which temper his good cheer. But business at the store has picked up a little. “That was the first time we ever got the store on the news,” he says. The customers who stop in are all familiar with Emilyn’s case, now that it is over. When she was under the cloud of deportation, her condition was necessarily a secret. A record 112,000 people were deported from the U.S. in 1997, a direct result of the 1996 reforms. With no one to vouch for them in Congress, no one to protect them from the unscrupulous or the just plain callous, it’s an inexorable migration of the invisible. They are as silent as the stacks and stacks of files that line the halls of every district I.N.S. office in the nation, each file a story just waiting to be heard.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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