Interviews, Deportations and Forming the Hardness of Heart
After graduating from the academy and spending a little time with my family, I reported back to the office in San Francisco. I was excited, having recently officially become an Immigration Agent. I knew I was going to be looking for people that were foreign born and incarcerated in the prison system, just did not know which prison I would be assigned to.
When I reported for duty on April 1st, 1997, it did not dawn on me what day it was. Looking back now, it seems almost as if it set the precedent for my entire time within the agency, never being taken seriously by many of my co-workers. I am not to that take myself to seriously anyways, so it never really bothered me…. much.
First thing in the morning I met with my new supervisor, Willie, who had been with the agency for a long time. He was an interesting person, very vocal and animated. I remember when he reviewed my first case file where I had prepared the paperwork to start deportation proceedings. He looked at it and started yelling, “Who is supposed to be teaching you how to do this the right way”. I looked at him seriously and quietly told him, “ I think you are”. He looked at me even more angry, yelled at me to get out of his office and told me to get the trial attorneys to review it before bringing it to him. When I took my second case file for review, he started yelling again, and then noticed that the trial attorney had approved the file and got quiet for a second. I could see the angry bubbling up inside him, just before he started yelling again, “Who told you to take this to the attorneys and why are you bringing it to me?” I again looked seriously at him and calmly told him, “You told me to take it to them and I brought it to you to sign”. Oh, he just exploded, calling me a disrespectful smart ass, signed the forms and loudly told me to ‘get the fuck out of his office’. I found it humorous that the very next day I was switched to a different supervisor.
Willie told me for my first assignment that I would be assigned to the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, California conducting interviews and processing people for deportation. I would be working with a Special Agent, Joe and another Immigration Agent, Craig. I knew Craig, we were in the academy together and I got along with him.
On my second day we all went out to the prison. I had only been inside a jail once in my life, when I was trying to get hired on at the Napa County Jail, so I had no idea what to expect. FCI Dublin was a female prison, and I was quite surprised as we entered that the inmates were walking around the grounds freely. I had always figured that inmates would be locked in cell blocks or fenced in areas. We went directly to the prison administrative office and met the staff there. Joe gave us an orientation briefing, explaining how to schedule inmates for interviews, review their prison files, just the basic administrative duties. Joe had also scheduled a few interviews for the day. Craig and I observed him for the first two, and then we each had one interview ourselves. I was nervous, even though they were women and nowhere as dangerous or hard as men, we were still talking to convicted criminals.
My first interview went smoothly. The type of interviews we were doing was just to determine of the inmate was amendable to removal from the United States. We would ask the basic questions, name, place of birth, immigration status. We would also try and determine if they were eligible for any kind of relief. Since the vast majority of the inmates we talked to were convicted of drug trafficking charges, there was no form of relief for them even if they had status as a permanent resident. After the interviews Joe would sit with us and give us feedback on the things we missed and how he felt we could improve.
After a couple weeks I started to schedule my own interviews. I enjoyed the work and was a little bit of a workaholic, so I did far more interviews than Joe or Craig. Since Joe was a Special Agent, he was not going to be at the prison much longer anyways, Craig and I would be taking over. As I prepared to take over the program at the prison, I needed to understand how many of the inmates needed to be processed. There was a little bit of a conflict with Joe over this. Joe was a lot of flash and not much substance. He was more of a politician than he was a Special Agent, and as such he was more interested, and spent more time trying to look good to management than actual work. He also would through you to under the bus if he thought it would further his career. Joe kept a printed roster of all the foreign-born inmates at the prison, who was or was not interviewed, who was processed and who was ordered deported. I needed this roster so that I could properly take over the program, and Joe was balking at providing it. After a couple weeks I finally grew tired of waiting and went to Joe’s cubicle and asked why he was not giving me the information I needed. Joe interrupted my, said he will be right back, and walked away. After about 5 minutes I started to wonder what was going on and walked out towards the supervisor’s office just in time to hear Joe tell the Supervisor, “that’s why I don’t need him anymore”. My supervisor called me into his office as Joe got up and walked out. He told me that I was going to be assigned to another prison, San Quintin State Prison. Of course, I plead my case and told him what was going on, but that was to no avail. The change of assignment only lasted about a week, the Section Chief had stopped me in the hallway and asked how Dublin was going. When I told him that I did not know, I was at a different prison, he blew a gasket and told me that I was “fucking going back to Dublin and fucking staying there until hell froze over or he died”. He went directly to my supervisor’s office, and I went right back to Dublin.
I was happy to be back, dealing with the men at San Quintin was not a fun experience. It was a nasty, smelly prison, and the inmates incarcerated there were just assholes. Dublin was a nice facility, clean, open and did not stink, truly club fed. But I still had to take over the program and Joe was still not cooperating. Just before he left for a new assignment, he let me know that he ‘lost’ the sheet that he was using to track all the inmates. Which meant that I had to review all the prison files and figure out what the status of each one was, and that was close to 1000 inmates, of which 475 were foreign born.
As part of cleaning the program up I needed a better way to track the status of each inmate. I had to follow if they needed interviewed and processing and their status with the Immigration Court. I worked with one of the computer specialists and we developed a program that worked perfectly. I called it the Correctional Learning Institute Tracking System. When I named the system, initially I did not think of the improper acronym that went with the name, and despite realizing how wrong it was I went with it since it was only for Craig’s’ and my in-house use. Coming up with the name is not one of my proudest moments, and I am embarrassed to say, that I found it funny at the time.
Interviewing women that are incarcerated is much different than the men. With men it is straight forward and business like, they know what they are facing and are more accepting. With the women there is a lot more emotions, trying everything they can to influence you, and they cried. Another difference I noticed between the men and women is that the men were convicted of crimes on their own accord. They would have partners and co-defendants, but they were usually acting on their own decisions, their own plans when they committed the crime. Yes the women that I encountered at Dublin were there because of crimes they committed, but, almost all of them were there for a crime that was led by a man, usually their husband, boyfriend or the guy that they were cheating with. I remember talking to one woman who had been a bank manager in Texas. She was well respected, married with kids and living in a nice house. She decided to start an affair with a guy, who convinced her it was a good idea to bring a load of drugs across the border. Of course, and unfortunate for her, she was arrested and convicted, and the guy she was having an affair with walked away with nothing. I saw this played out time and time again, and I almost felt bad for them. Another thing I noticed was that the women were generally more accepting of their roles in the crimes they committed. I have never interviewed a male inmate that was guilty of the crimes they committed, every one of them was innocent and they were railroaded by the courts and attorneys.
I found myself becoming hard and would disconnect myself from compassion when I interviewed the women, one had to. It was sad to see the lives and families destroyed for nothing. This disconnection also led to me becoming meaner, and I must admit, at the time I enjoyed having the reputation of being viewed in this light. When I was interviewing the women, I became incredibly good at being able to tell when they were about to break down. I also became particularly good at being able to sense exactly what would cause them to cry, and exactly what button to push to cause them to break down. And push those buttons I did, not in an observable mean way, but gently just to see if I could get them to cry. I started to judge the success of my day not by the number of women I interviewed or processed, but by the number of women I made cry that day. Right or wrong, this attitude is something that stayed with me for my entire career and is what led to my success when I started working violent street gangs a couple years later.
One thing I did not like is when someone would lie to me about their past, and if I had to do more work to prove that they were not being honest I really was not happy. I recall one woman in particular, who was the nastiest criminals I have ever met. Maria had been arrested for almost every crime you could imagine, from murder to kidnapping, fraud to assault. She had used 30 plus names and had been previously deported three times under three different names, and for some reason those removals were not connected to each other as they usually are. Maria was so bad, she had assumed the name of a social worker, Susan, that would come to visit her during one of her stays in prison, was convicted of a crime using her identity and was also deported under that name. To sort out all her identities I had to speak with Susan and found out the problems she had because of it. Susan had been arrested a couple times due to outstanding warrants of arrest that were actually for Maria, she has been detained coming back into the United States and would be held until her fingerprints came back as no match to Maria.
When I interviewed Maria, she denied everything, said she was never deported, never committed a crime, and was unjustly convicted of her current crime. I had already done my homework on her before I did the initial interview, and it was a lot. I had to obtain fingerprints, documents, and photographs for all the disconnected pieces. I put them all together in a package and proceeded to interview her for the first time but forgot to bring it with me. I did not tell Maria all the back round on her I had done, so when she lied to me, I was pissed. I was more pissed at myself for not bringing the evidence, because I wanted Maria to admit she was not being honest. I cut the initial interview short, went and grabbed the package I had put together, and returned to the prison for a second interview. During this interview I proceeded to tell Maria I knew she was lying, and then proved to her that she was lying. This second interview lasted around 90 minutes and was not pleasant for Maria. She would alternate between tears and anger as I proved each of her lies.
About an hour after I finished and left, I received a phone call from one of the ladies at the prison, Linda. I liked Linda, she was nice and worked well with me. When I answered the phone Linda immediately said, “Robert you’re a mean man”. My response was ‘huh?’, and then she said, “You’re a cruel and mean man” with a slight humor sound to her voice. I asked, “OK, what did I do now?” She said the woman I had just interviewed, Maria, was on her way to the hospital that she was having a heart attack. My response was, “she is leaving right now?” Linda said yes, the ambulance was at the front of the prison. I again asked, “Are they leaving right now” which she replied yes again. I told Linda I have to go and hung up the phone. I walked out of my office and out to the patio, which was right next to the road to the prison. As the ambulance drove by, I stood there and gave a huge wave to the ambulance as it drove by.
Some of the women that I interviewed tried hard to influence my decision on whether to put them into deportation proceedings, even trying to offer physical rewards for not putting them into proceedings. The first time this happened was a shock to me. During an interview with a young woman while I was looking at her prison file for some information, she had pulled her chair back from the desk a little bit. When I looked up at her again, she had pulled her tan prison pants down and was playing with her vagina while smiling at me. I had heard that things like this would happen but was still surprised. I remember telling her thank you, but that our interview was done and then promptly informed the prison staff what had occurred. This incident was unusual, as most the time the women that would try this would just flash their breasts while making an offer. Each time this would happen, I would immediately inform the prison staff, as I did not want any issues or false accusations.
The most forward and severe incident I had like this was with a woman who was about to be released from the minimum-security Camp located at the prison. She was originally from the Philippines and had been convicted of money laundering, again stemming from a guy she had been having an affair with. Normally I did not do interviews at the Camp, since inmates that were facing deportation were not supposed to be housed there. The interview was conducted in a classroom with no one else present, although the door was open, and a guard was in the hallway. As I interviewed her, I found out that her husband was in the Navy and was going to be deployed in two weeks, one week after her release. Her oldest child was also going to be leaving for college at the same time and she would be home alone with her toddler. During the interview she asked me, since her husband and son where leaving, that if I could let her leave and after her husband deployed I could come over to her house and we could take care of things then. As she was saying this to me, she had opened her legs up and was running her hand up her inner thigh. She said she would do anything I wanted, just as long as I would let her go. I told her to wait one minute, then got up and left the room shutting the door behind me. I told the guard that she was not to leave that room. I walked back to the main prison into the admin office, and as I was giving Linda the Immigration hold for her I told her what had occurred.
Not long after that interview Linda called me up and told me she had something new come in that I needed to speak to. I told her alright and headed to the prison. When I got there the inmate was waiting for me. I proceeded to conduct a routine interview as I normally do. Nothing appeared special about this woman’s case, until I started going over the different names this woman had used. As I asked about each one, I stopped and looked at a name, it was a man’s name. So, I asked her why she used a man’s name. She leaned over the table towards me, looked at me with a serious expression and said, “Figure it out”. For a moment I was quiet and looked at her, I figured it out and proceeded to finish the interview. After she departed Linda and the rest of the admin staff started to laugh at me. Linda had set me up, knowing I had not run across someone that had transitioned from man to woman before. She said I handled it well, while laughing, and then proceeded to tell me much more than I ever wanted to know about what the body parts looked like on someone that has transitioned.
I enjoyed my time working at Dublin, learned a lot and met some wonderful people that worked at the prison. I spent over 4 years working that assignment, even after I became a Special Agent, and processed probably over 2500 inmates for removal from the United States. Even though I wanted to get out of that assignment and do some street work, I was a little sad when I left.