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The U.S. Immigration Court is downtown, where South Miami Avenue meets the Miami River, the view of water wasted on the impervious backside of the large, windowless building. One day in fall 2004, an asylum seeker from the Bahamas passed through its doors, accompanied by the pastor of his church.
George was an ex-seaman with the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF). He patrolled Bahamian waters for illegal activity from 1984 until 1992, when he says he quit out of disgust with corrupt colleagues who would sell the drugs they seized from smuggling boats. After his honorable discharge, he worked as a truck driver.
In September 1998, a number of former colleagues informed him that RBDF officials were now smuggling drugs through Nassau International Airport, and George brazenly informed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of their activities. He was told to "keep his ear to the ground." DEA agents have confirmed that over the next seven months, George contacted them about corrupt Bahamian law enforcement officials on several occasions.
In April 1999, George found a note under his windshield wiper. "[George], we hope that you are not a snitch," it read. George took the warning as a serious threat. He severed ties with the DEA and relocated his family to another apartment. They left for the United States in October 1999 with a visitor's visa. George followed a month later. He filed for political asylum shortly after arrival and was hired as the sexton at the Palm Beach County church of a rector, who now accompanied him into the courtroom.
The pastor, who wore clerical attire, was the only nonparticipant in attendance at the hearing. When Immigration Judge Bruce Solow entered the courtroom, the pastor says the judge's first words to him were: "What's with the collar?" The following is an excerpt from a transcript of Solow's interrogation of George:
Solow: Now what was your plan in order to go to the DEA? Where were you going and how were you going to go about this?
George: Well, I called the U.S. Embassy and they put me onto ...
Solow: Wait. You called the U.S. Embassy?
George: Yes, sir.
Solow: And you said, "Hi, my name is Mr. [last name omitted]."
George: [Defendant states first and last name.]
Solow: Then they said, "That's nice. How can we help you?" And you said?
George: I told them I have some information that might be useful in the fight against ...
Solow: And then the operator said, "Well that's good." And then you said what?
George: Then they put me on hold.
Solow: They what?
George: They put me on hold.
George: Then an agent came on.
Solow: An agent came?
Solow: I don't believe that.
The pastor, who asked that his name and the church's be withheld in consideration of George's safety, says the transcript cannot truly convey the judge's berating tone and confrontational attitude, which the cleric described as "unconscionable." George continued his testimony. He said he was asked to come to the U.S. Embassy to meet with an agent. The judge interrupted again:
"Wait, wait. Told you to come to the U.S. Embassy, and what was the rest of the conversation? And ask for who, Zelda Jones or Mark Gummit?"
(Zelda Jones is the wacky assistant of fictional crime detective Scotia MacKinnon, star of such novels as The Lavender Butterfly Murders, by Sharon Duncan. Mark Gummit's identity is unclear perhaps a second sarcastic reference to a gumshoe, whose name was misspelled in the transcript.
The Bahamian named the agents he spoke with at the embassy; the agents themselves corroborated the claim. Regardless, the judge continued to express his incredulity. His final opinion dripped with derision:
"I think this case, quite frankly I hate to use the word, but I think it stinks."
According to the transcript, Solow said he did not understand George's sudden impetus to expose corruption:
"What was the epiphany that suddenly drove him to this? 'Oh, I got fed up with life in the Bahamas.' Well, maybe he wanted to come to the United States; maybe as an ex-agent he knew this."
Solow briefly considered the integrity of the DEA, adding that "it wouldn't be the first time in my checkered career that I heard that our government screwed someone, to put it bluntly, to use the vernacular, by not doing what was right."
But this case, he repeated, "smells bad. This is so vague and general you could vomit.... He wants me to become a magician here and grant it merely based on this kind of testimony."
The Bahamian lost his case. George's lawyer turned to the Board of Immigration Appeals. The BIA made note of Solow's "inappropriate" demeanor. "This conduct was not limited to only the respondent," their decision read. "In fact, at one point, the Immigration Judge characterized the government's attorney as 'obnoxious.'" But the BIA upheld the denial, asserting that Solow's declared disgust for George's story did not mean the Bahamian had not received a fair trial.
George's pastor was appalled. "How can we have a judge who is supposed to represent this country and our standards of liberty and justice intimidating somebody appealing for asylum?" he wondered in a recent phone conversation. He is not the only one dismayed by George's experience. On Friday, September 8, the pastor e-mailed to his congregation a petition urging the Miami Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to consider reviewing George's case. He included the above transcript excerpts. Three days later he had 440 signatures, some even faxed by out-of-state snowbirds. Today he has more than 600 signatures, and state Reps. Clay Shaw and Alcee Hastings are looking into the matter.