New England JFON attorneys facilitate man’s release from detention
July 20, 2020
Michael Langa spent a year in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center under conditions he describes as “stressful” and “awful.”
“It was very stressful, honestly speaking,” Langa said. “Some of the COs were hard on us; treating us like prisoners.”
The detainees and their cells were searched a couple of times a week. “Everything [was left] upside down,” Langa said. “You would have to start over trying to clean.”
When detainees asked about addressing some of their needs, they were told by center officials: “We don’t do those things; we’re not social workers.”
But he and some others found ways to pass the time together – praying, singing or watching TV. Langa also helped people write letters or briefs in English. Even so, he said, it was tedious and isolating.
Thanks to New England Justice for our Neighbors (NE JFON), Langa was released from detention in June, and work on his case is moving forward.
“I just want to really express how grateful I am for all the support I received from [NE JFON],” Langa said. “I want to tell the community how passionate, how compassionate you are. You don’t know me. You don’t have to do anything for me, but it shows the biblical connection between people during the difficult times. We are part of a community. Without the community, it’s hard for anybody to move to the next step.”
JFON is a United Methodist ministry that provides legal services to immigrants seeking to adjust their status. New England JFON has five legal clinics where immigrants can connect with attorneys. The attorneys are paid, but their services are provided to the clients for free. (Click the link to learn more about NE JFON and how you can support this ministry).
Langa, 56, came to the U.S. from South Africa 20 years ago on a J-1 Exchange Visa to work with kids with autism and other mental challenges. He has a master’s degree in psychology as well as a master’s in religious studies.
In South Africa, Langa participated in the work of Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He also worked for the African Constructive for the Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). He traveled across Africa doing peace education work in countries including Zimbabwe, Sudan, Nigeria, and Zambia.
In the U.S., he used that experience and his language skills to work with some of the “lost boys” of Sudan through Lutheran Social Services.
In 2009, he became one of the founding members of the Center for Non-Violent Solutions in Worcester, MA, where he continues to serve on the board, and in which he expects to remain involved.
“For me, peace is eternity – you don’t retire from peace,” Langa said.
It would seem ironic then that accusations of violent behavior were what led to Langa’s detention. That irony was not lost on attorney
Greg Turner, who was willing to scour court records and filings to get to the truth.
Turner, along with Yoana Kuzmova, JFON's sponsored attorney at the Northeast Justice Center, facilitated Langa’s release from detention.
“I tip my cap to Yoana as a huge help in pulling off this great victory. She greatly increased our chances of success and it worked,” Turner said. “I will take credit for being the spear point. But a spear point without a spear is just another sharp rock on the ground. By no means was this ever a solo effort.”
A member of Carter Memorial UMC in Needham, MA, Turner’s practice was primarily in collections and criminal law. He had long been interested in immigration law but was unsure how to begin.
On a Sunday about two years ago, Rev. Gary Richards, president of NE JFON, gave a presentation at Carter Memorial along with a “Dreamer” (a person who has lived in the U.S. without official authorization since coming to the country as a minor).
“I was moved by this presentation and immediately offered my services as an attorney,” Turner said, and he began working at the NE JFON clinic in Woburn.
Turner and Langa were acquainted through church, but had not spoken much until early 2019, when they had a conversation about Turner’s work with NE JFON.
“We agreed to talk again,” Turner said. “Fortunately, I gave him my business card.”
A few months later, Langa used that card.
In early June 2019, he called Turner to say he had been detained by ICE for an alleged violation of a restraining order obtained by his ex-wife.
“Since I was not sure exactly what to do, I used my JFON intake training to gather information from Michael and why he was being detained,” Turner said.
The case was referred to JFON-sponsored attorney Camila Ransom, assisted by Turner. A bond re-determination hearing was held on July 8, 2019. Release on bond was denied on the strength of Langa's ex-wife's representations that he was a danger to her and her children. Langa has two sons, ages 16 and 12.
The immigration judge, following agency precedent, imposed the burden of proof “by clear and convincing evidence” on Langa. In other words, his accusers did not have to prove he was a danger, Langa had to prove he was not.
After Langa’s first bond hearing, the ACLU had obtained a judgment in a class action suit that found that placing the burden on immigrants to prove that they are not a danger is unconstitutional. The ACLU then appointed two attorneys to bring a writ of habeas corpus requesting that Langa be given a new bond hearing based on that class action.
Meanwhile, the next step was to request cancellation of removal proceedings (deportation) based on Langa’s sons’ special needs. Turner explained that the needs of the children should have been good grounds for cancellation, but the immigration judge remained persuaded by the ex-wife's accusations, and the hearing was unsuccessful.
“Based on his interest in non-violence and my numerous interviews with Mr. Langa, … the ex-wife's accusations just did not make any sense,” Turner said. “There had to be a disconnect somewhere.”
An appeal was filed to keep Langa’s case open, and Turner went to work to find that “disconnect.”
“While all this was going on, I had decided to do a little detective work at the Family and Probate Court where all of these accusations had first arisen,” he said. “What I figured out was that every time Mr. Langa sought an increase in his visitation rights, his ex-wife would respond by accusing him of threats of violence towards her and the children.”
A confidential interview with the children ordered by the Family Court judge seemed to refute the accusations, as Langa had been granted the visitation rights he was requesting.
While Turner was uncovering this vital information, the ACLU’s petition to get Langa a new bond hearing was denied; ACLU attorneys felt they had done all they could.
Turner was now Langa's last line of defense in federal court.
“While I can say that I excel at making legal and factual connections that others miss, I still had extremely limited experience in [Immigration Court] and organization is not my strong suit,” Turner said. “But, armed with the documentation I had acquired from the Family Court, I filed, on my own, a motion for reconsideration of the denial of the habeas petition on the grounds that the ex-wife's accusations were simply not true.”
This time the motion for reconsideration was unopposed by the government. The Federal District Court ordered a new bond hearing to take place within seven days.
Turner and Kuzmova worked far into the night and over the weekend to perfect the memorandum that laid out our detailed arguments for release on bond.
It worked. Langa would be released on bond.
“Basically, I was on fire. I was able to harness my several decades of experience as a litigator and hammer my points home,” Turner said of his appearance in court. He credited Kuzmova, who was available by phone during the hearing, with giving him the confidence to be successful.
But that wasn't the end; Turner’s legal assistance would be needed once again before Langa would leave the detention center.
When Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network attempted to post bond for Langa four days after the hearing, ICE claimed they could not find the release paperwork. After waiting for more than four hours to present the bond check, the BIJAN volunteer left without Langa. When an ICE attorney was contacted by phone, she said she couldn’t say when the paperwork might be found.
“I immediately filed for a writ of mandamus to order ICE to release Mr. Langa as he had tendered bond. That motion was allowed — with an award of costs and attorneys’ fees,” Turner said, adding: “ICE miraculously found the paperwork a few hours later.”
Langa was released.
His case is not over, but Turner said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the final result.
“He actually has a pretty decent chance that the Board of Immigration Appeals will reverse the immigration judge's ruling and cancel the removal proceedings,” Turner said. “So yeah, his prospects are actually pretty good.”
Langa admits that while in detention he thought about giving up and just returning to South Africa, but now he, too, is optimistic.
“We have a battle still ahead of us – now that I am out, I have faith the Board of Immigration Appeals will look at my case with a different set of eyes,” he said “… I have been here for decades, and I have contributed greatly [to this country].”
Whatever else he may be feeling, Langa said he is not angry.
“It’s very draining to be angry. It’s wasted energy. Life is too precious,” he said. “There are people here who have issues more than you do, so spend time connecting with them, helping them out, lifting them, supporting them.”
He had not yet seen his children when we spoke. Following his release, he was required to self-quarantine for 14 days. He is staying at Turner’s home until he can get settled on his own.
Asked what he is hoping for in the near future, Langa summed it up pretty succinctly: “I want to operate like a normal human being.”
“I just want to spend time with my children … go back to normalcy, if I can call it that,” he said, adding he wants to focus on day-to-day things. “I just want to go back to church and be a member.”
Turner said he hopes this story will inspire others to take up this work.
“I just feel like I'm just doing my job and everybody's getting really excited about it, and I think [that’s] just great, you know, because this work is absolutely essential,” he said. “There are people who are being railroaded through the system and a lot of it is just because they don't have representation and nobody's checking the facts.”