Caroline Todd who is being held at the La Salle detention center for two errors on her forms
JENA, La. — Caroline Todd has gone from being a devoted mother, wife and church member to a federal detainee with felony convictions, facing the possibility of deportation.
Todd may be exiled from not only the United States, where she has lived for almost 20 years, but from her American husband and two American children. The reason: two incorrect answers on forms.
The Kenyan woman says they were innocent mistakes, but innocent or not, they may rip apart her family and the life she has built in Montgomery — a life of tutoring children at Flowers Elementary School, singing in the choir at Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church and raising her own family.
Failing to properly answer two routine questions — one on a form for her green card and another on an employment form from a previous job — has plucked her from this life.
Now, she resides at LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, La., one of 22 immigration detention facilities in the country.
She will reside here until early December when there will be a hearing before a judge to decide her future. Will she be allowed to return home to her family, or will she be sent back to Kenya, a country that has become a foreign place to her?
‘The caged bird sings with a fearful trill’
Todd will celebrate her 38th birthday today, more than 480 miles away from her family and friends in Montgomery. She has already missed Thanksgiving and the birthday of her youngest son, who has turned 9 in her absence. She still hopes to be home to celebrate her oldest son’s 13th birthday in December.
She will likely spend today reading — most recently, she has read Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” — and then later leading a bilingual Bible study that she has helped to start inside the detention facility. Aside from a possible “happy birthday” phone call, she will keep to herself as the hours pass.
She will spend the day in prayer. Her master calendar hearing, a hearing in which detainees appear before an immigration judge, is two days away.
“I know (the hearing) will go as God has planned it. That’s all I can say,” Todd said in a soft-spoken voice, which after 19 years spent away from her native country now has only a faint hint of a Kenyan accent.
“I stopped long ago worrying. That’s one of those things I can’t control.”
Her husband, Thomas, said he does not even want to consider the possibility of the judge deporting her. He said he stays upbeat and optimistic because Caroline is that way — and because the alternative is too tragic to consider.
Todd was convicted of two counts of perjury for the incorrectly marked questions on her forms and given three years of probation by U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, who described the case in his written opinion as “unusual and sad.”
“This is the worst situation that I have seen in my 30 years on the bench,” Thompson said from the bench in May, according to court records.
“I have never seen a case that’s more compelling for compassion than this one. This woman merely gave a false statement to stay in this country. She is being ripped from her family. She’s losing her children, potentially. I just can’t think of a scenario that cries out more for some degree of mercy, if you have a heart.”
Her master calendar hearing is part of a separate process that determines whether she can stay in the United States or must return to Kenya, the country she left in 1990.
When she met with a reporter from the Montgomery Advertiser for an interview, she wore an orange jumpsuit typical of most detention facilities and put on some light makeup and jewelry, both of which her mother had sent via the reporter for Todd’s birthday. But, per the rules of the facility, the small birthday gifts had to be returned to the reporter at the conclusion of the interview.
While this interview was held in person, when Todd’s family makes the eight-hour trip to see her, a glass barrier separates them from her. But the children make the best of it by playing hand games and by breathing on the glass so that they can write messages such as “I (a drawn heart) you.”
Looking for a better life
Caroline Todd came to the United States with a student visa in 1990. She was 18 and hoping to further her education. In 2006, she initiated the application process for her green card.
She first pursued religious studies at Beulah Heights Bible College in Atlanta. Then she studied pre-medicine at Auburn Montgomery, but ran out of funds before she could finish the coursework. She went on to receive another associate’s degree, this time in medical assisting and transcription, from South University.
In the middle of all this, she met Thomas Todd in 1996.
She was working at the seafood department at a grocery store. He was helping a friend by pushing samples of iced cappuccinos inside the store.
Thomas Todd thought the product he was touting was horrible, but he played the part of a cappuccino lover for the day. He really turned up the charm and professed his penchant for the drink when a pretty woman from the seafood department came over to talk to him.
“You can talk to her for one minute and feel like you’ve known her your entire life. She’s very passionate and enveloping,” Thomas Todd said.
The two would quickly fall in love and then marry that same year. They had their first child, Brandon, in their first year of marriage and had their second child, John, four years later.
Thomas Todd of Montgomery with sons Brandon, right, and John, are without wife and mom Caroline Todd, who is being held in a Louisiana detention center and faces deportation to Africa. (David Bundy)
Before Caroline Todd was sent to the detention facility in January, she was a stay-at-home mom who kept her husband organized and had brownies waiting at home when her children returned from school.
She sang soprano at the choir at Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church. She helped her children with their schoolwork. She was a reading tutor at Flowers Elementary School. She prepared the family dinners, which would include both American and traditional African dishes.
Her hope is that she will return to this life in December.
“(God) will take care of his children, and he will do what he says he is going to do. He does not like separation, mothers away from children. He will get me home to my children,” Caroline Todd said, the optimism a stark contrast to the tears that had begun to flow.
Caroline Todd is coping with her situation with this belief and by believing she must keep her family, friends and even the other detainees upbeat about their circumstances. She said uplifting the spirit of those around her helps her stay optimistic.
“God is in control. We do what we can control. What we cannot, we leave it up to him. He will ask, ‘What did you do with what I put you through? What did you do with the time I gave you?’ You need to be able to answer that question. You need to be able to say, ‘I helped somebody.'”
The path to Jena
On May 23, 2008, Caroline Todd’s brother was booked into the city jail on outstanding warrants.
It would prove to be unfortunate timing for the Todd family. Two agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were at the jail on other business and overheard her brother’s thick African accent, according to court records.
He initially claimed he was a U.S. citizen, but the ICE agents quickly determined the truth — that he was still a citizen of Kenya — when they went to his residence and met Caroline Todd.
Todd, who has no prior convictions, said ICE agents initially took little interest in her. Then she started to help her brother with his legal issues and to arrange medical assistance, which she said was required because he allegedly suffered injuries during the interrogation process with ICE.
She believes these were factors in ICE agents beginning to investigate her after her brother’s arrest. It was then she said that she was made aware of what she termed “errors” on two forms she had filled out.
Thompson also noted that the link that led the government to begin its investigation of Caroline Todd seemed questionable.
Asked to respond, ICE spokesman Temple Black said the agency does not comment on the specifics of individual cases for privacy reasons.
Her brother’s case is still pending in federal court.
As for Caroline Todd, she was initially charged with six separate counts based on two documents in which she allegedly provided false information.
When Todd submitted her “Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status,” on an I-485 form, she was asked if she had ever been arrested or charged with breaking the law.Todd checked “no.” But she had been arrested six years earlier when a woman stole her checkbook and used it to write bad checks. Once the details became known, those charges were thrown out, according to court records. Still, she technically had been arrested.For that statement, the government charged her with making fraudulent statements in an application for registration, perjury and mail fraud.
In April 2007, which is after she had started the application process for permanent residence, Todd filled out an “Employment Eligibility Verification,” or I-9 form, and marked that she was a U.S. national or citizen when she was not.Because of this, she was charged with false impersonation of an U.S. citizen, fraud and misuse of visa and permits, and perjury.Thompson, the federal judge in the case, dismissed two charges for lack of evidence, acquitted her of mail fraud, but convicted her of perjury and fraud.
Thompson noted that Todd’s actions were motivated by a desire to stay in a country that had become her home and to remain with her family.
“In the most literal way, Todd’s true punishment is that she has been separated from her home and family … solely because of her efforts to remain here and be a productive member of her community,” Thompson wrote in his opinion this year. “Her offense, which did not harm anyone, has resulted in her detention in the custody of immigration authorities … far from her children — and facing possible deportation to Kenya.
“Equally important, Todd is not the only person who has been punished. Two young children are now separated from their mother, a woman who has lived in the United States for nearly 20 years.”
Todd agrees with Thompson about the true punishment in the case.
Unlike other, non-immigration-related criminal proceedings, detainees at an immigration detention facility are not eligible for “time served” for the time spent in the facilities. Todd, who was given probation, has been held for about 11 months. Even if she had been sentenced to imprisonment, her time spent at the detention facility would not count toward a prison sentence.
But this isn’t Todd’s chief concern. She said she is most concerned about being able to return to her children as quickly as possible.
“Anyone can take care of children. That’s babysitters. But a mother raises her children. With morals, with teachings. It’s not just getting up and making sure they have their food or brush their teeth and (have) their clothes,” Caroline Todd said.
“They’re depriving me of that. They’re depriving my children of that. Nobody can do that job but a mother.”
Although Todd agrees with Thompson that the real punishment is being separated from her family, she maintains that she did not purposefully lie to stay with them. She contends she simply made mistakes while filling out numerous and sometimes confusing forms.
Zayne Smith, immigrant justice fellow at Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, has no difficulty believing this explanation.
“This is why reform is needed so badly,” she said.
“When you have multiple forms and multiple agencies and multiple offices to go through, it becomes complex and convoluted. For someone who is trying to get legal status, they have to jump through so many hoops and have to pretty much be an expert in the field of law. It’s a setup for disaster,” Smith said.
As the law is now, Smith said it is not advisable to pursue a green card without the aid of an attorney. The Todds, who were undertaking the application process on their own, said they figured that out the hard way.
But attorneys cost money — and applying for a green card is an expensive endeavor even without paying for an attorney. Plus, there is the expense of the necessary trips to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Atlanta.
Caroline Todd made it all the way to the last step, which is the interview. She said they have spent $1,500 on the process so far.
“We didn’t have an attorney to help us, so we had to do the best we could on our own,” Todd said. “It’s application after application … and each one comes with a fee that you have to pay.”
Friends trying to help
Charlotte Robertson, who is in the church choir with Caroline, said she never thought about the hot button issue of immigration until her friend showed up to choir practice last year wearing an ankle bracelet.
Now, it’s an issue that she said keeps her up at night.
“I can’t believe the complexity of it,” Robertson said. “It makes it a huge deterrent for the vast majority of immigrants who are here working in low-wage jobs. It makes it so prohibitive.”
Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church has rallied behind Todd. Church members are writing letters on her behalf to judges and elected officials.
One of those elected officials, Congressman Bobby Bright, who represents Alabama’s 2nd District, requested information about the case but ultimately decided not to step in on Todd’s behalf.
“He didn’t feel like it was his place to tell (ICE) how they should or shouldn’t act,” said Bright’s spokesman, Lewis Lowe.
Montgomery immigration attorney Boyd Campbell said because Caroline Todd is a wife and mother, she will have a stronger argument for what is called “cancellation of removal” than most people who face deportation, which is now referred to as “removal.”
In the hearings, the judge can consider factors that would not be admissible in a criminal proceeding. That is partly because immigration cases are considered civil, not criminal, cases — although the handling of the detainees resembles that of inmates.
Some immigrants awaiting the hearings are allowed to maintain normal lives out of a facility but are required to wear ankle bracelets. Others are held at the 24 detention facilities operated by private companies.
An ICE spokesman said ICE detains foreign nationals for two reasons.
The first is to ensure their appearance before an immigration judge. The second is to enforce an immigration judge’s order of removal, Black said.
In Louisiana, the detainees are held at the Jena facility and then taken to Oakdale, La., to appear before an immigration judge.
“Very few people in the United States know that today, as opposed to, say, 15 years ago, that we can lock people up and throw away the key without charging them with a crime,” Campbell said. “The United States, for many years now, has been locking up thousands of people without charging them with a crime — and these people are from other countries.
“I think it’s extraordinarily sad. It’s not a smart way to deal with immigration policy, and it’s extremely expensive for taxpayers. It’s free meals and a cot, and these are 24-hour lockdown facilities, just like our jail. I wouldn’t want to pay for it, but I am,” Campbell added.
The 1,160-bed facility, which is managed by a company called GEO, opened in early 2008 and could employ 400 people at full capacity. There was an existing detention facility at the site, but GEO moved in after $30 million was spent on expanding the facility for its new function.
The grand opening was celebrated in Jena because of the facility’s positive economic impact on the small central Louisiana town, according to a news report published in the Town Talk.
When asked how many detainees were being held at the facility as of last week, Black said he could not say because of security reasons.
If Todd is allowed to return to her family, she will finish the application process for permanent residence — and this time she will do it with the guidance of an attorney.
Julian McPhillips has agreed to be that attorney after hearing of Todd’s ordeal.
“It’s a shame because this woman is a huge attribute to her community,” the Montgomery attorney said.
McPhillips, who said he has tried many civil rights cases, likened society’s attitude toward immigrants to the mentality toward African Americans during the days of Jim Crow laws.
“Immigrants don’t have many people looking out for them,” McPhillips said.