An international student is held for weeks at the Northwest Detention Center, unable even to return to her home country. Then came a surprising turn of events. “This never happens,” her attorney said.
This is an immigration story with a surprise ending.
“Shock,” said lawyer Naomi Kim after the sudden turn of events late Friday afternoon. “This never happens.”
Then again, the situation as it stood just an hour earlier for her client — an international student held at the Northwest Detention Center for two weeks — was highly unusual, too.
Behind it lay a tangle of paperwork, but also, it seemed to Kim, a new rigidity on the part of immigration officials carrying out aggressive enforcement policies under President Donald Trump.
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The student, Jungeun “Rachel” Kim (no relation to her attorney), a 20-year-old from South Korea, arrived in the U.S. in March 2015 with a visa allowing her to study at Green River College. She later transferred to Shoreline Community College.
As her attorney explained, international students need a form from their school, called an I-20, that specifies a period of time they will be studying there. Rachel Kim’s ended Dec. 31, 2017.
The date slipped by without her realizing the implications. “I thought it was totally fine,” she said. “I was attending classes. I paid tuition.”
She had three classes to finish before getting her associate degree.
The school, however, was obliged to report the form’s expiration to the federal government, according to Naomi Kim. Officially, the government’s online system showed her status at the college as “terminated.”
It happens. With students in this situation, Shoreline typically discusses two options, according to college spokeswoman Martha Lynn. One is applying to the government for reinstatement of their student status. The other is to leave the country and come back with a new I-20 issued by the school.
“Many students in the area choose re-entry because the Canadian border is so close and they can complete their re-entry into the U.S. with a new I-20 within a few hours and return to focusing on their academic pursuits quickly,” said Lynn in an email.
Whether a school official who met with Rachel Kim discussed both options is unclear. She only remembers being told to leave the country and re-enter.
Lynn said she could not discuss any specifics about the student’s case for privacy reasons.
On Jan. 16, Rachel Kim drove to Vancouver, B.C., with a couple of other international students. They had dinner and headed back.
At the border, Rachel Kim recalled, she asked an official for another form the school told her she needed, which documented her re-entry. She was directed to an office. “We were sure we had to turn right, but it was just the way back to Seattle,” she said.
So they turned around and drove back toward Canada, whose border officials took them to the office they were looking for on the American side.
“I gave them everything,” Rachel Kim said: the new I-20 from the school, a receipt of a fee that went along with it, and a separate letter from the college.
Customs & Border Protection (CBP) officers said nothing and told her to wait. Four hours went by. “I didn’t know what’s going on,” she said.
Her bewilderment deepened as she was arrested, taken to the detention facility in Tacoma and put in deportation proceedings.
Lynn, the college spokeswoman, said the school knows of no other international students being treated this way.
“There has not been a change in policy,” Jason Givens, a spokesman for Customs & Border Protections said in an email. “CBP officers are enforcing the law according to the Immigration and Nationality Act.”
What happened to Rachel Kim was because her student status had been terminated by the school, he said.
As Naomi Kim saw it, her client’s violation was a technicality. So she tried a strategy she has used in the past: calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which prosecutes deportation cases, and asking for discretion.
She said she was told by ICE’s Office of Chief Counsel that ICE no longer considers requests for discretion. She attributed the change to Trump, who has issued new enforcement priorities that exempt no one who has committed an immigration violation from deportation.
Because Rachel Kim was arrested at the border, her attorney also discovered, she was labeled an “arriving alien,” and was not eligible for bond.
In that case, Naomi Kim told ICE, her client just wanted to go home to South Korea. Not possible, said the official at the Office of Chief Counsel, even though the government itself was trying to send the young woman back. Only a judge could allow that.
No hearing date was set. Given overcrowding at the detention center and the backlog at its court, Naomi Kim feared her client might not go before a judge until February.
“That means she’d be in jail for a month,” said Kim, referring to the Tacoma facility.
That was Friday afternoon. The attorney spoke to The Seattle Times after Rachel Kim’s fiancé called the paper, distraught.
“She did nothing wrong,” Huibo “Andy” Liu, a Chinese student at Shoreline Community College, said of his fiancée.
In addition to getting in touch with the attorney, The Times contacted immigration authorities. An ICE spokeswoman said she would not have any information that day, and would look into the case after the weekend.
Within the hour, though, an ICE officer called Naomi Kim to let her know that her client was being immediately released. No bond was necessary. The officer gave no reason why.
Stunned as she conveyed the news, the lawyer said she assumes ICE was concerned about negative publicity.
Liu, at home in his pajamas, rushed into his car to pick his fiancée up. “I didn’t even change my clothes,” he said.
He found her waiting for him in the lobby of the detention center, happy but shaken. “She just kept crying,” he said.
The next day, speaking to The Times, Rachel Kim said she was nervous about her situation. She was still in deportation proceedings, and scheduled for an initial immigration court hearing next week.
She said she hopes she will be allowed to finish school. After getting an associate degree, she wants to go to an American university.
But she wasn’t quite sure what would happen next. “There’s a lot of things I don’t understand,” she said.