Jacob Johnston was a track star at Redmond High School, among numerous top-flight achievements, and won a track scholarship to Salem’s Chemeketa Community College. But for the past week, the 19-year-old freshman has been behind bars in San Diego, unable to outrun a three-country paperwork snafu that turned a carefree Spring Break jaunt to Mexico into a “man without a country” wartime nightmare.
The trouble that landed Jake in an immigration detention center began when he told the truth about his birthplace – Abbotsford, B.C., just across the Canadian border – as the teen and his college track buddies were questioned while returning to the United States at the Mexican border, after a brief trip to Tijuana.
The others got back into the United States without a problem, but Jake didn’t – and now, the young man is said to be scared and angry, while his family and friends grow increasingly frustrated and are turning to anyone they can to help, from lawyers to Capitol Hill.
The young man’s parents, Margrethe Johnston of Salem and Robert Johnston of Redmond, freely admit they neglected to follow up and file the proper paperwork almost 20 years ago, when the resident aliens and former Canadians lived in the tiny border town of Sumas, Wash. They figured it made much more sense to have their baby born at the big Abbotsford hospital, five miles away, then the smaller one in Bellingham, Wash., about 40 miles away.
“Because Margrethe and I were Canadians (by birth), it was nothing to cross the border,” Jake’s father, a salesman at Bend’s Big Country RV, said Monday. “We didn’t think anything of it.”
He recalled how a friend from their church was manning the border checkpoint that day – “everybody knew everybody” – and the official filled out a small form, based on the “record of birth” notice the new mom showed him. “He said, `Hold on a second,’ and got us a packet. He told us, `You’ll need this for later.’ Frankly, we never gave it another thought.”
Robert Johnston said he and his wife are resident aliens and remain Canadian citizens. “We’re on a green card,” he said. “I’ve lived here since 1967. She emigrated in 1981,” and Jacob was born two years later. The subject never comes up, with only two limitations Johnston is aware of: “We can’t vote, and we can’t own a firearm.”
“Jake has been across the border to Canada a couple, three times,” his father said. “He has a driver’s license, his student ID card, a Social Security card – that was all he needed.” He also traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, a couple of years ago, to visit his older brother, Peter, a professor there.
But that was before Sept. 11, 2001, and the newly created Department of Homeland Security, which took in a number of agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Now, without the proper papers, the teen is being held at the border, told he has “no status” as a citizen – and in fact, his parents had been told he could be deported to Canada in coming days, even though he’s never lived there and has no real ties to that country.
His father said, “Once out of the country, they told him he can’t come into the U.S. for five years!”
“He is, by all standards, a legal resident of the United States,” Robert Johnston said. “The only time he ever spent in Canada was the two days after he was born. He never lived there. Apparently, the document the immigration guy filled out back then was a `Record of Foreign Birth.’”
“Subsequently, we’ve found out, he should have had a `green card,’” indicating his naturalized U.S. citizenship, the teen’s father said, having hired a Bend immigration attorney in hopes of sorting out the mess.
Bend lawyer heads off ‘expedited removal,’ wins hearing
Until Tuesday, the parents feared that their son would get booted to Canada – where he’s never lived – without so much as a hearing, possibly as soon as Thursday. But their newly hired immigration attorney, Dan Larsson of Bend, said he’d managed to head that off, at least for now.
It’s not clear sailing, but Larsson said he was able to get assurance Tuesday of a hearing by officials of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, successor to the Immigration and Natural Naturalization Service under the Department of Homeland Security.
“Basically, what we’ve managed to do is get the (agency) to obviously agree there may be some credence to his claim, and he’s not going to be summarily removed” from the country, Larsson said.
“We’re also trying to go a step beyond that, and we’re trying to get him paroled into the United States – basically, released from jail,” Larsson said. “It’s not an admission (into the country). It’s basically an admission with safeguards,” to be sure the proper steps are taken and documentation completed.
The immigration hearing is likely to be held next week in San Diego, and Larsson said he and the teen’s parents probably will need to be there, to make their case, “unless we can get the INS to take some type of reasonableness, so we can parole him” into this country first.
“Actually, the (agency) graciously offered today that if he would withdraw his request for admission, he could voluntarily leave, and then he would be free to pursue getting back from Canada,” the lawyer said. “The problem with that is, under the law, he’s a permanent resident. He left for four hours. … We’re right, and they’re wrong.”
“Like many cases, they are offering something sweet so he can get out of jail and work on being here legally,” Larsson said. “Well, he was here legally. The INS didn’t do what they should have done 19 years ago, when (the family) came in. There should have been a notation made. The record should have been created at the time of entry. The forms should have been processed.”
The offices of Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden have gotten involved in the case, but Larsson said he’s not sure if that pressure has made a difference, at this point. “We directed the Canadian consul to say, `No, he’s not going to have any type of facilitation (out of the country).’ He doesn’t want to leave.”
As a returning, permanent resident, “he should not have even been put in these proceedings,” Larsson said. “I don’t know what point they are trying to make, but it happens all the time.”
’I’m just not showing he exists in the system’
Jake’s mother said she didn’t learn of her son’s plight from him, as “he wasn’t allowed to call me” at first. Instead, the troubling news came in a call from an officer at the border, who she said told her, “We’ve got your son detained. We need to have some way of tracking the kid, to let him back into the United States.’”
“’I’m just not showing he exists in the system,”’ Margrethe Johnston recalled Monday. “At that point, I was forced to tell him, `You’re right.’”
She has taken some vacation time, finding the uncertainty would make it too tough to concentrate on her job as an Oregon State Police dispatcher. She had to move from Redmond to Salem for her job six weeks ago when the OSP, in the wake of Measure 28, shut the regional dispatch center at the Bend patrol office.
Robert Johnston said she understands his son’s alleged “no status” status doesn’t apply to Canadians, anyway, as they are allowed to come and go between the two countries every six months.
“My impression is, the INS is trying to export, get rid of a problem back to Canada,” the teen’s father said. “Margrethe and I are conservative folks. We believe in the system. We believe in this country. Slowly, this thing has snowballed out of all proportion.”
“I think what’s happened is, the INS – a terribly inefficient bureaucracy to start with – has now merged with Homeland Security. So now you have a terribly inefficient agency with cojones. They are power hungry, and they are desperate to catch all these Mexican and Canadian `terrorists.’ Meanwhile, they gave visas to two of the men who flew into the World Trade Center, two months after the fact.”
Jake’s mother agrees with that take on things: “I think until this whole Homeland Security thing … probably before that, we probably would have been slapped on the wrist: `Hey, fill out the right paperwork.’ Now, it’s a completely different flavor to things.”
Best friend pleads for officials to help
Jake’s best friend from Redmond High, University of Oregon freshman Jay Rowan, wrote e-mail to every official he could think of, laying out what has happened and his pal’s background. In his note, he points out that Jake has worked over the years for firms such as Safeway and Nike “and has paid substantial state and federal taxes without complaint.”
At Redmond High, he competed in the state track championships and won many academic honors, Rowan said, as well as serving as a student body officer and “thousands of hours of community service, giving his own free time to the Senior Center, Children’s Center, Habitat for Humanity and others. Jake helped start a new high school sport, water polo, which now has over 40 members and is growing.”
“At the age of 19, Jake Johnston has done more for his community than most United States citizens have ever done,” Rowan wrote. “If you do not do everything in your power to bring Jacob Johnston home, you are doing a disservice to him, you are doing a disservice to America, and you are doing a disservice to justice.”
Redmond High Principal Dan Purple was puzzled and more than a bit incredulous about the news.
“He’s a great kid – one of my all-time favorites, just a joy to be around, a great sense of humor,” Purple said. “This doesn’t make sense. It sounds a little bit ridiculous. I always thought that as a child of U.S. citizens, isn’t he an American citizen?”
“It would be funny, if the reality wasn’t that a good kid, an innocent person was in detention,” the principal said.
Lawyer has dim view of immigration service
Larsson said, “Normally, how things work is that if you are born outside the United States and you come back in within two years, along with your permanent resident mother, he’s exempt – you come in as a permanent resident.”
But now, he said, “anybody can be subject to this thing called `expedited removal.’ … You can be barred from coming back. There’s no right to representation. There’s no right to a hearing. People who are permanent residents should not be subjected to this thing.”
“Then there’s the whole other issue, too,” Larsson said. “Someone Canadian – they don’t even need a visa, they can come in for up to six months.”
“What we’re doing right now is to put the stops on things,” the lawyer said. “Simply to say, it appears there has been an error made at some point. We have sufficient proof to prove this individual came in under this particular status, and it appears he is a permanent resident. For whatever reason, he doesn’t have proof of that.”
“At the minimum, he should have the right to a hearing, to be represented and to get this fixed,” Larsson said. “What happens all the time when dealing with immigration is that someone is barred for five years. Then it’s going to take a long time, cost a lot of money to get it reversed.”
“These guys don’t follow the rules – they don’t give a s-it,” the lawyer said. “It’s a horrible, horrible thing. Now we have submitted all these different documentations to the people that have the power to review this.”
Larsson said he understands that border authorities “are treating him very poorly. He’s basically put in a cell with a bunch of criminals. The lights are on 24 hours a day. In the bulk of these cases, the immigration service knows very few people want to sit in jail under these situations. So they tell them inaccurate information. What they’ll tell the guy is, `If you go back (to Canada), you can work on getting back home.’”
“I’m instructing him, do not sign anything, do not say anything. Ask for a hearing before a judge,” the lawyer said. “I’ve asked the consulate not to facilitate any travel.”
“This is not how we should be spending our government’s tax dollars,” Larsson said.
Classes at Chemeketa resumed this week, but that’s not what’s worrying Jake’s mom.
“I started off with a glitchy feeling Monday, thinking, `We’ll get this all sorted out.’ Now, it’s taking on a little scarier proportions,” she said. “I don’t know when he’s going to get home. Since Wednesday, he’s been able to call me, collect. He told me this detention facility is privately contracted. They are in lockdown situations,” with visitation allowed only on the weekends.
“He’s getting very worried,” she said of her son. “Canada is starting to look good. … He’s pretty freaked.”
If it was just an oral interview at the border, couldn’t their son have fibbed about where he was born? Perhaps, if he’d known it would bring such grief and trouble. “If he’d answered, `By Sumas, Wash., he’d be in,” said his mother, who also acknowledged that these days, there are mothers with much heavier burdens to bear. “At least I know where he is. I know he’s alive.”
Jake’s father said Monday his son is angry, but also “scared spitless. This is a good kid, who’s never had a scrape with the law. It’s just scary.”