There have been two times that 19-year-old Williams Sejour has felt freedom in his life; first, when he arrived in America, and again when he was released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s custody.

“It’s better than where I was, that’s the reason I still feel free,” Sejour said on the day he was released from Calhoun County Jail after almost a year. 

“He didn’t commit a crime,” said Camila Trefftz, from Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.  

At age 16, Sejour traveled from Argentina to the Mexico/California border with nothing more than a backpack. The journey took Sejour, who is originally from Haiti, half a year to complete. He made the trip primarily by foot and by bus. 

“I didn’t tell anyone, I just left. Just left the house, left them struggling,” Sejour said of his mother and four siblings he left behind in Argentina.

“When I came here, I told them why I left," Sejour said. "It was an adventure, a scary one…I’ve seen people dying right next to me because they want to come to the United States."

As thousands do each year, Sejour made the trip to America with dreams of a better life for those he left behind. He and his mother escaped years of abuse from his birth father in Haiti, but their life in Argentina was still a constant struggle.  

“I don’t want to go back to that life I had before, I want to create a new life,” Sejour said. “To be better than my dad was.”

He was categorized as an unaccompanied minor refugee and placed in Bethany Christian Services’ foster care program upon arriving at the San Ysidro, California border in October of 2016. He attended East Kentwood High School and then Lighthouse Academy, and had dreams of becoming a police officer. He made friends quickly, discovered his favorite rapper Eminem and struggled with math. 

That all changed the weekend of June 16, 2018.  As Sejour recalls it, he and a friend had been walking around downtown Grand Rapids enjoying the weather, when a young man approached them asking for Sejour’s number. 

“And next thing you know, you get slapped in your face. I had to defend myself,” Sejour recalled of the fist fight that ensued. 

10 MONTHS IN DETENTION

The details of the incident are not entirely clear, but it resulted in unarmed robbery charges for Sejour. Police found the other man’s phone in Sejour’s possession; Sejour says he was framed. 

Prosecutors dismissed the criminal case less than a month later. Sejour could have been released from Kent County Jail on July 3, but instead, he was held on behalf of ICE. 

The Kent County Sheriff’s Department has since changed its policy, but at the time, it was commonplace for an inmate to be held for immigration officers.

Sejour was picked up by ICE agents and transferred to Calhoun County Jail, where ICE has a contract to house local inmates.

"They can detain anybody while they are awaiting status, at their own discretion. That was kind of what prompted them to make the decision to detain him, they didn’t have to detain him, but they chose to,” said one of Sejour’s attorneys, Ana Raquel Deveraux with Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

Deveraux said her client ideally should have been well on his way to citizenship by the time he ended up in Kent County Jail, had the application been processed within the legal time frame. 

The U.S. Citizenship Immigration Services has a 180-day time frame in which Special Immigrant Juvenile Status applications are supposed to be processed. The SIJS application must be approved before a person can apply for permanent residency.

"Had they approved it in that six-month period, he would have already had his green card by the time this incident happened,” Deveraux said. "But, they have not been doing that in any case.”

According to the USCIS, there was a temporary reduction in the average number of cases processed toward the end of 2018, due to a period of training new Immigration Services Officers compounded with an overall increase in applications.

Sejour’s application had been pending for nearly a year by the time he ended up in Kent County jail, and it was approved after more than 400 days.

Deveraux said she believes the backlog is due to more requests for evidence on each case that reaches the USCIS office.

"They are digging more deeply into these cases in a way that is sometimes inappropriate, and sometimes it's fine, but they are creating more work,” Deveraux said. “So, that may be a big part of it.”

USCIS spokesperson Jessica Collins said the agency’s 2018 policy change on the use of Requests for Evidence is ‘part of an ongoing effort to help faithfully execute and protect the integrity’ of the law and to cut down on ‘frivolous petitions.’

“Each year, immigration benefits are attainable for many law-abiding individuals legitimately seeking greater opportunity, prosperity, and security as newly entrusted members of society, and as such the USCIS policy properly ensures USCIS officers have the discretion accorded to them under existing DHS regulations pertaining to issuance of RFEs,” Collins said via email.

The department said they do not issue RFE’s on every case, but only when further information is necessary. 

Sejour’s attorneys eventually filed a lawsuit against the USCIS in hopes of speeding up the adjudication, given that their client was in detention. Sejour’s SIJS status was then approved and the lawsuit was closed, but he remained in Calhoun County Jail.

Initially, Sejour was jailed alongside other ICE detainees, many of which he watched undergo deportation. He recalled one bunk-mate, an older man from China.

“I started looking in the [Chinese] dictionary, so I could learn how to tell him if I wanted to read or if I wanted to sleep,” Sejour said. “He used to laugh at my accent.”

“I was only with him for about 3 weeks and after that he got deported. I was very sad…he motivated me,” Sejour said. “He told me not to give up because he wished he was my age to re-do what he hadn’t done before.”

Sejour also served time alongside local inmates, some of whom would make racial slurs or make fun of Sejour’s broken English. 

“It’s kind of an ignorant thing, but that’s what makes them happy sometimes. They were in the same situation as me, we are in jail. There’s nothing to do in jail. The only thing people might do is work out or get under somebody’s skin – try to fight you. I just tried to stay away from it…because I couldn’t afford to and I didn’t want to get in a worse situation than I already was.”

Sejour spent his days working out and reading to keep busy.

"He is a truly resilient person,” Deveraux said. “I have had a number of clients in detention and detention is hard for anybody, but he has been the one who has done the best.”

He kept positive thanks in large part to frequent visits from his attorneys, but he constantly wondered if he’d be the next one to be deported.

“I got the call on Wednesday afternoon that he was going to be released,” Trefftz said. “I couldn’t really believe it, [I] drove over as fast as I could to Calhoun to share the news with him.”

On Friday, April 26, Sejour was released into a bond room where four women, dedicated to his case, waited eagerly to greet their client. A spokesperson for the local ICE office said after a comprehensive review of Sejour’s case, they chose to release him. 

“While today is great day, we are really glad he is out,” Deveraux said Friday. “His case is still complicated and not done, yet.”

His legal team is again trying to get his permanent residency application approved. His status has been in limbo for nearly 1½ years.

Requests for asylum have been denied. His lawyers may ask a federal appeals court to intervene.

At this point, it’s a waiting game to see which decision will come first: his green card or his appeal for asylum. Either way, there is an order for deportation in his file. To get that order removed, his lawyers have to go to court - even if he receives permanent residency.

"When I think about Williams’ story -- I think he, unfortunately for him, has been a classic picture of a lot of the issues we see with our system currently,” Deveraux said. “But, the effect of his was so great.” 

LIFE BEFORE AMERICA

Sejour and his mother, Metanie, were severely abused by his birth father, who passed in 2017.

“I grew up seeing my mom getting beaten up every day,” Sejour recalled. “Sometimes I’m just like I wish I was never born, to see something like that.”

According to court documents, Sejour had been locked in a cage by his father and left to die on multiple occasions. When Sejour was six years old, his mother moved to Argentina to find work. While she looked for a job, Sejour remained in Haiti with his aunt and cousins. 

It was there that his three teenaged cousins treated him like a slave, forcing him to kneel on hot rocks in the sun for hours, when he didn’t fulfill their wishes. 

When an earthquake hit and damaged the home they lived in, Sejour said he was forced to sleep outside in a tent. He lived under those conditions for the next two years, until his mother came to get him. Together they moved to Caballito, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Sejour began attending school and working long hours at the village market with his mother at age 14.

Not two years later, his mother’s home caught fire. And Sejour made the decision to seek a better life soon after. He left without saying goodbye, fearful that his mother may stop him.

“As the older brother, I felt it was my responsibility to do something, and that’s why I came here to the U.S.,” Sejour said. “So, I could help my mom and brothers and sisters. That was my goal and it’s still my goal.”

Sejour is now back in Bethany Christian’s foster care program. He will soon begin his final semester of high school, as he awaits a decision on his permanent residency. 

► Emma Nicolas is a multimedia journalist. Have a news tip or question for Emma? Get in touch by email, Facebook or Twitter.

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