The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth
A UMD Alumna Serves As a San Antonio Immigration Judge
When Susan (Conley) Castro took Spanish classes at UMD, she had no idea that those classes would shape her future. From providing legal assistance to southern Minnesota migrant workers to making deportation decisions about Mexican immigrants in San Antonio, Texas, her command of languages, and Spanish especially, has served her well.
Castro didn't major in Spanish at UMD, she majored in French. She graduated with her B.A. in 1973, only three years after she started, with a French major and history and Spanish minors. After a two-year break, she enrolled in law school at the University of Minnesota. Because she could type and speak Spanish, she landed a job with a legal aid program that operated in the basement of a church. With the choir practicing one floor above her, she began her career in immigration law.
After receiving her law degree she worked for another legal aid organization, Centro Legal in St. Paul. She was one of the founders and in the mid-1980s, she became the second executive director.
In 1987, she went to work for the Immigration Service Northern Regional Council Office at Fort Snelling. She believes that she was chosen partly because of her perspective from the side of the immigrant. Her deep understanding made her an asset to the regional council."I like to think that I had some effect on how the law was applied," she said. Castro helped draft regulations at the local and district level that were applied to cases dealing with amnesty while providing guidance and oversight to district immigration offices across the northern U.S.
Her next move took her even farther south. In 1993 she took a position in San Antonio as an immigration judge with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). The EOIR is not part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), it is a separate agency within the Department of Justice with over 200 immigration judges across the country.
Castro's relocation to a warmer climate has been an adjustment. Castor said, "The climate is the exact opposite of Minnesota and I have been adapting slowly." The weather aside, Susan, her husband Oscar and their children, Joseph and Cristina are enjoying San Antonio.
The move to San Antonio has also brought more complex immigration issues for Castro. Castro has never tried a case with as many issues as the one of the Cuban 6-year-old, Elian Gonzalez, but she has seen children come across the border from Mexico without their parents.
"I haven't seen a case involving a child as young as Gonzalez but I have seen teens travel alone," she said. The questions she asks are sometimes different than the questions she would ask in the case of an adult. She said, "Who will get custody?" "Can the child be released to an appropriate adult?" and "Does the child qualify for political asylum or other relief?" are the most pertinent questions.
Most of Castro's cases are decided quickly, especially when someone is being detained. Castro said, "We hear thousands of cases every year and we don't normally take cases under advisement." Appeals happen often. "Many of individuals who appear in immigration court don't have an attorney, and the judges have a greater responsibility to help them understand the process and their rights," she said.
Immigration judges often need to decide whether a person is a U.S. citizen. Issues get complicated. A person can be born in a foreign country by a parent who is a U.S. citizen. Sometimes it is a question of where they were born. Birth certificates are often registered in both the U.S. and Mexico. The judges ultimately decide whether to allow discretionary relief from deportation or the benefit of asylum based on the credible fear of persecution.
Two factors have changed Castro's court. First, an increase in the number of border patrol agents have provided more cases for Castro's court to review. Being so close to the border, Castro's court has experienced an especially high increase. Second, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 toughened the immigration laws.
The act expanded the definition of criminal convictions so even a conviction for a crime like shoplifting, that carries a sentence of one year or more, will cause an immigrant to be deported. Convictions are also considered retroactively. This means that a person who committed a crime 20 years ago could be deported, even if the sentence was suspended and they were put on probation. Occasionally a pardon or waivers can be granted. Castro's mandate is to look at the law and to see, case-by-case, how it applies to each individual.
It isn't always an easy job. "Every week I make decisions that are really hard," Castro said. There are rewards as well. Castro is able to reunite families and offer political asylum to those who are afraid for their life in another country.
As the planet gets smaller and immigration issues become more intricate, Castro can only rely on her knowledge, experience and sympathy for guidance. Judging from the way she has handled it so far, she will continue to do well in the future.
-- Cheryl Reitan