Exiled Pace Immigration Justice Clinic Client Wins Governor's Pardon and a Chance to Return Home

April 4, 2019
Castel family
Reggie and Lashanda Castel celebrate their marriage vows with family

On New Year’s Eve, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo granted a full and unconditional pardon to Pace Immigration Justice Clinic (“IJC”) client Reginald Castel.

Professor Vanessa Merton, Faculty Supervisor of the IJC, and the IJC Student Attorneys have been fighting Mr. Castel’s unjust deportation for a dozen years.  The Clinic took his case up through the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, a certiorari petition to the US Supreme Court, and numerous motions and applications in the Board of Immigration Appeals.

Professor Merton noted, “This case in particular has been one of our longest, most complex, and challenging, but also very rewarding.”

At the age of eight, Mr. Castel legally migrated from Haiti to the United States as a lawful permanent resident, but in his late twenties – over two decades ago -- a chance run-in with an intoxicated friend on the streets of Rochester turned ugly.  The man attacked Mr. Castel with a knife and Mr. Castel used his licensed-to-carry gun to shoot his assailant in the leg.  As a result of ineffective counsel, he agreed to plead guilty to the serious felony of Assault in the First Degree and spent six years in state prison.  Although Mr. Castel had a very strong prima facie self-defense claim and as a working man with no criminal record, was a good candidate to go to trial, Mr. Castel’s defense attorney recommended the plea rather than risk double or triple the sentence if convicted after trial.

The defense attorney knew that Mr. Castel was a noncitizen, but through ignorance of immigration law, the attorney affirmatively misrepresented the devastating immigration consequences of such a plea, and the judge did nothing to correct him.  The Immigration Justice Clinic has continued to litigate on Mr. Castel’s behalf in New York State Supreme Court, trying to vacate his assault conviction on constitutional and statutory grounds, and at the same time using every possible technique to thwart his deportation. 

Eventually, even ICE itself agreed to place Mr. Castel in a special status known as “deferred action” – allowing him to work and live in the US, renewable on an annual basis – but after a total of seven years of renewal, in 2017, under the new Administration, ICE reversed itself, took him into custody, and almost immediately deported him to Haiti.  Mr. Castel speaks no language but English, has no family left in Haiti except an estranged father, and as a Type I diabetic, requires careful medical management that is utterly unavailable for a poor person in that country.  His devoted wife Lashanda has been flying to Haiti every month to see him and bring him the special insulin that he needs, but these trips are expensive, disruptive, and excruciatingly painful every time the couple has to say good-bye – never knowing if Reggie will be safe in the current chaos of Haiti until she can save up money and time off for the next trip.  Moreover, going to Haiti is very risky for Lashanda:  conditions in Haiti are extremely dangerous for anyone out on the street, with rioting, fires, killings, and general lawless turmoil throughout the country.  The United States Department Travel Warning is at the highest level: Red – DO NOT TRAVEL.[i]

The Student Attorneys at the IJC have gone above and beyond in this case, never giving up.  “A few years back a resourceful Student Attorney located the victim – who was in jail at the time – traveled to see him and after speaking with him, the victim agreed to sign a sworn affidavit in which he forgave Mr. Castel, saying that he was a good man who did not deserve to suffer more, and that he did not want to see Mr. Castel deported,” Professor Merton recalls.  However, the affidavit was not enough either to persuade the DA of Monroe County to agree to vacate the plea or ICE to rescind his removal order.

For nearly two years, since Governor Cuomo first began to grant pardons in any number and with special attention to immigrants, the Clinic has been seeking a pardon for Mr. Castel, despite the unlikeliness of such a result.  This past semester three Student Attorneys, Jennifer Moses, Marie-Kendy Williams, and Tayler Steinberg, revamped the pardon petition and in a crucial presentation convinced the Governor’s Assistant Counsel, responsible for vetting pardon applications, that if pardoned, Mr. Castel would have a legal pathway back to lawful status in the USA, and his life could be saved.  In his telephone call delivering the good news on New Year’s Eve, the Assistant Counsel mentioned specifically how deeply impressed he had been by the advocacy and skill of the Student Attorneys.

“Haub Law’s Immigration Justice Clinic has worked with hundreds of immigrants whose stories are similar to Mr. Castel’s, fighting for justice and advocating for their legal rights,” said Dean Horace Anderson.  “The determination and tenacity of the IJC’s students and faculty have changed the lives of all those with whom they have worked.”

Professor Merton notes that “[t]his pardon changes the world for this man, for his unshakably devoted wife, his five children, and his home town of Rochester.  Now we can pursue the necessary applications to bring him home and restore his Lawful Permanent Resident status, acquired as a young boy when he lawfully emigrated to the USA, so that he can regain his health, care for his family, and resume a peaceful life in the only country he has ever known as an adult.”

Considerable legal obstacles to getting Mr. Castel back to the United States still lie ahead. However, the work of the Immigration Justice Clinic Student Attorneys, and Professor Vanessa Merton, is an example of persistence, courage, and zeal in the representation of a client and in the search for fundamental justice.

[i] See https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories/haiti-travel-advisory.html

Haiti Travel Advisory             February 14, 2019       Haiti - Level 4: Do Not Travel

Do not travel to Haiti due to crime and civil unrest.

There are currently widespread, violent, and unpredictable demonstrations in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in Haiti.  Due to these demonstrations, on February 14, 2019, the Department of State ordered the departure of all non-emergency U.S. personnel and their family members. The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Haiti.

Protests, tire burning, and road blockages are frequent and unpredictable.  Violent crime, such as armed robbery, is common. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents, and emergency response, including ambulance service, is limited or non-existent.

Travelers are sometimes targeted, followed, and violently attacked and robbed shortly after leaving the Port-au-Prince international airport. The U.S. Embassy requires its personnel to use official transportation to and from the airport, and it takes steps to detect surveillance and deter criminal attacks during these transports.

The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens due to reduced staffing and security concerns. The Embassy discourages its personnel from walking in most neighborhoods.

[i] See also Kirk Semple, U.S. and Canada Warn Against Travel to Haiti as Violent Protests Continue, New York Times, Feb. 15, 2019 at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/15/world/americas/haiti-travel-advisory.html;  Bill Chappell, “Do Not Travel to Haiti.” U.S. Tells Citizens, Citing Violent Unrest,” National Public Radio, February 15, 2019 at https://www.npr.org/2019/02/15/695095120/do-not-travel-to-haiti-u-s-tells-citizens-citing-violent-unrest

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