Trans Lifeline co-founder Nina Chaubal ( a transgender woman and citizen of India ) appeared in front of Chicago Immigration Court Judge Elizabeth Lang Nov. 29 for an administrative hearing where the Department of Homeland Security ( DHS ) was pursuing a deportation case against her. About 15 supporters squeezed into the small courtroom to rally behind Chaubal and her U.S. citizen wife Greta Martela.
Prior to co-founding Trans Lifeline, Chaubal worked at Google as a software engineer. She has been in the U.S. since 2009 on a student visa and then a work visa when she graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
This court date stemmed from an incident with Immigration and Customs Enforcement ( ICE ) in Arizona last December. Chaubal was detained for a week at the for-profit ICE detention center Eloy, 80 miles southeast of Phoenix. Eloy has been cited for its abusive policies against undocumented immigrants and transgender women.
She was released when ICE processed her bond payment after the New Year's holiday. Supporters started a crowd funding campaign to pay for her ensuing legal fees.
Chaubal and Martela co-founded the crisis hotline Trans Lifeline about three years ago to help transgender people like themselves. They were traveling from San Diego to their home in Chicago ( they have since moved to Northern California ) after a long fundraising trip for Trans Lifeline when they were stopped by ICE at a checkpoint in Arizona. Martela had originally thought about traveling through the Rocky Mountains but was worried about the winter weather, hence why they took the southern route through Arizona.
When ICE stopped their vehicle they detained Chaubal when they discovered she had an expired work visa even though the couple provided authorities with their marriage certificate. Like many transgender people, Chaubal's Indian passport did not match her gender identity, therefore outing her as a transgender woman. Martela explained that ICE was stopping everyone that day and questioning their citizenship.
"When I was arrested I was thinking about all the horror stories I had heard of trans women in prisons and detention centers being held in the men's unit or in solitary confinement," said Chaubal. "I was also afraid that the over armed border patrol guards would choose to use force. The first day, they moved me between facilities without telling me where I was and with no way to contact Greta."
"I was terrified that they were going to hurt Nina," said Martela. "The border patrol officers were clearly transphobic. Being stopped at a checkpoint and having my wife detained was a nightmare, something that I associate with totalitarian regimes. The border patrol agents lied to me about what would happen. They told me to drive to a parking lot and wait for her. They were taunting me in my pain and fear. They are the worst kind of bigots and cowards."
At the Nov. 29 hearing, Chaubal's immigration attorney Michael Jarecki argued in court that since U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ( USCIS ) had already signed off on the couple's "good faith marriage" by approving a marriage-based petition at an interview in Oct. 2017 she should be allowed to stay in the country. Legal preparations for Chaubal's marriage-based green card filing were already in the works before Chaubal was detained. Jarecki noted that Chaubal's detention complicated her case on every level.
"At that time, many LGBTQ bi-national couples were extremely worried about immediate changes to immigration law and same-sex marriage once Trump was inaugurated," said Jarecki. "Nina's case was considered uncomplicated at first. Given that Nina's immigration history was 'clean' and she did not have a criminal history, it was anticipated that we would pursue the case directly with USCIS."
"During the Nov. 29 hearing none of the people who were fighting deportation were referred to by name," said Martela. "Instead, they referred to them only by their A number in a disgusting attempt to dehumanize everyone there, including my wife."
Additionally, ahead of the hearing Jarecki explained that he made a request to the DHS attorneys to join him in a motion to terminate the deportation proceedings and allow Chaubal to apply for her green card through USCIS due to well-known immigration court delays. DHS did not agree to these terms so Jarecki made a motion to terminate proceedings during the hearing to allow the USCIS to take jurisdiction.
Judge Lang did not agree to the termination request and instead ruled that Chaubal will have a final hearing in front of her in Feb. 2018 to determine if she will be granted the green card. Jarecki noted that Chaubal will be able to present her case at the Feb. 2018 hearing, including affidavits or written testimony from witnesses and her own testimony.
"The hearing relieved a lot of stress for me because they did not deport me that day," said Chaubal. "It was not the victory we wanted, but it let us keep moving forward."
"If the green card is approved in February, the case will be terminated because Nina will be approved for permanent resident status and the government will no longer have an argument that she is deportable," said Jarecki.