On April 28, Nan-Hui Jo was sentenced to 175 days in jail and three years of probation after being convicted of misdemeanor child abduction. Her crime? Taking her then 1-year-old daughter, Vitz Da, with her when she followed orders from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to leave the country in 2009. Although Nan-Hui Jo was released on time served after spending more than nine months in jail, she is currently still detained on an immigration hold. Furthermore, she continues to face the threat of deportation without having seen her daughter face-to-face in ten months.
Jo’s decision to return to Korea with her infant daughter, in part out of concern for her daughter’s well-being, brought a combination of the criminal justice, immigration, and family court systems crashing into her family’s lives. Involvement in any one of these systems increases the risk of losing the right to parent, either temporarily or permanently. Tangled together, they can present a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. Nan-Hui Jo’s experience illustrates how immigrant abuse survivors are often failed—and sometimes re-victimized—by these various institutions despite the existence of legislation designed to protect them.
For Jo, and many other mothers, these agencies can threaten to tear apart their families as they risk permanent separation from their U.S.-born children. They also raise the reproductive justice question: Does not having permanent status in the United States, or taking actions that one believes to be in the best interest of one’s child that jeopardize one’s immigration status, warrant banishment from the child’s life?
Nan-Hui Jo’s Case
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In 2002, Nan-Hui Jo landed in Los Angeles on a student visa. While at the University of Southern California, she met and fell in love with a U.S. citizen. After returning to Korea to obtain a fiancé visa, Jo married and moved to Connecticut with this man. He began the paperwork for her green card. According to both Jo and her immigration attorneys, he also became abusive—physically assaulting her, isolating her from potential friends, and even taking her passport and keys to prevent her from leaving. At one point, the police issued a temporary restraining order against Jo’s husband. Jo separated from him, moved to Sacramento, and enrolled in Sacramento City College where, in 2007, she met Jesse Charlton, an Iraq war veteran.
In March 2008, not long after their relationship began, Jo told Charlton that she was pregnant with his child. “He wanted me to have an abortion,” she recounted when she testified during her first trial in December 2014. Jo, who had suffered a miscarriage 15 years earlier and been told that she would never be able to have a baby, says she refused. According to Jo, Charlton dumped her. Although the two reunited again a month later, they broke up a second time when Jo was seven months pregnant.
Charlton was not present for Vitz Da’s birth. He did not meet his daughter until he ran into Jo on campus three months later, a fact that both Charlton and Jo confirmed during her first trial. Soon afterwards, he began visiting mother and daughter at home.
“The baby’s father loved the baby, it seemed to me, and he seemed to be very remorseful about dumping me. So we decided to get together again,” Jo testified. But their relationship continued to be fraught with disputes, sometimes escalating to the point where Charlton would physically lash out. According to testimonies in December 2014 by both Jo and Charlton, Charlton once punched the wall near Jo. Another time, they both say, he hit the steering wheel of her car in anger before walking out, leaving his girlfriend and baby in the car. In a separate incident, according to Jo and Charlton, he grabbed her by the throat, lifted her off the ground, and slammed her against the wall. The police were called twice. Each time, they asked Charlton to remove himself from the immediate situation. No incident report was ever filed. By July 2009, the two had broken up a third time and were living separately.
Meanwhile, Jo’s green card application was slowly winding its way through the immigration process. A background check revealed the temporary restraining order she had taken out against her husband. Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), immigration officials should have informed her about resources for domestic violence and sexual assault as well as routes available to non-citizens with abusive spouses. In fact, under the 2005 Marriage Brokers Regulation Act, upon her arrival under a fiancé visa, Jo should have been given a pamphlet notifying her that domestic violence and abuse are illegal and outlining available resources for survivors. But Jo says she never received such a thing; thus, when she returned to the United States, she was given no information on what to do if her marriage became abusive.
Zachary Nightingale, who recently joined Jo’s immigration defense, explained in an interview with Rewire that after a background check, Jo should have been informed that, under VAWA, she qualified to self-petition for a green card rather than rely on her abusive spouse. And given that the abuse occurred in the United States at the hands of her spouse, ICE should have granted her a “prima facie” determination, which acknowledges that sufficient evidence may exist of the abuse. While the petition is being decided, the immigrant spouse is eligible for certain benefits, such as food stamps, medical insurance, and cash assistance. If ICE approved her petition, no deportation proceedings would have been initiated and Jo would have become a permanent resident.
But no one informed Jo of any of this, Jo’s lawyers say. Instead, her legal team says an ICE official placed a note in Jo’s file. It read, “In light of protective order, check to see if the marriage is still valid.” Immigration officials tracked down Jo’s estranged husband, who told them he no longer wished to sponsor her green card application. ICE denied her application.
In November 2009, Jo followed the letter’s orders and left the country. She took Vitz Da with her, in part because she was afraid of leaving the child with Charlton, on whom she’d had to call the police the week prior. After she returned to Korea, Charlton contacted the Yolo County Child Abduction Unit. He also emailed her nearly every day. In at least one, according to court documents, he threatened to send “a scary bounty hunter” after her.
In July 2014, Jo and Vitz Da, then age 6, returned to the United States, landing in Hawai’i. Jo was immediately arrested and charged with child abduction. She was also placed under an immigration hold, which required the jail to inform ICE before releasing Jo so that she could be taken from jail into immigrant detention. Charlton flew to Hawai’i to pick up Vitz. That fall, a family court judge granted him full custody rights. Given the charges against her, the judge ordered that Jo not be allowed visitation until her criminal kidnapping case had been concluded. “No one knew how long it would take for the criminal case to be sorted out,” explained John Myers, a professor at the University of the Pacific and Jo’s family court attorney, to Rewire. But Jo, not wanting her daughter to visit her in jail or see her mother in jail clothes, did not challenge the judge’s ruling.
In December 2014, Nan-Hui Jo went to trial on charges of child abduction. The jury was unable to reach a verdict, resulting in a hung jury. Jo remained in jail.
After the trial, Myers filed a Request for Order in family court asking for Jo to be allowed to receive written letters from Vitz Da. The judge approved and, Myers noted, the father did not object. Since then, Jo has written three letters to her daughter and, in response, received one picture with some writing.
In February 2015, two months after the hung jury, the prosecutor retried the case. One juror recused herself, stating that she could not find Jo guilty of intentionally committing a wrongful act. After her recusal, the jury unanimously delivered a verdict of guilty. She was sentenced to 175 days time served and three years of probation on April 28.
Deportation Still a Danger
But Jo’s fight to stay in her daughter’s life is far from over. Even if a judge grants her supervised visitation through family court, the immigration system may still rupture her relationship with her daughter: Jo is currently in detention and faces deportation.
ICE officials could have decided to let Jo stay in the community while she awaits her day in immigration court. In fact, ICE’s Parental Interests Directive instructs agents to consider not unnecessarily disrupting parents’ ability to participate in family court proceedings when deciding whether to detain a person. For now, however, ICE seems to be ignoring the directive: Minutes after her sentencing hearing ended, ICE took Jo into custody, where she remains. Jo, who has belatedly been informed of domestic violence resources available to immigrants, has filed for a VAWA cancellation of removal, which allows an immigration judge to cancel deportation proceedings against an abused immigrant and grant her permanent residency.
But while Jo’s case illustrates the tangled web of domestic violence, criminal justice, immigration, and family court, her story is not unique—or even uncommon. “There are thousands of people who apply [for relief] under VAWA laws, so that tells us there are probably many more who don’t,” Nightingale pointed out. The VAWA Cancellation of Removal can only be applied to people who are facing deportation, a category of people who now include Jo. If the system had worked according to the various laws passed since VAWA in 1994, though, Jo would have been informed of available resources for domestic violence survivors long before deportation ever crossed anyone’s mind—from the minute she stepped off the plane and went through customs that first time in California.
She would have been reminded of these resources when ICE officials discovered the temporary restraining order she had filed against her husband. Rather than allowing her husband to withdraw his petition for her green card, ICE officials would have reminded Jo that she could petition for herself. Then, after she and Charlton had split up, she could have applied for public benefits and gotten a work permit to support herself and her daughter. What would have come in the mail could have been her paycheck rather than an order to leave the country. While she and Charlton might still have conflicts about Vitz Da and his ability to be safely involved in their lives, her immigration status would not affect her actions. Nan-Hui Jo could now be attending PTA meetings and chaperoning Vitz Da’s class trips instead of hoping that a family court judge will allow her supervised visitation at her hearing on May 11.
But the system doesn’t work perfectly. In fact, it doesn’t even work the way that it’s legislated to. And so, Jo’s next immigration hearing will be in August 2015. But that isn’t her day in court—it’s merely a five-minute scheduling hearing in which Jo and Nightingale will ask the judge to schedule an individual hearing so that she can present her testimony and evidence.
“As long as we can tie her action [of taking her child out of the country] back to the abuse, she qualifies for a VAWA cancellation,” Nightingale said. But, he cautions, immigration courts are backlogged, so her hearing will most likely be scheduled at some even further future date.
What is exceptional, however, is the amount of public attention and support that Jo has received. “For people who have very complicated cases, what frequently happens is that they happen without a sound and no one hears about it,” said Hyejin Shim of the Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse (KACEDA).
But in Jo’s case, people did hear about her. No one is sure how word originally got out, but once it did, it spread. Spearheaded by Misun Yi, a woman whom Jo briefly met when she first arrived in Sacramento, the area’s Korean community began rallying to support Jo as a Korean woman and domestic violence survivor. They held fundraisers for her legal defense at their churches. They attended each day of her trials. “A lot of the people don’t really speak English, but sat through the day [in a show of support],” Shim recalled.
At the same time, younger queer Koreans and other Asians, some of whom work in advocacy against domestic violence, formed the Stand with Nan-Hui Campaign, urging people to call and tweet at ICE demanding that they follow their own directive and release Jo while she awaits her immigration hearings. They’re also fundraising so that, if ICE relents and allows her out on bail, the money will be ready.
While Jo’s story was the starting point for the campaign, though it isn’t solely about her. Members of the campaign are also using her case to further awareness about the intersections of domestic violence, immigration, and law enforcement. Shim, who works at the Asian Women’s Shelter in San Francisco, pointed out that the combination of domestic and state violence frequently isolate people, preventing them from learning about or accessing resources that would enable them to escape.
The combination, for many other immigrant mothers like Jo, can also mean losing their children. Separately, either imprisonment or deportation affects Nan-Hui Jo’s chances to play a meaningful role in Vitz Da’s life. Together, they might mean a lifetime of banishment from her daughter.