Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts tagged as “Immigration”

A Courthouse Moment: ‘El Sueño Americano’

Fifteen years ago, Edelmar Arnoldo Borrayes Cifuentes immigrated from Guatemala to Cary, North Carolina. He got a job in construction, found a house, and made friends in his local Latino community. What he did not do was learn much, if any, English.

On this day, Cifuentes sits in a courtroom on the sixth floor of the Durham County Courthouse. He wears a black button down shirt with tiny white polka dots, jeans held up by a leather belt and a navy cloth mask. He appears to be in his 40s and has spiky black hair, hardened with gel. He’s short, shorter than his attorney, Aneta Yordanova Paval, who sits before him in the gallery in a maxi skirt and gray sweater. 

He’s here to fight for sole custody of his son, in a language he doesn’t understand, and the translator’s late.

A decade ago, attorneys had to formally request an interpreter weeks in advance. But a surge in demand in recent years prompted the courthouse to develop a better system. 

“Now, it’s like calling an Uber,” said trial court administrator Deneen Barrier. At least in theory.

Cifuentes is texting on his phone when Judge Amanda L. Maris calls his case. 

When he hears his name, he stands, shoves his phone in his jean pocket, and makes his way to the table at the front of the room. His son’s mother, who is supposed to be representing herself, is not present. In fact, she’s in Guatemala. 

As Cifuentes takes his seat, the translator bursts through the double doors and scurries over to his side. She wears a light blue dress and clutches a clipboard to her chest. Paval, relieved, calls Cifuentes to the witness stand. 

He walks cautiously to the front of the courtroom. 

“Please place your left hand on the Bible and raise your right,” the court clerk says, as though she’s said it thousands of times. (She has.)

Cifuentes, though, doesn’t know this string of words. But he sees a Bible in front of him and notices the bailiff motioning toward it, so he takes a guess as to what he should do: He picks it up with both hands.

The bailiff dashes over and grabs the book while the translator frantically whispers to Cifuentes, who runs a nervous hand through his shiny hair. He guessed wrong.

Once the bailiff replaces the Bible, and Cifuentes’ attorney helps to properly swear him in, Paval begins asking questions.

The translator jots furiously on her clipboard as Paval speaks, relaying sentences to Cifuentes before Paval has finished them. Amid the resulting overlap in voices, Cifuentes doesn’t know where to look. He settles for a spot on the gray carpet between the two women. 

Via a complicated game of telephone, the court learns that Cifuentes grew up in Guatemala. There he met his wife, Emilia Gomez Alvarado, and had his son, Bryan, whom he took care of until the boy was three. Then Cifuentes decided to fly to the United States solo to chase “El Sueño Americano.” The American Dream.

His family was supposed to join him after he built a life for the three of them. But, things didn’t go according to plan. In Guatemala, Alvarado neglected Bryan and left him at the age of 10.

Cifuentes describes the dangers his son had to face alone — the crime, the extortion, the gangs — in a raw, shaky tone. The translator repeats his message word for word, but her scripted monotone doesn’t quite capture the sorrow. 

This past June, when Bryan, who turns 18 in October, was finally able to leave Guatemala, Cifuentes saw his son for the first time in 15 years. He moved Bryan into his home, registered him for a local school, and now he wants custody over him. 

Paval is satisfied with her client’s testimony.

“No further questions, Your Honor,” she says.

“Okay, Mr. Cifuentes, you may step down,” Judge Maris replies.

There’s a moment of stillness while the translator relays the message. When Cifuentes walks back to the table, she follows behind him like a dutiful shadow.  

Then the telephone game resumes as Judge Maris states her ruling. Cifuentes stares at her, arms crossed over his chest. He watches her lips move as she says “I hereby grant sole legal and physical custody of the minor child, Bryan Gomez, to Mr. Cifuentes.”

Eyes in the sparsely filled gallery jump over to Cifuentes, expecting celebration. But he remains still. The translator has fallen behind, and she’s not yet repeated the ruling. Cifuentes is the last in the room to learn that he’s won the case. 

When he does, the moment for a dramatic reaction has passed. He stands, gives a gracious nod to the judge and heads out of the courtroom, leaving his shadow behind.


Sorority sisters and partners in law enforcement: Deberry and Davis discuss sexual assault

District Attorney Satana Deberry always wears a red beaded bracelet with a little white elephant. On its own, this might seem like an odd choice for a progressive Democrat. But Saturday, as a sea of red sweaters, Greek letters, and all forms of elephant decor filled the conference room in the Durham County Human Services Complex, the bracelet made a lot more sense.

The elephant is the unofficial symbol of the historically black Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, of which Deberry and Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis are both alumnae. The sorority’s Durham Alumnae Chapter hosted a panel discussion called “Sister to Sister: A Talk on Sexual Assault.” The discussion was moderated by fellow sorority sister Jasmine McGhee, who is special deputy attorney general and director of the Public Protection Section at the North Carolina Department of Justice. 

Jasmine McGhee (left) moderates a panel discussion with Police Chief C.J. Davis (center) and District Attorney Satana Deberry (right). | Photo by Erin Williams, The 9th Street Journal

Deberry lauded her sorority sisters and fellow panelists for their accomplishments, and emphasized the significance of them holding those positions as women of color.

“The chief and I are unicorns almost,” Deberry said. “It is rare that you are in a jurisdiction in which the chief of police and the district attorney are not just women, but black women.” 

She said that this is particularly significant in a conversation about sexual assault in a southern state, where sexual politics have been deeply intertwined with racial discrimination. The history of the American South is rife with the sexual exploitation of black women – free and enslaved – and their inability to access the protections of the criminal justice system. Deberry emphasized that the South is also a place where false accusations of sexual assault have been used to justify the lynching of black men.

Davis said, “Being an African American female in this work I think is quite relevant. I think we are lucky when we have African-American women who don’t just know what they are doing, but they can also make their work personal.”

According to Deberry, black women today are typically those who pay bail, visit people in jail or prison– and are increasingly incarcerated themselves. 

“To the extent that the criminal justice system has a customer, it’s black women,” she said. 

“But the dirty little secret of the criminal justice system is that black and brown women are also the people most likely to be victimized,” Deberry said. “And we are the least likely, especially when we are children, to be believed.”

In 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Durham Public School students, black high school students were nearly twice as likely as white students to report being raped; Latinx students were almost three times as likely.

The audience included educators, social workers, public health advocates, and survivors of sexual assault. Their questions ranged from what to do in situations when a child is sexually assaulted to how immigrants who are living in the country without legal permission should handle an assault.

Deberry responded that when survivors come through her office, she will not ask about their citizenship status. “It does not matter one bit to us,” she said.

Another audience member asked about the statute of limitations for criminal sexual assault in North Carolina. The panelists said that, unlike other states, there isn’t one. 

Before ending the talk, the panelists emphasized this issue concerns men and boys, too. 

“We talk about believing women and girls, but also talk to your sons,” Deberry said. While more than one in three women have experienced some form of contact sexual violence, almost one in four men have too, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

While the audience was mostly women, there were some men too — most notably Clarence Birkhead, the Durham County Sheriff. He was invited to say a few words to introduce the panel and he stayed until the end. “It is a really awesome team of law enforcement officials that you all have here in Durham, with me being right here with them working hand in hand,” he said. 

As the panel concluded, Deberry emphasized that her office is working with the Sheriff’s Office and the Durham Police Department to address sexual assault. The Special Victims Unit of her office now works closely with Chief Davis’ Special Victims Unit. 

“That has not generally been how it works,” Deberry said. “But that trust goes a long way in getting your cases dealt with.”