How Volunteers Saved a Deaf Immigrant


by Charlie Martel

Mural Art Credit: Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center

At a time when only bad news headlines our nation’s immigrant story, it’s good to hear something positive.

Last week, a 26 year old immigrant from Guatemala, who is deaf and cannot speak, was released from custody. He had been held for four weeks in one of the deplorably inhumane detention centers on the border near El Paso, Texas. Shortly before his release immigration officials transferred him to detention in Georgia. 

His freedom was won by a coalition led by the Annapolis Immigration Justice Network. AIJN's President Suzanne Conti Martin and Patricia Dorn Lopez led the miraculous effort that freed this man. It is worth telling the story about how this vulnerable young man was saved--in just four days by a team of mostly volunteers (including myself) --from conditions which are dangerous even for those without his disabilities. 

Initially, AIJN learned the man was in detention, last Friday, from his father who lives near Annapolis. AIJN is part of a national network of immigration support organizations who reached out to Human Rights First and immigration lawyers in Texas to find a lawyer to take the man's case. 

AIJN was put in touch with reporters from NBC, and our Texas lawyer communicated with a congressperson. From this we learned the young deaf man was moved to Georgia, so we reached out to Southern Poverty Law Center SPLC, a civil rights organization, and their lawyers in Georgia agreed to take the case. The immigration officials in Georgia were unaware that a deaf person was in their custody until our coalition informed them.

After AIJN’s Suzanne and Patricia worked tirelessly with the young man and his family, and the coalition of support that was created over a weekend, immigration officials agreed to release the deaf young man and now he is with his father. It’s important to note that that among the many remarkable people involved was an immigration official in Georgia, who cooperated with the AIJN led team in deciding to release the young man and in the logistics of release.

This is the third case in the last three months in which our coalition has gotten jailed immigrants released to their families. In all three cases, the immigrants we represented have legal rights that allow them to be in the US, but they were jailed instead of allowed to be free. 

Citizen volunteers can make a life or death difference. There is a lot to be outraged about this issue, but there are also opportunities to take meaningful action. The humanitarian immigration crisis is not just on the border, it is all over the country, because there are detention centers all over the country. You can volunteer or donate to AIJN, HRF, SPLC, or many others that do this work. 

America has just celebrated the 4th of July and the Declaration of Independence signed that day. We often remember the Declaration’s soaring language about “inalienable rights,” but it’s less known that protecting immigrants is written in the Declaration. Thomas Jefferson, in his list of crimes committed by the King that justified American breaking from England, included “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners” and “refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations.” One reason the United States was born is that our Founding Fathers wanted more immigrants to come here.

So fight like a Founding Father. Or fight like a Mother (because most of our leaders are moms). Citizenship is not a spectator sport. Join us, because when it comes to human rights, we know, like the Founders did, that the two most beautiful words in the English language are:

We won.


Charlie Martel is a human rights and national security lawyer. Over the last two years he has volunteered to represent refugees and immigrants in the U.S. and internationally. Previously he worked for the U.S. Senate and taught a course on national security legislation.