A humble lawyer fighting a good fight

There is nothing I like more than a slow surprise. One that gently unveils itself, like wind blown seeds that take root in your garden and end up being your most cherished flowers. My latest such discovery is Jay Stansell, an unpretentious man who faithfully showed up and coached our 8-year-old son's soccer team - rain or shine - two nights a week, plus Saturday games, for two months. He is a Fulbright Scholar and a modern day David who stood before Goliath in the form of the Supreme Court, fighting for the rights of Cambodian Kim Ho Ma and other "lifers."

The term lifer refers to the lost citizenship status of certain Cambodians. For example, a lifer could be a foreign national who served prison time in the United States but could not be deported for lack of repatriation agreements with birthplace countries such as Cuba, Laos or Vietnam. A lifer can also be a person who has become stateless in countries in chaos such as Sri Lanka where the tsunami hit last year. However they become a lifer, these people are often faced with the United States refusing to release them into American society, locking them up instead.

"Basically they were serving time without having committed any new crime," Stansell asserted.

Living in limbo

Left to whither in American prisons indefinitely with a shaky understanding of their legal options, family members of these lifers, who often have limited resources and language skills, are forced to battle for their loved one's rights. Stansell and his colleagues gradually became their champions as word spread amongst the prisoners that the local Federal Public Defenders Office was willing to take on their seemingly impossible cases, which all other defenders had shied away from.

The law regarding deportation dramatically changed in 1996, expanding the number of crimes for which you could get deported as well as the legality of being detained until deportation. Lifers were also hindered by the elimination of the 'second chance' option where a person could plead to the court they have a reformed character to gain release back into society. As a result, in cases with repatriation difficulties, it became standard practice to hold a person in "detention" indefinitely.

Stansell and his team fought and won Ma's case in Washington in 1999 and then battled it on through the 9th District Court right up to the Supreme Court. The outcome determined the destiny of 200 other known cases of lifers in Seattle alone and up to as many as 5,000 across the nation.

The U.S. Government was on the defense, specifically the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a formidable entity. One wonders why there was such staunch opposition, as surely there was more to be gained than lost by resolving thousands of stalled cases that, by and large, involved low risk offenders?

"Whoever has power wants more power and the INS, like any other agency, has a life of its own," said Stansell when recalling the situation.

It must have been lonely and daunting in the Supreme Court chambers standing 3 feet lower than a panel of nine judges considered to be the brightest of the entire judicial world who fired off carefully measured questions at Stansell. A person can't get this far in our judicial system unless he or she is rock solid with their facts and believes in their case's cause. But I wondered what the judges thought of his signature ponytail and mild manner?

Stansell and his team won the landmark case in 2001 of Kim Ho Ma and Zadvydas (a similar case originating in Louisianna). On top of this, the repatriation law has been further strengthened by subsequent cases within the United States.

It now stands that if a case decision cannot be concluded by an ICE immigration judge within six months, the authorities can no longer detain that person, but must release them back into American society with supervision until deportation can proceed. For some, this can be indefinite.

The landmark Supreme Court win aside, the personal toll on Federal Defender Stansell has been considerable. While his professional highpoint was the glow of personally setting a wrong right on the Supreme Court stage while enjoying the palpable support of people across the nation, Stansell's low point followed quickly on its heels when he realized the limitations of being a lawyer.

His team had the ability to get their clients out of jail, only to find that they were quickly issued 'travel papers' ordering them to return to their place of birth but also to a culture that most knew little about. On top of this, Stansell and his team learned that the lifers had become Americanized and were ill-prepared to integrate back into their birth country.

Going the extra mile

Stansell, along with his wife Dori, have become involved in the lives of many lifers, Ma in particular, who had become a regular visitor to the their residence. Ma even read goodnight stories to the Stansell children.

Ma's rapid return to Cambodia left the Stansell family in a void with many unanswered questions. Relatives remaining in the United States were terrified of what might await Ma upon arrival, recalling the dark period of the Khmer Rouge at the time of their fleeing.

Not content to leave things hanging, the Stansell family trekked off to Cambodia to visit their clients and bring back reassurances to friends and family in the United States.

Stansell's Fulbright award came shortly thereafter, and in true "coach Jay" fashion he followed his heart with his family in tow and used the grant to teach his dream course - international human rights - at the Law School in Phnom Penh for six months. The trip was something of a sabbatical, or "a useful leave of absence," as his office phrased it. More importantly it gave Stansell time to reflect upon the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. law and reconcile his effectiveness within the judicial system.

The family sojourn also gave them all an opportunity to reconnect with Ma and his extended family in Cambodia, and Stansell was greeted like a god. After all, he was the man who had taken on the entire United States judicial system, and won. The Stansell family is now back in their Beacon Hill home, wistfully telling tales of their simple Cambodian existence.

We can all sleep better knowing there truly are decent humans within our community who are willing to fight big battles while still finding time for the smaller things, such as volunteering to coach the local soccer team.

The South End's truly diverse community has long been the Stansell's place of choice to raise their boys, and I know why. In my various experiences living elsewhere in the world, I have yet to come upon a culture that so deeply instills the ethic of giving back to one's community, and not just in broad-stroke philanthropic ways.

I feel my family lucked out the day our child was randomly assigned to coach Stansell. Our son is getting a lot more than just soccer tips. Thanks Coach Jay.

Jacqui James may be reached via editor@sdistrictjournal.com.

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