The Refugee

Written By: Edward Maggio

My wife and I clanged our glasses together as we said a quick toast to our friends. We had opened a bottle of white wine to share at our table that faced the picturesque view of the Macari Vineyard in front of us. It was still March and a bit cold outside, but it didn’t deter our celebration. The absence of spring warmth would not stop us from enjoying the outdoors. This was our first weekend together since we moved to the East End. My wife previously urged me to move out to the Hamptons where we could be around her family as a young married couple. Since the loss of our child, staying in our old home up-island was unbearable to her anymore. Too many memories and too much sorrow. I left my job of working as an attorney and litigating cases in the city without much fanfare. To soften the blow of our departure, my wife had previously regaled me with tales of beach days, vineyards, meeting people at garden parties and visiting her family’s restaurant in Jamesport. She was the perpetual Sag Harbor girl who was proud of her home and its history. My background on the other hand was much different. Growing up in East Islip, our town was known for Heckscher State Park and having the most number of 7-11 stores per capita than any other town on Long Island. I had a good childhood, but it was simple without any social competition from the neighbors or any upper-class experiences.
As our small group sat down after our toast and continued chatting, I zoned out for a moment. I felt socially uncomfortable and uneasy. The East End and the Hamptons is a culture in and of itself. My insecurity was masked by the credentials I had earned over time. A law degree earned in New York City and a degree from Oxford University kept inquisitive people from asking me about my background. In a courtroom, I am the master of my craft. I am in control of all things and all words that come out of my mouth. In social settings involving discussions about who is keeping up with the “Jones”, who is cheating on who with the Nanny, or who was seen at the Hamptons Classic; Would just leave me feeling like a pilgrim in unholy land. I felt reminded of the literary saying, outside of his own kingdom, the hunter becomes the hunted. I was learning to master my poker face.
My phone soon alerted me to an incoming text. I had agreed to work as per diem (paid per day only) attorney handling immigration cases in Riverhead Family Court for a local firm. It was not a full-time job, just something to put money in my pocket till I could find work at a law firm. I texted back asking for details, and only got a response that the legal file would be dropped at my doorstep prior to me going to court in the morning,
The next morning as I began getting ready for court, I heard a knock at the door that meant the file was dropped off. My wife commented “Go Get Em Tiger” as I finished adjusting my blue Brooks Brothers tie in front of a mirror. Briefcase in hand, I opened the door to our apartment, picked up the legal brief in a khaki folder left on our doormat and jumped into my car.
As a habit, I always detoured down Red Creek Road which was my meditation drive time before court. I continually slowed my breathing down as I passed the beauty of Peconic Bay to my right, winding down the road towards Riverhead. The water looked like a bluish mirror as the sun was coming up. Already someone was paddle boarding from the boat dock as I turned the corner.
A brief time later I was at the courthouse in Riverhead. I quickly bypassed the hundred plus people waiting to check in for jury duty. With my attorney ID in hand, I skipped the line thanks to the assigned court officer who ushered me through the doorway. My immediate entrance made the jurors wonder who I was of importance to get through security so quickly. This is the closest I’ll ever get to feeling like a celebrity.
As a matter of habit, I always went to the Cafeteria first to order a small coffee and to read the file prior to going upstairs to the courtroom. I generally never get a chance to meet a client beforehand on a per diem assignment. The fifteen minutes I had in the cafeteria with a white Styrofoam cup of coffee was my only preparation opportunity. I quickly read the file. On this day, I would be representing a petitioner named Rosa who was seeking to be the guardian of her younger brother, Manuel. Their parents had died in a car accident two years prior.
Manuel or “Manny” for short, was previously living with his aunt and uncle in El Salvador. They were making him skip his school classes daily so he could work in the fields up to twelve hours at a time. Rosa had met an American and was married on Long Island and kept sending money back for Manny’s care. When she learned that the aunt was taking all the money being sent back and making Manny work the fields for her own gain, she urged Manny to escape the situation. Manny in turn practically walked to the United States with the occasional ride on a train or the back of truck. With sore feet and exhaustion, he arrived on Long Island eight months ago. He has been living in an apartment with Rosa in Southampton as an undocumented person. Today would be a hearing in front of a judge to obtain an order protecting Manny and granting guardianship to Rosa. Failure to win this case meant only that Manny was at risk for deportation. Rosa had her immigration papers, but Manny risked getting the knock at the door and removal from the country.
I walked up the flight of stairs to Family Court and as always pushed through the large mob like crowd of people waiting to be called into the courtroom. Many of these people were from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They all had comparable stories like Manny and lived at home addresses in some of the best parts of the East End. They worked in restaurant kitchens, mowed the lawns and built the million dollar homes I had just passed earlier on my drive into court. This was the silent and unseen nation of the East End sitting together in one place. I called out Rosa’s name and found her in the corner with Manny. I had been learning Spanish for ten weeks; Enough to explain what would happen in court today and what I hoped to achieve using my limited Spanish vocabulary. Rosa spoke a bit of English and asked me “What if we lose today?”. I only responded for them to wait as I checked us in with the court clerk. I informed the court clerk I was ready to proceed, and a few moments later, the three of us were in front of judge. What seemed like an eternity was only 20 minutes of me asking Rosa and Manny questions on the record and under oath to obtain their testimonies. Rosa detailed the protection she has been offering her brother. Manny on the other had broken down in tears as he detailed in graphic description of his time working in the fields. The judge granted the motion for Rosa to be Manny’s guardian and in turn provided an order protecting Manny from deportation. As we left the courtroom I instructed them as best I could to call the law office that I was covering for on this case so they could continue Manny’s immigration paperwork. Manny stood silent as he was still recovering from his grief filled testimony. I held up the papers showing the judge’s order granting him protection. Rosa thanked me and I told her to take Manny out to eat. She responded in broken English, “We can finally be out in open without fear he be taken away. We can finally go to the beach. He needs friends. Ever feel like you don’t belong somewhere?”. I extended my hand to Manny to shake his hand and bid them both farewell as I left the courtroom. That evening I met up with friends for drinks at Buckleys Inn Between in Hampton Bays. I ordered a pint of Guinness, loosened my tie at the bar then joined my group of friends at the table. When they asked how my day went, I simply stated, ‘…just making new friends.”
***Please note – All names in story changed for legal reasons and protection of parties