STEWART DETENTION CENTER, LUMPKIN, Ga. — In a tiny hearing room at one of the country's most remote and unforgiving immigration courts, Elena Albamonte walked right past the table she had used for years as the government's highest-ranking prosecutor here. Instead, she put her briefcase on the other table, taking a seat next to an Armenian man in prison garb who had illegally crossed into the United States.
After a three-decade career overseeing deportations as a government immigration lawyer, Albamonte has switched teams.
"Ready, your honor," Albamonte said to immigration court Judge Dan Trimble after tidying a thick file of legal documents.
She knew her chances of persuading Trimble to grant her client political asylum were awful. Even before President Trump's crackdown on the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants, the judges at Stewart had been deporting detainees at startlingly high rates. Trimble had turned down 95 percent of those seeking asylum from fiscal 2011 to 2016, according to a study of immigration judges by Syracuse University.
But for 40 minutes, Albamonte gamely made the case for Geregin Abrahamyan, a 23-year-old who said he was repeatedly beaten and threatened because of his political activity in Armenia.
Abrahamyan had been in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since the day he and his pregnant partner and their 3-year-old daughter crossed from Mexico seven months earlier and turned themselves in at a Border Patrol office. Mother and daughter were quickly granted parole and live with Abrahamyan's parents in California. But Abrahamyan was shipped across the country and had yet to meet his son, who was born in August.
Albamonte, 60, argued he was eligible for asylum despite being turned down once before and that he had suffered additional beatings in Armenia that the court should know about.
The prosecutor, Cassondra Bly, pushed back on each point, just as Albamonte had done when she was ICE's deputy chief counsel at Stewart. Indeed, it was from that old seat that Albamonte grew bothered by some of the lawyering she saw across the room. Not only did a lot of immigrants' attorneys show up unprepared for bond hearings, many didn't show up at all, appearing instead by audio link. At Stewart, a privately run detention center three hours from the closest major airport, many lawyers literally phone it in.
"They really put their clients at a disadvantage," Albamonte said. She described a lawyer who called in to a bond hearing, having never met his client or reviewed much of his file. A winnable asylum claim was denied. The man's family, out $3,000 in attorney's fees, was distraught.
"Sometimes you just cringe, wondering if [the opposing lawyer] is going to make the obvious argument," Albamonte said. She couldn't do the other side's work for them, but she took little pleasure prevailing in a lopsided contest.
She doesn't apologize for prosecuting hundreds of asylum cases that ended in deportation.
"Not everyone has a right to asylum under the law as it is written," she said. "But everybody does deserve competent, fair representation. That's how the system is supposed to work."
And that is how she wound up staying here, far from her home in the Washington suburbs, living in a tiny Southern town and working on the opposite side of the issue that defined her career.
"I never expected any of this," she said.
Albamonte witnessed the growing dysfunction of the country's immigration system throughout her years of government service. She began in the State Department's citizenship program two years before the last major immigration reboot, the 1986 amnesty granted to 2.7 million undocumented people by President Ronald Reagan. She went on to handle immigration cases for the Justice Department and then ICE.
In 2011, amid a surge in Central American refugees, she agreed to move to ICE's facility in Stewart County, Ga., 800 miles and cultural light-years from the Washington region where she'd grown up and raised two children of her own. It was a big switch for a city dweller who grew up thinking barbecue meant hot dogs and hamburgers on a gas grill.
"I had a lot to learn about the South," she laughed.
She had only planned to stay three or four years before returning to Washington. But she grew fond of Americus (pop: 18,000), a Victorian enclave 45 minutes from Stewart. The town reminded her of Stars Hollow from "Gilmore Girls," and she found a newly renovated three-bedroom house to rent for less than studio apartment in D.C.
And she liked the job, which was essentially making sure no one got asylum who didn't meet the criteria, especially if they had broken the law in the United States.
"I have no problem seeing criminal aliens sent back," she said. "I mean, I don't think you can compare shoplifting to murder, but for anything serious, it's reasonable to send people back."
Albamonte took pride in protecting the country from what Trump calls "bad hombres." But she also worried about the good people the system sent back. Even as a government lawyer, she saw judges and prosecutors failing to find the mercy that she feels is buried within the statutes.
"I do see people denied that I personally believe should be should be granted [asylum]," she said.
By the time she retired in 2014, she had met a guy — a local lawyer named Chuck Faaborg — and decided to stick around for another year or two. The couple talked about opening a bookstore. Albamonte thought she might hang her shingle and handle visa cases. An easy, low-gear use of her expertise.
But the phone calls came right away from Catholic Charities and desperate families: Could she take this asylum case? And this one? With up to 1,900 detainees at Stewart, the need is huge.
"There is no one else down here," Albamonte said. "I said yes."
Elena Albamonte gets a surprise visit from a visa case client. Her immigration law practice is in Americus, Ga., 45 minutes from the Stewart Detention Center. (Michael A. Schwarz/For The Washington Post)
The offices of Albamonte Immigration Law occupy an old insurance office in downtown Americus, a precinct of barber shops and antiques stores in handsome 19th-century buildings.
Her seven employees field 20 or so calls a day from detainees seeking help in a badly backlogged immigration system. More than 500,000 pending cases clog immigration courts even as Trump promises to build more detention centers, hire more immigration judges and ramp up deportations.
"Can you spell that, your sponsor's name?" asks Zoya Hasnian, 21, a paralegal whose parents, both dentists, immigrated from Pakistan. She handles the Urdu translations and plans to begin law school in the fall.
"We're still waiting for the forms," lawyer Jessica Canado-Wallace told another client in Spanish.
"Elena," called a voice from another cubicle, "someone wants to know if we speak Russian."
"No," Albamonte called back. "Tell them to try the Kuck firm in Atlanta."
Her office features an extra-large window she requested as an antidote to those years of working in a sunless prison. Next to it — near the "Live the Life You've Imagined" plaque — is a whiteboard list of clients: Hoxha, Ozkan, Mendez, Matiroysyan.
She went back to Stewart for the first time in the service of an asylum seeker just months after leaving ICE. She didn't have to flip any ideological switches. She's a lawyer, not an activist. Yes, it was weird at first to go up against her former colleagues, but not uncomfortable.
"It's not like I'm a different person," she said. "I think they appreciate that I know what I'm doing."
Dana Leigh Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said team switchers can be welcome in a legal thicket as tangled as immigration.
"I say it's more complex than tax law because there is no TurboTax for immigration," Marks said. "It can be a tremendous advantage to the system to have someone knowledgeable about how both sides work."
In the past year, Albamonte has represented 15 Stewart asylum seekers facing deportation. She prevailed in six of those cases, and those people will be eligible for green cards. Five are in removal proceedings, one is appealing, and three are waiting for a ruling. Not a bad batting average in a court with one of the country's highest rates of denial.
One reason Stewart rejects so many asylum seekers is that many immigration lawyers won't take cases there. It's too remote and its inmates too poor to pay the $5,000 or more that most asylum cases cost. Albamonte said she does some pro-bono work and charges others a range of fees based on the complexity of the case.
These days, when Albamonte passes through security at the door of the detention center (no cellphones, no car keys, no money), it is as routine as when she did it with an ICE badge.
"Hey Elena," a guard greets her on the morning of Abrahamyan's hearing.
"Hey Jackie," said Albamonte, who has learned to say "Hey" instead of "Hi."
A uniformed ICE agent talking to a detainee's family stops to give her a hug.
"How is life on the outside?" he asked. "Better money, right?"
"Ha! Better money on the inside. I have all these mouths to feed," she said, looking over at her co-counsel Canado-Wallace and paralegal Hasnian.
He turned back to the family. As Albamonte walked on, he told them in Spanish that she was a local lawyer who handled asylum cases.
Waiting in the hearing room were Abrahamyan's parents, who had flown five hours from Los Angeles and driven three from Atlanta in the hope that their son would be granted bond.
They themselves had gotten asylum 12 years ago. The father, Arshaluys Abrahamyan, was a doctor who operated a blood bank and ran afoul of corrupt officials in Armenia.
Abrahamyan's case turned on old documents and vague law: Did a failed attempt to gain asylum in 2003 make him ineligible or could his previous case be reopened? Trimble's view might mean the difference between quick deportation and a chance for asylum. When Albamonte sensed the judge leaning toward the former, she seized his offer to delay the hearing for a month.
Geregin Abrahamyan, an Armenian asylum seeker, has been held at the Stewart Detention Center for seven months. His lawyer, Elena Albamonte, is fighting to keep him from being deported. (Michael A. Schwarz/For The Washington Post)
Abrahamyan was led away with a last look at his parents. Later, in the center's bare visitation room, he shook his head at the long delay. He spends his days playing chess with detainees from Russia, Armenia, El Salvador. He walks in the warm Southern sun each day in the exercise yard and talks to his 3-year-old daughter — almost 3,000 miles away — whenever he can.
"I have never seen my son," he said, tears welling over at the mention of his children. "I am not a criminal, but I am here seven months."
In the hallway outside, his parents crowded around Albamonte, baffled and anxious over the additional wait.
"This helps us," she assured them. More time would give them a chance to gather evidence that his life in Armenia was at risk. It would also allow time for the habeas petition she had filed on Abrahamyan's behalf to work its way through the court.
"I'm glad you understand all of this," Arshaluys Abrahamyan said with his hands out.
As Albamonte left she exchanged a friendly goodbye with Bly, the ICE prosecutor, once a peer, now her opponent in this case. The woman's post in Georgia was over, and she was heading to Minnesota.
Albamonte wished her well and began driving home to a desk stacked with files and voice mail filled with anxious clients. Her life was here now. And so was her work.