Danny Michel’s daughter and attorneys kept refreshing a map tracking his flight as they walked into federal court in Brooklyn on a sweltering Monday evening last month. On their phones, they watched his JetBlue flight from Port-au-Prince land at JFK airport as they waited for the after-hours judge on duty to see them. Timing was key: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had warned that they would detain Michel as soon as he stepped on U.S. soil. They needed the judge to stop ICE before it got to him.
Michel’s attorneys succeeded, but for the next several hours, they found themselves fighting with the government to have their client released while ICE held him in violation of the judge’s order. By the time he finally walked free the next day, Michel had been in ICE custody — illegally — since landing in the U.S. nearly 10 hours earlier.
“This is classic ICE intimidation tactics; this is what they do,” Gregory Copeland, a supervising attorney with Legal Aid’s immigration law unit, and one of Michel’s attorneys, told The Intercept. “They’re sore losers. When they lose, and somebody gets released, they still try to be heavy-handed and throw around their authority or whatever it is. That’s typical ICE behavior.”
It had taken more than two years to get Michel home. A 54-year-old with a youthful smile, he had lived in the U.S. as a legal permanent resident since 1970. Born in Haiti, Michel was raised in Brooklyn and was living on Long Island when two drug convictions triggered deportation proceedings against him in 1999. Michel spent the next six years, until 2005, in an immigration detention center in upstate New York, then 10 more years under a deportation order but free on bond, meaning that he had to check in regularly with immigration officials — which he did religiously.
Then in June 2016, without notice, Michel was detained at his regular check-in, sent to ICE facilities in Alabama and Florida, and deported in July. Before his deportation, Legal Aid filed a motion with the Board of Immigration Appeals challenging a years-old deportation order against him, on the grounds that he had become eligible for citizenship decades earlier, and that the charges filed against him were no longer considered removable offenses. They also asked the board to stop his deportation while the motion was pending, which the board refused to do because it found the motion to reopen the case unlikely to succeed. When the motion did succeed, only weeks later, Michel was already in Haiti, a country he had last seen when he was a toddler.
Deportation is often the last chapter in legal battles and human dramas that unfold over years, but Michel managed to navigate Kafkaesque bureaucracies in both the U.S. and Haiti to return, fight his case, and win a rare victory: Shortly after his return, an immigration judge terminated his deportation proceedings, and while ICE has asked the judge to reconsider that decision, Michel is, for now, a free man.
But while his two-decade struggle with U.S. immigration enforcement points to a system that has long been mired in intransigence veering on the absurd, his first night back after deportation, and ICE’s insistence on detaining him even after a judge had ruled that they couldn’t do so, speaks of an agency that is growing increasingly rogue — emboldened by the political moment to exert authority even where it has none, and to defy the rule of law even when it claims to be enforcing it. ICE did not respond to requests for comment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, which represented ICE in court, declined to comment.
Michel’s flight landed around 9 p.m. By 9:15 p.m., Judge Margo Brodie had issued a restraining order prohibiting ICE from detaining him without showing the court “clear and convincing evidence” that he was a flight risk or a danger to the community. ICE was notified of the decision by 9:18 p.m., according to court documents filed in the following hours.
Michel’s 30-year-old daughter Britney, who had tried to decipher what the judge would decide from the tone of her questions and by looking for signs of confidence in the attorneys’ answers, allowed herself to be hopeful at last. As the group walked out the chambers, a janitor saw the smiles on their faces and gave them a thumbs-up.
While Britney and the attorneys were still waiting in court, on the plane to New York, Michel ate snacks and watched The Avengers while he tried to calm his nerves. He couldn’t believe that he was really going home. He had felt a similar sense of incredulity on his last flight two years earlier: He had been in shackles then and headed to a country he couldn’t remember. “When we landed and the doors opened, I felt the heat just come in,” he told me during a recent interview, recalling his first moments in Haiti. When he walked out of the Port-au-Prince airport and into the city’s streets, buzzing with cars, vendors, chickens, and pigs, he had found himself in a world he had only seen on National Geographic.
Now making the opposite journey, Michel had just one worry: “At the back of my head I’m like, are they going to lock me up?” he said. “But you know what, my daughter said, ‘Daddy, be strong and think positive’ so I started thinking like that.”
For someone who has endured the ordeal he has, Michel comes off as an impossibly positive guy, who jokes about his exchanges with unsympathetic officials and appears to draw from a bottomless well of cheerfulness. But when his plane landed in New York, his optimism was tested. The pilot warned there were “mechanical issues” with the gangway. “I’m like, OK, maybe they’re waiting for me,” he recalled thinking. Moments later, the pilot asked, “Is there a Danny Michel on the plane?”
With everyone’s eyes on him, Michel made his way down the plane. A short man flanked by two uniformed officers curtly asked if he had his paperwork — Michel took a breath and replied, “Hi, how are you? Yes, I got some paperwork.” The officers ordered him to follow them and handcuffed him in front of everyone, before leading him to a freezing room, then a different terminal, and finally a van. They asked him questions but gave few answers. “You are going to our office,” they told him after he insisted to know where they were taking him. “And then you are going to be transferred to another place.”
After they left court, Britney and one of Michel’s attorneys, Sarah Gillman, took a taxi to the airport to pick him up, but Michel was nowhere to be found.
As she watched Gillman frantically call and email, Britney’s excitement crumbled. “I was so excited, just eager to see him,” she told me. “And then we got to the terminal and we waited, and waited, and waited, and so that excitement slowly drowned.”
Britney and Gillman rushed to Manhattan and met Copeland outside 26 Federal Plaza. For the next several hours, they stood on an eerily deserted Duane Street, just outside the building’s entrance, emailing the government’s attorneys and demanding that ICE release their client.
“You continue to detain Mr. Michel for immigration purposes in violation of the Judge’s order,” Copeland emailed the government’s attorneys at 1 a.m. “A Deportation Officer is now telling Mr. Michel that he is not being released tonight, saying they do not have the authority. This is outrageous.” “Mr. Michel has still not been released,” Gillman emailed at 2:05 a.m. — and then again at 2:30, 2:58, 3:57, and 6:29 a.m.
At some point, Britney fell asleep sitting on the sidewalk. Around 4 a.m., Copeland left to file a new motion asking the court to compel ICE to release Michel. Britney left a little later — she was exhausted from the night’s emotions, and she had to be at work in a few hours. Gillman remained alone outside 26 Federal Plaza, emailing and texting the government for news of her client. The building’s security asked her, “You’re still here?” — she later told me — “Yes, I’m still here because my client’s still inside,” she replied.
Then at 6:35 a.m., after Copeland filed a motion to hold ICE in contempt of court, the government’s attorneys emailed to let Gillman know that Michel would be released “within the next few minutes.” An ICE officer then called her and told her to go meet Michel on the street.
“Excuse me?” she said she replied. She had told ICE all along where she was standing – right at the building’s entrance. The officer replied, “Your client’s on Broadway. Just go and meet him.” Incensed, Gillman asked for the officer’s name. He replied, “Don’t worry about it, hon.”
Photos: Ariel Zambelich/The Intercept
I met Michel and his family a week after he returned home, at his elderly parents’ home on a tidy street in Elmont, New York. Michel seemed as excited and incredulous as if he had just arrived. His family is tight-knit, and he had clearly been missed.
Michel’s parents sat and listened as he recalled his ordeal over tea. His father has been sick for decades, and moves and speaks with difficulty. Michel was always the one to take care of him before he was deported; the two years without Michel were tough on the family. For as long as Michel could remember, his mother had been the family’s pillar — working two or three jobs while he and his siblings were growing up in Flatbush, and finally saving up enough to move the family to a pretty house on Long Island. When Michel was released after nearly six years in immigration detention, on a $25,000 bond, his mother had to guarantee the bond against the house.
“There were many times that I felt I wasn’t going to see my family again,” Michel told me, speaking in his parents’ living room, which was covered wall-to-wall with family photos. “My mom, my daughter, and goddaughter, they were really the backbone of the family. Without them I wouldn’t be standing right here.”
Britney’s life had been marked by her father’s two-decade ordeal with immigration. He had spent most of her teenage years in immigration detention. “I didn’t see my dad for years,” she said. “He was my letter buddy, because he wrote me letters all the time.”
“Although he wasn’t there physically, he was still there on the phone, constantly helping me out with school stuff on the phone,” she added. “I would lash out with my mom and he was the mediator between us, even though he wasn’t physically there, he was there, regardless.”
Photos: Ariel Zambelich/The Intercept
When Michel was released on bond, they grew even closer. He would go over to her apartment in Brooklyn and fix things for her, or help her paint the walls. There were family barbecues, and for the first time, Britney thought he might be there on the day she got married.
“Then when he was detained, that reality that I once had of him, of not knowing when he would come home, suddenly resurfaced,” she said. “I am just exhausted with having to deal with him being here for a little, short period of time, and then him being gone. And for what?”
When Michel was in Haiti, they’d talk on WhatsApp — but poor phone and internet service and constant electricity cuts made keeping in touch a constant source of frustration. They also made getting Michel home a lot harder, as his lawyers struggled to communicate with him.
In Haiti, Michel had no money or support system. A distant relative picked him up at the airport when he was deported, and from New York his parents helped him find a place to stay in the south of the island and sent him some money every month so he could eat. But Michel didn’t speak Creole well, couldn’t get a job, and was embarrassed to have gone back to Haiti a deportee.
“It’s very difficult to walk down the street without people looking at you, because you look different, you walk different, you don’t speak,” he added of his time in Haiti. “Every day I was just dealing with the shadow of myself, do you know what I mean? I wasn’t there. I was somebody else, in a strange place.”
Michel spent most of his time in Haiti going to church and trying to get the paperwork he needed to come back to the U.S. That wasn’t easy. He had no understanding of Haiti’s bureaucracy, and no connections to help him through a system that largely moved through personal favors. “It was really challenging for him,” Gillman recalled. “I remember him saying to me, I don’t know how many times, ‘Sarah, I think I almost got the passport,’ but then he didn’t get the passport. ‘Sarah, I think I almost got the passport,’ but he didn’t get the passport. ‘Sarah, I went to the office, and they were supposed to have the passport ready, and they’re not.’”
“Something was always missing,” Michel said. “Anytime something was spelled wrong, it had to go back to Port-au-Prince. … The date is incorrect, it has to go back to Port-au-Prince.”
“Let me tell you, they say the squeaky wheel gets the oil, so I just started bothering people all the time,” he added. “I was like, I need it, I need it. It’s for my ID. I need it.”
When Michel finally got his passport, Britney bought him a ticket home, as his lawyers prepared to prevent ICE from detaining him again. But Michel’s hopes were dashed at the check-in desk: The government had failed to tell his attorneys that he needed additional documentation from the U.S. Embassy in Haiti. “I was distraught,” he said. “Because I was ready to go. I finally put my mindset on going.”
It was a Friday. Michel went straight from the airport to the embassy, where he was told the documents he needed would only be valid if issued on the day he traveled. Michel’s family and attorneys tried to book him on a flight two days later — but that was a Sunday, and the government’s attorneys demanded that he fly during a business day. “Not a hint of feeling bad about forcing this guy to go back and forth to the airport,” Copeland told me. “Not a hint that they’re causing extra work for us. They just absolutely could not care.”
At last, on Monday, August 27, Michel got the documents he needed, made it through security, got on a plane, and finally, after hours held by agents with no authority to do so, home.
“It’s a competition to them. The sense of justice and fairness is almost lost. It’s approaching law enforcement like a no-holds-barred game,” said Copeland. “Like, ‘We’re going to flex our muscle and do what we can do just because we can do it.’”
“Even when what they are doing is patently lawless.”