Sarah Gillman and Gregory Copeland were half way through a six-hour drive from Rochester to New York City last week when they got word that Baba Sillah, a father of five from the Bronx, was at John F. Kennedy International Airport, about to be deported to Gambia, a country he had left in the early 1990s.
It had been a long two days for the lawyers. On their way upstate, they had stopped by the Bergen County Jail, in New Jersey, to meet a Bangladeshi father facing imminent deportation. They had then driven to Buffalo, New York, where they trained a 21-year-old law student to argue the case of an Albany man, Kinimo Ngoran, held at the Batavia Federal Detention Facility. It was their second drive upstate in just over three weeks. The first time, they had temporarily stopped Ngoran’s deportation; this time, they were trying to get him out of detention and back to his American wife.
The hearing on Monday had gone fairly well; Judge Charles Siragusa seemed to agree with the lawyers’ argument that Ngoran had a right to pursue a legal process to stay in the U.S. because of his marriage. But the judge didn’t free him right away, giving U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement a few more days to decide whether to do so themselves. If ICE didn’t, Gillman and Copeland would have to drive upstate for one more hearing in a week’s time. They were frustrated. They didn’t mind the trip; at both hearings, the judge had been impressed that they had showed up in person, and they knew this sort of thing mattered. They just didn’t want Ngoran, whom they believed the government should have never detained in the first place, to spend a day longer at Batavia.
Before founding the NSC Community Legal Defense, their “guerrilla habeas” team, as Copeland called it, he and Gillman had worked together at the Legal Aid Society. She had been there for 17 years — 12 defending detained immigrants. He had joined in 2017, after quitting his corporate law job because he was enraged by the chaos created by President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. Together, the two of them had worked on a number of successful efforts to stop deportations and get people out of detention. I first met them when writing about Danny Michel, whom they managed to bring back to the U.S. after he had already been deported to Haiti. Most notably, they represented Pablo Villavicencio, a deliveryman and father of two, whom some New Yorkers had come to affectionately call “pizza guy” after he was detained while delivering pizza to a military base in Brooklyn.
Photos: Lauren Rock for The Intercept
In New York, as across the country, Trump’s war on immigrants had manifested in an escalation of detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants who had lived in the country sometimes for decades. Many had no criminal record or only minor offenses to their names; most had jobs, children, and friends here; virtually all were already pursuing legal processes to stay. While those detained in New York state fared better than many across the country — largely thanks to state legislation that guarantees anyone held in immigration detention access to free legal representation — the need for lawyers remained overwhelming. And perhaps harder to find, the lawyers had to be willing to never give up.
Desperate calls for help came in daily, and Gillman and Copeland felt a need to be more nimble and aggressive than working for a large nonprofit allowed them to be. In January, they partnered with the immigrant-led New Sanctuary Coalition and set up their two-person operation out of a coworking space — but more often, Gillman’s car. In just over a month, they picked up more than 20 cases. In addition to their partnership with the coalition, they also work with law school clinics, pro bono firms, and community organizations. Advocates, other lawyers, and even city officials reach out to them constantly, sometimes about cases everyone else has turned down. Their working model seems to be to never say no.
The Bangladeshi man they stopped to see on their way upstate was a case in point: They were connected with him after other lawyers had passed on the case. “I don’t know that we can spend an hour and a half meeting with him and then walk away from it,” said Gillman.
Because federal court was closed for the day, they needed to file an after-hours emergency petition — in Manhattan and in person. Gillman frowned at the GPS. They wouldn’t reach New York City until 8:45 p.m. at the earliest, 25 minutes after Sillah’s plane was scheduled to take off. But the in-person appearance was just a rule: Stopping the deportation was more important.
With Gillman driving, Copeland had been typing emails and petitions the entire time. He had just finished writing one for the Bangladeshi man at Bergen when the call about Sillah came in. The two men’s cases, as well as Ngoran’s, were almost identical. They all had U.S. citizen spouses or children; they all had jobs and established lives in the U.S.; they were all regularly checking in with immigration authorities as they pursued administrative paths to legalize their presence. And they had all also been recently detained, without notice or explanation, at their regular check-ins with ICE. Copeland took the petition he had just finished, changed the names and details of the case, and used his phone as a hotspot to connect his laptop to the federal court filing system. “If I hadn’t charged my computer this morning, we’d be done,” he said out loud. The next step would be to call the judge on duty for the night and ask for a court appearance that evening — but Gillman and Copeland weren’t going to make it to court on time. With phone service cutting in and out as they drove through a rural area, Copeland called the chambers and spoke to a clerk, explaining that they were heading back to the city after appearing in the Western District of New York, in Rochester. Would the judge please consider hearing their petition by phone?
A few minutes later, the clerk called back: The judge would let them argue the case by phone. Incredulous, Gillman pulled over at a gas station, and Copeland put his phone on speaker. “My understanding is that there is limited time available,” Judge Paul Engelmayer said on the call. Copeland argued the same point he had made endless times in similar situations: His client had a right to stay until all legal avenues available to him had been exhausted. The government’s lawyers, who had also called in, tried to object. ICE had bought plane tickets and dispatched agents to escort Sillah, they said. This would cost the government money. “I get that,” the judge told them. “On the other hand, look at the other side of the equation.”
Minutes into the call, and with less than half an hour to takeoff, the judge issued a temporary preliminary injunction forbidding the government from removing Sillah. The two sides could argue the merits of the case later on, he said, but Sillah would stay until then. “The order is effective as of right now, as I’m saying it,” the judge emphasized, urging the government’s lawyers to promptly communicate that to ICE, “to make sure that Mr. Sillah is not removed while we’re talking.”
With the judge still on the phone, Gillman and Copeland silently fist-bumped and hugged each other in the car. Two days later, they learned that Sillah had been about to board the plane, flanked by four ICE agents, when the agents all got messages on their phones ordering them to stop.
When he arrived in the United States in 2004, Kinimo Ngoran, now 38, didn’t know anyone. He had lost loved ones during the Ivory Coast’s civil war, and when things in the country took a violent turn again, he fled. He was held in immigration detention for more than a year, first in Pennsylvania, then in New Jersey. When he was released, he ended up homeless and alone, roaming the streets of New York City and struggling to get by. Ngoran’s American life finally took a turn when he came across the Bowery Mission, a rescue mission and men’s shelter in the city. At the mission, Ngoran found not only a temporary home, but also a calling. “A lot of people have a broken heart,” he told me when I visited him in detention. “That little food you give them makes a difference.”
Ngoran started volunteering; he had learned to cook from his grandmother in the Ivory Coast, and he was good at it. In 2009, he was told they needed a chef at the Capital City Rescue Mission, a shelter and soup kitchen that serves hundreds of people in Albany. When he first arrived there, Ngoran took a look at the snow and the city and told himself, “God, you brought me here, and I am going to stay here.”
After a decade in Albany, Ngoran has gone from knowing no one to being a beloved member of a large community, married to an American woman, and cooking 800 meals a day at the mission — where everyone knows him and people address him as “Chef.” In Albany, he also built an extended family. Therese McGee, an Ivorian-American woman he met at an African grocery store, recognized a scar on his face as a mark of their shared provenance, and she informally adopted him and started calling herself his “American stepmom.”
“It’s not easy in this country when you don’t know anyone,” McGee told me at Ngoran’s court hearing. “So I said to him, ‘I’m older, I’ll be your stepmom.’”
When she first heard “her son” had been detained at his regular check-in with ICE on January 23, McGee said she cried and ate nothing for two days. She then googled Batavia and saw it was four hours away. She had never been that far upstate before, but made the drive twice to be at both of Ngoran’s hearings.
She wasn’t the only one: The response of the community Ngoran had built around himself over the years was enormous. Clergy; the local sheriff, Craig Apple; and the local congressperson, Rep. Paul Tonko, all rallied around him — along with dozens of others he had met through his work. Fellow Ivorians from the Albany area drove up and down from Albany to Rochester for his court hearings. His lawyers submitted more than 30 pages worth of letters of support from friends and neighbors who had come to know and love him — all horrified that ICE had so senselessly removed a pillar of their community. The Albany City Council passed a resolution in his support, and ahead of his latest court hearing, on February 25, the Albany County Legislature declared the day “Kinimo Ngoran’s Day” — an initiative meant “to raise awareness about the inhumane tactics and practices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and to bring Kinimo Ngoran home, to Albany.”
Meet Ngoran, and you’ll understand how he earned that support. In the five weeks he’s spent in immigration detention, he seems to have developed the same reputation at Batavia that he had in Albany — that of a kind, selfless, and impossibly positive man, whose biggest ambition in life seems to be helping others. “The guys inside ask me, ‘Why are you always smiling?’” he told me, smiling, when I visited him at the detention center. He was wearing the blue uniform ICE assigns to “noncriminal” immigration detainees, and was locked in a small visitation cell that had been his only window to the outside world. He missed his wife, his friends at the mission, cooking, and riding his bike around Albany. But the way he put it, this was all God’s work, and he was grateful because of all the people that he had met in the process, he said. I thought he must be joking, but during our visit, I lost count of the times he said he was grateful, blessed, happy, and hopeful. He was praying for his wife, his community, and his lawyers, he said. And he was praying for the other detainees he had met at Batavia — and not only praying, but also passing along to them the names of the lawyers he knew he had been so lucky to find.
“It’s not just me,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of people in here that need help too. We got good people in here.”
“That’s just Kinimo,” said his wife, Lisa Pepper-Ngoran, when we met in court a day later. She drives from Albany to Batavia every weekend, stays at a local hotel so that she’s able to visit her husband two days in a row, and then goes back to work for the week. She tries to remain as positive as her ever-smiling husband, but he seems to be better at that. “I have had many close family members die and this is similar as far as how I feel with the emotional roller-coaster,” she wrote in a letter to the judge. “It’s a form of torture that doesn’t need to be inflicted on Kinimo or me. … I need my husband to come home.”
When Ngoran was suddenly detained, the pastor running the Capital City Rescue Mission turned to Apple, the sheriff, for help, and he in turn contacted Sarah Rogerson, a professor at Albany Law School and director of the school’s immigration law clinic. Rogerson and her students took over Ngoran’s administrative case and reached out to Nicole Hallett, a professor at the University of Buffalo School of Law, closer to Rochester, the seat of the U.S. District Court for the Western District, where the federal appeal process would take place. Hallett’s students wrote the legal briefs on behalf of Ngoran, and on Monday, 21-year-old Chloe Nowak, a second-year law student, argued the case in court — her very first time before a judge.
Rogerson also posted about Ngroan’s case in a group email list for immigration lawyers — and connected with Copeland and Gillman, who had successfully argued some of the most challenging habeas cases to recently pass through New York. Their new legal defense initiative is founded on the belief that stopping deportations is an all-hands-on-deck effort, and that you need more lawyers, students, and communities who are dedicated to fighting these battles at all costs, and equipped with the legal skills to do it. “Our model really is inclusive,” said Gillman. “We believe that building a team is the best way to serve the interests of the clients, and we also believe that if you’re going to be a community-based organization, that means you’re actually involving the entire community.”
But while the whole team worked on Ngoran’s case and expressed some optimism about how it would end, they made no secret that this was the exception to the rule. There were countless cases like his, but most other people facing deportation didn’t have the luxury of an embattled community on their side, media attention, and lawyers from across the state willing to stop at nothing. Gillman and Copeland are determined to take as many of those cases as possible and hope that by training students and pro bono attorneys to do what they do, they can create a domino effect. But it shouldn’t have to be this hard, everyone agrees.
“It says something about Kinimo and how much community support he has and what an amazing person he is,” Hallett, the Buffalo law professor, told The Intercept, referring to the overwhelming response to Ngoran’s detention. “But there are many, many wonderful people who have families and communities and who don’t have, for instance, the support of a sheriff and a city council.”
“It shouldn’t take a village to get someone out of immigration detention,” she added. “We should have a system that treats people like human beings and recognizes their humanity; we need to reform our system so that this herculean effort isn’t necessary. But at this point, it is necessary.”
Outside Judge Siragusa’s courtroom, during a break in Ngoran’s hearing, Albany Sheriff Craig Apple called Thomas Feeley, ICE’s Buffalo field office director. He had already called him, twice, when Ngoran was first detained, and Feeley had briskly told him that ICE had every intention of deporting him as soon as possible.
This time, after Ngoran’s lawyers had won a judicial order to temporarily stop his deportation, Apple told the ICE director that he should release him from detention. The conversation quickly heated up: Feeley told the sheriff, “Your job is to uphold the Constitution,” Apple told me shortly after the call. “Don’t talk to me about the Constitution,” the sheriff yelled back. Then Feeley hung up on him. A spokesperson for ICE declined to comment on the exchange other than to say that “Field Office Director Feeley is in regular contact with all of his law enforcement counterparts.”
Apple was angry. “They could literally let him out right now,” he said. “It just goes to show you what they are. It’s an inhumane organization. To me, they have lost all credibility.”
In the sheriff — who wrote in a sworn affidavit to the judge that “In over thirty years of law enforcement, I have never seen such a miserable state of affairs when it comes to the enforcement of immigration laws in our country” — Ngoran had found a very unusual advocate.
Apple was familiar with Ngoran and his work at the Capital City Rescue Mission because his department often works with Albany charities, bringing in food donated by local businesses and coordinating support for the homeless during weather emergencies. When he heard from the mission’s director that Ngoran was detained by ICE — and in fact, held in his own jail, before being moved to Batavia — the sheriff was furious. He had tried to help individuals facing deportation a few times before — mostly quietly, making calls and trying to intercede on their behalf. But with Ngoran, he took the matter personally. “This case was just really disturbing to me,” he told me while driving to Rochester for the court hearing, “because I know what type of person he is.”
The sheriff first began to learn about the country’s broken immigration enforcement system a few years before Ngoran’s detention, when Rogerson, the Albany Law School professor, reached out to him to ask whether her students could set up a legal clinic at the local jail. Because it often operates at low capacity and is close to the airport, the Albany jail, a 1,000-bed facility, was sometimes used by ICE to house immigration detainees — although the sheriff stopped honoring retainer requests for the agency shortly after taking office.
Apple had always thought of his job as twofold: protecting and serving. “The protecting part’s easy. Everybody knows what law enforcement is all about,” he said. He was mostly interested in the second part, “the giving back part, building bridges in your community, and getting rid of all that distrust towards law enforcement.” When he agreed to Rogerson’s proposal and opened the jail to squads of students and volunteers to provide support to immigration detainees, some of his staff raised eyebrows. But as the project started, they all bought into it.
Last summer, in the middle of the family separation crisis, the Department of Homeland Security asked the sheriff whether his jail could take in 40 to 60 adults, over a period of six weeks, who had been detained at the border. He was promised that none of them had been separated from their children. He agreed, and DHS sent 300 people over eight days — the largest-ever transfer of detainees to New York state — including at least 17 who had had their children taken away from them by border authorities.
The detainees, from 39 countries and speaking 19 different languages, got off the plane looking hungry, disheveled, and disoriented, without anyone having told them they were in New York state. The sheriff, who went to the airport as the first 100 arrived, was horrified to see they had been flown to Albany in handcuffs and shackles, which he ordered his officers to promptly remove. “They had no idea where they were,” he said. “They didn’t even know what Albany was.” “We had to draw maps for them,” Rogerson chimed in.
Apple said the experience left him deeply disappointed and disillusioned with federal law enforcement. “When I saw how they came in, and knowing that they were coming from a federal facility, I was like, ‘What are we doing?’” he recalled. “These people were coming out with Mylar blankets.”
Photos: Lauren Rock for The Intercept
Before Rogerson had reached out to him about accessing his jail, the sheriff hadn’t known much about immigration, he admits. “But I know how to treat people,” he said. “And they were clearly not being treated well, and they were in the custody of our country at that point, and that was disturbing.”
He quickly resolved to treat the men and women in his care better than any other U.S. agencies had until that point. He opened his jail to lawyers and volunteers at all hours, made phone calls free for all detainees, and arranged for separated parents to teleconference with their children. On one occasion, after ICE transferred a young woman who had been detained at the jail to Batavia, and then released her onto the street, alone and with no money, after she passed her credible fear interview, Apple had someone pick her up on the street and arranged for her to stay at a hotel.
Rogerson did wonder whether, by partnering with DHS to take in immigrants, they were “part of the resistance or part of the problem,” she said. But the point, she added, was to offer immigrants access to counsel. More than 90 percent of the people they represented passed their credible fear interviews. “To me, that says that it was justified, because their cases may not have seen the light of day if they didn’t get this access,” she said.
Apple doesn’t like to be called a progressive sheriff. In fact, when he first ran for sheriff in 2011, after 24 years with the sheriff’s office, what he least liked about the prospect was the fact that he was now getting into politics. He just loved the work. He’s running for re-election this year, and he knows his advocacy around immigration is unpopular with some, but he doesn’t seem to care. “Look, I took this job to help people,” he told me. “And this is one elected position where you can literally do good every single day. … None of this stuff is rocket science. It’s just, you want to help people or not? Some people talk it; we talk it and walk it.”
Progressive or not, in New York state, at least, he is a bit of a unicorn as far as law enforcement goes. Upstate rural sheriffs, in particular, tend to be conservative, like their constituencies. Neighboring Rensselaer County is home to New York state’s only 287(g) program, a controversial partnership with immigration authorities. But in January, at the state’s annual Sheriffs’ Association conference, Apple brought Rogerson and Camille Mackler, the director of immigration legal policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, to speak in front of about 50 sheriffs from across the state. “It was like throwing meat into the lion’s den,” he joked. “A lot of [the sheriffs] were like, ‘Oh, my God, this is ridiculous.'” Still, the next day, he got the association to approve launching a subcommittee on immigration, which he chairs. He’s optimistic that basic education about immigration issues can change his colleagues’ mindset. “A lot of this is lack of knowledge; I was the same way. A lot of these sheriffs just don’t know, and they see what’s going on TV, and they’re just anti-immigration,” he said. “But once you understand the process and what’s really happening to people … all you got to have is a little tiny bit of a heart, and you’ll see that this is the right thing to do.”
The “right thing to do” is also Gillman and Copeland’s only marching order. They have near-opposite personalities, but a common razor-sharp focus on their shared goal: stopping their clients’ deportations and getting them out of detention. They work endless hours, have watched each other cry, and sometimes have gotten on each other’s nerves. A true team, they have a deep admiration for one another, joke and bicker, and occasionally complete each other’s sentences.
“Our philosophy is, go knock on the door, and keep knocking, and we’re going to push until it opens, and then when it opens we’re going to keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing more,” says Gillman. “I would say we kick the door in, but to each their own,” Copeland interrupts her.
On one thing they agree: “That philosophy is not shared by many established institutions.”
Their kick-the-door-in credo, in particular, earned them critics, even among colleagues who in theory shared the same objectives. Last year, after successfully arguing for Villavicencio’s release, they got word that Xiu Qing You, a Queens father who had been detained by ICE on the day of his green card interview, was at risk of imminent deportation. Like Sillah, You wasn’t their client, but his attorneys needed help. Copeland was supposed to leave for a vacation with his father; instead, he ended up bringing his father to court to watch him argue the case. They won.
In the end, Copeland skipped his vacation — but You was released and got to attend his daughter’s kindergarten graduation. “It’s really a profound honor to be able to do that kind of work,” Copeland said. But as he and Gillman celebrated the victory, colleagues accused them of overstepping. Some called them “ambulance chasers.”
To them, that was a sign they needed to go solo to be most effective. “It’s almost a mindset,” said Copeland. “The thing that we’re fighting is ICE being bullies, ICE being thugs, ICE flexing their muscles and doing things just because they can. Most organizations are just not flexible enough to be able to respond that quickly.”
For now, Gillman and Copeland have a lot of clients, growing community support, and no funding. They’re working on that; during a break between writing petitions in the car, they fantasized about bringing 21 Savage, the Atlanta rapper recently released from ICE detention, to a launching and fundraising party for their organization they haven’t quite had time to plan yet. Still, they want to make sure that nothing gets in the way of defending their clients against whatever threat ICE throws at them.
“There’s no way that a nonprofit can reach and manipulate its funding streams in a way that’s flexible enough to truly be responsive to what the need is,” said Copeland. “It’s not conducive to saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to drive to Buffalo over a weekend, and train a bunch of law students to save a single chef that works in Albany.’” Yet that’s exactly what they did in Ngoran’s case — and not just because they never say no, but also because they hoped a win in the case would establish a legal precedent in the Western District of New York, which in turn would help countless others in Ngoran’s position. “We’re in Buffalo right now, driving to Batavia on a Sunday, and sometimes that’s the thing that needs to happen. Sometimes you need to be outside Federal Plaza, knocking on the door at four in the morning.”
The work is urgent, and it can get sloppy sometimes. Copeland wrote Sillah’s petition for a stay in less than an hour. Once, Gillman recalled, she was so rushed that she ended up leaving the wrong client’s name in another emergency petition to halt a deportation. “I just had to get to court and stop it,” she said. She did, and a day later she found out her client was actually a U.S. citizen.
There are tireless, dedicated lawyers in the criminal justice system, but perhaps the closest comparison to Gillman and Copeland’s never-give-up ethos is the commitment of attorneys representing inmates on death row. “People’s lives can be torn apart in a matter of hours. You don’t get a second chance,” said Copeland. “There’s just a ton to lose.”
Sillah, the Bronx father, knows that well. On February 25, the day of Ngoran’s hearing in Rochester, officers at the Hudson County Jail, in New Jersey, woke him up at 4 a.m. and told him to pack his belongings. (First, though, they woke up a different man by the same last name.)
Sillah, who has five children with his U.S. citizen wife, including a 9-month-old girl, had been detained at his regular check-in with ICE on January 31. From the jail, he was taken to Federal Plaza, a federal building in downtown Manhattan, where he was finally allowed to make a phone call to his wife — though only after he agreed to sign a form officers gave him. His wife, Mamou Drame, immediately called the New Sanctuary Coalition, and the coalition tracked down Gillman and Copeland as they drove back from Rochester.
At Kennedy Airport, about an hour before his 8:20 p.m. flight and just as Gillman and Copeland waited at a gas station upstate to hear whether a judge would let them argue his case by phone, Sillah called his wife to say goodbye.
“It’s not 8:20 p.m. yet,” she told him. “Don’t give up.”