Most of the University of Washington students who arrived by bus to a protest outside the Northwest Detention Center this morning never saw their classmate as he spoke to an immigration judge at a hearing for his release on bond. Bangally Fatty, an international studies student from The Gambia, was picked up by immigration officials while driving in September. He has remained in detention ever since.
The immigration court allowed Fatty to invite 10 people to the hearing. He opted for family members and his professors, including the head of the University of Washington's Jackson School of International Studies. Rebecca Fatty, Bangally's wife, brought along their four-month-old daughter Sunkaruh to see her father. The detention center isn't technically a prison, as it only detains people who have been charged with civil immigration offenses. Still, a prohibition on conjugal visits means Bangally has not been able to hold his newborn in two months.
After more than an hour of testimony, Rebecca Fatty, her family, Bangally's professors, and lawyers from the University of Washington's immigration law clinic trickled back into the court waiting room in silence and some tears. The request to release Fatty on bond had been denied by Judge Theresa Scala over jurisdictional issues.
"We both try to stay strong for each other and for Sunny," Rebecca Fatty told The Stranger outside the detention center. "But [detention is] not an easy place to be. It's a dark, oppressive place to be trapped in. And it weighs on him for sure. But, you know, we take it day by day. We talk to each other, encourage each other, and know that it's all temporary."
Bangally Fatty's story in the United States immigration system began in 2011, after he had been living in the United States for nine years. Fatty had arrived in the US on a student visa years prior, but after he lost his college funding, he sometimes experienced homelessness. After that, his lawyers say, he became a victim of labor trafficking. But he also ran afoul of the law on domestic violence misdemeanor convictions with an ex-partner in 2006. Four years later, he was convicted on a pot trafficking charge, and after that, a judge ordered his removal from the country. At that time, The Gambia was refusing to provide US immigration officials emergency travel documents for deportation, so instead, immigration officials released Fatty on supervision. Up until two months ago, Fatty had been checking in with immigration officials regularly on those supervisory terms.
In the years since 2011, Fatty rehabilitated himself, his lawyers and instructors say. He met his US citizen wife, Rebecca, three years ago, and enrolled in Shoreline Community College, and then the University of Washington. He and Rebecca had a baby. His professors and peers describe him as a rare find in the undergraduate community: a passionate student who even met with his instructors before the quarter began to get a head start.
"All my students are great, but he's a real standout," Tim Paine, a professor of economics at Shoreline Community College, said. "Super intelligent, insightful, incredible writer. He has just unlimited potential." Fatty was someone, Paine added, we "need in this country."
Saddiq Faizi, a classmate of Fatty's, said Fatty was "very outspoken and very passionate about the topics" in their international studies classes. "He always had a smile on his face," he said.
But when political tides changed, so did Fatty's fate in the United States. The new administration began mounting pressure on countries like the Gambia to comply with deportation proceedings, and they did. Once emergency travel documents became available for Gambian nationals, Fatty was detained.
At today's bond hearing, prosecutors argued that it wasn't within Judge Scala's jurisdiction to grant release while Fatty's application for a T-visa, a special visa granted to trafficking victims, was pending, and Scala agreed. No media were allowed in the room per Fatty's request, despite the fact that Fatty's lawyers had previously authorized media to come inside.
According to Fatty's attorney Christopher Strawn, director of the University of Washington's immigration law clinic, Judge Scala had warned Fatty that the court would discuss his past criminal convictions before he decided to keep reporters out of the room.
"I do feel like in this case it was his choice, and she gave us time to talk to him about it, but there is a concern [of] undue pressure to exclude the media from the courtroom," Strawn said. "But in this case, I will say it was the client ultimately making the decision based on what the judge was saying about going over past criminal history that he was not comfortable with having the press there."
Now that Fatty's bond has been denied, the question of Scala's jurisdiction goes back to US District Court. In the meantime, Fatty's lawyers will appeal to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) directly.
"Normally we look to the judges to grant bond, and I'd say it is difficult to convince ICE to release someone once they're in detention," Strawn said. "But we're going to submit everything we can and make the best case we can that he should be released while his T-visa is being decided."