PHILADELPHIA -- Derrick Cotterel was a farmworker who came to the United States from Jamaica, picking citrus in Florida and apples in West Virginia for 10 years, before a pay dispute with an employer led to his arrest last year on robbery charges.
Given his long-expired visa, the arrest landed Cotterel in immigration custody in York, Pa. But judges there struggled for nearly a year to understand his request for political asylum.
Cotterel, 42, speaks Creole, a Jamaican patois, which might alone be difficult for Americans to grasp. But his speech is compromised by a severe stutter that makes him nearly impossible to understand. Nor can he read or write.
Unlike criminal defendants, immigration detainees like Cotterel have no right to free counsel. So Cotterel sat in the York County Prison, where about 700 detained immigrants are housed with 1,700 convicted or suspected criminals, from July 2010 until May while frustrated judges continued his bail and asylum hearings.
One judge tried to toss him only yes-or-no questions about his asylum claim, and asked Cotterel to raise his left or right hand, depending on his response.
York immigration lawyer Craig R. Shagin is frequently asked to take cases pro bono, but can take only a few, and chooses those he thinks have merit. He recently agreed to help Cotterel -- who lost his asylum bid -- with his appeal. He believes his client could be killed if he returns to Jamaica.
"These types of cases, you basically have death-penalty consequences while employing traffic-court procedures. It's very frightening," Shagin said.