December 19, 2004: Headlines: COS - Marshall Islands: Service: Crime: Homeland Security: Immigration: Bismark Tribune: RPCV Bob Cress helped get Jimmy Mote released after almost one year in custody

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Marshall Islands: Peace Corps Marshall Islands : The Peace Corps in the Marshall Islands: December 19, 2004: Headlines: COS - Marshall Islands: Service: Crime: Homeland Security: Immigration: Bismark Tribune: RPCV Bob Cress helped get Jimmy Mote released after almost one year in custody

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RPCV Bob Cress helped get Jimmy Mote released after almost one year in custody

RPCV Bob Cress helped get Jimmy Mote released after almost one year in custody

RPCV Bob Cress helped get Jimmy Mote released after almost one year in custody

Lost in the shuffle
By TONY SPILDE, Bismarck Tribune

BEULAH -- A vinyl Santa Claus stared through the front window of Jimmy Mote's small apartment, out on the edge of town.

Ho ho ho.

But he didn't see it.

No, man. He looked right through the rosy cheeks of old Kris Kringle, out into the past. He thought about the rain, how it almost washed away his life. He thought about the hula dancer and the former Peace Corps volunteer who helped him get it back.

He thought about handcuffs and jail and terrorism. He thought about leaving North Dakota for good. Mote mindlessly rubbed his bare foot across a crusty Kool-Aid stain in the carpet. His ankle was hairless where an electronic bracelet had been attached during a lengthy house arrest in Minneapolis.

Friday marked one year since state troopers -- acting on the authority of the U.S. Border Patrol -- handcuffed Mote in Bismarck and took him to jail. He had been living in Mandan at the time and was trying to get an ID so he could cash his unemployment check.

Mote, 34, would spend most of the next year away from his family, in custody, battling to stay in the United States. The Marshall Islands native, who moved to this country a dozen years ago, said he felt singled out because of his color. He said he was a victim of a Department of Homeland Security that didn't know its own rules.

"I knew I was in trouble when no one knew where the Marshall Islands was," Mote said.

It all started one cloudy day in 1998, when the skies opened and poured rain down onto an envelope as it made its way from the Marshall Islands to a post office here. The envelope found a home in Mote's mailbox. He peeled it open and pulled himself out.

A version of himself. And a bad one. The rain had smeared the first few pages of Mote's passport, blurring his signature and shrinking the paper. He tried to stretch it back to its original size, and in the process tore the page with his picture on it.

Five years later, a clerk in the driver's license office in Bismarck looked at that page, looked again, and notified her supervisor. Following procedure, they confiscated Mote's altered passport and asked him to return for it in a few days. When he did, a border patrol agent interviewed him over the phone, then asked to speak with the highway patrol. Three troopers, including Capt. Mark Bethke, handcuffed Mote in front of his wife and 3-year-old son. Mote said he heard one of the men say he looked like a terrorist. Bethke said that never happened.

Mote's family wouldn't see him again for eight months. In the meantime, they would lose their home and two vehicles.

A border patrol agent drove the handcuffed Mote to a holding facility in Bottineau, where he stayed for a week. He was then sent to Carver County Jail in Chaska, Minn., for more than six months, unable to afford a $1,500 bond. He'd spend more than four more months in house arrest -- first with the Hmong family of a man he met in jail, then with a former Peace Corps volunteer to the Marshall Islands.

Initially, Mote was charged with "overstaying" in the United States. A computer check with Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed his visa had expired in 1999, but that was later revealed to be an error.

"They thought he was here illegally, and that got their dander up," said Bob Cress, the former Peace Corps volunteer. "I don't think anything would have happened if that clerk had known about the Marshall Islands."

q q q

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a cluster of small islands located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. It was under U.S. control until 1986. That year, an agreement called the Compact of Free Association was reached between the Marshall Islands and the United States, which allows citizens of that country to live and work here freely.

As it turns out, that agreement was news to many within the Department of Homeland Security. It took a letter from the Department of the Interior -- six months after Mote was detained -- to shed light on his situation. The overstaying charge was dropped in July, and Mote was released to house arrest.

Then, however, another part of Mote's past caught up with him. The Compact of Free Association covers the Marshallese as long as they don't violate the law. But Mote had been convicted in 1998 of writing no-account checks. He said they were in the $10 to $15 range, on an account he didn't know had been closed. He also was convicted of driving without a license and assault.

"Jimmy does have a criminal record," said his attorney, Sheila Stuhlman, of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. "Anyone who isn't a U.S. citizen who commits a crime in the United States puts their status at risk."

Immigration focused on the bad checks. They charged Mote with committing a crime of "moral turpitude" within five years of his admission to this country. According to Louisa Aquino, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, conviction on such a charge is strong enough to warrant deportation. That meant Mote would have to fight to not be separated from his wife and three young children.

In the meantime, Mote's wife, Jeanette, was struggling with the bureaucratic hassle of getting him a green card. That would change his status from non-immigrant to immigrant and would allow him permanent residency. He hadn't bothered to apply before because of the compact.

In August, Immigration Judge Kristin Olmanson sustained the charge against Mote and found him removable from the United States. Stuhlman argued that Mote had filed an application for permanent residency with Citizenship and Immigration Services. Like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CIS falls under Homeland Security.

Olmanson set a court date for Dec. 2 -- just two and a half weeks ago -- to hear Mote's case. She reviewed his files, said he met all the requirements and granted his residency. He was allowed to go home. After nearly a year in custody, fighting red tape and his own mistakes, Jimmy Mote was a free man.

q q q

Looking back, he said, probably the best thing that happened to him was seeing that hula dancer. Somewhere in the pages of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Mote saw a picture of Mary Bjork. The caption on the photo -- which was of Bjork and her daughter taking hula lessons -- said the woman was Marshallese.

Mote called her, and she put him in touch with Cress, who is married to a Marshallese woman. Cress publicized Mote's story and was openly critical of the government's case. He thought immigration screwed up when it charged Mote with overstaying, then brought the check-kiting charges against him to cover its tracks.

"I don't think they would have gone to these piddly checks they found if they would have known at the time (about the Compact of Free Association)," Cress said. "They wasted a lot of time and effort and money putting this guy through the wringer for a year. They kept him away from his family, and he couldn't work for a year. They basically screwed up their lives because they didn't know where the Marshall Islands was."

While Mote was in custody, his family was evicted from their Mandan home and lost both of their cars. He had been the main breadwinner, and had earned no money for almost a year.

The family is now living in Beulah, where Jeanette Mote has relatives. They said they want to leave North Dakota as soon as possible.

They will stay here at least through Christmas, Jimmy Mote said. His eyes focused again on the holiday window decorations in his apartment. Last year, those eyes were shedding tears in a jail cell on Christmas Day.

"I was confused, I didn't know what to do," Mote said, recalling his situation. "I am happy to be here at Christmas this year. And for all the other birthdays and holidays I missed."

(Reach Tony Spilde at 250-8260 or

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Bismark Tribune

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Marshall Islands; Service; Crime; Homeland Security; Immigration



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