With his heart set on becoming a Christian minister and fulfilling his own devout American Dream, Jamaican immigrant Pernell Mitchell has struggled with his legal status in spite of shoddy legal counsel and alleged bureaucratic negligence, all the while seemingly adhering to immigration protocol. And now, he may be deported on February 7, which would all but devastate his family of seven, including his wife and daughter who have both been diagnosed with cancer in recent years.
As it stands currently, the now-undocumented 49-year-old Mitchell, of Mastic, has been summoned to appear next week at Federal Plaza in Manhattan to the office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to be removed from the country.
Last week, as he looked over paperwork sprawled across his dining room table that charts the timeline of his immigration case, he was visibly exacerbated by the lack of results from his efforts to properly and meticulously navigate the immigration system.
“I was trying to do everything right,” Mitchell said. “Nobody knows about it. This is my story for all these years.”
Mitchell recounted that when he immigrated to the U.S. on an F-1 student visa on January 15, 2004, he had high hopes as he prepared to study at Carver Bible College in Atlanta, Georgia, to earn his bachelor’s degree in biblical studies. He also brought his wife and two daughters along with F-2 dependent visas, as well.
While at Carver, he also took up a position as an associate pastor at Greater White Rock Baptist Church. Graduating in May 2007, he started gearing up to continue his work by serving at Believers Chapel Bible Church in St. Louis, Missouri.
With his student visa set to expire in December 2008, Mitchell also applied and received Optional Practical Training (OPT), a form of employment authorization for F-1 students. Needing to take on additional work to support his family, he asked his attorney at the time if he could work outside of his field of study, to which she advised him that he could work in “anything,” he remembered.
Meanwhile, to extend his stay for his post-graduate studies, Mitchell applied for an R-1 religious visa, which would allow him to further his education with a master of divinity degree at Luther Rice University back in Georgia. He received his acceptance letter from the institution in October 2007 and would start there once his R-1 was processed.
After moving to St. Louis, his drivers license had expired, so he inquired for assistance with the California branch of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which was processing his R-1 application. Officials there advised him to visit the local St. Louis immigration office with his documentation so that he may be granted a temporary drivers license.
Doing just that, he set up an appointment for September 2008, a meeting that would alter the course of his fate and begin his nearly decade-long struggle to stay in the country, despite his insistence that he had done everything by the letter of the law.
At that meeting, the immigration officer reviewed his case and, to Mitchell’s bewilderment, declared that he had overstayed his visa and ignored his documents that said otherwise.
“He pretty much put the documentation aside and wrote me up to appear before the immigration court,” Mitchell said, adding that the officer took the documents from him as well.
Now, with a pending case of violations against him, Mitchell enlisted a legal aid attorney to help him with the case, which was now transferred to Kansas City, Missouri.
Shortly after, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) served him with the notice to appear, alleging that he was admitted to the U.S. to study at Carver Bible College “on or about” May 24, 2005. However, this is one year off, since Mitchell started his education there in the spring of 2004, according to his transcript.
Also, the DHS notice claims that he did not attend Carver from April 17, 2007 through September 30, 2008. However, Mitchell’s transcript shows that he was still enrolled in the Spring of 2007 and graduated in May of that year. Meanwhile, his F-1 visa was valid through December 2008.
Mitchell said that he was assured by his attorney that instead of appearing in person, they could remotely conference with the court to avoid the four-hour drive from St. Louis to Kansas City.
However, to Mitchell’s confusion, the conference never happened, and his attorney told him afterward that he in fact went to the court himself on Mitchell’s behalf and that he would have to submit to voluntary departure to leave the U.S.
“Well, that was not our agreement. The agreement was that we would have met in person [for the conference]…,” Mitchell said. “I should have had the right to either agree or deny the charges, and I did not appear. Three children [born] here, a total of five children, and I didn’t know what to do at that particular time. I didn’t leave,” Mitchel said.
So, again, Mitchell met with St. Louis immigration officials after he received the letter informing him that he had to leave the country. Speaking with the officer, Mitchell was told that it is the charge of their office to detain and deport him. However, Mitchell argued back, questioning what right they had to deport him if he had not appeared in person to dispute the charges against him.
According to Mitchell, the officer buckled and told him that something must have gone wrong and that they could not deport him.
“He gave me back all my documentation and he told me, ‘take your case somewhere else and get it resolved.’ I took my case, and I came to New York. I had to uproot my family, rent a house. I took on two jobs at the time to take care of a family of seven,” Mitchell said.
Additionally, Mitchell’s application for the R-1 visa was denied because, contrary to what another attorney representing him had advised, he was not permitted to work outside of his field of study, as per the rules of his OPT work authorization.
“When I confronted the lawyer, she would not take responsibility for it. The problem is… it’s going to be my word against her word. So, California denied the religious visa on the basis that I could not prove who authorized me to work outside the field of my studies,” Mitchell said.
In 2012, shortly after settling on Long Island in Mastic, the Mitchell family would be thrown into further chaos as his wife Judith was diagnosed with breast cancer, while one of his daughters was also found to have lymphoma. And, with his case deadlocked, his documentation had expired, leaving Mitchell without legal status.
Mitchell now provides for his family by working 14-hour days with custodial and housekeeping work.
Several years back, coming home from work, Mitchell was pulled over by Suffolk County police for allegedly swerving on the road. After finding that he was without legal status, he was arrested and detained for more than three weeks.
Cheryl Keshner, a senior paralegal and community advocate with the Empire Justice Center, assisted the family at that time in finding legal representation and helping them to secure funds and social services, as Mitchell was the sole provider at that time.
“They’re a lovely family really working hard, trying to move forward. Since then, Mrs. Mitchell has been able to go back to work. They bought their own home. Mr. Mitchell is working two jobs, and they’re really trying to do their best for the family,” Keshner said.
In January of this year, Mitchell checked in with immigration officials. They alerted him to prepare to leave the country by his next appointment on February 7.
To fight his impending deportation, he has looked into legal help, but has not yet found an attorney he can afford and remains unrepresented. As of now, his only standing recourse is a pending work permit.
“I don’t understand the point of deporting someone like Pernell Mitchell, who is contributing to the community, who has not created any problems. He’s making our country richer, in so many ways,” Keshner said. “To do that is going to throw the family into crisis… They will probably lose their home if he gets deported and end up having to become dependent on social services.”
As of publication, ICE has not responded to a request for comment on the case.