DETROIT – The government has agreed to reopen the case of an asylum seeker who came to the U.S. from war-torn Yugoslavia 16 years ago and who was ordered deported after he was 40 minutes late to an immigration hearing, his lawyer said Tuesday.
The decision was made before a federal appeals court issued a ruling Monday reluctantly declining to intervene in the case of Anton Camaj, even as it described his situation as a "miscarriage of justice."
Camaj, a 43-year-old painter who lives in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, came to the U.S. from the former Yugoslavia in 1994 and sought asylum the next year when faced with deportation proceedings.
He attended two hearings in 1995 at an immigration building east of downtown Detroit, but he arrived 40 minutes late for the third meeting at a different location — and six minutes after a judge dismissed the case and ordered him deported. Camaj has argued he was confused about the new location.
Camaj's attorney, Carrie Pastor Cardinale, said Tuesday that an immigration judge recently reopened the case with the consent of the U.S. Justice Department. The appeals court was not aware.
"We still have to prove his case," Cardinale said, referring to why Camaj, an ethnic Albanian, believes he deserves to stay in the U.S. instead of being deported to Montenegro, which was once part of Yugoslavia.
Justice Department lawyer Anthony Nicastro could not immediately be reached for comment.
In its ruling Monday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Congress had adopted strict rules about attendance to prevent people from skipping immigration hearings just to extend their stays in the U.S.
But a case like Camaj's probably was not what lawmakers had in mind, the three-judge panel said.
"Our current legislative, administrative, and judicial procedures have combined to deprive a fellow human being of his day in the courts of our country," judges Judith Barzilay, Ralph Guy Jr. and Richard Griffin said.
Nonetheless, the Cincinnati-based court said it must follow legal precedent and rule against him.
It wasn't the first time the appeals court had weighed in. In 2003, it ordered a fresh look to determine whether Camaj's rights were violated because of the building mix-up. An immigration judge subsequently said it wasn't practical in 1995 to personally deliver a notice to Camaj, and the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld that decision.
Camaj declined to comment when reached by phone Tuesday.
Cardinale said Camaj is single but has extended family in the Detroit area.
"He's been here 16 years. He has a painting business. He's made a life for himself," she said. "I have to show that he fears future persecution in Montenegro because of ethnicity. For him to go back as an ethnic Albanian puts him in great harm."
Cardinale believes the appeals court's decision could help other immigrants in similar situations.
"It's valuable. The court made a strong statement about how unfair the laws are," she said.