HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS: African native facing deportation released from ICE custody
POCATELLO — If you ask the Matimba family, Christmas miracles are for real.
Chakanetsa Christopher Matimba and his family have been praying for a miracle since he was arrested at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in June, incarcerated at the Jefferson County Jail in Rigby and told deportation to his native country of Zimbabwe was imminent.
The phrase imminent took on a whole new meaning in October when Matimba, who has called Southeast Idaho home for the past 16 years when he immigrated on a student visa to attend Idaho State University in 2002, was placed on a plane and told he was being sent back to Africa.
He made it as far as the nation’s capital before the federal Board of Immigration Appeals in Virginia granted an emergency request to postpone his removal and ICE officials were forced to transport Matimba back to Idaho.
“Zero,” said Chris Christensen, Matimba’s Boise-based attorney. “Zero times in my eight years as an immigration attorney have I witnessed a stay request granted so late in the process. The fact he was on a plane heading back to Africa when ICE was told to bring him back is simply remarkable.”
While it’s remarkable Matimba was brought back to Southeast Idaho after traveling over 2,000 miles across the country, what’s miraculous about his story, according to Matimba, is that Steven Caley, an immigration judge in Aurora, Colorado on Dec. 14 approved a $3,000 bond allowing him to return home to his family just days before Christmastime.
“Oh man, has it been a wonderful blessing,” Matimba told the Journal on Thursday during his first phone interview out of police custody since he was arrested on June 5. “This is like a Christmas miracle, a Christmas wish come true.”
Christensen said that because he had spent six months in the Jefferson County Jail waiting for his deportation, Matimba was entitled to a bond hearing under laws of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Immigration prosecutors had the burden of proving that Matimba did not deserve a bond because he was either a flight risk or a danger to society, Christensen added.
“The prosecutors kept hounding on Matimba’s criminal conviction (of misdemeanor domestic battery,” Christensen said. “And I argued that immigration courts are not designed to rehash criminal cases. The best judge in the position to look at the facts of what occurred in that case is the judge who gave him a withheld judgement, credit for time served, put him on probation and in 2011 dismissed the conviction altogether.”
Matimba was initially arrested and detained in June because Zimbabwe officials finally provided the U.S. government with necessary travel documents needed to deport him.
The U.S. government had been waiting for the documents for over a decade since ICE first issued an order to remove Matimba from the country in 2007 after he used a withheld judgment and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal charge of domestic battery in Bannock County. That conviction made it illegal for Matimba to remain in the United States.
Matimba spent 11 days in the Bannock County Jail because of the conviction and 10 months in the custody of ICE at a jail in Arizona awaiting removal from the country before he was released because of the missing documents necessary to deport him.
Ultimately, his criminal conviction was dismissed by the court in February 2011 and Matimba continued to voluntarily report to ICE officials for 11 years not knowing that deportation loomed ahead because the order of removal was never dismissed.
“I argued that he spent a total of 16 months in immigration detention based on a criminal charge that he only served 11 days in jail for,” Christensen said. “Talk about disproportionate sentencing. So, I told the judge that the only thing that has changed in the last 11 years is that the government got his travel documents.”
The judge apparently agreed with Christensen and granted the request, doubling the $1,500 bond Christensen requested. And although Christensen has a strict policy of not paying bonds for his clients, he made an exception in Matimba’s case and rushed over to pay the $3,000 bond before the immigration offices in Boise closed at 3 p.m. that day.
After the bond was paid, Matimba was able to embrace his wife of six years, Deon Matimba, and his family for the first time in six months two weeks ago.
“Man it means the world to me,” Christopher Matimba said about his release. “I’ve spent the last six months having moments explained to me over the phone or through a pane of glass, so to be able to live these next memories in person is a true blessing. Our prayers have definitely been answered.”
Deon Matimba added, “My life is like a cheesy Christmas movie right now. I went from basically mourning Chris like he died to having him home in time for the holidays. Now I’m just waiting on the happy ending.”
It wasn’t just Christensen who was surprised Christopher Matimba was sent back to Idaho after arriving in Washington D.C. in October.
“One ICE agent that was transporting me to Africa told me that in six years on the job, he had never seen a deportation cancelled basically mid-flight,” Matimba said.
In the days since he’s been a free man, Christopher Matimba has hung Christmas lights for his step-daughter, Tarryn Porath, attended a Christmas program at his church, Rocky Mountain Ministries, and looks forward to watching the Green Bay Packers with his 11-year-old son, Dominique.
“It was the best moment of my life for sure,” Dominique said about his dad and step-mom surprising him at school the day Christopher Matimba was released. “I thought I wasn’t going to ever see him again. My friends were cheering and then we did this huge group-hug. It means the world to me that he’s home again.”
Though Christopher Matimba gets to spend the holidays with his family, he is not out of the woods quite yet, Christensen said.
The Board of Immigration Appeals has yet to rule on a motion that Christensen filed to have Christopher Matimba’s order of removal case reopened. If and when the case is reopened, an immigration judge must then rule that Christopher Matimba should not be removed from the country.
If a judge does rule in his favor, Christopher Matimba can then apply for a relative petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is the first step in getting a permanent resident card, also known as a Green Card. The Matimba’s had filed for a petition but it was denied because USCIS said they never received the couples’ necessary marriage paperwork.
In August, USCIS stated that it did in fact receive the paperwork and reopened the petition. The Matimba’s cannot proceed with that process until the order of removal is dismissed, however.
While the necessary processes are expected to take at least several months, Christopher Matimba is thrilled to not spend that time wasting away in a jail cell, he said. And as he prepares to enjoy quality time with his family during the holidays, this experience has brought a religious scripture to the forefront of his mind.
Quoting Mark 10:9, Christopher Matimba said, “What therefore God has put together, let no man put asunder. We’ve been fighting to keep this family intact for six months and we didn’t make an exception for the government or for ICE to take that away from us.”
Christopher Matimba continued, “They say families are forever, and that’s true. Even the immigrant families.”