An asylum-seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo was reunited with his family in San Diego on Sunday after almost two years in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention.
At St. Luke’s North Park Episcopal Church, he was all smiles as he thanked his friends and supporters for rallying for his release during a “welcome home” celebration that included singing and dancing.
“The joy that I feel right now, I don’t have words for it,” Constantin Bakala said through an interpreter.
He speaks French, and his inability to communicate in English was one thing that made it very hard to navigate the U.S. immigration system when he was in detention.
Bakala said he was kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured in the Democratic Republic of Connago for belonging to a pro-democracy political party. He left the country and traveled with his wife and seven children to Brazil. After a perilous journey through South and Central America, they arrived at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in November 2017.
There, Constantin was separated from his wife and children, who settled in San Diego while their asylum claims play out in court without him.
While in ICE detention, Constantin was initially ordered removed from the country. But his family’s church, St Luke’s, sprung into action to get him free, raising money and locating an immigration attorney for him.
During his time in ICE custody, Bakala was shuffled around between four different detention centers, leaving his family often in the lurch when it came to his whereabouts and safety.
“I want people who are in a similar situation to my family, just remember that you’re not alone,” Bakala’s daughter, Marie Louise, told reporters after reuniting with her father. “There will be people to help you and support your family,”
She was worried about her father possibly missing her 18th birthday next month. With her father fanning her as she spoke to the media in Sunday’s heat, that concern was now behind her.
Now, Bakala and his family can be together as they wait for a year or possibly longer, to see if a judge will grant them asylum.
He has yet to receive a work permit. So, he said he’ll be helping out at home as his wife, who has already received a work permit, supports the family financially.
The family was initially set to have a court hearing later this month on their asylum claims. But that date was pushed back to a reshuffling of immigration court priorities, as asylum-seekers sent back to Mexico under the Remain-In-Mexico program are now having their court dates prioritized over “non-detained” immigrants.
For now, the family is just happy to be back together in one place after a trip that bridged three continents and an almost two-year separation.