The little boy wasn’t happy with the blue sandal on his right foot.
He stood in the lobby, its cold, metal chairs dotted with blankets, clothes and yesterday’s fast food boxes, and tried to shake off the shoe.
Eventually he succeeded — the third time this morning — and his mother, tired of putting it back on, removed its mate.
Maksim “Max” Golubets waddled from chair to chair inside Charleston’s Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center. He stood a head taller than the seat bottoms he drummed on. Sometimes he smiled around his pacifier, which he sometimes dropped to the tile floor. Sometimes he cried. Sometimes he wanted to be held.
“He has to be around me 100 percent,” Bluffton’s Kristin Cooper said of her 9-month-old son. “He’s been super clingy. I think he gathers the stress we’re all under.”
Her words were at once matter-of-fact, clipped and soft, similar to the way she tended to Max — she’d sweep him up in her arms in a quick, gentle, motion, calming him with tender efficiency.
The stress — which Kristin carried in her pinched brow, often her only tell — stemmed from the possibility that her family could soon be torn apart. The detention center held her husband, an illegal immigrant and convicted criminal with a complicated past and a complex case, one local attorneys think is worth arguing, one the government has little sympathy for.
She watched Max through black-rimmed glasses. The middle third of her short, dark hair was pulled up atop her head, secured with a clip. Her face was expressionless, perhaps because she willed it so, or because she was too tired to emote, or because all of this had happened before.
She clutched her cellphone in her right hand and once again checked the time.
It was just minutes from 9:10 a.m. on Wednesday, May 3. Soon, she’d check in with a guard and walk behind a cinder-block wall and sit in a stiff chair in front of a glass-encased computer monitor, on which her husband — Max’s father — would appear.
This had been the routine during the past few days: she’d leave her friend’s house in Charleston where she was crashing; drive with Max to the detention center; sit in the fluorescent-lit lobby; watch people use its kiosks to deposit money into prisoners’ accounts; wait for the visitation times she’d scheduled and, finally, talk — through a phone connected to a monitor, one of a dozen or so arranged like stalls in a locker room — to her husband.
Andrey Golubets had been in jail for six days, held on a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement order. It wasn’t the first time ICE had detained him.
The 27-year-old Bluffton resident was back in Charleston after missing a recent required ICE appointment, that agency said. Attending the appointment and others like it — what Andrey and Kristin call “security checks” — was a condition of his supervised release after a federal judge ordered his deportation in March 2015. He’s been going to check-ins in Charleston every couple months or so for the past four years, he said.
And during that time, Andrey — a construction worker and house-framer who’s lived in South Carolina illegally for almost 20 years since being brought here by his parents — has feared being detained at a check-in and deported.
His criminal record — a string of misdemeanors and traffic violations — hasn’t eased that fear. He knows it likely cost him an earlier chance to stay in the country legally. ICE points to it as justifying his removal. His family is ashamed of it but says he’s changed since marrying Kristin in April 2015 and fathering Max.
Soon, in a last-ditch effort to keep him in the country, his attorney would ask a federal judge to reopen his case and suspend the deportation order — to weigh his crimes against his time in America, the Ukranian culture he’s lost, his marriage to a U.S. citizen and the impact his absence will have on his family.
But on this day — the day before Andrey would be shipped across the state line to a different prison, one with a tough reputation — all he and Kristin knew is they’d get to talk three times.
Three timed video calls during which the seconds ticked away in the top-right corner of a monitor and the connection ended automatically, abruptly.
Three 30-minute sessions during which a couple discussed legal fees; a wife pledged to follow her husband abroad if he’s deported; and a father made faces at the child he hopes will have a better life.
Yet Max’s future will be shaped by laws and policies and decisions he doesn’t understand and which he can’t control.
It’s a scenario Andrey’s familiar with, because in some ways Max’s childhood is his own.
“When Andrey was little, I had to get up at 5 a.m. to get milk and stand in line,” his mother, Iryna Golubets, said, remembering the Ukraine in the early 1990s.
The Soviet Union had just collapsed.
Ukraine — formerly the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic — had just declared its independence.
Money was devalued.
Food was scarce.
And if she didn’t get in line early enough, Iryna would find empty shelves in the store and no milk for her child.
She told the story as she sat at the kitchen table in her family’s Bluffton house just off May River Road. On the table were slices of watermelon and grapefruit, which were offered to guests. A calendar with Slavic writing hung on a nearby wall in the modified modular home, outside of which was a man-made pond and basketball goal.
Her husband, Oleg, also sat at the table and, with his foot, rubbed the belly of one of the family dogs.
Oleg was the first to flee the Ukraine. He followed his brother to Tampa, Fla., in the early 1990s, but the pair soon relocated to Bluffton after learning construction jobs were in demand. Iryna joined him in 1995, leaving behind then-5-year-old Andrey with his grandmother.
“It was challenging,” Iryna said. “The most difficult thing was the language” — she was fired from her first American job, cleaning motel rooms for $5 an hour, as she struggled to learn English — “and we were afraid to bring Andrey, because we weren’t sure about the future.”
On May 3, Andrey, dressed in tan prison clothes, remembered coming to the U.S. for the first time.
He spoke in a monotone that projected loudly, if a bit tinny, through the video monitor’s phone. Sometimes he put his hands behind his head; his hair appeared to be receding on the sides, forming an exaggerated widow’s peak. He had bags under his eyes, and he often sighed as he talked.
“My family first brought me here when I was 7 years old,” he said. “And we ended up moving to Bluffton House, which is Avalon Shores (Apartments) now. ... As far as I know they told me I was going to Disney World or something like that.”
“I never asked to come over,” he continued. “I guess they brought me over so I could have a better opportunity.”
The main charge ICE has on him now, he said, is overstaying the tourist visa he was issued when he first entered the country. That document expired when he was 8.
At the time the Golubets didn’t try to get green cards. They worried their situation wouldn’t warrant approval for permanent residency in the U.S. — although they’d fled a bad situation in the Ukraine, there was no war there, no one dying in the streets, Iryna explained. An attempt to obtain legal status would just out them, they feared. So the couple worked and went unnoticed as they made their new home.
It would be almost a decade before Andrey realized he was “illegal,” Iryna said, when his friends started getting driver’s licenses and jobs, and he couldn’t.
He said it first hit home during a traffic stop, when officers told him he didn’t have “any papers,” then detained him for the first time.
On May 3, Kristin sat down in the stiff chair in front of the detention center’s computer monitor VV10 for the first of three video calls with her husband.
She’d put on a black baseball cap. A tattoo peeked out of a slit in the back of her shirt near her neck. She balanced Max on her lap.
Max had been a surprise baby. She learned she was expecting after a “hip-hop cardio class,” which made her unusually tired and prompted her to take a pregnancy test. He was a welcome surprise, coming after the couple’s first attempt to have a child ended in a miscarriage.
Still, Max was sick with respiratory ailments for the first six months of his life. She’d quit her job at a local car dealership to stay home with him. While her side of the family helps support her, she said, having Andrey — the family’s sole provider — in prison is a challenge.
Andrey is one of about 40,000 “aliens,” as of April, being detained by ICE, according to agency spokesman Bryan Cox. In all there are about 2.3 million people who are either awaiting the outcomes of removal proceedings or have been ordered removed by a federal judge.
Andrey and Kristin were dating in April 2014 when he was detained after a security check-in, she said. She keeps the poems — still creased from their time in envelopes — she sent to him at Lumpkin, Ga.’s Stewart Detention Center, the privately operated, for-profit, federal prison, where he was being held. It was his second time in Lumpkin after being previously detained there in 2008, according to his mother.
Stewart is the site of “America’s toughest immigration court,” according to nonprofit criminal-justice journalism site The Marshall Project, and where a 2016 Southern Poverty Law Center analysis showed deportation rates far exceeded the national average. On May 15, Panamanian national and detainee Jean Jimenez-Joseph — who was reported to have broken prison rules and been placed in solitary confinement, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — died at Stewart after being isolated for 19 days. He was found with a bed sheet around his neck. He was 27.
Kristin knew about her husband’s immigration status when they started dating. It had no bearing on her decision to marry him, she said — “It was love at first sight.”
The pair first met at Bluffton’s Coconuts Bar & Grill, which has since closed. She drank whiskey sours that night and first eyed Andrey at the bar.
“He was a loner, by himself,” she said, describing him seated at his own table near her and her friends. “He wasn’t acting like every other crazy drunk person at the bar that night. ... I could tell he wasn’t from around here.”
Yet they’d both attended Bluffton High School, never having met before Andrey dropped out in 2007 and obtained his GED a year later.
“He was just different,” she continued, searching for the words. “He looked like an alien to me. And I wanted him. I had no idea he was Ukranian.”
She had no idea he was a foreigner at all, only that “he looked foreign” — new to her, a look she’d never seen — and she wondered why people called him “Russian.”
Soon he spoke to her in that tongue, and “it was cool,” and she began to learn his story.
Andrey has memories of Ukraine, Iryna said, but very little interest in the culture. She recalled her mother visiting the family in the States — Andrey didn’t ask her any questions about his birth country. The family sometimes hangs out with other Russian-speaking community members and observes traditional Orthodox Christian holidays, she said, but they also celebrate American holidays.
Childhood pictures show Andrey wearing a GAP sweatshirt or playing with a toy replica of a U.S. Navy fighter jet.
Kristin would have never thought he was an immigrant, she said. Her understanding of immigration at the time was limited to what she saw in the media — people from Mexico or Syrian refugees, she said, people who didn’t have white skin.
As she sat in the stiff chair, Monitor VV10’s screen blinked on and showed an incoming call. Andrey’s face appeared. Kristin picked up the phone and watched her husband wave to Max.
She asked Andrey if he’d been sleeping.
She told him their son hadn’t been.
He asked her about some legal paperwork.
She told him she’d drop off the $1,610 — the cost of filing a motion asking a federal judge to reopen Andrey’s immigration case — at Bluffton attorney Mark Devine’s office.
She pledged to follow him to the Ukraine. (She’s rush-ordered her passport, she said, though Max does not yet have one.)
They talked about the status of the their I-130, a U.S. Customs form that, in this case, would legitimize their spousal relationship, the first step to Andrey one day, maybe, getting a green card. Their I-130 is pending. But they’ve already had an interview with government officials, who vetted the authenticity of their marriage.
Now, they wait to see if they’ve been approved. Kristin hopes the judge will take that into account, that the government will wait for the outcome before deporting Andrey.
The video call ended.
She went back into the lobby, waited 10 minutes, then walked back behind the cinder-block wall for the next call.
She repeated the routine 30 minutes later.
Then, she sat down at monitor VV14 for Call No. 3.
Their last call before Andrey was shipped once again to Stewart Detention Center.
Andrey’s previous visits to Stewart don’t work in his favor, according to Bluffton immigration attorney Aimee Deverall.
“When you look at the rates of (visa) approval versus denial in Lumpkin, Ga., and you’re talking about asking (a federal judge) for discretion, it doesn’t seem very likely (the judge will suspend the deportation order),” said Deverall, whom Kristin has also consulted about Andrey’s case.
The U.S. government has already given Andrey a lot of discretion, Deverall said, allowing him to remain in the country despite his criminal record.
His legal troubles began in the fall of 2007 with traffic violations. According to county court records, he was last in trouble in 2015, when he pleaded guilty to fishing without a saltwater license. But his criminal behavior peaked between 2008 and 2013.
ICE counts eight criminal convictions in Beaufort County. County records show convictions, guilty pleas and no-contest pleas in cases ranging from traffic violations to receiving stolen goods. None are felonies, but they do include two instances of driving-under-the-influence and two involving marijuana. Both marijuana cases involved possession of 28 grams or less of the drug.
“For immigration purposes, there is no small pot charge,” Deverall said, explaining possession of 28 grams or less “automatically makes you ineligible” for residency in the U.S. It is a “waive-able offense,” though, she said, meaning it can be forgiven by a judge.
Despite President Donald Trump’s new, broader immigration enforcement priorities, Andrey’s record “made him a priority for removal” under former-President Barack Obama’s administration, Deverall said.
Kristin voted for Trump — her first time casting a ballot in a presidential election — and she doesn’t blame him for her family’s situation. But since he’s taken office, she’s become more aware of the immigration issue because of the news coverage, some of which pertained to rallies and protests in her own community.
Deverall has seen cases like Andrey’s before. She tells unlawfully-present children that they might see their American-citizen friends “get a slap on the wrist” after, for example, stealing something from Walmart. She warns those children the same crime can get them deported.
“I feel very ashamed and not proud of what Andey’s done,” Iryna said, “but he has changed since being a father and husband.”
She remembered when her teenage son, frustrated that he couldn’t get a driver’s license, started driving without one. She and Oleg would hide the keys to their car, but Andrey would find them and drive without permission. They would ground him; he would sneak out in the middle of the night. The family lived in a rough neighborhood at the time, Iryna said, and Andrey “had a bad choice of friends.”
He wanted to work but couldn’t.
He wanted $100 shoes his parents couldn’t afford.
He was arrested and detained after his first speeding ticket in August 2007, Iryna said, when officers discovered he was unlawfully in the country.
Andrey was taken to Charleston. His father was called to pick him up. Oleg, also residing illegally in the U.S. at the time, was detained for a few hours, too. But officials released the pair after learning how long they’d been living in America, and that Oleg also had two U.S.-born toddlers — Andrey’s brothers, twins, Arthur and Phillip, now teenagers.
Oleg had a strong case for earning citizenship, he was told, and was encouraged to start the process. He did, and started Andrey’s paperwork, too. But the boy kept getting in trouble, Iryna said, and didn’t heed his parents’ warnings about the consequences. Eventually, Iryna said, her son’s legal problems meant he had to abandon the effort.
After Oleg became a naturalized citizen in fall 2016 and Iryna’s visa was approved through the I-130 process, Andrey was the only member of his family in the country unlawfully.
“It’s just so difficult,” Andrey said, lowering his head as he spoke, image projected through the computer monitor. “Because you try so hard after you change — from how you were, and now the person you have become — and it’s like those mistakes still follow you, still haunt you.”
Kristin Cooper sat in front of monitor VV14 on May 3 for her third and final conversation with her husband before he would board a bus in the middle of the night and be shipped to Stewart.
She’d just returned from the parking lot, where she’d retrieved Max’s car seat. The child now slept in it. She tucked it under the monitor and draped a blanket over its carrying handle.
If Andrey’s deported, and assuming Kristin and Max follow him, Andrey worries about his child going to the Ukraine. He worries what he’ll do for work. He’s lost the ability to read and write Ukranian, though he can speak some of that language, and Russian. His grandmother still lives there — he’ll have a place to stay.
“The last time you went to Lumpkin, I didn’t get to talk to you for over a week,” Kristin said into the phone as she watched Andrey on the monitor.
At some points the conversation sounded like one that might have occurred anywhere, between any married couple.
“Actually, after you fixed the intake (on the car), all the driving I’ve been doing (around Charleston), I’ve only used a quarter of a tank (of gas),” she told Andrey, referring to the their burgundy Chevy Trailblazer.
They were in that car on April 28, when ICE agents conducted what the agency calls “a targeted enforcement action” two days after Andrey missed his required appointment in Charleston. Kristin said they were boxed in by five unmarked cars near a scraggly pine and a chain-link fence on Bluffton’s Stillwell Road, a washboard dirt surface.
They intentionally missed that appointment — the first one they’d ever missed, Kristin said — because they worried Andrey would be detained during it. They’d just gotten back from a check-in on April 20 — with a follow-up sheduled for three months later — when they were suddenly asked to come back to Charleston days later. The request came as a surprise, Kristin said, and their attorneys warned them that other immigrants were being picked up in the area.
When asked if Andrey had failed to attend other required appointments prior to the April 26 missed meeting, ICE cited “privacy rules,” saying it couldn’t release further information without his consent.
The couple’s hope that a judge will halt Andrey’s deportation because of the pending I-130 is a “Hail Mary,” according to Deverall. That alone isn’t “a new form of relief” available to Andrey, she said. A judge will have to make a subjective ruling, weighing the I-130 against Andrey’s criminal record and his “positive equity.”
That equity, according to Deverall, includes the time Andrey’s spent in the U.S.; the legal status of the rest of his family; his marriage to an American citizen ... and Max.
Andrey’s case, Deverall said, is worth arguing.
And it’s instructive, she said: It shows how marrying a U.S. citizen doesn’t automatically grant someone a green card, a common misconception. It shows how immigrants’ family members — themselves often American citizens — are affected by the immigration process. Whether or not you agree with current policy, Deverall said, the Golubets’ experience illustrates “a hallmark” of the immigration system: families are often separated.
Now, Andrey awaits a judge’s decision at Stewart. His attorney, Mark Devine, filed the motion to reopen May 10, Kristin said. She still plans to follow him to the Ukraine, which would be her first-ever time outside the U.S.
If he’s deported, he could still eventually get a green card, Deverall said. But it’s tougher to work toward that goal when one spouse lives abroad, she said. The process can take years.
On May 3 in Charleston, the seconds ticked away in the top corner of Monitor VV14.
Kristin and Andrey said their goodbyes.
He leaned in close to the camera as the call neared its end — Kristin said he was crying.
Resting atop the monitor was a tissue, crumpled and left behind by a previous visitor.
Kristin apologized to her husband: she said she wasn’t going to take Max out of his car seat to say goodbye.
She didn’t want to wake the baby.
She said Andrey understood.