Disclosure: The victim's name has been omitted in order to protect her safety. The Indy has removed the victim's name from court documents and supporting materials posted online.
The woman was just 19 when she caught a bus from a city suburb in El Salvador through Guatemala to the Mexican border. From there she took a train that carried her across Mexico to the U.S., where she boarded a bus that was heading to North Carolina and her final destination, Durham.
She made the journey mostly alone. She had friends who left El Salvador with her, but they scattered once they crossed into Mexico. She traveled a route rife with smugglers and sex traffickers and drug cartels, and says there were times she was afraid she would die. "I thought if something happens to me, I won't be able to see my mother again."
She avoided the dangers en route to America, but four years after she arrived, in 2009, she was blackmailed by a man who claimed to be an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent. Over several months, in dozens of ominous e-mails and text messages, he threatened to have her deported unless she had a sexual relationship with him.
Last October, Bedri Kulla, who was born in Canada but is a U.S. citizen, pled guilty in federal court on charges of violating her civil rights. As part of the plea agreement, the court can dismiss the blackmail charge. Kulla's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Sept. 24.
Yet since his release last July, after posting $1,000 of a $100,000 bond, Kulla has continued to contact other Latinas, specifically members of the Dream Team, three women hunger strikers who camped out in Raleigh to protest the lack of immigration reform. But this story is about more than one woman and one man's obsession with her. The 287(g) and Secure Communities programs have been touted as a way for local law enforcement to sweep U.S. streets of undocumented immigrants who are felons and violent criminals.
That's not how it works: 87 percent of all individuals picked up in participating counties in North Carolina were booked on infractions of driving without a license, which they cannot legally obtain, according to the Latino Migration Project's latest report.
Instead of ridding America of foreign felons, the 287(g) and Secure Communities programs have actually allowed criminals to victimize undocumented immigrants, who confront a dilemma: Do they report the incidents to police and risk deportation? Or do they continue to be victimized?
The woman does not regret her choice.
She sits on the edge of a brown couch in her small one-bedroom apartment in Chapel Hill, her thick black hair parted and pulled into a ponytail. Around her neck she wears a gold necklace with a medallion of an angel. At 24, she looks like a college student or a young professional, and when she smiles, dimples crease her cheeks.
Last year, the woman, who has lived in North Carolina since 2005, tried to expand her social life by joining Univision, a quasi-Facebook website that reaches Spanish-speaking people. Soon after joining Univision in January 2009, she began exchanging e-mails with Kulla, 50, who claimed to be a flight attendant and to be 10 years younger than his actual age.
The woman says Kulla pressured her to meet him in person, and so she finally agreed to have coffee with him at a restaurant at the Streets at Southpoint mall in Durham that spring. She recalls the meeting as being short and perfunctory. Kulla asked her about her life in El Salvador and let her know he was interested in a serious relationship. According to federal court records, Kulla told her that he wanted her to be his girlfriend. "She replied she would have to get to know him first," the documents state, "but he claimed that was not the way relationships worked in the United States."
His advances rebuffed, Kulla then brandished a badge and told her he was an immigration officer. He said he had worked in Virginia deporting people, and he asked her to write down her full name on a piece of paper so he could look her up in the computer. Afraid of defying him, she wrote down her name, and the coffee ended. "I felt he was trying to manipulate me," she says, with the assistance of an interpreter.
Kulla's claims were partially true. He did work as an Immigration Services Officer for the Durham branch of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), a federal agency under the Department of Homeland Security that helps people who want to legally immigrate to the U.S. However, he was not employed by ICE as a deportation officer, nor was he capable of deporting immigrants.
The day after their meeting in Durham, she went to work. She was shocked when Kulla showed up at the Chapel Hill restaurant where she worked with a bouquet of flowers in one hand and, in the other, a piece of paper with her name on it—a deportation order from December 2005.
Her English is limited, and Kulla does not speak Spanish, but he made his intentions clear a few hours later when he sent her a text message. [Editor's note: Text messages are verbatim and contain misspellings.] It read: "Do you want stay and sleep my apartment Sunday night and Monday morning you go work from my apartment?"
She did not respond.
Two days later, he sent her another text: "Hi I asked you question yesterday and you never answered me. Tell me your intension with me? ... Bedri."
And 22 minutes after that, another text: "I care for you. You have only 2 options 1 get marrief in future or 2 go back your country. You need be careful driving if they stop you and check good they the Police will see you have deporation order and call ICE and they will send you back. I do not want anything bad for you only good."
Throughout the spring, Kulla's messages grew angrier. "When you going explain your actions and lies?" he wrote.
" ... you need talk to me and explain why you played with me remember you have deportation order talk to me."
She refused to reply to Kulla's texts and e-mails, yet she was afraid to report him to the police for fear they would not believe her story and insist on removing her from the country.
But she says she would have chosen deportation over giving in to Kulla's sexual demands.
As a young girl, she says, her uncle sexually abused her. While that experience was traumatic, it also gave her the resolve to say no to Kulla's sexual demands: "I felt I'd rather be forced to go back to my country than to let somebody do to me what I didn't want."
She arrived in America four years ago—alone. "I didn't have any money, and I was missing my mother. It was very hard," she says.
She chose to leave her country because her mother's health was deteriorating and her mother could no longer work. The family could not afford a doctor.
Her family is among the more than 7 million El Salvadorans—48 percent of the country's population—who live in poverty, according to a 2009 Congressional report. A quarter of El Salvadorans polled said they feel they must migrate in search of work.
At the U.S. border, she says, she gave immigration agents her name. They issued her papers that allowed her to stay a few weeks in the U.S. She promptly began looking for work and building a new life.
Within weeks, her papers expired, and a judge ordered her to be removed in December 2005. She says she remembers receiving the document in the mail, but she could not read it, nor did she know where to go. So she continued working, but the order remained in the federal immigration system.
She held low-paying service jobs, often working from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at one job, and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. at the second. She rarely had a day off or a full night's rest. She sent money to her mother and bought her a bed, a refrigerator, food and other simple amenities.
But in 2008, her own health began failing, and she could no longer ignore the chronic symptoms of fatigue, back pain, nausea and vomiting. She finally went to Duke Hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with acute kidney failure. Surgeons promptly placed a tube in her kidney so that it could drain the accumulation of waste to a bag outside her body. Nevertheless, she continued to work. "What was I going to do? I had to find some way to pay my bills and there wasn't anyone who was going to take care of me," she says.
Shortly after her release from the hospital, she says, she came home from work to find police officers arresting her roommates, who were undocumented, in a rental house in Durham. (The Wake County Jail has a record of her arrest on immigration charges. Jail officials told the Indy that the Raleigh Police Department was the arresting agency. However, RPD has no report of the incident. Police can cross jurisdictions to make arrests in immigration cases, especially because the Wake County Sheriff's Department and jail participate in 287(g).
She says police ordered her out of her car, arrested her and took her to Wake County Jail, where she was placed on a detention retainer. She says the officers that arrested her wanted to deport her immediately, but an ICE agent intervened and said she couldn't be sent back to El Salvador because of her serious health issues.
"I was in so much pain," she says. "I spent the whole time crying." Without her medicine, the fluid leaving her kidney and filling the bag attached to her body turned from a clear liquid to blood. "They wouldn't let me go, and I was hurting. They could see I was in pain, but nobody wanted to help me."
Twenty-four hours later, police released her after ICE issued an Order of Supervision that allowed her to temporarily stay in the U.S. and work legally, while requiring her to check in with immigration officials. After that night, all but one of her housemates vanished. She believes they were deported, and, despite the judge's order, she wondered too if she would be sent back.
In 1996, the Immigration and Nationality Act was amended to add Section 287(g), which allows local police departments to enforce federal immigration laws. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security launched Secure Communities, which allows county jail officials to identify potential undocumented immigrants. Forty-eight law enforcement agencies in North Carolina participate in one or both programs, including the Wake and Orange County sheriff's departments and the Durham Police Department.
Since local police departments have become de facto border agents, undocumented immigrants no longer feel they can report crimes—those they witness or those in which they are victims.
"Undocumented immigrants, being forced to live outside the law are easy victims of any sort of crime because of their status," says Domenic Powell, a volunteer with the DREAM Team. The team is part of a national movement lobbying the federal government to pass the DREAM Act so that children who were brought to the U.S. illegally as minors can earn the right to remain legally and get jobs, go to school and raise families here.
On Tuesday, the DREAM Act died in the U.S. Senate.
"Many community members we serve tell us that they are scared to trust our public institutions, such as 911 services and police officers, for fear of deportation," says Colleen Blue, program director of El Centro Hispano, a Latino advocacy group with offices in Durham and Carrboro. "Many immigrants in general experience social isolation, which makes them more vulnerable to abuse."
Sabrina Garcia, domestic violence and sexual assault specialist with the Chapel Hill Police Department, says these individuals are targets for predators who know their victims would be reluctant to report abuse.
"It took tremendous courage [for her to report the crime], because once we identified her, she could get deported—that was the risk she ran," Garcia says.
Garcia says that "predators, such as this person [Kulla], look for advantageous vulnerability, and individuals that would not be technically missed.
"If we don't change the climate and look beyond and see the human rights violations, on some strange level we aid these kinds of predators," Garcia adds, "and we create an environment where victims are being victimized by our own laws."