Last week, Nan-Hui Jo spoke to her daughter for the first time in nearly a year.
The conversation between Jo and 6-year-old Hwi lasted 15 minutes. Jo spoke from the Yuba County jail in Marysville, where she is being held pending an Aug. 11 hearing on whether she should be deported to South Korea.
Jo hasn’t seen Hwi since she was arrested on child abduction charges last July in Hawaii.
“I’m so sorry about this whole situation, and I’m so thankful my daughter’s staying strong – she’s wonderful,” Jo said in a jailhouse interview last week, speaking on an old black phone through a Plexiglas partition.
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The slight, black-haired woman, who writes children’s books and once dreamed of becoming a filmmaker, has been put on trial twice for whisking Hwi off to Korea without telling the child’s father, an Iraqi war veteran named Jesse Charlton. For five years, according to court testimony, Charlton didn’t know where his child was, or even if she was alive.
Jo was convicted in March by a Yolo County jury, but Judge David Rosenberg reduced her conviction to a misdemeanor, making her eligible for immediate release. That’s when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency took her to the Yuba County jail, one of several in the region that the U.S. government uses to hold undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes that can result in deportation. The agency has declined to release Jo on bond – or with an ankle bracelet – before her hearing in immigration court.
Hwi, who spoke little English when her mother was incarcerated, has spent the past year in West Sacramento with Charlton, who hadn’t seen his daughter since she was a baby. Jo had told Hwi she didn’t have a father.
The little girl has formed a relationship with Charlton, who is raising her as a single parent. She just finished first grade and is doing well in school. But she hasn’t forgotten her mother.
“I love you Mom. When I sleep, I dream of you,” proclaimed a large drawing with hearts that Jo received from her daughter last week.
Jo’s case has become a cause for domestic violence advocacy groups nationwide. Charlton – a former machine gunner who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder – admitted in court that he once grabbed Jo by the throat and threw her up against a wall after she tossed the baby at him. Police were called, but no formal report was made. Jo, however, has a documented history of abuse by a prior husband, also an American, and her lawyer asserts she was abused by her family in South Korea, as well.
In her interview last week, Jo, 43, said she was happy that she’s finally allowed to receive letters from Hwi and talk to her daughter on the phone.
“She said she dreams about me, knows I love her and she misses me, too,” Jo said, her eyes crinkling. “She’s a really friendly girl. She told me her new friend’s name. ... A couple of days ago I got my baby’s first report card – all ‘excellent.’ ”
Jo said she left Sacramento because her relationship with Charlton wasn’t working out and she was afraid if she didn’t take her baby to South Korea, she soon would be deported for overstaying her educational visa and never get the chance to see her daughter again.
“I felt I had no choice,” she said. “It was really hard in Korea, especially being a single mom. I had to work a lot, and sometimes I could get just one meal a day because I had to give dinner to my daughter.”
Back in California, Charlton peppered his former girlfriend with emails but received just one response. He filed a child abduction report.
When Jo applied for a visa waiver to visit Hawaii for 90 days, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul notified law enforcement that she was coming. She was arrested and sent to Yolo County to face trial.
A violent history
Charlton, a budding freelance photographer, has since expressed a willingness to let Jo see her daughter. But he told the court: “I know she doesn’t want to hurt Hwi, and yet she has – by tearing Hwi away from everyone who loves her, including herself. A serious change in her mindset is necessary.”
In her interview in the jail, Jo expressed no ill will for Charlton, who admits he didn’t want Hwi at first but now says he has become a good, responsible, father. “Jesse and I are Hwi’s parents,” Jo said. “If Jesse’s good now, fine. I’m not denying it’s best for my daughter to see both parents.”
Jo and Charlton, 32, met in a photography class at Sacramento City College and had a passionate but tempestuous romance. Charlton had served two tours of duty as a machine gunner in Mosul, Iraq. During Jo’s trial, he testified that he suffers from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder that cause memory loss, depression and erratic behavior. The Veterans Affairs Department found him to be 70 percent disabled.
Ann Block, one of Jo’s immigration attorneys, said her client was abused by family members in South Korea, causing her to flee the country. She then was physically and emotionally abused by an American man she met at the University of Southern California. They married, but the union was dissolved after she obtained a protective order against him.
“He pushed on the floor and my ribs cracked, so I went to the hospital and they asked me about domestic violence,” Jo said. “In Korean culture we don’t talk about domestic violence. It’s a family thing, a shame thing.”
More than 200 organizations worldwide have signed the petition of support at standwithnanhui.org and declared last Wednesday as the National Day of Action for Nan-Hui Jo. They bombarded ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña and Assistant Director Craig Meyer with a mass tweet urging her release.
“This case is a great injustice and affront to victims of domestic violence regardless of ethnicity,” said Nilda Valmores, director of the women and children’s shelter My Sister’s House in Sacramento. The shelter, which serves Asian and Pacific Islander women, hosted a breakfast at My Sister’s Cafe on Capitol Mall on Wednesday to raise awareness of Jo’s case.
ICE has declined to comment on the case and won’t say why Jo has not been released pending her immigration hearing.
Yolo County Deputy District Attorney Steve Mount twice prosecuted Jo on child abduction charges, with the first trial ending in a hung jury. He argued for a felony conviction and against probation. He said it was one of the most egregious cases of child abduction by a parent that he had seen.
“Mr. Charlton did not know if his child was even alive,” Mount said.
Jo’s legal team has been fighting on three fronts. San Francisco criminal attorney Dennis Reardon has filed a writ of habeas corpus in the California Supreme Court directly appealing her child abduction conviction on the grounds Judge Rosenberg and Mount committed serious judicial errors “concerning the definition of the crime and the defenses to it,” resulting in an unfair reversible conviction, Reardon said.
If the California Supreme Court takes the case and finds for Jo, her criminal conviction couldn’t be used in her deportation proceedings, Reardon said.
McGeorge Law School professor John Myers, also working on the case, said that if Jo is not released from ICE custody by June 22, he will ask the family court judge to allow Hwi to see her mom in jail – something neither side has wanted.
“If she is released from ICE custody I will try and get supervised visitation,” Myers said.
The battle to get Jo released from ICE custody is being led by a team of three immigration attorneys, Zach Nightingale of San Francisco, Juliet Turner-Lloveras of Sacramento and Block of Davis.
Nightingale has sent a complaint to the Department of Homeland Security alleging that immigration officials failed to inform Jo that as a domestic violence survivor she was eligible to seek lawful immigration status in the U.S. under the Violence Against Women Act.
“Had the government complied with the laws, Ms. Jo would have learned of her rights, would not have been told by USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Service) to leave the United States, and would have very likely been granted lawful permanent residence,” Nightingale wrote.