Boston immigration judge Leonard I. Shapiro and his wife, Judy, driving home from Cape Cod one summer, stopped to fuel up at a gas station in Braintree. He handed the attendant his credit card, and seconds later, the manager rushed toward him holding the card.
“You Shapiro?” the man asked him. When Shapiro nodded, the man grabbed the startled judge in a bear hug and exclaimed, “You saved my life.”
The man was one of an untold number of immigrants who owe their legal residency to Shapiro, one of the longest serving immigration judges in the United States until he retired on Thursday.
As his last case, he chose to grant residency to a Salvadoran woman who had been abused by her American husband, bringing tears to the eyes of those watching.
Boston’s senior immigration judge is famous for handling the deportation cases of President Obama’s Kenyan aunt and uncle. But most of Shapiro’s cases have dealt with ordinary people at a frightening crossroads. The judge could banish them forever or let them stay in the United States.
In the 25 years since a Republican attorney general appointed him, Shapiro has made that decision thousands of times. Foreigners from China, Haiti, Cape Verde, and other nations have flowed through his court.
The powerful responsibility gnaws at many of the nation’s 250 immigration judges, who suffer crushing caseloads and high burnout rates. But Shapiro said he has never grown tired of the work, even in his later years, when he had to use a magnifying glass to enlarge the print and hearing aids to listen to testimony.
On Thursday Shapiro arrived early at the third-floor courtroom overlooking City Hall Plaza at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building downtown.
He had one case left on his docket: Linda Monge, a 37-year-old mother of two from El Salvador. She had been badly beaten by her American-citizen husband when she was pregnant with their son, now 7. Her husband could have sponsored her for a green card but never did, so her case languished in the backlogged immigration courts.
The case dragged on for nine years.
At 8:54 a.m., Shapiro put on his black robes and for the last time his clerk Bob DiVitto, voice catching, ordered the gallery to stand. Interpreter Gloria Torres dabbed tears. In the audience were new senior immigration Judge Paul Gagnon, the longtime court administrator Robert Halpin, and Shapiro’s wife of 54 years, who watched with her hand covering her mouth.
From the bench, Shapiro told Monge her painful ordeal was over. And no longer would she face deportation to El Salvador, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
“Mrs. Monge, today is a very important day in your life. I’m going to grant your application and make you a lawful permanent resident of the United States,” he said. “That means you will be able to live here and work here and raise your children. And you’ll be able to start a new life as of today.”
Monge thanked him and wiped tears from her face.
“You’ll be able to visit with your parents. Have they ever seen your child?”
She shook her head no.
“Today is a very important day in my life, too, because I’m going to start a new life. This is going to be my last case.
“I have one request: Make me proud of you.”
In the gallery, his wife whispered, “It’s going to be hard to come up with moments like that in retirement.”
These are the kind of moments that kept Shapiro on the bench long after most judges would retire.
After he granted the asylum to the president’s aunt in 2010, Shapiro received a greeting card from an angry writer who called him an unprintable expletive. Shapiro rolled his eyes. “That case wasn’t even a close call,” Shapiro said.
A slight man who appears much younger than his nearly 80 years, Shapiro managed to win the admiration of immigration lawyers as a tough but fair judge. He followed the law and denied scores of asylum cases. But he also was quick to pull out a lawbook to verify whether an immigrant truly deserved to stay.
This week many lawyers applauded at his hearings, and have planned a goodbye party for him next month.
“He’s always been a very fair judge,” said Boston immigration lawyer Susan Church. “He’s not going to be fooled by any lawyer trying to pull one over on him. He’s open, he’s honest, he’s compassionate, he’s caring, he’s smart.”
Immigration judges are not real federal judges — they are appointed by the attorney general and work for the Department of Justice. But lawyers say the judges handle life or death cases on a daily basis.
After the ruling in Monge’s case, she asked to take a photo with the judge. “I don’t think that’s allowed in a federal courtroom, but I’ll remember you,” Shapiro said kindly.
“I’ll always remember you,” she said in English.
After the case concluded, Shapiro lingered in his courtroom, reflecting on his final order.
“There’s no feeling in the world like that,” he said. “As good as she feels, I feel better.”