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Courtroom Drama

Richard Hanus’ deportation case went from the courtroom to the stage to the screen

Published in 2023 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

When Richard Hanus took on Elizabeth Keathley’s case in 2006, he had an inkling that the proceedings would be more drawn-out than usual, but he never imagined it would lead to being portrayed onscreen by Linda Powell, daughter of Colin Powell. But for Hanus, the son of Holocaust survivors, who carries a special empathy for those at the mercy of the U.S. immigration process, it was a case that stirred him to his core.

“The spouse of this American came into my office who had to appear for removal proceedings,” Hanus recalls. “The family had done everything according to the rules and the law, of bringing her here from the Philippines. And ultimately, because of what happened, she was facing removal from the U.S.”

When Keathey was getting her driver’s license, the system automatically asked if she would like to register to vote. “Although my client clearly presented evidence of her lawful entry on a K-3 visa and Philippines passport, she was still invited to register to vote and her registration was processed with it culminating in the issuance of a voter registration card.”

It was a situation Hanus had seen before; despite their best efforts to navigate the complicated system, an immigrant gets tripped up and faces likely deportation.

“The system [was] meant to be good,” Hanus says. “The idea of registering as many eligible voters as possible and making that option available to as many people, and as easily as possible—they got caught up. The shortcomings of that system are now showing their ugly head.”

On its face, the law is straightforward. “If you’re not a citizen and you vote, it’s a removable offense,” he says. “It doesn’t talk implicitly about whether you knew it was wrong; it doesn’t talk about an intent to break the law. [But] what if it’s the government that is the one guiding this process? What if it’s the government that’s knocking on your door to register you to vote, or vote where you otherwise never had that intent? That’s lawful voting. Even though you may not be qualified, the government’s mistake here should be taken into account.”

Hanus remembers the immigration judge who oversaw the initial proceedings, Craig Zerbe, now retired, as meticulous in his approach to the case. “I think he very thoughtfully worked through the arguments,” he recalls, “and while I know that he ultimately granted the case after it went up on appeal and was remanded, I believe that his questions of my client’s eligibility to get a green card—questions about her voting—were legitimate, genuine questions that ultimately were answered in a higher court. And only then did this judge feel comfortable—not just comfortable, but more than happy, to grant this deserving applicant her green card, and not deport her.”

By this time, in 2014, eight anxious years had passed for Hanus’ client and her family, but it was a happy ending.

Hanus (middle) alongside Lee Sunday Evans (left) and Arian Moayed (right) on the red carpet ahead of The Courtroom debut at Tribeca Film Festival. Evans directed the film, while Moayed wrote and produced.

Four years later, Hanus received an unusual call from a man in New York. At the time, the headlines were full of families being separated at the border and children being kept in cages, and outrage was running high nationwide. The caller, Arian Moayed, was seeking the transcript of a deportation hearing on which to base a theater production. “I didn’t realize when I was talking to him was that he was an accomplished actor in his own right, a Tony nominee, and he was on a television show that was beginning to get really popular called Succession,” Hanus says.

Over the next several weeks, their discussions eventually turned to the case of the immigrant voter. “I told my clients about what this idea was, and they said, ‘Go for it.’ Of Arian, I thought, ‘What are the chances that somebody’s going to be able to read through all of this? I know lawyers that don’t have the patience to read through transcripts.’ He soaked it all in, processed it and it completely hit home and spoke to his own family’s immigrant story.

“Everything flowed from there,” Hanus continues.

The Courtroom debuted in 2019, and the novelty of the idea and its execution helped it gain traction with theatergoers. “It wasn’t done as a typical stage performance with applause and people taking curtain calls or bows,” Hanus says. “You basically were walking into a courtroom while the removal proceedings were happening, and you were in the audience of the courtroom while it was going on.”

The play enjoyed great critical reception, winning numerous accolades, including being among The New York Times’ Best of Theater for 2019. A tour was planned to bring The Courtroom around the country, and law schools were planning productions to use the play as a teaching tool. Then COVID-19 shut everything down.

“So Arian, who’s extraordinarily resourceful—not just creative and talented, but very resourceful—went about getting the movie made,” Hanus says. The film was an official selection at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it premiered last summer.

Rich Hanus being interviewed on the red carpet of Tribeca Film Festival.

“The twist is the casting. [He] gender-swaps several of the main characters, but keeps in their names and identities,” he says. In his case, Hanus says Powell gave an outstanding performance and watching a depiction of himself felt otherworldly.

The overall effect is to impress upon the audience the reality of the situation, because it’s the words and the attempt to secure justice that are center stage in The Courtroom. “It doesn’t matter who’s saying these things,” Hanus says. “It reminds the audience that this really happened.”

Hanus says he’s glad so many will get to see the reality of the immigrant experience.

“It captures an intensity, and it really captures, in a profound way, the experience of an immigrant that a U.S.-born American who’s used to the culture and the language really has no way to appreciate, other than through something like this.”

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