Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Air Force colonel, the ballroom dance instructor and the US immigration system

For most of the last six decades, the Republican Party could count on Charlie Heimach. The retired Air Force colonel donated money to President Richard Nixon, backed Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, and cast his ballot last year for Donald Trump.

But in the recent Virginia governor’s race, Heimach voted for the Democrat, because of the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, and its attempts to deport a ballroom dancing instructor from the studio where Heimach, 79, likes to Lindy Hop.

Since May, Heimach and a disparate crew of lawyers, military veterans, a dog walker, an entomologist and others united in their love for dancing have been on a crusade to protect the instructor they call “G,” an undocumented immigrant from Mongolia who was arrested twice in 2016 for drunken driving, including a hit-and-run.

To some their efforts are misguided, even dangerous.

But the ballroom dancers say Galtsog Gantulga is a gifted instructor who senses when his students need to talk or want to dance but are too shy to take the initiative. He hurt no one in the two drunken driving incidents, they point out, and has served time behind bars. He also sold his car and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

In the America these dancers know, such a person deserves another chance, a view not always held in the U.S. immigration system.

For the moment, thanks to their persistence, Gantulga has a reprieve.

“He built his life over here,” said Mealy Chhim, a retired software engineer who was part of the effort. “He just messed up.”

Gantulga, 22, came to the United States with his parents when he was 9. His mother and father overstayed their visas in hopes of building a better life than the one they had in their remote, rugged homeland.

Two younger children were born on American soil, which made them U.S. citizens. But the couple brought them back to Mongolia in 2013, having given up hope of getting legal status themselves.

Gantulga, meanwhile, had obtained a temporary work permit through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, which President Trump will start to shut down in March. He stayed in Virginia after his family left, hoping to attend college and earn money to send to them.

Living alone for the first time, Gantulga landed a job at the Arthur Murray Dance Center in Alexandria, Virginia, and worked his way up to a top instructor.

But he was also drinking, sometimes too much.

In July, 2016, police arrested him for drunken driving. Four months later, he was arrested again, for driving under the influence and a hit-and-run. He was convicted both times, and served about a month in jail.

Gantulga lost his DACA protection while his second criminal charge was pending. Soon, the government told him they would try to deport him.

“Mr. Gantulga entered the United States on a nonimmigrant visa, but currently does not have lawful status in the United States,” said ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell. “Gantulga has proven himself to be a public safety threat.”

Gantulga says the drinking and driving “definitely wouldn’t have happened if my parents were here.”

But he also said he took responsibility: “It was something that I did.”

With the federal government pushing to expel Gantulga, the dance students and studio managers mobilized to keep him in the United States, getting a firsthand look at the nation’s immigration system in the process.

They were stunned that Gantulga only appeared at his immigration court hearings via video link from the detention center where he was being held, 150 miles away.

They were shocked that immigrants facing deportation proceedings didn’t have a right to a court-appointed lawyer, that an immigration judge could refuse to set bond and that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could keep Gantulga locked up for months even after bond was set and Heimach rushed over with a check.

At one bond hearing, in August, the supporters who packed the courtroom included ballroom dancing aficionados with day jobs at the Energy Department, the State Department and the National Symphony Orchestra.

Heimach offered to let Gantulga stay at his house while he fought his case.

In interviews, the Arthur Murray students described themselves as a family that counts G. as a beloved member, a joyful troupe of empty-nesters, retirees and young professionals bound by their love for the fox trot, the waltz, salsa and more.

They attend lessons during the week and gather at night, wearing glitzy outfits, for dance parties under a rain of strobe lights. Teachers like G. whisk the wallflowers onto the floor. Dance instructor Anusha Rouse described the dance studio as a combination of Disneyland and the fictionalized television bar “Cheers.”

“We want people to feel cared for and to want to be here,” Rouse said of the students.

When G. was in trouble, she added, the students responded in kind, calling U.S. senators, dividing up work and finding a lawyer. “There was not a hesitation,” she said. “It was an immediate rallying of help.”

Over the objections of Nicholas J. Bolzman, the prosecutor from the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration Judge Helaine Perlman granted Gantulga release on $12,000 bond, saying his crimes weren’t serious enough to be eligible for mandatory detention.

“He testified that he made mistakes and would not engage in such conduct again,” she said. He is “truly remorseful for his conduct.”

Prosecutors appealed, and ICE kept Gantulga in detention for about three more months. He was released on Nov. 2, after the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld Perlman’s ruling, and told to report to Arlington County to serve the rest of his jail sentence in the second drunk-driving case.

Virginia’s election was six days away.

Instead of voting for Ed Gillespie, the GOP candidate for governor who made illegal immigration and foreign-born gang members the centerpiece of his campaign, Heimach cast a ballot for Democrat Ralph Northam, who was swept into office as part of a deep-blue, anti-Trump wave.

“I’m a Republican, but the current administration is creating a national humanitarian tragedy,” Heimach said in one of several interviews in the past few months, referring to a spike in arrests and deportations of longtime residents, including many without criminal records. “This is ridiculous.”

By the end of November, Gantulga was out of jail and staying at Heimach’s home in Annandale. His next immigration hearing is scheduled for January.

“This poor kid is just going to go down the tubes if no one steps up,” Heimach said.

“I told him, ‘When I do this, I’m all in. I’m not stopping.’”