Archive for the ‘Processing of Applications & Petitions’ Category.

Artesia Kaleidoscope

Artesia1The three weeks are a kaleidoscope of shifting images: visual, auditory, sensory, and emotional. From 90 degree heat to heavy, cold, rain and flash flooding. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring sweaters to the New Mexico desert. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to the U.S. government either, as many of the mothers and their children ‘detained’ in this hastily thrown together prison had only plastic sandals as footwear through the several-inches-deep puddles. And more than one woman was forced to duct tape her sandals together when they cracked nearly completely across, told that the commissary “didn’t have their size shoe.” Blankets were worn in lieu of jackets and children continued wearing shorts in wet, 65 degree weather because the government didn’t have long pants or jackets. All the while, just up the road, the local Chamber of Commerce was turning away donations of clothes and toys and toiletries, because the U.S. government would not allow them to be distributed to the detainees, and the Chamber no longer had space to store the items.

We still have not gotten a satisfactory answer to the question of why the donations could not be distributed. But apparently, like everything about this rapidly constructed change in national detention policy, it has something to do with our “national security.”

I’ve lost count of the women to whom I tried to explain:  “you and your children are in prison here because you happened to be part of a large number of vulnerable women and children fleeing Central America this year. . . and there were so many of you, that you terrified the United States, and putting you all in prison is their response.”

As an immigration attorney, an important part of my role is to interpret a foreign, terrifying, bureaucratic nightmare of contradictory forces full of traps for the unwary in a way that educates and hopefully empowers the client with whom I am speaking. Sometimes this interpretation is easier than others, but as current U.S. immigration policy is not typified by logic or reason, explanation is inevitably challenging, and interpretation in a way that educates and empowers often requires a crash course in current U.S. politics. Explaining how young women, with their infants and children, running for their lives from violence and threats against which they had no other protection, threatened the national security of the most powerful nation on the planet was particularly Kafkaesque.

Fortunately, there was rarely time for that level of interpretation. Most days we arrived at the facility before 7:00 a.m., we were rarely through with hearings and interviews before 6:00 p.m., and our daily staff meeting/case conference which began at 7:00 p.m. lasted until we were done. . . almost never before 10:00 p.m. It was a major concession on the government’s part when they agreed to stop holding interviews on week-ends. That meant that the project attorneys could now spend Saturdays and Sundays focused entirely on working directly with clients, and we could skip the staff meeting/case conference in favor of a night off one evening a week.

The faces, names, and stories run together. I was fortunate, because I was able to volunteer for nearly three full weeks, working consistently with a handful of clients woven through countless others with whom I only met once. Given that we are paying for this work out of our own pockets, with some expenses reimbursed by donations, and given that most of the attorneys are volunteering at the cost of their own employment, vacation time, or private practices, few of us are able to stay more than a week or two at a time. Most of us take at least one, if not two or more, cases home with us. And most of us who volunteer come home committed to returning, if at all possible.

The experience is intense, and embeds in us the faces and the stories, and moments of human connection. Singing Las Mañanitas and Happy Birthday to a beaming seven year old, her mother’s eyes echoing the tears in all of ours–the songs, a couple of hair bands and a page of stickers we hastily signed with our dreams and wishes for her were the only gifts we were allowed by the government to offer. (And even the stickers were proscribed shortly thereafter, as they allegedly became both litter and objects of conflict). It is impossible, although I tried a few times, to express my deep admiration for the strength and force of character of all these women. Most have endured one or more violent attacks–rape, kidnapping, extortion, sexual and physical assaults, all ending in social ostracization and isolation. Most of them only made the difficult choice to flee when their children became the targets of the violence with which they themselves had learned to exist.

On the scale of social vulnerability, women with young children are among the most vulnerable. In societies being torn apart by gang violence, where violence against women is both widely accepted and rarely punished, young mothers with no male protectors become easy pickings. No one becomes a refugee by choice, and mothers do not flee with their children unless they have no other alternatives. And yet our nation’s response to these refugees is to label them a national security threat and imprison them.

An important normative principle underlying international relations is that of the proportional response. At the same time, the inability to measure proportionality from any perspective other than its own sense of (in)security is an inherent weakness of the powerful—whether nation, party, corporation, group, or individual. Power almost inevitably over-reacts to perceived threat, sowing the seeds of its own eventual destruction. Women and children fleeing violence are refugees, not a national security threat. Imprisoning them is a deeply counter-productive response.

Over the three weeks, on my commute to and from Artesia, the only music I could stand to listen to was Ariel Ramirez’s Misa Criolla.  Ten Piedad de Nosotros will always remind me of the women I met. The humility of piedad in the face of their courage would be a far more appropriate national response.

One final iconic image from my last evening in Artesia: blowing in the wind against the grey clouded sky, a large, faded, very tattered, American flag.

Written by Marti L. Jones, AILA Member and Artesia Volunteer

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If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at Artesia or elsewhere, please see our Pro Bono page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at mtaqui@aila.org–we have volunteers scheduled through mid-October but are looking for more as the work continues and we could really use your help.

If you aren’t able to come help in person, consider donating at http://www.aila.org/helpthevolunteers. And thank you!

To watch videos of the volunteers sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page.

An Arduous Success in Artesia

Artesia1Friends – I share the good news that Lisa Weinberg successfully has obtained parole for one of our clients, a mother with a very sick toddler who had stopped walking and eating solid food since arriving in Artesia. As far as I know, this is the first order allowing release on parole of a family detained at Artesia.

The sad reality is that this is a child who should have been released from Artesia weeks ago, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia upon arriving, and who has never recovered from various illnesses in Artesia.  The mom and child plan to leave as soon as travel may be arranged.

This case is yet another example of why family detention should not be the government’s default setting in response to the regional humanitarian crisis. These families are fleeing persecution and violence but instead of offering safety, we make them jump through legal hurdles to get a sick kid out of jail.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the mother and child are entirely free to go, they will be required to fulfill their obligation to appear for the immigration court proceedings that their case warrants, but at least they will be out of this unsanitary facility in the middle of a desert. They will be able to be cared for by family here in the U.S. and God willing, the child will get better.

Don’t take my word for the unsanitary conditions, read the Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General’s report of August 28, 2014.  Pages 2 – 3, note the presence of communicable disease, unsanitary conditions in the bathrooms, inadequate cleaning services, and unpalatable food – conditions that anyone who has spent time at the Artesia center can verify.

I urge my colleagues, and the public, to be aggressive in seeking release from detention for these women who are bona fide asylum seekers with viable claims of relief.

One very gratifying thing is that this victory is the outcome of perseverance and attention by a relay team of lawyers and other legal volunteers who worked sequentially and together to achieve the clients’ parole.  The mom was first represented by attorneys from Portland and Denver, then by NYC counsel, then Columbus, OH counsel, then Montana and El Paso, and finally by Lisa and her colleague Karen from Cambridge, MA.

This is the most “team” of team efforts I’ve ever been a part of, and I will continue to fight with all of you to provide these women and children the due process they deserve but that our government is trying its best to withhold from them. Our in-the-trenches model is truly a remarkable means for providing legal services to detained people in a remote location.

I am so proud to work with all of you.

Written by Deborah S. Smith, AILA Member and Artesia Volunteer

What Does a Week in Artesia Look Like?

Artesia1AILA Member Megan Kludt headed down to Artesia to donate her time and knowledge, seeking to help the women and children jailed and facing an expedited deportation process. Here, in her own words, are a few snapshots from her days so far, for the full blog, see: http://immigrationartesia.blogspot.com/

Arrival

“I finally arrived in Artesia at 9pm today, after a couple of flights and a 4 hour drive through high plains and semi-desert. There is very little between Albuquerque and Artesia, aside from Roswell and some cows. Tomorrow morning at 6:45am, I’ll be meeting the other volunteer lawyers at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center that since June has been serving as a “family” detention facility for 600 Central American moms and their children…

I have been hearing horror stories from the lawyers OTG (on the ground) before me. I’ve been hearing about flagrant violations of human rights and mistreatment of the children (the average age of the children at this facility is 6.5)… about loss of dignity, about women having to recount stories of violent domestic abuse and rape in front of their children, about lack of food, clothing, medicine and respect for the inmates and crowding in close quarters…

Day 1

I had my first meeting of the day at about 7:15am with a young girl from El Salvador accompanied by her 7-year old daughter. She was very pretty and in El Salvador had had the misfortune of attracting the attentions of a prominent member of the M18 gang. When she refused his advances, he showed up at her house with 6 of his cronies to beat and gang rape her. As she still wasn’t persuaded, he arranged for 3 more such visits over the next 6 months and began to make threats on her life. She finally fled to the United States. She was caught on entry and appeared for several hearings, before finally accepting an order of voluntary departure from the judge and returning willingly to her country. The process had taken 4 years and she felt safer. She was gang-raped again within a week of arriving home, and again a month later. As if this wasn’t enough, her daughter was kidnapped for ransom two weeks later (a common occurrence for people coming home from any amount of time in the U.S.). She sold everything she had to pay the $5000, and bought back her daughter. They soon wanted more money and went after her teenage brother, landing him in the emergency room. With nothing left and everything to fear, all three of them fled again, and mother and daughter have been languishing in Artesia since June. An officer initially tried to deport her saying she had no fear of going home, but a judge overruled it. My goal will be to try to secure a bond for her so she can be released and apply for asylum outside of jail.

The next mother I met (at about 10) had a 2-year old and was fleeing a particularly brutal domestic violence situation in Honduras. Her bond hearing is scheduled for tomorrow, so this took up a great portion of my day. I still have yet to fax to the court my bond motion, exhibits and memoranda for this case and the hearing is at 8am. The judges appear by video from HQ in VA so I have no choice but to fax. I’ve now been told this particular judge will refuse all of my documents and set the bond hearing out to a later day, because she is refusing faxes. I’m told to “get it on the record anyway” but it’s a little disheartening. These detainees are trapped in the middle of nowhere and the judges are hearing their cases over a video, so faxing seems reasonable. There are no overnight courier services in Artesia. The child is two and sick with a persistent cough, she barely took her head off her mom’s shoulder throughout our interview. Her mother was in tears through most of the interview…

Day 2

I spent most of today meeting people to get to know their stories and prepare them for their hearings tomorrow, where we will make a request for the judge to set a bond to release them. Every woman has a child with her at these meetings, often between the age of 2 and 5. Some of them are sullen and cling to their mothers, others are bright-eyed and playful. A great many are sick, as there seems to be some kind of virus going around with the kids here…

Two representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) toured the facility today…The prolonged detention policies in the United States have caught their attention; per UNHCR, detention should be avoided where possible and where necessary limited to a week or two in all cases due to the incredibly harmful psychological effects of detention. It should also not be discriminatory and should not inhibit refugees seeking political asylum. Almost all the women in the facility came to the United States seeking protection from severe physical harm or death. And then there are all the small children. Many of these children have been detained now for over a month, and some as much as two. Most have lost a lot of weight since arriving…

Day 3

Today, the presiding judge had hearings scheduled for about 15 women and their children. I was representing five of them and was hoping for a full bond hearing on three of them…At the start of the day, the judge (appearing by televideo from D.C. area in the court trailer) re-arranged the order of her cases for the day which created chaos for the guards who were trying to coordinate the transfer of women and toddlers to the court section of the facility…

One of my clients had a bond hearing; the other two were delayed until Wednesday for lack of time. The client who had a bond hearing came from Honduras with her 17 year old son, her 9 year old daughter and her 3-year old daughter. She was threatened at gunpoint by a gangster in her home town and left the country with her 3 children, fleeing the gangster, the increasing violence in Honduras, and crushing poverty. When the judge announced a bond amount of $22,000 for her to be released from Artesia, she disintegrated. I was at a complete loss as I saw my client burst into tears and collapse into the arms of her son. I sat with her in the next room afterwards as she wept, unable to look at me…

Day 5

…It’s impossible not to be moved by children. You smile at them instinctively. You want to protect them. But these children have been in jail for two months. Many of them don’t eat. They don’t like the food. They have diarrhea. Most of them have lost weight, some as much as 20% of their body weight. And above all else, these are bored little kids. They are now allowed crayons and coloring books in our waiting room, so they color for hours on end. There are few other toys…

One of my clients today asked me to arrange for her deportation. She was breastfeeding and said that her son will not consume anything at the facility and is sustained entirely on breast milk. He is constantly sick. She had her bond hearing and the Judge set a $20,000 bond for her and another $20,000 for the 1 1/2 year old. I’m concerned that returning to living in fear of her life in Honduras is preferable to her life in ICE custody. She cannot stay in Honduras; she is a refugee, but she will find another country to flee to next time.

…I’ve decided to extend my stay.

Day 6

This morning, I did bond preparation with the first client I met in Artesia (last week). Her bond hearing is Wednesday…I had to leave in the middle of the interview to get a hug from one of my colleagues.  I cannot imagine any worse suffering than what she has been through. If the bond on Wednesday is set high, I will truly lose all hope.

She gave me the government’s submission in opposition to her request for bond. The government is submitting identical 100+ page briefs in every bond case in Artesia. They argue that releasing the women and children detained in Artesia on a low bond would create a security risk for the United States because it would encourage further migration of central American women illegally across the border. In other words, we are detaining some Central American women and children as an example, to deter others from coming to the United States.

Days 7 & 8

We were scheduled for several bond hearings today. In the regular world, “bond hearings” in the immigration court last 10-30 minutes. In Artesia, they take almost 2 hours apiece. DHS has developed a theory that the Artesia children and their mothers pose a threat to national security if released on bond, because it will effectively encourage mass migration of more children and their mothers to the United States. We respond that these families are fleeing their lives in response to violence and persecution, rather than pursuant to a detailed understanding of the detention/bond process in the United States. Laura had some luck with her judge, earning a $5,000 bond for her family to get her out of Artesia. The hearing had to be stopped in middle so that our client could breastfeed…

Tomorrow, we will have our first “merits” hearing in Artesia. This means that the individual has not been able to post bond and is pursuing a request for asylum in the immigration court in Artesia at trial. Everyone will be watching tomorrow, including some news outlets. We have another hearing on Friday and on Monday.

…We are all still running on junk food, coffee and little sleep, but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter right now.”

Written by Megan Kludt, Artesia Volunteer

Let These Women Go

Artesia1There is a town in El Salvador where a woman named M-C- lived. In 2003, her husband beat her face until the purple welts glowed.  Your bloody face means you are mine, he said. He hit her for asking why he hit her. An open palm. A closed fist. On her arms. On her face. Beginning in 2004 and for the next ten years, he serially raped her. If you leave me, I will kill you, he said. And I will kill your father. To prove his point, he beat their daughter in front of her.

In this town in El Salvador, the people knew this woman was dying, but did not intervene. The police knew because she had the courage to call them. This is your life, they said. It is not our concern.  In 2011, 647 Salvadoran women were killed in femicide cases.

The U.S. Department of State reported the 2012 conviction rate for domestic or intrafamilial violence as 1.5% in El Salvador (3,367 cases and 51 convictions).

Leaving him risked death, but so did staying. In 2014, she came to the United States with her daughter to seek asylum. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) arrested her in June 2014 when she crossed the Southern Border.

Let us pause this story for a moment because, as you will see, there is no ending yet. After she was arrested, she was transported to the remote desert immigration detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. She is held in captivity with her child in Artesia, where the proper administration of justice has been so greatly expedited that due process no longer matters.

M-C- like many before her, came to the United States because we have laws that protect persons fleeing persecution. The Refugee Act of 1980 protects those who have been persecuted in the past or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, nationality, political opinion, religion or membership in a particular social group. This law is rooted in moral codes and customs as old as the Bible.

There is no doubt M-C- qualifies for asylum in the United States. This week, the Board of Immigration Appeals, our country’s highest immigration court, published a landmark decision confirming that women in abusive domestic relationships whose own country cannot or will not protect them are eligible for asylum if they make their individual case. The decision leaves no doubt that traumatized women pursuing these meritorious asylum claims need access to counsel so they can gather and present evidence. No one should be deported from Artesia without having legal representation.

But because M-C- is held at Artesia, this decision may not protect her. In Artesia, the rule of law has been suspended. A major federal lawsuit filed last week by a coalition of immigrant rights’ organizations challenges Artesia as a “deportation mill” designed to coerce women and children in danger of persecution into abandoning their rights.

Where do I come in? On August 3, 2014, I arrived in Artesia, New Mexico as a volunteer lawyer associated with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. I was one lawyer among a dozen from Oregon and elsewhere who had come to Artesia to defend women and children, like M-C-, who fled to save their lives. Since August 3, volunteer attorneys have screened or represented more than 400 women and children. We have conducted approximately 800 interviews of the women and children detained there, appeared in numerous court proceedings, and attended scores of credible fear interviews. By representing so many, we have amassed a large amount of data about Artesia.

The data shows that the White House designed Artesia to be an exception to the rule of law. Artesia is a White House experiment to engage in politically expedient deportations – a deportation machine.

What do I mean? Our law strikes a balance between the fundamental human right to liberty and the need for assurance that, if released to await a removal hearing, a noncitizen will not endanger the community and will show up to the hearing. It requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to decide on a case-by-case basis whether that particular noncitizen should be detained or released.

The Artesian reality is that for every woman and child screened in our program who was eligible for release, ICE denied release as a blanket policy—without conducting any individualized determination. The ICE policy is based on a political message sent through women like M-C-. In Secretary Jeh Johnson’s words, “We will send you back.”

To me, Secretary Johnson’s meaning is clear: We will send you back to your country because President Obama must be seen to be tough on immigration.

Two million deportations are enough to qualify President Obama as the “deporter-in-chief” but, apparently, it is not enough to qualify him as tough on immigration. For that, he must deport women and children from collapsing countries who are fleeing to save their lives.

The political decision to detain is apparent from ICE’s own evidence. In court filings, lawyers for ICE argue that these women and children are national security threats because they are not actually bona fide refugees. Two high-ranking immigration officials have signed declarations explaining that “active migration networks” must be stopped through a one-jail-fits-all policy of no release. Without looking at her individual case, DHS has jailed M-C- and her daughter to thwart a nebulous “active migration network.”

The officers base their conclusions on a single report issued by Vanderbilt University. But the report actually shows the opposite.  The data published in the report explain that these very women and children in Artesia are not part of an “active migration network.” The report says they migrated to the United States because they were afraid for their lives.

The data also suggests that the White House has politically tampered with the administrative quasi-judicial review process in Artesia. The judges assigned to Artesia to review the government’s blanket no-bond policy, come from the EOIR headquarters. You can see their names here. Three of these judges have higher than average asylum denial rates across all immigration judges in the United States.

The data we on the ground in Artesia have collected tells an even darker story. To obtain release from immigrant detention, a noncitizen must demonstrate that she is not flight risk or a danger to the community. An immigration judge can require a monetary bond to mitigate flight risk and insure court appearances. The nationwide average for appearance bonds is approximately $5,200. A recent BIA decision stated that $5,000 was appropriate for a woman in exactly M-C-‘s shoes. Yet three of the headquarters judges for Artesia have denied bond unilaterally or required bond amounts five to six times the national average (i.e., $30,000). This high bond policy, which is really a no bond policy for refugees fleeing violence, is all the more striking given that these women and children have no criminal records. In comparison, at a family detention center in Berks County, Pennsylvania, a woman who passes a credible fear interview is released on her own recognizance to await a hearing on the merits of her case.

Soon, M-C- and her daughter will appear before a judge thousands of miles away, speaking into a video camera connected to a video screen slightly larger than a laptop. The headquarters judge will sit in a courtroom that the public is not allowed to access. No dockets are posted like other courts. Everything is secret.

This real woman, M-C-, will sit on a small chair in a barren room inside a FEMA trailer set down in the middle of the desert with her daughter beside her. She will tell her story once again. The question is, will we listen?

Stephen W. Manning, Member of the AILA Board of Governors and Artesia Volunteer

The United States Must Do Better for Same-Sex Partners of Asylum Grantees

shutterstock_164979410Through established asylum and refugee laws, the United States offers protection to individuals who have been persecuted or who have a well-founded fear of persecution based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or because they are perceived to be part of those communities. It is clearly documented by the Department of State (DOS) that over 70 countries around the world actively criminalize homosexuality and target lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) persons with hate and life-threatening violence. Just last year Russia passed new laws to criminalize homosexual “propaganda” and the India Supreme Court recriminalized homosexuality, overturning a lower court’s previous decriminalization decision. Multiple Middle Eastern countries continue to impose severe jail and death sentences in condemnation against LGBT individuals or those perceived as such.

By the very nature of these regressive laws, being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is held illegal and immoral. There is no concept of equal treatment under the law in these homophobic countries nor any legal recognition whatsoever of same-sex relationships. Herein lies the conundrum for partners of LGBT asylees: only legally-married spouses are able to follow-to-join an asylum grantee to the United States. While same-sex marriage in the United States is now legally recognized for immigration benefits thanks to the June 2013 Windsor case, LGBT individuals who flee their home countries may leave behind a same-sex partner who cannot become a spouse, as same-sex marriage is not legal in the asylee’s home country. Without a legal spousal relationship, the same-sex partner of an asylee does not qualify to follow-to-join under U.S. immigration law.

The above is the general rule, so one would assume that there must be an exception to protect these vulnerable minorities. Yet, there is no clear policy or easily-accessible path for same-sex partners of asylees. A fair process for these same-sex partners would be consistent with the Obama administration’s policy for equality on LGBT rights and immigration’s historical pro-family unity polices, former Secretary Clinton’s statements on International Human Rights Day in 2011 that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,”[1] and the fact that the Department of State ostensibly allows a change in venue in LGBT immigrant visa processing when the safety of an LGBT applicant may be an issue.[2]

The harsh reality, however, is that both DOS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), up until now, are ignoring the very urgent need of same-sex partners and are denying tourist visas and humanitarian parole in even the most compelling of cases. A policy change on this issue is needed from each agency that adjudicates cases involving LGBT applicants, including DOS and DHS. Until the United States addresses this issue, there are untold LGBT individuals who are subjected to the fear of harm or actual violence because of who they are. This hole in the law, while probably unintended, continues to do nothing more than support the forced separation of families.

The only current legal options that exist for same-sex partners of asylees are through either a tourist visa or humanitarian parole. A tourist visa through DOS would allow a same-sex partner to marry in the United States, facilitating the pursuit of an immigrant visa once the asylee becomes a permanent resident. Even then, no immediate immigrant visa would be available to the partner due to visa retrogression, further complicating the goal of family unification. However, anecdotal reports suggest that tourist visas to the United States are being denied citing INA § 214(b), which may be proper under the law but seemingly unfair under the circumstances.

Another viable option is for the same-sex partner to seek humanitarian parole through DHS. With § 214(b) in mind, this may be a more appropriate route. Yet, DHS has denied such requests by same-sex partners of asylees, closing the door of legal possibilities for those couples. Humanitarian parole, while discretionary, should be a suitable option in these cases, especially since the law limits the use of follow-to-join to married spouses, not partners, and tourist visas raise immigrant intent issues for the same-sex partners of asylees.

Finally, the President and DOS should make every effort to make the resettlement process easier for same-sex partners of asylees through the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). While most refugees need to be outside their country of origin to process, the President may authorize some individuals to process in their home countries.

If the United States truly believes there is a special humanitarian concern for LGBT individuals and their partners in countries that seek to persecute them, our government must step up to create and implement clear policies that provide a path forward. Only then will we actually protect LGBT individuals abroad by reuniting same-sex partners with their families in the United States.

Written by Michael R. Jarecki, AILA Chicago Chapter Treasurer and Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee

[1] http://translations.state.gov/st/english/texttrans/2011/12/20111206180616su0.4842885.html#axzz3BhhXJ5LF

[2] AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 14020741

After a Month in Artesia

Artesia1I left Artesia on Saturday morning after about a month of volunteering. In that month, the days were approximately 16-19 hours long and full of horrific stories and circumstances that attorneys outside of Artesia can barely begin to imagine. So it’s not surprising I’m sure, to those who have volunteered in Artesia and have returned home, that I am struggling to process the emotional toll that this work has taken.

Every day, I think about how this system is broken, and about how shocking it is that people outside of Artesia don’t seem to know or care. I think about the flagrant violations of the rights of these women, on top of everything else they have endured, and how much of a betrayal that must be to those who thought the United States would help them escape these desperate situations in their home countries.

As an attorney, justice and the rule of law are two things that are so important to the foundation of my career that it hurts me deeply when I see the mockery of U.S. law that this system embodies. As an attorney, I usually trust judges to have an even deeper appreciation of our legal system, and to that end, I feel that we are on the same side in many ways. In Artesia, all of these ideas and beliefs are suspended, and any belief I had in the legal system in the United States crushed.

This is politics, pure and simple. It’s disgusting that the matters of life and death these women face are purely political in the eyes of people I normally trust to uphold the laws of the United States. It’s disgusting that the government argues against bond for these women without having stepped foot into the hellhole that they now call home. It’s disgusting that they would send women and children to their deaths, without affording them their rights under the law to have their cases heard, just to make an example of them.

I am so hurt, offended, disillusioned, and panic-stricken by the events unfolding in Artesia. All I can do as an individual is try my best to contribute my time in any way I can, whether that be coordinating volunteers, taking on individual cases, or helping people argue for bond. My grief and anxiety are paralyzing, and it is all I can do to focus on the underlying feelings of determination and strength that these women show me on a daily basis so that I can continue to move forward.

I appreciate the work of everyone in Artesia currently, as well as the work of those who have returned home. All of us together are giving these women something, even if it’s not all that we would like to give in the end. They are being shown that there are people who care about them, who are willing to fight for them, and who are willing to accept them here in the United States. We will do what we can, together, to give them a fighting chance. I love you all. I wish you all the best of luck, and I look forward to seeing all of you again this fall.

Written by Christina Brown, AILA Member and Artesia Volunteer

Let’s Dance

Leslie DanceThis blog post is adapted from the speech I gave when I was installed as AILA’s President for the 2014-15 term. I was thrilled to be able to reflect at the Annual Conference hosted by my home chapter, the New England Chapter of AILA.

New England is where I found immigration and, if I hadn’t found immigration I don’t think that I would be practicing law. I started my legal career in New York as a commercial litigator, but I found my calling after moving to Vermont. I found it in immigration law through dance in Vermont – African dance in Vermont.

While I have always loved to dance, I’m not the most adept at it, but that never stopped me from enjoying all forms of dance in all its facets. So it was that in 1998 I began attending African dance classes in Burlington. Several members of the National Ballet of Guinea as well as Senegal and the Ivory Coast lived and worked in Burlington and after class they would ask me questions about their immigration status (P-3s). However, I knew nothing about immigration whatsoever and referred them to a terrific immigration attorney instead.

I am a first generation American (my mother was born in and escaped from Hungary) and between my history and my involvement with foreign dancers I made a life altering decision by deciding to concentrate only on immigration.  I distinctly remember my first task. I needed to determine whether a client had been admitted to the U.S. Admitted? They were here weren’t they?  – Of course they were admitted.  It took 16 hours of research before I realized that I had entered a world where nothing was as it seemed: the world of immigration law.

Five years ago I started on my way to the AILA presidency, working my way up from Secretary through all the roles and responsibilities until this year. Looking back at those years, I reviewed the goals I had set out each year for myself and the organization. I took a look at what had been resolved and accomplished, what issues recurred over and over again, what issues still remain, and which of my goals have not yet been reached.

While many of my priorities changed from year to year one issue remained constant – ironically it was the lack of consistency and predictability in adjudications, determinations, rulings, and admissions – and the need to fix this through, among other things, interagency engagement. Our world requires that we typically deal with not just one agency, but at least two, and generally three.

When I meet with new clients, I along with other immigration attorneys, often find myself saying something akin to the following during our initial consultation:  “Before we proceed it is imperative that you understand that, even if your petition is approved by the USCIS, you are not home free. You also need approval from the Department of State and then, even if you pass that hurdle, you still must obtain permission from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to actually enter the U.S.”

This situation is unfortunately a constant in all areas of our practice whether it is business, family, or removal. Think of H-1B visas denied after petition approval for critical employees, approved fiancées who never get here, or as we call it in our office, “love’s labors lost,” or waiver applicants with provisional grants denied on other grounds not previously believed to make one inadmissible. The interagency disconnect is not limited to the petition, visa, and subsequent admission situation. It is also at the heart of so many of the procedural issues that we face.

Thus, it makes sense that my primary long-term goal relates to AILA’s liaison work. One of the many benefits of living in Vermont is that I learned to practice immigration in a place where I truly had access to government officials and was able to work with them to address some of the issues that came up as a result of interagency miscommunication.

Having learned to practice where openness and accessibility continue to be the standard has guided my vision. Those of you who have sat in meetings with me likely have heard two recurrent themes. The first is that my local CBP, USCIS, and ICE offices are the exemplar. I have never felt that I could not approach them and they have always been willing to talk and listen. The second is a request I make, at each and every meeting: whether the agency would be open to a multi-agency dialogue at a later date.

I believe that many of our adjudication and process problems stem from the fact that two or more agencies have conflicting interpretations of the law or regulations and that they do not actually know the effect that their actions have on the applicant when that applicant must next deal with another agency. They may not know what switching to an automated form might mean for another agency which still requires a hardcopy. I believe that we could solve so many issues if we were just permitted to sit down together and explain the problems that crop up.

Interagency engagement is not the only way to attain more consistency and predictability in what we do. Another aspect is the need to locate, isolate, and change the negative policy that seems to be driving so many adjudications, decisions, and admissions. In our area of practice, I think more than in any other, discretion abounds. But it seems that more often than not the trend is toward denial rather than acceptance.

Earlier I told you that I found immigration through African Dance. However, not only did African Dance lead me to immigration, it taught me immigration. In representing my dance community I encountered early on in my career almost every immigration situation there is. The good news is that I was able to help them, at least until fairly recently.

Almost three years ago, one of my clients returned home to Guinea to visit his family and bring back new and current dance and drum rhythms. He had an approved P-3 and had never been in trouble with the law or violated his status. However despite that, his visa was denied for immigrant intent. He had returned to Guinea because of his strong family ties, yet he was denied. That sort of denial would not have happened just a few years ago.

Through all the ups and downs of immigration law practice, one thing has been constant – AILA. AILA is a community where people who perform the same work can obtain from it the tools they need to practice their profession. I truly believe that with just the InfoNet and AILAlink immigration attorneys have all the tools they need to practice immigration and, practice it well. But by also offering accessibility to mentors, practice management help, ethics guidance, media training, advocacy, and liaison assistance, immigration attorneys get all that they need to become well rounded and truly excellent in their field.

More than that though, I believe AILA goes far beyond just a professional community. It is also a fellowship. I practiced law for 11 years before joining AILA. I never experienced elsewhere the support, camaraderie and professional generosity with my peers that I found here. I ask that all of you continue to engage, to care deeply about AILA and its governance, and to share your thoughts and insights.

I am looking forward to this year. To liaising with the government and you. To working together to make positive changes in immigration, to make things better for our clients, to making AILA the best it can be.

Almost every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday I wake up with a feeling that something is special. They are dance days. I hope that every day this coming year is a dance day. If that happens I know that we can accomplish our goals and make a difference, as, in the words of the Hopi who steadfastly believed that through dance they would influence the Gods and accomplish their goals,  – To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak. So, let’s dance!

Written by Leslie A. Holman, AILA President

To watch Leslie’s full speech, including a performance by her friends from the African dance and drumming community Jeh Kulu, watch here: Video: Leslie Holman Installation Speech

Turning Our Backs on Our Own History

shutterstock_151907147The humanitarian crisis involving the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied minors at our borders has brought out diverse opinions within our government and country.  Some politicians would like to send these minors back to Guatemala on a bus.  Before we become too critical about the future of these voiceless children, let’s not forget about our country’s history regarding unaccompanied minors.

The influx of unaccompanied minors is not a new phenomenon. Our great country has always opened its arms to needy children during humanitarian crisis.  During World War II, Jewish families sought safe haven for their children escaping the death camps of Hitler and the Nazis. Prior to the United States’ entry into World War II, Jewish parents sent their children in small groups (roughly a dozen at a time) to the United States based on pre-existing country quotas. After 1941, when the United States became more aware of the brutality of the Nazi regime, unaccompanied children were brought in larger numbers. During their voyage to the United States, dedicated women acted as chaperones on the ships that brought the children to our country.  Upon reaching the United States, the unaccompanied children went to Jewish foster homes. Although some of the children were reunited in America with the parents and siblings they left behind in Europe, most became the only surviving members of their families. This effort became to be known as the One Thousand Children.  Other countries also participated in this endeavor.

Between 1960-62, over 14,000 Cuban children were sent to the United States unaccompanied to escape the oppressive Castro Regime.  Known as Operation Peter Pan (Pedro Pan), the program was created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau (Catholic Charities) of Miami in December 1960 at the request of parents in Cuba to provide an opportunity for them to send their children to Miami to avoid Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. Approximately half of the minors were reunited with relatives or friends at the airport. More than half were cared for by the Catholic Welfare Bureau. The unaccompanied children from the Cuban Refugee Children’s Program were placed in temporary shelters in Miami, and relocated in 30 States.

In 1975, during the end of Vietnam War, unaccompanied children were evacuated from Vietnam during “Operation Babylift” before the fall of Saigon.  During the war, thousands of babies were born and abandoned, many of them the mixed-race sons and daughters of American GIs.  Operation Babylift sent these children to various countries, mostly the United States.  According to Miriam Vieni, a US social worker and adoptive parent, “the ‘Baby Lift’ was a way of removing them from a dangerous situation without the usual processing…”.

Central American countries suffered greatly through years of unrest and violence during their civil wars.  The United States involvement in these civil wars is no secret.  Thousands of people were displaced and many came to the United States.  Children who suffered immense psychological damage grew up in the inner city and were exposed to the United States gang culture.  Years later, many Central American youth in the United States fell prey to the culture of gangs.  In 2006, ICE’s “Operation Return to Sender” arrested and removed thousands of gang members repatriating them to their Central American homelands.  The result was that the unique American gang culture infested the Central American countries.  International criminal organizations were established and have ruled over these countries, driving many people to flee, including the children, to avoid being recruited by the criminal gangs.

Since 2009, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have collectively seen a 432 percent increase in asylum applications from the same three countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.  Many others have fled to the United States where numbers that were steadily growing over several years have now surged in the last few months.  While there may be various reasons why parents are sending their children out of the country, or where parents aren’t present, the children themselves are choosing to flee, the Congressional testimony of Bishop Mark Seitz reflects that violence in the country of origin is the “overwhelming factor” pushing children to flee their country.

It is important to note under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Congress transferred the care and custody of unaccompanied minors to Health and Human Services (HHS) from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to move towards a child welfare-based-model of care for children and away from the adult detention model. In the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which expanded and redefined HHS’s statutory responsibilities, Congress directed that unaccompanied minors must “be promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”

Under these laws, unaccompanied minors that are not from Mexico or Canada must be detained, processed, interviewed, and some information collected.  The intent of these laws is to protect children from human trafficking abuses and ensure their due process rights are respected.  These unaccompanied children are referred to immigration court to present their cases. These laws also provide for the creation of a system of pro bono representation for these children to navigate the labyrinth which is the immigration court system.  Just a few short weeks ago, the current Administration announced the creation of a program that will provide pro bono representation for these children through “justice AmeriCorps” by recruiting 100 attorneys and paralegals.

With this backdrop, the Obama Administration is now seeking funding and assistance to speed up the deportation of these children.  While many in Congress feverishly hammer the notion of the need to follow the rule of law, the concept of expeditious removal of children is unconscionable, especially when our current laws prohibit such action.  Circumventing the law is not the answer.  The care of these children and respect for their due process rights should be paramount. At a time when Congress and the Administration should be working together on commonsense immigration reform, it would be reprehensible if they can only agree on expedited removals of these terrified, voiceless children.

Before we are quick to judge and put these unaccompanied children on a bus, we should stop and consider our legal and moral obligations to this humanitarian crisis.  Moreover, let’s not forget our own country’s history when it comes to the treatment of displaced unaccompanied helpless children.  There is a legal process in place for these situations; we must not forego such protections for political convenience.

Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, AILA President-Elect

Getting a Little Serious about the Need for Immigration Reform

shutterstock_197321441This is a post adapted from my speech last week in accepting an award from AILA for outstanding contributions made as a young lawyer in the field of immigration and nationality law. While the occasion was a happy one and I was honored to receive that award, I took the opportunity, as I do here, to emphasize what is wrong with our current system and that we desperately need to fix it.  I hope you find it of interest:

As I think about the great migrations of people, I’m reminded of my own “gringa” migration from the heartland of Iowa to Washington, D.C. While my own journey was not nearly as harrowing an experience, it is that journey that led me to practice immigration law, to AILA, and to the work that I’m so passionate about.

I have been incredibly lucky to have several amazing people guiding me throughout my journey. My parents who taught me that everyone no matter their background deserves the chance to pursue their dreams. My wonderful husband Justin, whose constant love and support sustains me. Michelle Mendez, my friend and co-professor in the Catholic University immigration clinic who is the most selfless, passionate advocate that I know. The dedicated staff of Benach Ragland, and my partners who I deeply respect and admire; there is no one else I would rather work with in pursuit of our shared mission. Finally my mentor, the late great Michael Maggio: despite his busy immigration practice, he always found time to contribute to our field as a policy advocate, a pro bono champion and a mentor. I have strived to use Michael’s well-rounded approach to our work as a model in contributing through my own practice, especially as I’ve observed the developments in our field over the last few years.

We’re going to get a little serious now.

We are now faced with a humanitarian crisis at our borders.  CBP and ICE officers are using excessive force, inhumane detention conditions, and “no process” removals. We are faced with immigration courts fighting against insufficient resources, overcrowded dockets and cabined legal discretion. And we are faced with a renewed assault on our asylum system by Congress and the agencies themselves.

Yet, no actions are taken by those in power to fix our system. Instead we have a Congress that points fingers and strikes a pose in Capitol Hill hearings and an Administration which, on the back of an immigration reform-focused campaign, has taken to putting Band-Aids on gashes rather than treating the underlying wounds.

Until we have leaders who are going to work together to solve real problems that affect real people, American businesses, and separated families, it is up to us. It is for these reasons that this award is only the beginning of my journey.

Thank you so much for this honor and I hope you will join me in restoring due process and humanity in our immigration system.

Written by Dree Collopy, 2014 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyer Award Winner

 

Responding to the Increase in Child Migrants: We’ve Managed These Crises Before

shutterstock_199198397In my first week as an immigration lawyer, 286 Chinese migrants waded ashore in Queens, and a significant number were detained at a county prison near me in York, Pennsylvania.  In 1993, there was no significant infrastructure for handling those hundreds of cases in the Northeast – no detention facilities to hold them, government lawyers to prosecute them, judges to decide their cases, or immigration lawyers in York to volunteer to represent them. Everyone involved with the process felt overwhelmed, and many expressed the fear that thousands more Chinese migrants would undertake the dangerous ocean journey if the Golden Venture passengers were granted the ability to stay in the United States.

In spite of feeling overwhelmed, the government provided the resources to detain these migrants and to process their applications for relief.  The community rallied to help reunite the children among the migrants with their families, or to find foster homes for them if they had none; to train lawyers in asylum law and other humanitarian forms of relief, and to find volunteers to visit the detainees and help them communicate with their families.  The answer to the influx, ultimately, was improved economic growth in China that provided employment opportunities in the country to prospective migrants, which lessened the demand for migration from China to the United States.

On our southern border today, everyone is feeling overwhelmed by a humanitarian crisis: the detention of 200-250 child migrants each day along the US border with Mexico.   These children are unaccompanied by parents or relatives – while some are coming to try and reunite with relatives in the United States, many more are simply fleeing intolerable conditions in their home countries.  The majority of these children come from three countries: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.  In these three countries, murder rates have skyrocketed in the past five years – Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world – and other forms of criminal violence have also risen.  Children interviewed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have reported fleeing forced recruitment into gangs, much as “child soldiers” were recruited in African civil wars over the past decade.

While some elected leaders opposed to comprehensive immigration reform are claiming that children are coming to the United States because they believe they will be eligible for some form of legal status, that claim flies in the face of the fact that the U.S. is not the only country receiving displaced children and other individuals fleeing from these countries.  UNHCR reports that since 2009, the number of asylum applications from citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras received by the surrounding countries of Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico combined has increased by 712 percent.

What is to be done with these children?  As the United States has done in response to each of the large migration flows caused by political turmoil or natural disaster in the last twenty years – from the Cubans fleeing to Florida by boat in the mid-1990s to the survivors of the earthquake in Haiti – the children have been detained for removal proceedings in which it will be determined by a judge as to whether they have any claim to be able to stay in the United States.  They will be detained unless or until they can be reunited with a family member, either inside the United States or in their home country.  If they are reunited with a family member in the U.S., they will remain in removal proceedings until a judge decides their fate.  While the number of these children has risen in the past year, the administration has already been making plans to deal with it – witness their budget request for additional funding to detain and process these children, which demonstrates their planning for the eventuality that rates of arrival may continue to climb.

As many commentators have noted, however, the answer to the bigger question of how to prevent these children from coming to the United States does not lie at the US-Mexico border.  Rather, the United States must continue to engage with the governments in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to build capacity for dealing with the violent criminals who are causing the conditions these children are fleeing.  Just as disaster aid to Haiti and a migration agreement with Cuba reduced the number of illegal migrant from those countries, the best answer to this newest wave of migrants will be assistance to the countries from which they are fleeing.

Solving the migration problem from those countries cannot happen overnight – and in the meantime, the United States must continue to treat these children humanely, to reunite them with families wherever they may be, and to grant them asylum if they are eligible for it.  If they are found to have no relief from deportation, they should be returned to their home country in as humane and safe a way as possible.  These children have already been traumatized at the hands of criminals – the U.S. immigration system should not traumatize them further.

Written by Bill Stock, AILA First Vice President