Archive for the ‘Immigration, General’ Category.

Championing the Vulnerable

shutterstock_170933780As an immigration lawyer from Vermont, I was thrilled to see the recent letter that Senate Judiciary Chairman Leahy (D-VT), one of my Senators, led the charge on. What does that letter to the Department of Homeland Security condemn? The heartless and inhumane expansion of family detention.

It is appalling to me that our government is ramping up jails for mothers and children who are fleeing violence – domestic or gang-based – and desperately seeking safety. These women and children are kept in facilities, far from anywhere with a large contingent of immigration lawyers who could help them make their legitimate case for asylum to an immigration judge.

Instead they are stuck in makeshift facilities like Artesia, NM, and Karnes, TX and soon Dilley, TX as well. Our stalwart members have volunteered in shifts, making their way to these outposts and advising these women, fighting for their rights to due process, and making a huge difference.

I’m so happy to see these ten Senators standing with these women and children. Instead of ramping up detention, we need to look at humane and effective alternatives to detention. These moms and their kids aren’t national security threats that need to be confined for our safety, they are victims and they need our help.

Here are some excerpts from the letter:

“This decision threatens to make permanent a practice of presumptive detention for families and marks a reversal of this administration’s family detention policy.  We fear that the result will be the ongoing detention of asylum-seeking women and children who have shown a credible fear of being returned to their home country and pose no flight risk or danger to the community. We are particularly concerned with the negative consequences of long-term detention on the physical and mental well-being of young children.”

“Mothers and their children who have fled violence in their home countries should not be treated like criminals. They have come seeking refuge from three of the most dangerous countries in the world, countries where women and girls face shocking rates of domestic and sexual violence and murder. Here in the United States, we have just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, a law we hold out as an example of our commitment to take these crimes seriously and to protect all victims. The ongoing detention of women and children who have made credible claims that they have been victims of those very crimes is unacceptable.”

Read the full letter for yourself. I sure hope the Administration does. We need our government to bring its actions back in line with our country’s values and stop throwing moms and kids into jail for doing what any reasonable person would do: flee persecution.

Written by Leslie Holman, AILA President

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If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to http://www.aila.org/beavolunteer or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at mtaqui@aila.org–we 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 at Artesia and elsewhere sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.

 

 

 

Welcoming Brilliance to Our Shores

Image of the Nobel Prize Medal. Source: http://www.nobelprize.org

Image of the Nobel Prize Medal. Source: http://www.nobelprize.org

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated PhDs do it…

In this case, I’m not referring to falling in love as in the popular song from the 1930s, but migrating.  There are many aspects to what drives people to leave their country of birth and make a new country home.  When people rail against immigrants, I have to assume they don’t understand the economic and cultural benefits that our country has gained from so many over the years. Do they think that you can determine at birth what someone will accomplish? High skilled immigration is vitally important but if one focuses solely on those we know have reached a certain pinnacle, we are leaving out many more that could achieve great things if given the opportunities that so many of our residents take for granted.

One of the pinnacles of intellectual success has been awarded over the last several weeks: the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize Committee just completed announcing the winners of its prestigious awards for chemists, physicists, doctors, economists, writers, and those interdisciplinarians whose work overlaps into one of the fields.

What fascinates me, as an immigration attorney with feet in both the U.S. and U.K. for my practice, is that so many are immigrants.  For the U.S. alone, the Institute for Immigrant Research at George Mason University in Virginia, notes that from 1901-2013, “30.7% of these U.S. awarded Nobel Prizes are garnered by persons who immigrated to the United States.” That percentage far exceeds the proportion of the U.S. population which is foreign-born, which in 2010 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated at 12.9%.  Again and again we see that immigrants contribute to a nation’s wealth and this is no exception.

Three of this year’s winners are particularly interesting examples.  Shuji Nakamura, originally from Japan was awarded for his work in Physics with the University of California, Santa Barbara (USCB).   As UCSB reports, Dr. Nakamura was born and educated in Japan, coming to the US as a visiting research associate; he has since made his career in the U.S. and his research has led to the development of a lamp that might help the estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide without access to a power grid.

John O’Keefe, a native New Yorker, who was this year awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work with University College London, is quoted as saying immigration rules are “a very, very large obstacle” to hiring the best scientists.  While he was referring to the U.K. immigration rules, this statement could easily be projected to the U.S. where immigration laws drafted decades ago have not kept up with business, technology or the reality of the global economy.  And finally, another winner from the U.K., Malala Yousafzai, is also an immigrant.  Originally from Pakistan, Ms. Yousafzai is the youngest Nobel Laureate in history and is in the process of receiving honorary citizenship from Canada.

What these Nobel Laureates show us is that the best and the brightest are mobile and the U.S. must be able to compete for talent on a global stage.  The U.S. needs an immigration system that works at every level, high to low skill and everywhere in between, a system that takes into account the market needs and the importance of family reunification. We don’t have that now, and it is incredibly disappointing that Congress has yet to do its duty and pass good legislation that will make a real difference for all.  Who knows, should Congress act, they may find themselves recipients of the Nobel Prize for conferring  “the greatest benefit on mankind.” – common sense immigration reform.

Written by Anastasia Tonello, AILA Treasurer

Karnes is a Disgrace

photoLet me begin with this: We, as lawyers, have to be careful not to let our emotions cloud judgment. But I must say my trip to Karnes Detention Center this past weekend brought to the forefront of my consciousness a number of strong emotions which cannot be ignored.

I saw there the faces of detained mothers and their children. I heard their stories. It is simply disgraceful that our government is detaining them.

I have been an attorney now for over 15 years. I have represented men and women in detention. But detaining children and their mothers is wrong.  Everyone we saw (over 40 families) had no criminal background and all had some claim to credible or reasonable fear of persecution. It is a tragedy that the government would detain these mothers and children under the misguided assumption that they represent a threat to our “national security.”

I was at Karnes as part of a joint project with AILA, Akin Gump, Arnold and Porter, Tahirih, the University of Houston Law Center, and others. I saw many children with persistent cough, complaining of lack of medical treatment, lack of good food, and general conditions at the facility run by GEO Group.

While there, I was able to get an ICE official to review the medical case of a 3 year-old girl who had asthma. I was told by the mother that she could not convince the GEO staff to give her medication to treat her daughter’s condition. When she went to “Medical” to seek treatment she was told (and many mothers were told) to have the kids “drink water.” I bought the little girl some cookies and she smiled and she stood when I left the room. When I went to shake the mother’s hand, I almost missed the fact that the little girl stood too and extended her hand, waiting to shake my hand too. A sweet child, a desperate mother, and I felt I could help. I took her mother’s case and our clinic will represent them in immigration court.

To ICE’s credit the official I spoke with personally accompanied the woman and her sick child with asthma to “Medical” the next day so that he could intercede and make sure she got the medication she desperately needed. I applaud this ICE supervisor but he is one among many. ICE isn’t running these facilities, GEO is running these facilities. And GEO is a private company, seemingly out to make as much money as possible. We were told by detained mothers that the children sometimes get spoiled food beyond the date of expiration. It is simply not acceptable to mistreat these mothers and their children, to deny necessary medical assistance or give them spoiled food. It is not acceptable to detain them at all.

I call upon all AILA Attorneys (and in fact all attorneys) in Texas to travel to Karnes, Artesia and all these facilities, and see what is happening. Connect with Akin Gump, Tahirih, and/or AILA, get a list of detainees and check on them. Find out what their concerns are. Find out if they are getting medical attention. If they are not, contact ICE. File a G28 (representation form) and represent them at least with ICE to make sure they are getting their medication and their kids are getting nourishment. If you are able, then represent them in a bond or an individual hearing if they have possible relief. Most (although not all) had cases for asylum as either gang-based or domestic violence-based particular social group claims. They don’t deserve to be jailed.

I want to close with the story of a six year-old girl who sat in the play area in the corner of the room in which we were seeing people. My students and a supervising fellow were playing with her and talking to her, trying to cheer her up. I walked over and she looked very sad. She was trying to smile in response to questions but she was having a hard time of it. She was trying to interact, but I could see she was very unhappy. I learned from my students it was her birthday. We bought her a small bag of vanilla-creme cookies from the vending machine and that was her “present” for her birthday. She took it. Later I came back and saw it was unopened. We were told none of the children eat their cookies right away, as they are saving them to share with their mother.  How different from my kids, I thought. How sad.

I am angry and disheartened. Angry at an immigration system and an administration that purports to be for immigration reform and human rights while jailing these families. Disheartened because in these children’s faces I see my own children’s faces. This just isn’t what our country is all about. And I’m committed to doing what I can to help, and I hope you will too.

Written by Geoffrey A. Hoffman, Clinical Assoc. Professor, Director-UHLC Immigration Clinic, AILA Member and Karnes Volunteer

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If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to http://www.aila.org/beavolunteer or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at mtaqui@aila.org–we 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 at Artesia and elsewhere sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.

A Shameful Chapter in Our History

A picture of the current structure on the Dilley site taken last week.

A picture of the current structures on the Dilley site taken last week.

 

The family detention center known as the “T. Don Hutto Residential Center” opened in May 2006. Most of the families previously housed at this residential center, like those currently housed at the Artesia and Karnes Detention Centers, were families awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims. For the most part, the facility was a staging area for families waiting to be put through the deportation machinery the government has so efficiently developed to almost “guarantee” the expedited removal to their home countries. What is most appalling is that none of the families held at the former prison were charged with offenses other than illegal entry.

In 2007, the Women’s Refugee Commission released a report, Locking Up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families, drawing heavily on research conducted at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in March 2007 on behalf of 10 juvenile plaintiffs housed in the facility at the time, claiming that the standards by which they were housed was not in compliance with the government’s detention standards for this population. In August 2007, the ACLU settled the lawsuit, and on August 6, 2009, federal officials announced that T. Don Hutto would no longer house immigrant families. In September 2009, the last families left the facility and were moved to the much smaller Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania.

The town of Dilley, Texas, population 3,989.

The town of Dilley, Texas, population 3,989.

One would hope we learn from our mistakes and from our history; nothing is farther from the truth.

Fact sheets and press releases from ICE tout the benefits of these facilities, including the T. Don Hutto Residential Center.

Recent reports from volunteer attorneys providing free legal representation to the women and children imprisoned at Artesia and Karnes prove otherwise. A prison for women and children cannot be made right. These  facilities are nothing but well-oiled deportation machinery run under the semblance of due process and rule of law. Women and children are considered prisoners and treated as such. They are intimidated with detention for extended periods of time: mothers are coerced to sign forms they do not understand or warned they will be taken to a higher security prison and their children removed to foster care. The misinformation or outright lies told to these women by facility and government staff mean that  the volunteer attorneys tirelessly working to free these women and children are the ones who respect the rule of law and make the broken and dysfunctional immigration system work within the confines of these prisons.

To add insult to injury, ICE has just announced it will open an additional facility in South Texas to house adults with children. The facility will be located in Dilley, Texas, a small unassuming oil town in the middle of nowhere. The center, ICE reports, is in response to the influx of adults traveling with children apprehended along the Southwest border. Expected to open in early November, the South Texas Family Residential Center will be the fourth facility the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is using to detain and expedite the removal of adults with children.

Another picture of the land where the new facility will be built.

Another picture of the land where the new facility will be built.

It is sickening to read that this concerted, well-thought-out, and purposeful imprisonment of innocent mothers and children seeking refuge from violence, bloodshed and murder is touted by ICE as a method that ensures “timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States.”

Volunteer attorneys are successfully slowing down the deportation mill at Artesia; they are effectively preventing this monster from grinding out vulnerable mothers and children. So what does the government do? Find other remote locations where access to counsel is limited if not impossible, and build another deportation machine. How can we as a country say that women and children seeking refuge deserve imprisonment? Imprisonment will not deter mothers from saving the lives of their children by sending them North. Imprisonment will not prevent teenage girls raped by gangs from making that perilous journey before they are raped again. Imprisonment will not prevent women fleeing from the brutal and socially perpetuated domestic violence at the hands of their husbands. We should be ashamed of building more prisons for women and children. But, hey, prisons are profitable so there is no question that some will profit from this shameful chapter in our history.

Written by Annaluisa Padilla, AILA Second Vice President

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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.

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.

Offering Hope and Comfort to Detained Moms and Kids

Artesia1Over the past year, the United States has seen a sharp increase in the number of women and young children fleeing violence in Central America.  In response, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began opening new detention centers across the country to detain families, while their fates are decided by Immigration Officials and Judges.  Artesia, NM became the site of a new make-shift family detention center where hundreds of women and children are being detained until a determination is made on whether they can stay in the United States.

Most of the women and young children at the Artesia detention center have suffered unimaginable violence in their home countries and have risked their lives to come to the United States.  Now, they are stuck in Artesia waiting to find out if they will be allowed to stay in the United States.  The detention facility is located in southeast New Mexico, literally in the middle of nowhere.  The women spend their days and nights in trailers that have been adapted into living quarters.  The young children are sick and not adjusting well to American food.  There are no toys for the kids to play with and nothing for them to do during the day.  The legal process is grueling.  The women are forced to tell their stories of repeated abuse and violence over and over again to Border patrol agents, asylum officers, lawyers, and immigration judges.  They are accused of lying, called names, and teased by the guards in charge of them.  They are far away from the people who love them.  With courage and bravery, these women and children face each day not knowing what will happen next.

They are hidden from us, but they don’t have to go through this alone.  In an effort to bring humanity and dignity to each and every woman and child held at the Artesia detention center, York Law, in conjunction with your support and connections, would like to send letters of encouragement to all of the women and children detained in Artesia.

The purpose of this campaign is to bring hope, dignity, humanity, and light to the dark times that these women and children are experiencing in Artesia, NM.  However, we need your help.  Please share this request with your family and your community.  If anyone in your network would like to write and send an encouraging letter to a woman or child in Artesia, NM, please have them follow the guidelines below.  All letters can be mailed to the following address, where they will be forwarded to the Artesia detention center.

York Law, LLC

ATTN: Artesia

1763 Franklin Street

Denver, CO 80218

Guidelines for Letters Addressed to Women and Children in Artesia

**Please be aware that these letters will be read by a DHS Official prior to being forwarded to the individual**

□   Must be generally directed to a woman or child.  Please note that for privacy reasons, the women and children’s names will not be disclosed.   Each letter will be addressed to a woman or child prior to sending.

□   If possible, please write the letter in Spanish, or in a language that is native to Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador.  All letters written in English will be translated into Spanish prior to sending.

□   The letter must be encouraging

□   All letters will be screened for appropriateness prior to sending

Written by Lisa York, 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–the end of September and early October are short on volunteers 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.

Artesia Betrays America: Part III

Artesia1I have no way of adequately expressing the dismay, and loss and anger and hurt and woundedness that this week made me feel.  Finally I figured out the word.  It is betrayal.  I felt betrayed.  Deeply betrayed by something that I have dedicated my life to.  Another lawyer who was there in the first weeks after Artesia opened, Christina Fiflis, a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Chair of the American Bar Association’s Immigration Committee calls it the Artesia Effect, and describes it as trauma.  She is right; it is trauma.  I feel like that place took something from me that I will never get back.

As a lawyer, I have dedicated my life to this system of justice that despite all its flaws, is usually pretty darn good.  It is something that I have always been very proud of, the fact that if you are in our country you get the benefit of our due process, even if we may not like it.

I feel betrayed and traumatized by this place, by its very existence, by its petty daily arrows meant to demoralize already wounded women and children, by this Administration’s purposeful, systematic and callous disregard for our very laws, and for the colossal interagency mismanagement of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet: asylum seekers. I feel betrayed by the government lawyers who, with straight faces are arguing that children, 6 year olds, babies nursing from their mothers in court, should not get bonds because they are threats to national security. I feel betrayed by the immigration judges who are playing along with this farce of justice and agreeing with the government lawyers and denying the bonds, denying credible fear claims that should clearly be granted and generally not being an unbiased arbiter of the law but being rubber stamps of this Administration that for some reason has decided that mistreating women and children is the best way to “send a message” to any other Central American thinking of coming to the US that they better not come.

They are not “illegal.”  They are asylees.  There is no other way to seek asylum than what they are doing.  You cannot apply for asylum from outside of the country.  You must be physically present in the US to do that.  It is the very basic tenet of political asylum.  Your country has some situation going on that is out of control that is impacting you and causing you harm because of your race, religion, national origin, political opinion or because of your membership in a particular social group.  Your government is unable or unwilling to do anything to stop this harm.  You flee.  You arrive in the United States and you ask for asylum.  You don’t apply for a visa, you don’t wait in a line.  You run for your freaking life with your kids and the clothes on your back and leave everything you know.  You show up and you say please protect me from what is happening in my country because I am afraid to go back.  That is how you do it.  That’s it.  If a neighboring country is luckily enough to have a refugee camp set up by the UN or Red Cross you might be able to become designated as a refugee and apply while you are not in the US but you are still not in your own country.  You have fled.  I am simplifying it a little but the point is, they are not “illegal,” they are asylum seekers.  The fact that all of them may not, in the end have winnable asylum claims, does not mean they are any less asylum seekers, or any more illegal.

We are a country built on asylum seeking.  We are built by immigrants.  Built by people seeking refuge from other systems of governments that sought to oppress their rights and liberties.  We are supposed to stand as a beacon of freedom and hope.  We have a freaking statue that proclaims it.  “Give me your tired, your poor your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”  We are supposed to be the place you can go and seek shelter when your country has gone to hell because that is what this country was built on, built for, built by: people seeking a chance to not be oppressed, people seeking an opportunity to shine.  Artesia betrays everything that it means to me to be an American; all of our history; all of our struggles, all of our rhetoric and shiny ideals.  It says some restrictions apply.  It says those ideals only apply to certain people.  It says we are hypocrites who bend the rules in our own country when it is inconvenient to enforce them.  It shames me that this place exists.  It hurts my heart.  It belittles and devalues everything that I thought was great about this country.  Shame on this country for treating these women and children seeking refuge like this.

Recently we’ve had victories in Artesia.  After months of heartbreaking work, of dedicated volunteers closing their own practices, leaving their families and driving to the middle of nowhere New Mexico and spending their own money to stay in over-priced hotels, we proved President Obama wrong and showed the world what we all knew already.  These women and children are not economic refugees.  They are not coming here to just to work and escape a poor country they are true refugees with real asylum claims.  The first two cases that went to trial were granted asylum by immigration judges.  The first one was a hard fought victory by Christina Brown from Colorado and the second by Stephen Manning from Oregon.  Both attorneys have shown extraordinary dedication to this project being in Artesia for weeks at a time away from their families and practices with no compensation because this is how much this place affects you.  It eats at you and it rips your heart from your body.  These will be the first of many victories.  These women and their children are real and so is their fear.  Their stories are real and their need for asylum is real.  We cannot ignore our laws and skirt the process that we have created for vulnerable people all over the world to seek shelter within our borders.  It is what our country was founded on and for.  Artesia betrays us all.

Written by Angela Williams, 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–the end of September and early October are short on volunteers 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.

Artesia Betrays America: Part II

Artesia1People didn’t seem to matter in Artesia, not their comfort, not their privacy, not the simple human dignity we all take for granted.

There was deep and profound soul shattering heartbreak, watching these vulnerable women and children who have come to this country seeking asylum being systematically crushed and broken.

Every child in this place was sick.  Every. Single.  One.  Coughs, flus, runny noses, watery eyes, losing weight, not sleeping, vomiting, diarrhea, not eating.  Ever single woman without exception when asked if they had seen a doctor said that the nurse they had seen gave them Tylenol and told them to drink water no matter what was wrong with the patient.

One of my clients, who had been denied credible fear as a victim of domestic violence, something that should have been granted at the interview, and was denied credible fear again in front of the immigration judge, spent an afternoon telling me about the horrific abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex husband during their marriage and then after their divorce.  This was a hard enough story to hear.  She then told me that she was about ready to give up and go back even though she thought he would probably kill her for taking their son to the US because she had been treated so badly and was feeling so hopeless there in Artesia.

Here is the story of her first week in Artesia:  they arrived and her son, who is 6 had a cut on his arm that looked infected.  She and the son were told they had to be put into isolation so the son could be given antibiotics for 24 hours so he wouldn’t be contagious.  They put her into a room with her son alone.  They were not allowed out to eat or to let the kid play or exercise.  There were no toys or TV in this room.  After about 18 hours the doctor finally came to give him medicine, thus starting the 24 hours countdown.  One of the guards tried to cheer her up saying the 24 hours were almost over.  She told them the doctor had just come and begged them to at least put them in a room with some toys or a TV.  They did move her and her son to a room with a TV.  But inexplicably the 24 hours turned into 5 days.   They weren’t told why.  They weren’t let out except to be escorted to the bathroom.

At day 4 the mom got sick herself and was vomiting and having diarrhea.    She called the guard to ask to take her to the bathroom.  They told her she would have to wait.  She said she couldn’t, that she was sick.  No one came to get her and she ended up defecating in her pants.  She was telling me this in a room full of people, because there is no such thing as confidentiality at Artesia, the attorney room has no way to meet privately with your clients. She was crying, I was crying.  She said it was the most humiliating experience in her life, more humiliating than being beaten by her husband.  When the guards came to get her they laughed at her.  She had to walk across the compound covered in her own feces to the bathroom to take a shower.  Then she had to walk back in a towel because she didn’t have any extra clothes.   She was humiliated.  Her son was terrified.  She said she wanted to give up even if it meant going home and being beaten or being killed.  She was being treated like an animal and a criminal.  Her son had lost 7 or 8 pounds in 3 weeks.  And this is just one of the stories that I heard of women and their children being treated like sub-humans.  My federal criminal clients are treated far better

Look for my final thoughts in a post tomorrow.

Written by Angela Williams, 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–the end of September and early October are short on volunteers 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!

Artesia Betrays America: Part I

Artesia1In June and July, the humanitarian crisis on the border lit up the news and it was all I could think about.  The headlines were full of unaccompanied minors, politicians and protesters; the front pages had pictures of children sleeping in warehouses that were too cold.  My practice started seeing an increase in minors who had been released to family in the area.  Their stories were harrowing: tales of coyotes and smugglers, of running through desserts, hiding from narcos, seeing children fall from moving trains. Those were the stuff of nightmares, and I started having them, thinking about the children every night when I went home.

I kept comparing the children fleeing to my nieces and nephews; I cannot imagine the conditions in their countries that would make the Guatemalan version of my sister decide that sending kids on a multi country trek to distant relatives in the United States is safer than allowing them to continue to live where they were.  No one can.  The more I thought about it the more I felt I had to do something.  I heard about a group of lawyers from Kansas City going to Artesia, New Mexico to help at one of the “family detention centers.”  I expected to go there and have a heartbreaking week, but I wasn’t truly prepared. What I experienced was worse than heartbreaking.  Going to Artesia was both the best and the worst thing I have ever done and it reminded me why I became a lawyer.

First, I was wrong about so many things.  Artesia has no unaccompanied minors; all of the children who are there are with their mothers, which I thought might make it better.  It doesn’t. Second, while I expected some level of poor treatment, I expected that a basic level of due process would be observed.  It is not.  Finally, while I expected to find some amount of institutional roadblocks and resistance to the lawyers there working on behalf of the women and against their right to seek asylum in general, I expected that it would be more along the line of snarky attitudes and semi-racist commentary.  In reality what is happening in Artesia is nothing less than a purposeful and systematic effort to deny these women and their children meaningful access, and in many cases access at all, to not just our asylum process but a very basic and simple level of due process.

This is the first of three blog posts about my time there, what I learned, and the outrage I felt there and still feel today. I know now that we must do everything we can to end the detention of families.

I struggled all week while I was there to put a word to what I was feeling.  There was the feeling of being emotionally assaulted by the horrible stories of these women.  The abuse they suffered in their countries, the terror they suffered at the hands of the gangs, their domestic partners, their husbands, their fathers, their fathers-in-law.  The abuse suffered by their children at the hands of family members, gang members, other children at school.  As a lawyer in a particularly emotional area of law, (I only practice family based immigration focusing on removal defense, waivers, and humanitarian cases like U visas for crime victims, or political asylum, and criminal defense) I have heard my share of horrible stories.  But I don’t usually have to hear them every day, much less 7 or 8 of them in one day, in horrible conditions where the client tells me the horrible reason she had to flee her country, then the horrible story of her journey to the US, then the horrible treatment she endured in the 5 detention centers she was at prior to Artesia, and finally the horrible treatment she has suffered since arriving.

There was the feeling of helplessness.  Every day was some fresh hell.  Some new petty bullshit that was meant to do nothing more than hinder the women’s access to the attorneys and break their spirits.  Women told us they were called dogs and pigs by the agents as they were given food.  One day the agent in charge decided no one could sit on the floor and no one could sleep in the chairs in the room where the women were waiting to meet with the attorneys.  Not even the children.  There was nothing for the children to do other than watch a TV that had a continuous loop of one of 6 DVD’s in English.  No toys, no coloring books, no paper or crayons to draw, no books, no magazines.  We brought coloring books and crayons.  The guard took them and told us they were contraband.  We brought magazines of cars and motorcycles.  The guards took them and said they were contraband.  We brought markers and gave them our copy paper to draw on.  The guards took them and said they were contraband.  The moms had to discuss their very traumatic stories, in rooms that offered no chance of confidentiality in front of their kids, because the kids had to be in the same room as the mother and there was nothing else to do in the room except watch DVDs in English.  That is not to say that every agent was mean and hateful, some were, in fact very kind and did much to try to make the women and kids try not to feel so sad.  Most were simply ambivalent and saw watching them as part of their job and nothing more.  But there were a few that seemed to take pleasure in harassing the women and children and trying to break their spirits.

There was extreme frustration.  The asylum officers would come in and call a client for an interview we had been told was later in the day.  The attorney that had prepped the client was in another hearing so someone unfamiliar had to go.  The guard would call a client for a hearing in front of the immigration judge, who was in Virginia and appearing by video the size of a laptop, 2 hours early because the time was told to us in Eastern time rather than mountain time.  We would meet with clients who would hand us small pieces of paper written by other women who had been asking for weeks to see us and who had never been allowed by the guards and who had to resort to writing a note, giving it to another woman who had an appointment and would slip it to us.  The notes would say their names and identifying “Alien” number and ask if we could request to see them because the guards wouldn’t let the woman come in herself.

We read many credible fear interviews that were denied that should not have been, where the interviewer just failed to follow the law and chose to ignore it.  We read interviews where the interviewer clearly did not care to ask anything but cursory questions, over and over.  We met with women that were forced to give their interview in Spanish when their native language was an indigenous dialect and were denied credible fear.   We read interviews that were denied and then spoke to the woman only to find out that she was afraid to discuss the details of her abuse, sexual assault, rape, stalking, extortion, threats, etc in front of her minor child who was present in the room at the time of the interview.  We talked to women whose families had hired private lawyers but who had not been able to speak to these lawyers because there was little to no access to phones.  Women were given one phone call a day that usually lasted 3-5 minutes.  They could sometimes earn additional phone calls if they cleaned the bathroom.  If they called someone and that person did not answer they did not get to call anyone else.  They were often not allowed to use the phones during business hours.  Their attorneys would ask them to fax documents to them and agents told the women that they could not fax without money in their accounts, but families were not allowed to put money into any account.

What else did I see? More to come tomorrow.

Written by Angela Williams, AILA Member and Artesia Volunteer

How We Got Here

shutterstock_140132866Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) – who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987, became the Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims in 1994.  Mr. Smith’s district includes most of the wealthier sections of San Antonio and Austin, as well as some of the Texas Hill Country.

After the GOP ascension to the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, Rep. Smith focused on immigration reform legislation in both the 104th and 105th Congresses.   Rep. Smith’s ideas came to fruition in 1996 through the enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA).

IIRAIRA was based on two main premises:

1.  To make life so difficult for undocumented workers that they’d leave, and then face the 3 or 10 year bars, or the worst: be permanently barred from returning;

2.  Label low-level misdemeanors “aggregated felonies”under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and subject those convicted of these minor crimes to mandatory detentions, so they’d be deported expeditiously.

The results of IIRAIRA however have been nothing less than disastrous.  We now have more undocumented migrants who cannot leave or they’d be subject to significant and often times impossible bars to reenter the U.S.  The lives of their U.S. born children and family members are often stuck in stagnation not knowing where they all will end up.  That is if they are lucky enough not to have to pay thousands of dollars of their hard earned money for legal fees they incur trying to keep their families together in one country.

In 1994, U.S. government records showed between 4.6 and 5.4 million undocumented persons living in the U.S.  As of 2012, the Pew Research Center estimates that this number has reached 11.7 million.  In 1994 immigration detention centers had about 6,280 beds.  Today, their Congressionally-mandated capacity is 33,400.

Rep. Lamar Smith, a fiscal conservative, was also wrong on the costs.  This overzealous enforcement is not free.  A March 2010 study by the Center for American Progress “calculates a price tag of $200 billion to deport over 10 million undocumented migrants in a 5 year span which is obviously impractical and would have hugely negative economic effects.  But while that’s a price tag, we actually pay an unnecessarily large bill every year on detention. For Fiscal Year 2014, the White House requested $1.84 billion for DHS Custody Operations – which translates into $5 million each day for detention.  What makes it worse is that so much of these tax dollars go to private prison conglomerates who simultaneously lobby the government for harsher immigration laws.  IIRAIRA has directly contributed to a booming prison-business industry at the expense of U.S. tax payers and the lives of migrant workers.

In any private business, which Rep. Smith praises profusely, such utter failure and mismanagement of company funds would result in an immediate termination of the responsible employee.  Not so in U.S. Congress.  While no longer having immediate control over immigration issues any longer, in the 113th Congress, Rep. Lamar Smith still chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology which has jurisdiction over all energy research, development, and projects.

Written by Ally Bolour, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee