Author Archive

When Will They Listen?

shutterstock_473539426Family detention is wrong. The mass incarceration and detention of asylum seekers is wrong. The detention of immigrants who are not flight risks and pose no danger to community or national safety is wrong. It’s not just me saying it, or just AILA saying it, or even churches, community groups, NGOs, and Congressional Members. Now, the United Nations is saying it as well.

This week, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention completed a two-week visit to the U.S. I hadn’t realized there was a working group on arbitrary detention until this working group geared up to visit, but given the abuse of the detention mechanism around the world, I am heartened to know the subject is being tracked and investigated by the U.N. However, I am embarrassed for our country that the need existed to examine what the U.S. government has been doing.

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Baby Steps Toward Transparency

shutterstock_8491309Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) took another small step toward transparency – issuing a Request for Quote (RFQ) for 108 body-worn cameras and 12 vehicle-mounted cameras. It probably seems strange to get even a little bit excited about the announcement of a bureaucratic process, but in the case of CBP transparency, every step, even baby steps, are important after years of push-back and blockades in the fight for body-worn cameras. Despite the ever-growing evidence that body-worn cameras benefit all parties, CBP has failed to implement the use of these cameras throughout the field.

In a statement, CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said, “CBP is committed to expanding the use of cameras to increase transparency, accountability, and officer and agent safety. The body-worn and vehicle-mounted cameras from this purchase will be tested by agents and officers in the field. What we learn from this initial deployment to several operational environments will help CBP refine requirements that will lead to a larger procurement in the near future.”

Last November, CBP announced its intention to conduct more testing and evaluation rather than actually implement a program to employ the use of body-worn cameras. As I said back in November, it is beyond belief that, given all that we know about the power of video to shine a light on the actions of law enforcement agents and officers, as well as those who are involved in encounters with agents and officers, CBP is still dragging its heels on this initiative. As the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, CBP should lead the way toward transparency and set the standard, rather than keep things hidden away in the desert, bushes, canyons, and riverbanks.

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When Pictures Are Worth More than a Thousand Words

vtcc000019a_1I had heard stories about Border Patrol’s mistreatment of immigrants. When I volunteered in Artesia, New Mexico, and Dilley, Texas, the mothers and children there told me what a horrible experience they’d had in Border Patrol custody. Over the years, I’d become familiar with the term hieleras, or iceboxes, shorthand for the freezing cold and filthy Border Patrol facilities, in addition to the perreras, or dog pounds.

But now, thanks to a lawsuit filed on behalf of immigrants by the American Immigration Council, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others, the entire nation is seeing for themselves the horrors that have long-been described. Adults and children held in extremely close quarters with only a thin mylar blanket for cover. Diapers being changed on top of the same unsanitary blanket that covered a mother and her child for hours. No showers. No privacy. And empty rooms nearby that could have alleviated the crowded conditions.

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This Father’s Day

shutterstock_279444212On Sunday, my kids will wake me up extra early and play “Las Mañanitas” to wish me a Happy Father’s Day while handing me handmade Father’s Day cards. They’ll give me extra hugs and tell me they love me. That’s what’s done on Father’s Day in my house. It’s nothing special, though it means a lot to me personally.

But there are a lot of fathers out there who won’t get that chance. Their kids won’t give them that extra hug or make them breakfast, because the Obama Administration is refusing to treat Central American families fleeing violence as refugees. Instead, they are treating them as illegal border crossers and separating families at the border – fathers are torn away and unable to protect or comfort their families, while mothers and children are sent terrified to incarceration.

I have served as a volunteer at both the Artesia and Dilley family detention facilities. I have seen the painful toll that detention places on these mothers and children, and as a father, it’s hard to stomach.

I’m not the only father feeling these emotions though – we recently asked other CARA volunteer dads to tell us about their experiences. Here are some of their reflections:

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Family Detention Takes Another Hit

shutterstock_161123432I don’t know about you, but some days it seems like family detention is a battle being fought on multiple fronts – the lawyerly equivalent of air, land, and sea. We have hundreds of pro bono attorneys and volunteers fighting nonstop to help families in the three facilities and helping families once they are released. We have staff in DC fighting to lift up stories with the legislators and pushing back hard at the administration every time a new horrendous policy raises its ugly head. Partners and supporters in this fight hold protests and vigils and are fighting misinformation pushed out by the federal government by sharing their knowledge with their communities through faith and service organizations. Many different battles are taking place through litigation. We are fighting on every single front with every tool we can use.

I wanted to share a victory that came two days ago in a Texas courtroom. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) was denied the right to license the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, TX, as a childcare facility. The Travis County judge, Karin Crump, heard Grassroots Leadership’s allegations against the facility, she heard the testimony from medical professionals like Dr. Luis Zayas, and she heard the voices of detained mothers that the CARA Project partners ensured were lifted up in the case. She did not like what she heard. The licensing was halted because the exceptions that the DFPS had pushed through, including allowing children to sleep in rooms with adult strangers, would allow for “situations for children that are dangerous.” It is wrong to endanger children and thankfully Judge Crump recognized that reality.

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Recognize these Mothers’ Sacrifices on Mother’s Day

CARA_MothersDayArt-1From Day One of the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand family detention, children have been the hardest hit. In Artesia, Berks, Dilley, and Karnes, these vulnerable asylum seekers are the ones who suffer the most when fleeing danger and coming to the U.S. seeking lawful protection for their safety. The children are traumatized instead of being sheltered. They are incarcerated by the hundreds as our government works tirelessly to fast-track their deportation and volunteer attorneys work just as tirelessly to prevent those removals.

This week we found out the Karnes facility has received an initial license from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) as a childcare facility. This effort is entirely at the behest of the federal government and the private prison companies, who desperately want to keep their cash cow open despite Judge Dolly Gee’s ruling in the Flores case. Licensing these “baby jails” as childcare facilities is just the latest in a string of outrageous and shameful efforts to keep the deportation machine running. Thankfully a Texas judge has temporarily halted the licensing of the Dilley facility as a child care center. But that battle still wages.

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CARA – One Year Later

PrintIt’s hard to believe that tomorrow will mark a year since the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project officially launched. Four seasons have passed, during which we have worked tirelessly to end family detention, urging the Obama administration to stop detaining thousands of children and their mothers – a decision that stains both President Obama’s own legacy, and the history of this country.

Together, the four CARA partner organizations have soldiered on over the past year. Staff members have put in innumerable hours to create new processes, hundreds of volunteers have come and gone, but one thing remains the same: family detention is an inhumane practice and must end.

The CARA Project has served 7,935 mothers over the past 12 months. Nearly 60% were under the age of 30 and nearly 30% were younger than 25. Eight hundred and sixteen were under 21. Think about that. Things were so bad for these young women, many of whom aren’t much more than children themselves, that they fled everything they knew and left behind nearly everything they owned, to save what was most precious to them: their children and their lives.

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Defend, Don’t Target, the Vulnerable

shutterstock_232202254On Christmas Eve, news leaked that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was going to begin raids to round up and deport Central American families. Over the holiday week, stakeholders, legislators, community leaders, and advocates pushed back hard on these planned raids and begged the Obama Administration not to move forward.

In spite of that, and without any communication from DHS in response to our efforts, on the first Saturday of the New Year the raids began. Reports surfaced quickly of mothers and children being torn from their homes, terrified of what was happening. Of ICE agents gaining access to homes under questionable circumstances. Of the latest inhumane and deplorable practices to which the federal government has subjected asylum seekers.

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When the Narrative Shifts

11148730_10153682735318632_5462661337177844069_nI joined AILA’s Executive Committee with quite a bit of media experience under my belt. One thing I’ve known for a long time is that the news cycle can turn on a dime and what you may have thought you’d be talking about with a reporter can change, sometimes mid-interview.

As an example – AILA’s annual New York City Media Tour was planned to coincide with the one year anniversary of DAPA and expanded DACA. AILA staff analyzed President Obama’s immigration actions during his term in office and we issued a report card highlighting where he had made a good effort (DACA and DAPA again) and where he had failed (humanitarian protection and family detention), while also highlighting what was still incomplete (legal immigration reform) and unsatisfactory (enforcement). The tour was all set, appointments were made, preparations in place.

And then, attacks in Beirut and Paris happened and the backlash against refugees started. We knew the news cycle wasn’t going to be focused on executive actions on immigration anymore; instead, we read stories and watched interviews that were chock full of fearmongering and hateful speech, of lashing out and calling for isolation.

We talked, we strategized, and we went forward with the report card, but we also accepted the shift and made sure that AILA’s voice was heard.

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Beirut and Paris, What Can We Do?

Syrian-refugee-crisis_crcleThe recent events in Beirut, Baghdad and Paris have brought feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, and helplessness. While these feelings in the coming weeks may subside and take a backseat to the holiday season, they will not entirely go away. And, they shouldn’t. The thought that there has to be something we can do, something we can fight for, will hopefully remain. Many of us are up every night thinking and talking at length about these events and their impact. This is, of course, much bigger than we are but it does not mean that we cannot or should not do anything. We need to do something.

Because this impacts all of us, especially the immigration bar, we need to start a larger discussion. We need to speak out against this xenophobic anti-refugee, anti-Muslim backlash.  We need to be open, be frank, be courageous and be hopeful. We need a deeper conversation among each other, within our communities and with those who do not share the same perspective. There is so much misinformation and misuse of facts. Fear and lack of understanding is dictating impulsive and hateful actions. Many in Congress are aiming to halt the refugee resettlement program for those from Iraq and Syria, while millions of refugees are desperately asking for help. Governors in 31 states are touting that they want to close their doors to Syrian refugees, with one governor already turning two families away. And, this is just the beginning. As immigration professionals, we are in a position to highlight the facts, speak the truth, and hold our elected officials accountable. We understand the immigration system better than anyone—we know the intricacies, the process, and what is required.

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