Author Archive

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.

Continue reading ‘CARA – One Year Later’ »

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.

Continue reading ‘Defend, Don’t Target, the Vulnerable’ »

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.

Continue reading ‘When the Narrative Shifts’ »

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.

Continue reading ‘Beirut and Paris, What Can We Do?’ »

More Than a Label

MoreThanALabel LogoThis blog post was written in response to the questions raised by the SocialWork@Simmons #MoreThanALabel campaign, an effort to highlight how immigrants are currently combating labels and stigmas and what can be done to promote immigrant pride.

My name is Victor Nieblas Pradis, and in June I became the first Mexican-American President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) in AILA’s 69 years of existence.

Decades ago, proudly claiming to be Mexican-American might have led to slurs or denigration in this country, but times have thankfully changed.

As I shared in my first speech as AILA President, I was two years old when we settled across the “linea,” or border, of Mexico in Calexico, California. For me and my four siblings, immigration issues were a part of our experience and reality. The international border was only eight blocks from my home and the local border patrol station was only two. My next-door neighbor was a border patrol agent and across the street lived a ranking member of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Continue reading ‘More Than a Label’ »

Artesia: A Day in the Tour of Duty, Part 4

Artesia1This is what you need to know:

The due process violations are still going on in Artesia.  While the nation’s attention is on other concerns like Ebola and the mid-term elections, mothers and children are still being detained in Artesia and other facilities.  The work of the Artesia Volunteer Heroes is making a difference.  More families are being released on bond than being deported, to the frightened shock of the Artesia Mayor.  “This administration has changed their view on the rapid deportation, as it was the stated goal to begin with, and had just determined that they will simply release them into the United States,” Artesia Mayor, Phil Burch, said.  Of course, like many in this debate, he is quick to dismiss our country’s international law obligations and commitments, asylum law, and immigration law standards dictating release of bona fide asylum seekers.

Denver Immigration Judges are granting significantly lower bonds than their previous Arlington colleagues. This proves these families have bona fide asylum claims and the Administration is wrong about their national security claims.  Schools have now opened for the children in Artesia.

Yet, we cannot allow ourselves to believe things are getting better.  Let’s be clear, what is happening in Artesia is wrong, illegal, and morally reprehensible. The recent allegations of sexual abuse at the Karnes Family Detention Center, serve only to emphasize again our country’s failure to protect these vulnerable asylum seekers.

Ten US Senators have sent a letter to DHS Secretary, Jeh Johnson telling him it is “unacceptable” to detain women and children seeking asylum. The Senators asserted, “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 seArtesiaShirtxual violence and murder.”

This week, 32 House Democrats sent a letter raising three concerns, “We have identified three principal concerns with the rapid, mass expansion of family detention: (1) the “no-bond/high-bond” policy for families; (2) the disparity in credible fear rates for families in detention; and (3) the lack of appropriate child care within facilities.Nevertheless, the Obama Administration continues plans to open new Family Detention Centers.”

Please do not disregard what is happening in Artesia and in other detention centers.  Never forget.  I challenge you and others to take the Tour of Duty in Artesia, offer help at Karnes, or work remotely on bond motions. Volunteer. Donate. Be part of the solution.

These last four blogs posts are dedicated to the Artesia Volunteers and supporters who are changing the face of this debate.  “I think what we are seeing in Artesia now is the result of attorneys actually being in the facility, having access to these families and being able to ensure some actual oversight and accountability of what is happening in Artesia,” Policy Counsel for Detention Watch Network, Madhuri Grewal, said.

As the hometown High School Artesia Bulldogs’ motto describes: The Desire to Serve, The Courage to Act, the Ability to Perform, is what drives our vArtesiaShirt1olunteers.  Chingon.

Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, Southern California Chapter AILA MemberVolunteer and AILA President-Elect

Miss the first three parts of this blog?

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

 

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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.

Artesia: A Day in the Tour of Duty Part 3

Artesia1*Some details have been changed to ensure privacy of clients.

The rest of my day went like this:

2:45 pm.  I return to the attorney’s trailer.  I prep two more clients for credible fear interviews taking place the next day.  I meet with a young mother who belongs to the Maya Mam indigenous group in Guatemala.  She speaks very little Spanish.  I ask why she came to the United States. In her broken Spanish, she responds, “They believe I am not Torres.” Huh?  It takes me several tries but I start deciphering what happened. In her small rural town everyone is indigenous.  Everyone is also very dark skinned. Both of her parents are dark skinned.  She was born with light skin. No one can explain it. Everyone rejects her. Her father disowned her.  Her siblings are forced to ignore her.  Her extended family does not accept she is part of them. Villagers violently beat and kick her, because they know no one will come to her defense.  Her young son is also constantly attacked. Everyone wants her out. Her family’s name is Torres but they disowned her. They believe she is not their blood. “God gave me the color of my skin.  I cannot change that. This is what he wanted,” she says with tears flowing from her eyes.  I cannot help but take two enormous gulps to keep from being overwhelmed and losing my composure.  I hold her hand, look into her eyes, and assure her, “your skin color is beautiful.”

She needs very little prepping. She says “they attack me because I am a single mother, indigenous woman, who has been disowned by my family and town due to the color of my skin.”  She has a strong case. Like my previous client, she also needs counseling.  Nothing is provided by the Detention Center.

Before she leaves, the client gives me 7 “papelitos,” or small pieces of paper.  This is how the mothers communicate with the attorneys.  These “papelitos” have their name and “A” number on them.  This is how they communicate that they want to talk to the attorneys.  She even gives me a bracelet belonging to another mother.  She could not write her name, so she gave her bracelet to send her message.  These mothers will be called the next day for intakes.

4:00 pm.  For my last duty of the day, I attend a credible fear decision.  The CIS officer wants an attorney present for the decision.  We are escorted to another trailer. The mother, her teenage son, and young daughter enter the room.  The daughter goes to play with the toys and puzzles. She is also drawing. The CIS officer goes through the findings with an interpreter on the phone.  It is a positive determination. For her accomplishment, the mother is served with a Notice to Appear and a court date.  I inform her she can now ask an Immigration Judge for a bond.

It is time to leave the room.  The CIS Officer walks out and so do mother and son.  The daughter is still trying to put all the toys away.  The CIS officer tells her, “Just leave them there.”  The young skinny girl refuses to listen; she is determined to put everything away like she found it.  “And these kids are national security threats?” I catch myself thinking.  She reminds me of my 8 year old daughter.  When she is done, she walks directly towards me and without saying a word, hands me her drawing.  It is a beautiful colorful house with a chimney and a big yellow sun shining in the sky.  I am stunned! Immobilized. This was her way of thanking me.  This is all she had to express her gratitude.  It is worth a million dollars.

I walk back to the attorney room behind my clients and the officer with tears running down my cheeks. I am taking deep breaths trying not to make much noise.  I think about how this facility is separating these families from their loved ones, and separating me from mine.  After everything that I have seen and heard today, I decide it is okay to violate the “be strong” code and allow myself to release some emotions. It’s okay. I am human.ArtesiaFence

5:00 pm..  We leave the facility and stop at a restaurant for a quick meal.  Our Big Table meeting with all the volunteers starts at 6:30 pm.  On the way, I notice that most of the stores close at 6 pm.  Even the gasoline station near the church is closed. “How do they make their money?” I ask myself.

6:30 pm.  We have our daily Big Table meeting recounting the events of the day.  Everyone shares their stories and important facts.  We discuss strategy and what to watch out for. For the next 4 hours, we prepare and cases are assigned for the next day.  The rest of the night is dedicated to printing motions, putting evidence packets together, translating documents, filling out asylum applications, and cracking a joke once in a while to lighten the mood among the volunteers.

10:45 pm.  I decide to call it a night because I am starving. I leave to see if I can find something to eat.  On the way to the hotel, I spot a Burger King Restaurant and I see people inside.  I speed to the drive thru and I hear a voice say, “Can I help you?”  I said “Yes, give me a quick minute.”  I look over the menu and say that I am ready to order.  Then I hear four words that will ruin my night, “Sorry, we are closed.” What? You’re kidding me, right?  “No sir, we are closed.”

I head back to my hotel for more oat and honey bars and I add a trail mix pouch for dessert.

I prepare my clothes for the next morning.

12:30 am.  I retire to bed.  I will sleep a couple of hours and start all over again at 4:45 am.

To be continued…

Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, Southern California Chapter AILA Member Volunteer and AILA President-Elect

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 4

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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.

Artesia: A Day in the Tour of Duty, Part 2

Artesia1*Some details have been changed to ensure privacy of clients.

The day continues:

10:00 am.  I get notified the Immigration Judge is ready for another client’s bond hearing.  I quickly ask for my client and request to be escorted to the trailer housing the Immigration Court. As we are walking to the Court, I ask the escorting officer if I could make a quick stop at the restroom.  He said sure and pointed to three port-a-potties on the sidewalk.  Not ideal. At the completion of our tenure, we were allowed to use a regular restrooms without locks located inside the trailers.

I arrive at the Courtroom, shocked to see its contents. I had heard the descriptions, but seeing this in person is something else.  A small table faces a computer screen with a video feed, located about 4-5 feet away.  You cannot really make out the judge.  You cannot see the government’s attorney. But you can hear their conversations.

As we start our hearing, the screen freezes. The small object that appears to be the judge is no longer moving.  After several seconds, the entire video feed is disconnected. Quickly, the ICE officer in the room runs toward the computer screen and tries to recover the feed.  Several minutes pass and we are once again connected but the video screen shows the Immigration Judge is no longer on the bench.  They took a break. I ask the officer to place the feed on mute so I can use the time to further prepare my client.

When the Immigration Judge comes back from his break, we start the hearing.  The government attorney announces there is no bond in this case. They are opposing bond because they believe my client is a threat to national security. I am prepared to face the statement, but hearing it in person, sitting next to a helpless, tiny, indigenous woman with her young son running circles around the table giving me a “high five” every time he completes a cycle, makes me realize how much the system is broken.  From experience, I know the government attorney probably does not believe in the national security argument, but is being instructed by higher-ups to follow the structured talking points.

The Immigration Judge focuses on whether my client used the services of a “coyote” and how much she paid him.  She says her brother paid the coyote about 25,000 quetzales, which is about $3,500 dollars. She explains that the father of her child constantly abused her.  Hits, kicks, and bruises were common.  My client says she was gainfully employed constructing traditional Maya regalia for her indigenous community. Her partner would strip her of her regalia and burn it, all while using derogatory names to shame her indigenous background. The violence upon her was too much.  She had already filed five restraining orders against him.  The police did nothing.  Her brother had confronted the partner, but he was threatened as well.

The Judge interrupts stating, “I do not want to hear the merits of the case.”  We continue to present testimony of why my client is not a danger to the community or a flight risk.  “I want to attend my hearings to present my asylum claim.  It is in my best interest,” responds my client to a question determining whether she would attend her future hearings.

The Government attorney then counters, “If you were being attacked so much, why did you not leave sooner? Why wait until June, 2014 to leave your country?” On redirect, my client responds, “I had to recover from my injuries.”  Her last attack was in March of 2014. She explains her partner was riding a motorcycle with a friend.  He spotted her in town and decided to drive the motorcycle towards her.  He grabbed her and dragged her on the street until he let go.  My client bears the scars of the dragging and of her injuries, yet they mean nothing because the Immigration Judge cannot see them through the primitive video system in place at Artesia.  We close arguing my client was a bona fide asylum seeker, and the regulations authorized the Judge to release my client on her own recognizance or at the very minimum issue a $1,500 bond.  A $3,000 bond is granted.  I do not know if my client will have the ability to post the bond.

As I step back to allow the next volunteer to start her bond hearing, I reflect on the hearing that just took place.  I replay the Judge’s statements, “the asylum application has already been filed,” “the five restraining orders have been submitted with translations,” and “the positive credible fear interview notes are also in the file,” and it becomes crystal clear this bond victory has been a collaboration of many people and many volunteers.  From the volunteer translators, to the volunteer law firms in Denver that walk over our submissions to the Immigration Court, this is a team operating with a level of love and commitment that I have rarely seen.  I am emotional and I start getting the “Laura Lichter” sweaty eyeballs. But I hide my emotions, because we were instructed to be strong in these situations.

12:30 pm.  I go back to the attorney trailer room.  It is lunch time, but there is no lunch.  You cannot decide to walk out of the detention center and look for lunch. It’s against the rules.  I reach for my bag with my oat and honey bars.  I eat one apple.  Another attorney next to me did not bring any fuel.  I offer her my other hotel apple.  She shines with gratefulness.  I neglect to inform her that the hotel apples have a hollow taste to them.  I do not want to ruin her lunch.

Any free time that we have is used to input notes and updates on the computer data system detailing our actions with each client or with the court.

12:45 pm.  My name is called.  I have to go to court to represent a client who had a negative credible fear determination.  I had prepped her the day before and was informed she would be represented by another attorney.  However, the other attorney is stuck in another credible fear interview.  Escorted, I make my way to the Immigration Court trailer.

I walk into an ongoing bond hearing.  The attorney informs the Judge that the mother’s  infant child has been sick for the past week and was prescribed medication.  She further states that the detention center doctor stopped the medication because they realized the child was prescribed medication not appropriate for his age. I’m horrified.  To top it off, as part of her arguments, the government attorney states, “Well, ma’am, your son looks fine.  He is active and full of energy.”  In reality, the infant was crying and fussing, trying to escape the clutches of her mother’s arms, showing us his unhappiness and ill health compounded by medical error.

This is the first negative credible fear determination before the Denver Immigration Judges.  We do not know if they will allow the attorneys to participate in the hearing.  Knowing my client, I know she needs help.  She is so traumatized and withdrawn, that she can barely speak a sentence. I tell her this is her last opportunity to tell her story. I do not know how much I can help her if she does not testify.

I decide to jump in and interrupt the Judge before he begins questioning my client. I point to an anomaly in the credible fear finding. The Judge says that according to the interview, she is only afraid of general violence and this is not enough.  I inform the Judge she will testify today about the beatings she suffered at the hands of her partner.  I share that the reason why she did not mention this during the interview was because her young son was next to her.  She did not want him to hear about the violence that she suffered. She did not want him to hear the things his father did to her. The Judge asks my client “is this true,” she says “yes.”  I explain to the Judge that credible fear interviews are done in a small room with the children present.  I explain to him that this is a common occurrence. Mothers do not want to discuss the violence they suffered with their young children in the room.  The Judge says, “But he is 4 years old, he can stay somewhere else.”  I inform the Judge that I was tied to my mother’s hip at age 4.  The Judge chuckles.  He says, “But he has to go to school.”  I agree, but not until the age of 5, he is now 4.  The Judge says he will overturn the negative credible fear finding. The client is now given the opportunity to present a bond hearing on a separate date.

My day is not yet done, but I, and the other attorneys have made a difference already.

To be continued…

Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, Southern California Chapter AILA Member Volunteer and AILA President-Elect

Missed Part 1? Read it here

Read Part 3

Read Part 4

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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.

Artesia: A Day in the Tour of Duty, Part 1

Artesia1Note: Some details have been changed to ensure privacy of clients.

There was no way for me to explain my time at Artesia in one blog post. Instead, I offer a look at one of the days I spent there in posts today, continuing over the next three days as well. I hope readers get a feel for what it is like, as a volunteer and a human being, to see these women and children, to get the chance to help them, and to know that we are really making a difference. I also want to congratulate the spectacular Artesia volunteers – last week they brought the asylum merits cases won up to 7 out of 7!

So the day begins:

4:50 am. The alarm goes off. I need several snooze button sessions to finally get up.

I prepared my clothing the night before to save a couple of minutes.  I need to be out of the hotel by 6:15 am if I am to make it on time to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), also known as the Artesia Family Detention Center.

6:00 am. I am out the door with my bag and laptop. In my bag are several oat and honey bars and two bottles of water.  I was instructed to bring some and will discover later why this is important.

I am wearing a suit and tie to instill confidence in the detained mothers and kids I will be seeing throughout the day.  I stop by the hotel breakfast bar.  The buffet offers eggs, bacon, and toast with some apples and bananas on the side.  I need to hurry.  I taste the eggs and decide to skip them since powdered eggs just do not fit the bill.  I grab two apples and a banana for the road.

I start my rental car.  I notice most of the big trucks from last night are already gone.  They belong to all the roughnecks I saw the night before. Oil workers.  After all, Artesia, NM is an oil town and it smells like it too.  I look out of place in my attorney uniform.  I turn left onto Main Street and go down several blocks.  There is no real traffic; it is too early.  Everything is closed. That turns out to be a common theme in this town.

I turn right on 26th Street and follow it down several miles. I pass the town’s Walmart store.  I will discover later, that this is where some released detainees will be brought for modest clothing sprees.  I make a right on Richey Road and it takes me straight to the Detention Center.

6:45 am.  As I pull into the parking lot, I notice a van already waiting for the volunteers. I need to hurry.  Before I can get in the van, I have to go into the security building for a picture and security badge.  This is a daily routine. IMG_20141004_180345

I enter the van and see most of the morning’s volunteers carefully arranged inside.  Several crates with files also share the confined space.  I manage to fit in a small spot.  The van is filled to capacity. Yet, four other volunteers are still making their way to the vehicle.

7:00 am sharp.  The driver makes the final call. If you miss it, you may have to wait until 10:00 am to make the next trip.  The van takes off.  Several feet ahead we stop at the guard station. The security guard wants to see all of our badges.  He opens the door and several of the file crates almost fall out.  We are a tightly packed van of attorney sardines.  He is satisfied and lets us through.

We travel 500 feet at 10 mph.  The speed is regulation.  I notice a sports field with a running track.  We finally reach our destination. We enter what looks like a small city block filled with light brown trailers along both sides of the street.  I count at least 4-5 on each side. As we enter the gated village, I see there are other trailers to the side.  I also observe countless Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers walking around or sitting on chairs.  It is clear; they are the authority in this place.  We cannot wander around. We have to be escorted at all times.

We unload our crates, grab our bags and are escorted to the attorney trailer.  As we enter the mobile office, we notice construction next to the trailers. We are informed this is where the bungalows for the schools will be located. We are asked to sign in by the duty guard.  We finally reach our space. It is the far end of the building. We have a column of small tables and chairs facing a wall.  A tall divider separates the attorney workspace from the area where the mothers and children will be meeting with the attorneys.  All of the attorneys scramble for a table, chair, and an outlet.  For the next several days, every morning will feature this non-choreographed attorney dance a la musical chairs.

7:15 am.  Once we set up our laptops, the mothers and children start filtering into the trailer.  The previous night, our lead attorney and administrative assistant prepared the list of the mothers we will be seeing.  Each mother is already assigned to a particular attorney.  We are ready to go.

The onsite assistant starts calling out names. When you hear your assigned client, you are on.  Some attorneys start prepping their clients for bond hearings that will take place at 8:00 am.  Others start prepping clients for credible fear interviews or negative credible fear determinations that will also follow. Others will do intakes.

Each mother has a child or children of varying ages. They are primarily between 3-7 years old.  The guards put on movies for them to view while the attorneys interview the mothers.  You don’t appreciate hits like Rio, Aladdin, or Bible Stories, until you hear them 10 times a day in Spanish.  Throughout the day, I begin to admire the art of movie voice-over translations, and catch myself daydreaming about a possible future career move.

I am assigned a credible fear interview.  I am fluent in Spanish so I establish rapport quickly with the young mother.  I explain what she will encounter during the interview.  The mother tells me she is afraid to go back because of the violence. I explain the nature of asylum and  the enumerated grounds as set out by the statutes.  I dig deeper and she shares with me that the MS 13 gang members demanded she hand over her teenage daughter for their use.  They have threatened her repeatedly.  The gang has vowed to kidnap both her teenage daughter, and her younger daughter as well. She continues to tell them “No.”  As an added pressure, the gangs demand the mother pay them a “rent” or “renta” from the earnings of her small store or they will proceed with the kidnapping and kill her as well. The asylum officer comes over and asks if we are ready.  I respond by asking for 2 more minutes.  She  agrees with some hesitation.  I need time to make sure the mother can fully tell her story.

The credible fear interview takes place in a separate trailer.  We are escorted through a maze of pathways and encounter other escorts taking mothers and their kids to various trailers in the village.  I see a husky officer escorting at least 5 mothers with their children lingering behind. In my mind, I get an image of Halloween, when mothers take their kids trick or treating.  I have been that husky escort taking my kids around the different streets.  I quickly shut down the image realizing this is not Halloween and we are not on the friendly streets of a real town.

The credible fear interview lasts about 1 hour.  I am satisfied the mother has told her story.  But I am a bit troubled by a couple of the questions.  The asylum officer asked, “Have you ever been harmed or persecuted based on belonging to a particular social group where you have characteristics that you cannot change, like being gay or having HIV?”  The mother’s response was “No, I am not gay and I do not have HIV.” I am allowed to ask follow-up questions at the end of the interview. I state to the mother that being a woman or her gender is also a characteristic she cannot change, and ask her if she has ever been persecuted because of this.  She quickly responds, “That is exactly why the gangs are doing this to me and my daughters, because we are women and they can attack us without having to worry about being arrested by the authorities.” Boom.

The officer states that according to the interview notes, the Border Patrol Officer wrote down that she had not expressed a fear of persecution. This was the third time in as many days that I heard this particular statement.  I inquired with the other volunteer attorneys who confirmed they also heard the same statement over and over again.  According to the Border Patrol notes, apparently no one was expressing a fear of persecution upon return to in their country. It seems a bit hard to believe given what so many of these women have experienced and the scars they often carry. The CIS officer informed us a decision would be made within 3 days.  Several days later, I discovered the mother with the young daughters passed her credible fear interview and could move on to a bond hearing before an Immigration Judge.

To be continued…

Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, Southern California Chapter AILA Member Volunteer and AILA President-Elect

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

Read Part 4

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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.

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