*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
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.