The Ultimate Act of Motherly Love

Author: on 12/11/2015


shutterstock_220381390I recently visited the Karnes County Residential Center and the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, with the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration and as a CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project volunteer. I have been going to jails and prisons for more than 25 years, my entire career, but I have never been in a prison complete with locked metal doors, security cameras, and a prison wall with fencing thirty feet high, but also with kids in strollers, infants, stacks of diapers, a room of clothes that includes 0-3 month onesies, and a “yard” outfitted to include a playground. Despite what the government calls them, these are prisons, just like any prison I’ve been to throughout my career, except there are children in these. It feels so wrong.

The women who agreed to talk with us had been incarcerated from a couple days to two weeks. They didn’t seem to really grasp the process, their rights, or know what was going to happen next.  They also didn’t seem to understand the importance of the credible or reasonable fear interviews, the first step in the path to protection in the U.S. What was apparent was how difficult it is for these women to share what caused them to flee, to lay out the horrifying facts to a complete stranger.

Among the stories shared are those of terror and fear, women trying to escape violence and persecution with children in tow:  A teenage daughter  threatened with rape and death on her way home from school. Children told that they must sell drugs or their families would be murdered. Friends and cousins tortured and killed. Toddlers and school-age children threatened with guns to their heads while their mothers were forced to watch. The police couldn’t or wouldn’t help them. This is what they fled from.

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For Many, “Beautiful Honduras” Isn’t.

Author: on 12/02/2015


shutterstock_59018533A couple of weeks ago, I read a piece in the Huffington Post quoting Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson saying that it’s okay to deport kids to Honduras because it’s “a beautiful country.” Reading this ridiculous comment, I felt I had to share my knowledge of what is driving children to flee their homes.

The reality is Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Plagued by poverty, infested with deported violent criminals and gang members, its corrupt government fails to protect its citizens. I saw firsthand the plight of many in Honduras when I traveled to the Bay Islands on two separate occasions as an avid scuba diver a few years ago.

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When the Narrative Shifts

Author: on 12/01/2015


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?

Author: on 11/23/2015


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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Scapegoating Refugees is Not the Solution

Author: on 11/19/2015


shutterstock_239484691Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind, I live in constant fear. Many of us do. It’s a natural reaction. Every day we step outside we are exposing ourselves to those things we fear. I fear a texting driver may hit my car. I fear a person with a gun could shoot up a business I’m patronizing or a nearby school. I fear my health could fail unexpectedly. Do I let this fear consume me? Not at all. But, I don’t completely discard this fear, and I am mindful of how fortunate I am to be alive each day. I am one of the lucky ones. In 1948, with the assistance of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the United States gave my own family an opportunity to survive, and we have thrived thanks to those protections provided by this country.

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Building Bridges Rather than Walls

Author: on 11/12/2015


shutterstock_104467115Congratulations to the people and elected representatives of San Diego.

As many of us know in the immigration field, it is so easy for politicians, press and the public to demonize and scapegoat immigrants of all colors, creeds, and convictions.  For years we have heard the loud cries to “build a bigger wall” or “build more walls” in order to protect American communities on the U.S.-Mexico border.  But walls aren’t always the answer, and San Diego has had enough of being told what is good for them by bureaucrats who live far from the border and carry a different agenda.

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Warning: Content Not Safe for Your Peace of Mind

Author: on 11/05/2015


shutterstock_121160620Ana was all of 11 days old when we met at the Berks Detention Center.  She was not always the most cooperative client. I don’t believe she even bothered to look at me in the two weeks she resided at the detention center. In fact her eyes didn’t open at all. She had extremely poor communication skills, well, no communication skills in fact. I bored her to sleep most days. I am also quite positive that I annoyed her with my constant ogling and raving about her cuteness. We got by, however, and I could see her story and her cause in her very tiny, pink hands.

She is now one of my best friends.  As we sat in court last week, she brilliantly turned her obstinance away from me and directed it toward her adversaries and the Immigration Court.  She has grown into the most beautiful, chubby, happy, ten-month-old baby. We, the grown-ups, sat patiently awaiting court, but Ana was having none of it.  She would peek out of her car seat every moment or two, make eye contact with me, screech and smile. She has mastered rocking in her car seat, and did so with impunity as the judge attempted to conduct what is a very serious removal proceeding that will determine her future and her safety.  Though Ana has already succeeded in defeating removal proceedings on one occasion, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has determined that it would like a second chance to order the removal of this spectacular girl, while her mother continues to fight for her right to live, free from persecution, in the United States.

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Babies in Jail

Author: on 11/04/2015


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“What are they being detained for, spilling milk?” Those are the words of my friend Dawn when I told her I was volunteering at “baby jail” for the week.  Something about her response struck a nerve with me. To every sane, reasonable person in the U.S., the thought of putting a baby in jail is the most ridiculous proposition in the world. If someone said, “we should detain that baby for spilling his milk,” you would laugh, because of COURSE that’s not something we would do. The idea that there could be any reason to put a baby in jail is so far-fetched that this person couldn’t possibly be serious. But yet, this is what is happening, right here in the United States.

I recently returned from spending five days at the “South Texas Family Residential Center” in Dilley, Texas. The week I was there, approximately 2,000 children and their mothers were detained at the jail, most fleeing from horrific violence in Central America.  The officials tell us it’s a “family residential center” where all their needs are being taken care of. However, let’s not mince words. The mothers and children here are in jail, where they have strict rules about when they can leave their cells (“rooms”), are assigned matching uniforms (though in different colors, how nice), and have to listen to instructions from a guard as to when and how to discipline their children. They are forced to eat unfamiliar food that their stomachs can’t handle, and to wait three to five or more hours in 90 to 100 degree Texas heat to see a doctor for any medical issues that arise. The doctor typically tells the women and children to “drink water” to alleviate any one of a plethora of illnesses.  Pain relievers are often given in a single dose, and the women must come back and wait again if they need more.  They are not free to leave the center, and can only visit with friends and family during set visiting hours. And that’s if their family can even make it out to see them – the center is located in southern Texas, over an hour from the nearest airport in San Antonio, and many, many hours away from most of their family members living in other states in the U.S.

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The Un-American Nature of Prison Bed Quotas

Author: on 11/03/2015


shutterstock_170934761It has never been easy to be an immigration attorney.  Faced with combatting injustice without sufficient resources, those of us who represent detained immigrants have seen these challenges increase with the recent hyper-growth of the private prison industry (PPI): 1600% increase in the number of beds from 1990 to 2010.

More than half of the industry’s $3 billion in profits comes from the detention of immigrants.  Not surprisingly, due to PPI’s muscular lobbying efforts, there is scant congressional oversight of the industry.  Over time, GEO and CCA, the two largest for-profit prison companies in the U.S. have given more than $10 million to individual politicians and spent almost $25 million on lobbying Congress.

As a result, we now live in a country where immigrants are treated as commodities.  There are more than 200 detention facilities in the U.S. that operate under a congressional mandate of keeping 34,000 available beds per day.  Despite testimony by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson that the 34,000 bed mandate is more of an availability target than a quota, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spends almost $2 billion a year, in part, on keeping these beds occupied. The result: a huge portion of the money is funneled to PPI.

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An Unforgivable Waste

Author: on 11/02/2015


shutterstock_213214372It was not until I sat on the plane, notebook open, pen in hand, when it hit me. The emotion came; I felt the tightening in my throat and tears forming in the corners of my eyes. It was only now that I could allow myself to fully process what I had just finally witnessed firsthand. Now that I was on my way back to my baby, the beautiful little being who has brought so much joy, definition, and purpose to my life, could I actually begin to reflect on the fact that I had just spent the week working inside a jail for babies.

Of course, I was very well-prepared for this trip. I am an immigration lawyer, specialized in representing women fleeing gender-based violence. And, for the past three and a half months I have been working from Washington DC as part of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project with the American Immigration Council on efforts to end the detention of immigrant mothers and children seeking refuge in the United States.

And so, I was well aware of the chaos that we fondly refer to as “OTG” – on the ground at the U.S. government’s family detention center in Dilley, Texas. And, if that sounds like military terminology, it should – it does feel like being “on the ground” in a constantly shifting war zone. It is more civilized than actual war, but, make no mistake, this is a battle.

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