An immigration lawyer responds to a humanitarian crisis
November 12, 2018By Scott Pollock
I'm writing this in the San Antonio airport after a week of pro bono legal work for detained asylum seekers in Dilley, Texas. Sitting across from me are a young mother and her four and two year-old children - just released from the detention center. I recognize them by their standard issue purple and blue non-brand sweat clothes and CCA CoreCivic plastic photo IDs - compliments of the private corporation whose business is to hold asylum seekers and immigrants until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is ready to let them go. They've never been on a plane and I offered to help them at O'Hare to get a connecting flight to Providence, Rhode Island to rejoin her husband who arrived a year ago. I don't know this family's story, but if it's anything like what I've heard from many women I counseled this past week, "providence", the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power, is what they need. The mother wears a painful GPS ankle monitor (un "grillete") and asks me when it will be taken off of her. She is one of the luckier ones because her children weren't taken away from her and a CARA Pro Bono Project volunteer worked with her for an entire day to pass the initial threshold credible fear interview (CFI) that allows her to be released and pursue her asylum claims.
The Obama administration opened the South Texas Residential Family Center, also known as "baby jail", in 2014 after Central American children and families fled north to escape the violence and attendant insecure conditions that still plague the Northern Triangle region. President Obama and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson publicly classified them as economic migrants - not refugees. I wondered at the time how the President, a former constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, could pre-judge cases without providing due process to the families. After creating the camps and providing legally required initial hearings, the detainees started winning their legal cases. I never saw an apology from the administration. The idea was that the situation wouldn't last, but it has. And now the Trump administration is going even further to make asylum unattainable for families fleeing violence.
I have been an immigration lawyer for over 30 years, but I learned a lot in Dilley about the law and why refugees continue to arrive here. Did you know that in Honduras a "toad" (un "zapo") is a rat? That is, a snitch. I learned that in my first prep session for a woman whose husband and father of her child was killed by gang members ("pandilleros"). They cut out this "zapo's" tongue because he went to the police for help. The police often tell gang members who made a police report and then the gang makes good on their threat. Later, when I was researching for a brief on another case, I saw that these women's stories are corroborated by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and other sources' country conditions reports. For anyone suspicious that the asylum seekers are being given canned stories or just repeating "magic words", it isn't true. Everyone I met had a distinct and compelling story for why they left the country with their children. Calling out clients on possible discrepancies is what I do for a living. I found the women I spoke with to be 100% credible.
As the scriptures say, welcome the stranger. They should also say, "especially when the government does not." We need to do more to provide refugees with legal and other assistance. Anyone who is interested in doing what I've done, or helping in other ways, can get more information from the CARA - Family Detention Pro Bono Project.
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