Life or Death Consequences: Part 2

shutterstock_147711227Read Part 1 of this blog postThe story continues…

A few days later, I got a desperate email from our local staff:  we only had two volunteers lined up for the next week.  Worse yet, one lawyer was only available for three days and the other didn’t speak Spanish.  Continuity was critical:  we had told these women we would be there and they could rely on us to give them a voice.  Could I help recruit more volunteers on short notice?  I managed to find one veteran volunteer, wiped out the last of my air miles for the two of us, and returned to Dilley.

On our second day in the facility, I recognized Riva, waiting to see the next volunteer attorney.  Somehow (probably because it was such an unthinkable thing), I had put it out of my mind that the next step for Riva would be preparing for a hearing in front of an immigration judge.  So when she told me late Tuesday afternoon that her case was the next day, my heart skipped a beat. We went over her file and reviewed her application.  I heard her again describe how her predator had terrorized her family and her fear of what would happen to her and Eduardo if they were deported to Honduras.  But we couldn’t take the case.  We already had over a dozen cases in front of two different judges for bond the next day and over 60 people on our waiting list.  We just couldn’t do it.

But, how could I not? I just couldn’t imagine being able to look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t do everything in my power to protect her and her little boy.  So I said yes.  And no, I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night, but this young mother who had been threatened, had weapons brandished in her face, had family members murdered, and finally fled in fear from her stalker, had me in her corner in front of the immigration judge that week.

Some may be able to fight their case successfully without legal help, but that’s the rare exception, not the rule.  Honestly, we haven’t heard of a successful pro se case in a while. Instead, we were seeing women who were devastated because they “told their story” to the judge, but told us that the prosecutor had attacked them and the Judge said they didn’t make their case. This is particularly striking where trained asylum officers were finding that about 90% of the women had a significant possibility of making a winning claim.  Even cases like Riva’s, held to an incredibly high “clear probability” standard were being granted in about four out of five cases.

Statistics show that the most important factors in an asylum claim are whether an applicant has legal help and whether they are detained.  Losing asylum doesn’t just mean that someone won’t have an opportunity for the American dream.  In these cases, the difference between winning and deportation is the difference between life and death.  Just because the facility plans to offer Zumba classes and is putting in sod for a soccer field doesn’t make Dilley any less of a deportation mill.

Despite repeated requests for access, CCA and ICE officials have engaged in a pattern and practice of harassing and obstructing legal efforts to defend these families.  Perhaps ICE is afraid that winning cases and exposing the stories of the women and children locked up in Dilley might also expose the lie behind the government’s family detention policies.  For CCA, as has been noted previously, they have profited handsomely from immigration detention, despite a particularly poor record, especially when it comes to detaining women and families.

Since our volunteer efforts began, officials have blocked volunteers from bringing in printers, copiers and scanners (citing “space considerations”), refused entry to volunteers (citing security concerns, including at least one where a volunteer was previously admitted to the White House), limited groups of volunteers to a single computer, excluded hotspots or tablets (despite government officials having computers, printers and internet access in court), refused to allow entry to the immigration courtrooms or to use computers in the court (saying they could only be in the court if they were actively representing their client), refused to allow in a surge protector (then, once it was allowed, assigned a guard to stand over it for the entire day), told female attorneys they couldn’t wear sleeveless shirts or dresses (in South Texas in the summertime), and will soon resort to measuring whether skirts are within three inches of the knee.

Like Groundhog Day, but with more malice, volunteers regularly get caught up in 30-45 minutes of daily harassment just trying to enter the facility.  CCA staff have refused to allow legal visitation without 24-48 hours’ notice and ICE has required clearances of legal workers in violation of their own Family Residential Legal Visitation Standards.  Volunteers have been harassed, subjected to invasive searches of their property, prevented from bringing in necessary work-related items, not allowed to have cell phones, not allowed to use computers or other devices to record videos of client statements or Skype to communicate with family or others abroad to develop detainees’ cases.  The list changes, but the menace and obstruction are consistent.

CCA guards continue to misinform detainees that they either need to have an appointment or wait to be called by us, rather than what they tell us, that women are allowed simply come in and request help.  New arrivals are literally quarantined:  both from other detainees and critical information about the availability of free legal services, and it can be days or weeks until they find out we are here.  Just recently, instead of actively locating detainees that are on our client list, CCA has said they will now only pass on the information to a guard—sorry, residential supervisor, who can pass that information on, when—or if they see the detainee.  That means we could wait hours, maybe even a few days before we can see a client.  In just a few days, we’ve seen that refusal severely impact our ability to deliver legal services:  We can’t meet with detainees to explain the legal process and how they can prepare their cases, resulting in delays and frustration all around.  We can’t help detainees understand what documents they need to collect to pass on to ICE, delaying consideration of a bond or parole. We can’t meet with detainees to explain to them what will be expected in advance of immigration court hearings, further delaying legal proceedings.  We can’t prepare women for their interviews with the Asylum Office, resulting in lengthier interview, and often the need to reset or even re-interview.  Just this week, CCA decided to limit the number of people allowed in the visitation trailer to 60 (a number which apparently includes a couple dozen legal workers and guards), severely curtailing our ability to see clients and leverage our legal advisals. Continuing to throw roadblocks in the way of legal volunteers is not just mean-spirited, it’s shameful.

We won Riva’s and Eduardo’s case. They are safe now and with friends (thanks to the absolute last, last, last of my airline miles), but I won’t be able to stand by and watch this railroading continue. I’m going back down in another few days—four more women and their children that I couldn’t say no to will have their fate decided by an immigration judge in a week.  Hey, at least I have a few days to prep those.

Written by Laura Lichter, CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer

* Names changed for privacy.


If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at – we could really use your help.

To watch videos of the volunteers 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.

by Guest Blogger