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My week representing detained immigrants

US-Mexico Border
Migrants from Central America cross the US-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico to seek asylum in the United States in May 2019. (Shutterstock Image)

Immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) often find themselves in the middle of nowhere. For a variety of reasons, some more hotly debated than others, many detention centers and immigration courts are in areas of the country that are difficult to access, especially the rural South.

This spells disaster for immigrants seeking legal counsel to represent them in removal and deportation proceedings. Even if immigrants find attorneys interested in their case, attorneys are likely dissuaded from taking those cases on because of the logistical and financial hurdles inherent in representing someone hours away from the nearest major city and the prospect of little to no compensation.

The Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) works with volunteer attorneys and law students to help fi ll the access gap and provide detained immigrants legal support and representation. Last spring, I volunteered alongside SIFI staff attorneys at two detention facilities, LaSalle and Pine Prairie, operated by local government entities to house ICE immigrant detainees in rural Louisiana.

With seven law students and three faculty supervisors from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, I spent a week in SIFI’s offices and the detention facilities. The facilities bear a striking resemblance to prisons, though the immigrants there are part of the civil system.

How I got there

The trip was organized as another effort to fill a gap. Then-second-year law students Patricia Martin and Samantha Schatko recognized that Loyola, as an institution built on the values of social justice and public service, needed more opportunities for students to apply the skills they were learning to the often-harsh realities faced by individuals caught up in the U.S. immigration system.

Martin and Schatko, with Loyola professors Katherine Kaufka Walts and Mary Bird, developed a plan to take students to work with SIFI staff attorneys representing immigrants for bond motions prior to the hearing on the actual merits of their case.

In the months prior to the trip, Martin and Schatko put on a series of informational sessions for interested law students. They collected applications and selected students who spanned all years of law school and experience levels. Half the students selected spoke both English and Spanish, a skill critical to working with the primarily Spanish-speaking immigrants detained in LaSalle and Pine Prairie.

We gathered weekly for short preparatory sessions in the month before the trip and a longer training on the weekend just before departure. The training included discussions of the current state of the immigration system, an overview of the substantive law we’d be employing with SIFI, and a lesson on vicarious trauma.

Our motivations for being there varied. Some wanted to gain substantive legal knowledge, others had an interest in immigration practice. There were folks who’d been personally touched by the U.S. immigration system, for better or worse. Still others simply wanted to serve and accompany those in what could be a life or death legal journey.

Personally, I thought it unconscionable to be gaining a legal education without bringing those skills to bear on behalf of those seeking the protections and freedoms I was guaranteed by the luck of my birth.

During the training and trip, I learned a series of shocking and, at times, disheartening statistics: Immigrants with representation are 10.5 times more likely to succeed in removal proceedings than those without.

Those released on bond awaiting their merits hearing are almost 20 times more likely to succeed in their cases when they have access to counsel.

Immigrants before the court with jurisdiction over LaSalle had a representation rate of just 6 percent, one of the lowest in the country. The same immigration court granted asylum at a rate of 5 percent, significantly less than the 48 percent nationwide.

Fear of death wasn’t enough

While in Louisiana, we did in-person intakes for potential SIFI clients at the detention facilities, researched country conditions to corroborate immigrants’ stories, drafted bond motions, and observed in the courts.

I spoke to numerous immigrants who’d come to the United States seeking asylum, fleeing violence, or persecution in their home countries.

Some had already been in the United States for years, working hard to support their children and families. Often, immigrants had endured repeated traumas at the hands of gangs, coyotes, and many others who took advantage of their vulnerability during their journey. They came by foot, car, bus, train, or plane. Then, having arrived at the nominal gates of freedom, they were promptly detained, brought to a barbed-wire-ringed concrete building under quarantine for a mumps outbreak, filled out forms in a language not their own, were brought before a judge, and, in all likelihood, would be deported to their country of origin in about a month.

Many felt that death was almost certain if they were forced to return.

One afternoon, I observed “Raul” try to demonstrate to the court that he’d suffered persecution in his home country at the hands of the government because of his political opinions. He explained to the judge that if he were to return, he’d almost certainly be killed by the police, as multiple family members had been.

Raul’s entire individual hearing, including interpretation, lasted 6 minutes and 13 seconds. The immigration judge asked four questions. Raul smiled at the judge after he answered the last one, I imagine thinking he’d done enough to convince the judge of his need for asylum.

The judge promptly issued his ruling in open court. Raul would be deported to the country where he feared imminent death from those tasked with enforcing the law. As the court interpreter began, I watched the smile slip from his face.

Six minutes and 13 seconds.

Seeing is life-changing

It’s one thing to read about immigrants facing deplorable detention conditions and dubious due process. It’s another thing entirely to see it. Immigration is a civil matter in the United States, one in which immigrants aren’t afforded the same protections as those who face similar consequences in criminal matters—a parent forcibly removed from a family, a woman returned to the violence she fought so hard to escape, a man sent to almost-certain death.

I used to struggle to remember that there’s always an actual person, an actual story, an actual face behind the numbers and news articles. I don’t struggle to remember now.