216 days. That is how long Sofía and her daughter Isabel* had to wait for a chance at release from family detention at the southern border. After over seven months of confinement at two different facilities, they will finally be reunited with their family lawfully residing in the United States.
The legal battle Sofía and her daughter have fought in Artesia and now Karnes has been almost incomprehensible. Fleeing years of domestic abuse, forced servitude, and death threats, Sofía chose to come to the United States to seek protection. She and Isabel, who recently turned five years old, were apprehended at the border in late June. After Sofía passed a credible fear interview (despite the fact that it was not in her native language), ICE refused to offer a bond. In late July, the Immigration Judge also denied Sofía a bond, despite her positive credible fear finding and documentation of a stable residence with her lawful permanent resident father, as well as proof of the other family members with legal status in the United States. In October the Pro Bono Project filed a motion for subsequent bond, which was summarily denied. The Immigration Judge did not provide an explanation for his decision and simply stated: “I am going to deny that now.”
There was enormous disappointment and outrage over the bond decisions, but Sofía continued to express the importance of pursuing her case. The Pro Bono Project saw the strength of her asylum claim and agreed to represent her at her individual hearing. The client had endured horrific persecution, being treated as an indentured servant and enduring physical and verbal abuse on a regular basis, all because of her indigenous background and her family membership. Despite attempts to escape this abuse within the country, she received death threats until the very days she left her home country.
We believed this was a strong asylum case. Sofía’s heartbreaking testimony, alongside the legal analysis that Sofía and her daughter had been persecuted on the basis of multiple protected grounds, wove a compelling narrative. However, the Immigration Judge denied her claim, finding that the years of physical abuse, servitude, and death threats did not meet the standard of persecution, and that she had an internal relocation option. The legal team was shocked. Upon receiving the translation that her case had been denied, Sofía collapsed, falling on the courtroom table for support and sobbing. Everyone left the courtroom trailer in devastation and disbelief.
In the days after the asylum decision, Sofía, with the support of the Pro Bono Project legal team, had to decide how to proceed and whether to pursue an appeal, knowing that it could mean months more of detention. It seemed that this decision weighed on her, especially witnessing the impact of the detention conditions on her daughter’s physical and mental wellbeing. But Sofía also expressed the continued danger she and her daughter faced in returning, and believed in the injustice of what the Immigration Judge had done in denying her case, so she decided to appeal the Immigration Judge’s decision, while also pursuing release for her and her daughter.
In January, I filed a second motion for subsequent bond. By this time, the venue for the case had been changed three times and Sofía and her child had been detained for over six months. The Immigration Judge identified that there had been a change in circumstances based on the new expert evidence detailing how Sofía, her daughter, and the women and kids who have been detained are not in fact national security concerns, and set a bond of $7500. After years of living in terror in her home country, followed by seven months of detention in the country that was meant to protect her, Sofía and Isabel can leave a world of constant surveillance, confinement, and fear.
The injustices Sofía and her daughter have had to endure illustrate what can go wrong at pretty much every stage of the family detention process. Had it not been for Sofia’s resilience, as well as her and the legal team’s belief in her right to stay in the United States, this valid asylum claim could have been abandoned at many points in the process. While I am relieved that she and her daughter have a chance at release, I also know that there is a long appeal road ahead, as well as their personal path to recovery from the physical and mental stress caused by prolonged detention. And I am angry knowing that the wrongs that have been committed against them cannot be corrected, that she and her daughter will not receive compensation or atonement for the inhumane treatment they underwent.
I talked with Sofía on the phone two days ago and asked her if I could include information about her case in this blog post and whether there was anything she would like the American public to know. Her words struck me as powerful and true: “What happened to me is unfair. To not even give me the chance to live with my family here in the United States, to keep me and my daughter in a jail. I want people to know that those who suffer the most in detention are the kids, that this is no place for children. Kids in jail, it is so terrible, so unfair.” Sofía is right.
* Names have been changed
Written by Julie Braker, AILA Member and Artesia Volunteer