My client’s 8-year-old daughter told me that, as she hugged me goodbye and left for school, so that I could prepare her mom for their individual hearing on March 31, 2015. One week later, after being detained approximately 9 months (since July 5, 2014) – first in Artesia, New Mexico, and then in Karnes City, Texas – they were to be freed from detention, and are hopefully on a bus as I write this.
I will admit I had my reservations when I agreed to take on this case. The logistics of representing a detained client are always difficult; much more so when those clients happen to be detained in Karnes City, Texas, (and I am in beautiful Cleveland, OH, almost 1,500 miles and a whole time zone away). The case notes were clear that many dedicated volunteers had “touched” the case – volunteers who had come and gone, but mother and child remained in a South Texas “baby jail.” The turning point for me came when our office was retained, on a wholly unrelated case, to write an appeal for a detained Mam-speaking woman in Arizona, who appeared pro se in her own detained, domestic violence-based withholding case. After reviewing the paltry transcript, the due process violations were obvious; the judge’s boilerplate decision lacked any meaningful analysis; and the lack of dignity accorded to our client was outrageously apparent. It couldn’t happen again. I wouldn’t let it happen again.
And so there we sat, the mother and I, in a chilly, empty mock courtroom on a Tuesday afternoon, in Karnes City, Texas, waiting for the televideo screen in front of us to come to life, showing the “real” courtroom in San Antonio. I was nervous. We both were. “95% of cases like this are losers,” the DHS attorney had told me the previous Friday. “A series of unfortunate events” was how he dismissively characterized the severe and prolonged domestic violence that this resilient Honduran mother and her daughter experienced at the hands of her common law husband, the father of her child. She is six months younger than I, my “half birthday twin,” and yet the things she has experienced are the stuff of nightmares. Continuous beatings, verbal abuse, rape. Compound that with grisly gang-related threats to both mother and daughter.
I knew we had a fight ahead of us. Mom was “withholding only” due to a previous order of removal, when she had tried to flee her abuser in Honduras two years earlier (and though she allegedly expressed a fear of returning, she did not speak to an asylum officer). She would testify for both herself and her daughter (mercifully, her daughter was not required to be present). I knew there would be questions as to why she did not disclose the abuse during her reasonable fear interview (answer: her daughter was in the room), why she repeatedly failed to report the abuse to the police, why she never went to the hospital. The DHS attorney found it “inconceivable” that mom would have no legal recourse in Honduras, and could not fathom why an abused woman would ever return to her abusive partner. He was right. It didn’t make sense. A pattern of severe domestic abuse, coupled with police indifference and corruption, just doesn’t make sense. Fortunately, the mom’s strong direct testimony, supported by affidavits from family and friends, a psychological report, a police report, country reports, and six expert declarations, did make sense.
Of course, it wasn’t perfect. We were in Karnes; the judge was in San Antonio. There was the expected delay, coupled with a delay to account for the interpreter, who also sat in San Antonio. I didn’t have a “hot spot” to communicate with the outside world or look up a last-minute case. The DHS attorney managed to rattle the mom a handful of times on cross-examination. The judge was particularly active in his own questioning. Fortunately, I had the support of another AILA member and volunteer, Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, who very generously sat in the San Antonio courtroom taking notes and providing on the ground support.
I also had the inspiration of my “#EndFamilyDetention: Spring Break 2015” t-shirt, a gift from my boss and hero, Artesia veteran Jenna Peyton, which I subversively wore under my suit the day of the individual hearing.
And it worked. Almost one week later, as I listened in from my office in Cleveland, OH, the judge granted withholding of removal to mom, and asylum to her daughter. The judge found her credible. He found that the harm she had suffered from beatings, threats, and rape amounted to past persecution, and she was entitled to a presumption of future persecution, which the DHS failed to rebut. He found a clear probability of persecution (withholding standard) if she were to return to Honduras, on account of her membership in a particular social group. Moreover, the judge found that her daughter had demonstrated a “well-founded fear” of persecution (asylum standard) for all of the same reasons.
If “95% of cases like this are losers,” then I am incredibly grateful that my clients are in the 5% who will have a chance to live their lives free from fear.
My clients got to leave. But there are hundreds of other women and children locked up who have credible claims to asylum, to the safety that our laws allow. They are not so lucky. Why do we continue to treat them as a national security risk? More disturbingly, why do too few of our friends, our family members, our colleagues in the legal profession, know that this is happening? It is wrong. We know it is wrong. And I will continue to do everything in my power to stop it, one credible fear interview, one hearing, one case at a time. Please do the same. Together, we can #EndFamilyDetention.
Written by Daniel Natalie, AILA Member and Karnes Volunteer Attorney
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 firstname.lastname@example.org – 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.