ICE officials at Karnes never responded concerning our request to consider E-‘s release on humanitarian grounds. So, as anticipated, it was back to San Antonio for the hearing on Tuesday, April 7th. I got into town the previous Friday night and then drove down to Karnes on Saturday, Sunday and Monday to prep with E-, accompanied by fellow volunteer Philip Smith. (A side note: Philip helped me all along the way – he was riding shotgun on E-‘s case. Every client and every volunteer attorney should enjoy the good fortune of having such a terrific lawyer in the shotgun position!)
A well-publicized hunger strike had taken place the previous week, and there was a heightened sense of security at the family residential center. Most notably, in the large room where attorneys meet with clients, ICE had set up an electronic scanning device through which the detainees (women and children) must now pass in order to enter and depart from the large meeting area adjacent to the locked holding room where they wait while the GEO resident advisors / guards screen the attorneys. Also, E- reported that ICE had determined whom they believed to be the leaders of the hunger strike and had segregated them from the rest of the population, describing what sounded an awful lot like solitary confinement for those mothers and their children. Retaliation or mere coincidence? Either way, yet more evidence that Karnes is a nasty place, despite ICE’s insistence that it’s a family-friendly residential center.
Consider that every step in the procedure that leads to an attorney / client interface is defined by prison-like formality: FAX (don’t call) ahead; fill out the daily visitation sheets; wait … for your client to be summoned and made available for the meeting; wear the red day badge that you receive upon surrendering your driver’s license and state bar card to the front desk security officer; no cell phones, no wallets, no money in the facility; counsel passes through the TSA-like security clearance – empty your pockets, remove your belt and wristwatch; laptop removed from the bag, while the guard searches your bag for contraband such as bottled water. BTW: Not once during eleven visits to the facility do I recall a resident advisor / guard use the word “please” during the screening process.
Once you’ve made it that far, you proceed down the hall and enter a side room that leads to the family meeting area, where a guard must buzz you in after you identify yourself. Now you’re in the family room, but where is your client? She and her child(ren) are sitting in an area that looks strangely like the “trap” in a prison. You can see them, but they cannot enter the meeting area until another guard buzzes them in – and now the client must pass through the newly-installed TSA-like screening device with her child(ren). Once the meeting is completed, they must again pass through the screening device on the way back to their living quarters or the cafeteria, or wherever – likely unable to move about freely throughout the family residential center.
Finally, the day of the hearing arrives. The IJ needed about an hour to ensure that the record was updated and the exhibits marked. Once testimony began, E- was on the stand for about four hours; she did very well on direct exam and held up pretty well during a nasty cross by the OCC trial attorney. Understandably, E-‘s testimony was quite emotional, and the IJ recessed for three short breaks, largely to give E- the chance to compose herself. At the end of the day, the IJ reset the hearing for the following Thursday, April 9th, two days hence.
Back in court, the IJ himself questioned E- at length about the possibility of relocating within her home country of Guatemala, noting that materials we had submitted referenced women’s shelters there. E- testified that there were no women’s shelters in the rural pueblo where she had lived her entire life back home, save for about 15 months that she had spent in the United States several years ago. (Along with the possibility of relocation, the other big issue that emerged during her testimony was why she had returned to the home of her abusive father.)
Re-direct exam was relatively brief, followed by what seemed to be an unnecessarily nasty re-cross by the OCC trial attorney. While E- clearly took some shots, she managed to hang in there.
Next, we proffered an expert witness, namely the psychologist who had examined E- back in November while she was detained at Artesia. The IJ gave the OCC trial attorney the opportunity to conduct a voir dire, and he took full advantage of it. For example, at one point he read from an article by a psychiatrist in which the author questioned whether a non-M.D. psychologist is capable of identifying malingerers in the course of conducting an evaluation. Yet after a good 20 to 30 minutes of trying to attack our witness’s credentials, OCC agreed that the witness qualifies as an expert. The IJ gave the psychologist’s evaluation full weight and seemed to encourage E’s counsel to move on without the need to elicit further testimony from our own witness. But there was some valuable additional testimony that our witness could provide about E-s inability to escape from her abusers and why that had a critical impact on her not having reported the abuse to the police in her home country. Our witness came through quite well. At the end of the day, the IJ reset the hearing for Monday afternoon, April 13th, to read his decision telephonically.
Another weekend in detention for E- and her children. If the IJ finds her testimony to be credible, it’s hard to imagine that he won’t grant her application for withholding of removal and relief under the CAT.
Another post is forthcoming with the decision and aftermath.
Written by Frank Johnson, AILA Member and Volunteer
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.