Kimberly was just 17 when she went in front of an Atlanta immigration judge and was told she would be deported. There was no legal orientation. No one asked her why she left her native Honduras or whether she was afraid to be sent back there. Even the lawyer her family hired didn’t tell her she could fight her case—and worse, actually asked the judge to order her removed.
Now, after nearly two months in a for-profit immigration jail in Irwin County, Georgia—under conditions that would make you weep—Kimberly is literally fighting for her life. And by the time you read this, she may already be gone.
In 2014, Kimberly fled Honduras with her little sister—gang members had threatened to take her as their sexual property. At best, Kimberly could expect to be passed from man to man, but girls who don’t submit are often kidnapped, gang-raped and murdered, their mutilated bodies left as a warning to others. Honduras was the murder capital of the world in 2013—our own State Department recognizes a host of human rights violations, including killings, weak law enforcement and judiciary systems, and abuse and violence against women. There are few, if any protections from a government that is both corrupted and outgunned by gangs notorious for targeting women and girls. Physicians for Human Rights shared the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women report, which noted “violent deaths of women in Honduras had increased 263.4 percent between 2005 and 2013, and there is a 95 percent impunity rate for sexual violence and femicide crimes.” Knowing there wasn’t anything anyone could do to protect her, Kimberly escaped to the United States.
When she got to the border, Kimberly’s case was referred to the immigration court in Atlanta and her family hired a lawyer to stop her deportation. They were determined to do everything right: Kimberly attended all her hearings, showed up at every appointment with immigration officials and did everything she was told. But in late January, when the Collins Hill 10th grader was on her way to school, ICE agents arrested her and told her she was being deported. Kimberly has been fighting for her right to seek asylum ever since.
So why is our government doing everything in its power to send the teen back to Honduras?
ICE officials say they’re just enforcing the law in accordance with current priorities. Kimberly was detained as part of Operation Border Guardian, an initiative that targets young people who are now considered fair game for deportation if they are over 18, even if they were just a child when they were ordered removed. United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson explains the policy this way: “If someone was apprehended at the border, has been ordered removed by an immigration court, has no pending appeal, and does not qualify for asylum or other relief from removal under our laws, he or she must be sent home.”
But, like Kimberly, many of these children were denied a fair day in court. How then can DHS claim they are “Priority 1” for removal (just like terrorists, felons and gang bangers) because they didn’t qualify for asylum or other relief under our laws, when DHS knows many never got a chance to even apply?
Immigration officials are well aware that Kimberly never presented her asylum case to a judge. They also know that no one gave her a legal rights orientation or told her how to seek protection from deportation. They know that ICE prosecutors never inquired whether there was a protection claim and that the immigration judge never told Kimberly that she had a right to fight her deportation. Targeting Kimberly even contradicts Secretary Johnson’s own promise that kids who have pending appeals or claims to asylum or other relief would not be rounded up in Operation Border Guardian. Regardless, our government seems hell-bent on removing her from the country before her pending application can be considered
So, again, why has Kimberly been jailed for nearly two months under the constant threat of removal, when all she wants is a fair chance to show she qualifies for asylum?
The government knows that Kimberly’s case is well supported by indisputable evidence of the deplorable country conditions in Honduras, and yet, they have gone on record saying that women and children from Central America categorically do not qualify for asylum, and have filed a formal opposition to her request that her case be reopened and her claim for relief be considered.
It’s not because Kimberly hasn’t documented her case. The government has seen the formal bar complaint she filed against the lawyers who asked for her deportation. The government knows Kimberly has submitted a request for asylum, but because of her detention, the case hasn’t even been processed, much less reviewed. And it’s not because Kimberly is a criminal or a fugitive. She has never had any trouble with the law, and she and her family have never missed a court date or appointment with immigration officials.
ICE officials insist their decision to deport Kimberly trumps any right she has to present her asylum claim, literally allowing them to violate their own regulations which bar them from deporting anyone until a decision is made on a protection claim. Right now, the only thing keeping Kimberly from being deported is a temporary order from a federal immigration judge, and that could be vacated at any moment.
The only possible reason to deport Kimberly, even though it’s clear she does have a claim for asylum, is undeniably ugly: letting her case go forward would show that our system isn’t as infallible as we’d like to think, and that children facing removal proceedings are not as protected as our values demand. Allowing Kimberly to proceed with her claim for relief at this point would expose our immigration system as one that might be efficient at achieving removal, but one that turns a blind eye toward justice.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not letting this girl go without a fight—and more than 25,000 people agree that this just isn’t right. Sign the petition and tell President Obama that harsh raid tactics are not part of our nation’s values. Support Kimberly’s release and give her a chance to meaningfully present her asylum claim, as our law—and justice— requires.
Written by Laura Lichter, AILA General Counsel