On a Sunday in February 2016, I was at the San Francisco airport ready to travel to the family detention center in Dilley, Texas, to meet with my new pro bono clients, Marta and her two young sons. Moments after I arrived at SFO, I received word that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was transferring them to a detention center in Pennsylvania; they would be gone by the time my plane landed in Texas. I had notified ICE two days earlier of my representation and travel plans but the family was abruptly whisked across the country over the weekend. Blocking their access to a lawyer could extinguish their only hope of remaining in the United States.
Marta and her sons, who are from El Salvador, had been arrested in a nationally-publicized series of home raids on January 2, 2016, intended to deport mothers and children who had fled to the U.S. from Central America. Then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson proudly announced the arrest and impending deportation of 121 mothers and children, emphasizing that all of the targeted families had been issued final orders of removal. Secretary Johnson insisted ICE was acting according to “basic principles of decency, fairness, and humanity.”
The mothers told a different story. These families were not fugitives from the law, but ICE eschewed its standard practice of instructing individuals to report for deportation, and instead surprised children with detention at dawn. ICE transported the terrorized families to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley on what was supposed to be a brief processing stop while it arranged travel documents and flights to Central America.
However, the CARA Project managed to meet with a dozen of the families arrested in the raids while they were in Dilley and discovered that, although these mothers had indeed been issued orders of removal, the orders resulted from proceedings that were anything but fair. The mothers—all of whom had come to the U.S. fleeing life-threatening harm—had not understood their court proceedings and were assisted by lawyers who waived their claims and failed to present basic narratives of the dangers they faced in their home countries.
It turned out that Marta had never even applied for asylum, though she thought she had. Marta lost her case in the Dallas, Texas, Immigration Court, and it was no accident that ICE’s raids targeted families there and in Atlanta, Georgia. In recent years, judges in these cities have denied asylum applications at rates exceeding 90%, extreme outliers compared to the 52% national average. Central American mothers who move to Dallas or Atlanta are not less eligible for asylum than those who relocate elsewhere. But these jurisdictions have come to be called “Asylum Free Zones,” where attorneys for immigrants have become so demoralized that many no longer even pursue viable claims.
CARA obtained emergency stays of removal from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) for all victims of the January 2 raids it represented, and got several families pulled off planes bound for El Salvador. The families with whom CARA volunteers were never allowed to speak were summarily deported.
I was encouraged to take on Marta’s case and in the weeks after I started, while Marta and her sons remained in jail in Pennsylvania, my paralegal, Cristina, and I spent hours on the phone with her, going over what had happened in El Salvador, most of which had never been presented during her previous court hearing. We assembled hundreds of pages of new evidence, sent it to the BIA and asked for a new hearing, to right the wrongs and omissions of the prior proceedings.
Finally, some good news. Last summer, the BIA remanded Marta’s and her sons’ case to the Dallas Immigration Court for a new hearing where they could apply for asylum. But as the hearing approached, Marta began to feel a disabling sense of dread about facing the same judge who had denied her case, knowing the odds were not in her favor. I admit to feeling something similar as I re-familiarized myself with the Fifth Circuit’s restrictive asylum jurisprudence and the discouraging data on asylum adjudications in the Dallas Immigration Court.
When Marta told me she didn’t think she would be able to testify about the worst of what she had suffered, we recalled events from the last few years. Remember when you and your kids left everything you had ever known on a moment’s notice because the Salvadoran police told you they couldn’t protect you from being killed? Remember when you made it to the border and surrendered to federal agents, putting your faith in the U.S. to save your lives? Remember when your son turned seven inside a detention center? And how you’ve carried around the indignity of an electronic ankle shackle for 13 months? You never gave up, and it was all so you would be able to have this hearing, and tell your story to show that you deserve asylum. And for my part, I knew Marta had a good case, especially with all the documentation that we’d been able to collect. She and I agreed we weren’t going to be intimidated into not pursuing her just asylum case.
We ended up in front of the same judge who previously ordered them removed, but the outcome was very different. A few weeks ago, Marta and her sons were granted asylum. This was the right result, what the law required. Even in these challenging jurisdictions, we can win asylum cases, through dogged advocacy and determination. We must keep at this.
By Amalia Wille, Member, AILA Asylum and Refugee Committee
How can you help?
If you are an AILA member, law student, paralegal, or translator, who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Project page – we could really use your help. If you’d like to offer assistance to help someone who is not currently detained prepare for a CFI in your area, like the authors did, please leave a comment and we will be in touch.
To watch videos of 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.