When she was six months pregnant, the young mother had been raped and beaten so badly by her partner that she had to be hospitalized for fear of miscarriage. Eventually, she got a restraining order against her abuser, but soon afterward a member of a violent gang came looking for her and her former partner (the woman says that several of her family members had already been killed by gang members).
After gang members broke into her house and destroyed her belongings, the 27-year-old woman fled El Salvador with her two children for the United States, where she was detained upon arrival at the southwest border in June 2014, according to advocates handling her case, who have given her the pseudonym Mayra to protect her identity. Mayra was quickly released with an ankle monitor and traveled to Atlanta to live with her mother.
On Wednesday, newspaper front pages across the country featured photographs of President Barack Obama moved to tears over the lives of American children lost to gun violence. That very same day, his administration's Department of Homeland Security pushed to deport families like Mayra's fleeing raging violence in Central America. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at Mayra's door this past weekend as the feds rang in the New Year with a targeted roundup of newly arrived asylum seekers.
At first, agents told Mayra she had an appointment to go over her documents; she did in fact have a check-in with ICE scheduled for the following day. When she realized the feds planned to deport her back to El Salvador, she told agents she was afraid to return and asked to speak to her lawyer; according to advocates handling her case, the woman says that ICE refused her request. Mayra, who is epileptic, was so upset she had a seizure and had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. She was later brought back to ICE, which sent her to a South Texas detention camp to await deportation, where she suffered two more seizures. One of her children had been diagnosed with microcephaly, a congenital condition that can lead to debilitating brain damage, and was being treated at an Atlanta children's hospital, her advocates say. He was scheduled for surgery next month.
Mayra's family was among the roughly 120 women and children targeted during the weekend's roundup of asylum seekers and shipped to a South Texas immigrant detention center, where this week pro-bono immigration attorneys performed legal triage, in some cases filing last-minute appeals to stall their removal from the country. Attorneys working with the women and children say some have already been deported without being given a chance to adequately explain to the government why they fear horrific violence and, in many cases, death if returned to their home countries.
“I don't know how to put it diplomatically…they are going to be killed if they return,” said Melissa Crow, legal director of the American Immigration Counsel, one of the legal nonprofits that make up the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, which provides legal assistance to immigrant families detained in South Texas. “I have no idea why they are targeting this vulnerable population.”
In response to widespread criticism over the raids, ICE said in a statement this week that all of the women and children targeted for deportation have “had an opportunity to present their claims to an immigration judge, and that “ICE did not target individuals with pending appeals before the Board of Immigration Appeals,” the nation's highest immigration court, “or individuals for whom the time period to file such an appeal had not expired.”
The reality, of course, appears to be much more complicated.
Unlike in criminal court, those in immigration court aren't given attorneys if they can't afford one. That means asylum seekers, like those rounded up this week, must either find a pro-bono lawyer, put up the money to hire one, or go it alone. Those familiar with the process, however, say it's easy to deport people when you throw them into a complex, convoluted and foreign legal system without guaranteed legal representation.
Jonathan Ryan, an immigration lawyer who runs the San Antonio-based nonprofit RAICES, works with CARA to help coordinate pro-bono legal representation for women and children detained at the privately run immigration lockup in Dilley, the desolate South Texas town where asylum seekers targeted by ICE raids were sent this week. Ryan told the Houston Press that legal nonprofits can't keep up with the demand for services, and that private attorneys either charge too much or aren't versed in how to file asylum cases, meaning many asylum seekers are forced to brave the immigration court system on their own.
“It's not a surprise to me that people aren't able to win their cases by themselves,” Ryan said. “How could they themselves put together what I've been training for, oh, I don't know, 15 years to be able to do?”
While the Obama administration says the asylum seekers being deported this week have exhausted every legal recourse, Denise Gilman, who directs the University of Texas's immigration law clinic and visited the women and children in detention this week, told the Press, “That is not what I saw.”
Gilman says most of the women and children she has encountered fled from El Salvador, a country that has been crowned the homicide capital of the world (that's not including war zones like Syria). She said that, following the raids, the mothers feel “desperate because they were ripped out of these new lives they had just started to settle into.” Gilman and other attorneys who spoke with the Press say they're also deeply troubled by the nature of the raids — in some cases, women and children being pulled from their beds in the early morning hours; in other cases, it appears they were drawn out by deception. Some of the women have claimed they weren't given access to counsel even when they asked for it.
“One woman told me very specifically that she asked several times to call her attorney and was not allowed to,” Gilman told the Press.
Not only were many of the immigrants rounded up unable to find lawyers to help present their asylum cases, several attorneys who spoke with the Press were alarmed by the shoddy legal help afforded to those women who did manage to scrounge up enough cash to hire an attorney on their own.
“I hate to say it, but some attorneys will get retained, grab their clients' money, and immediately try to convince them not to pursue asylum… they don't wanna do the work,” Ryan told the Press. “Get a voluntary departure, get out of there, get the next sucker.”
As Gilman put it: “I saw women who begged their attorneys, who they were paying money to, to present an asylum application, and were told that they couldn't, that they shouldn't, and now no asylum application was filed at all. So a judge just ordered them deported.”
To further complicate matters, attorneys say most of these cases were put on a “rocket docket,” or an accelerated immigration court hearing schedule, making it more difficult for families to find counsel that can fully present their claims for asylum. In a letter to DHS secretary Jeh Johnson this week, AIC and the Immigration Lawyers Association of America even alleged that attorneys trying to help these families in lockup “have encountered repeated resistance and obstruction” from ICE and the private prison contractors the agency works with to detain immigrants, “making the provision of services extremely difficult.”
“I'm very, very worried that based on these cases and the other cases in which we have requested stays, people are going to fall through the cracks of our immigration system,” Crow with AIC told the Press.
Gilman questions why DHS has made asylum seekers a priority for deportation in the first place. “Even if all of these people were really given a chance to air their claims, which they haven't been, is this really the priority the government wants to be setting? People fleeing violence? People who are not any kind of threat to the country?”
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The raids beg another, more fundamental question, says Ryan with RAICES: Why would the feds rather expend resources on raids and immigrant detention than, say, on appointed attorneys, at least for those seeking asylum? “Which do you think is more expensive? I would imagine some type of public defender system would be much cheaper than this massive enforcement effort,” he said. “To me, it shows the interest is to generate more deportations.”
As of Thursday afternoon at least eight families, or 21 asylum-seeking women and children, had their deportations stayed by the Board of Immigration Appeals while lawyers help them mount their cases, including Mayra's family.
Ian Philabaum, project coordinator for the CARA pro bono project at the Dilley immigrant detention center, told the Press on Thursday that despite knowing attorneys were scrambling to file an appeal in Mayra's case, ICE put her and her two children on a plane early Thursday morning. According to Philabaum, Mayra called advocates with the CARA project at 1 a.m. Thursday, saying agents were forcing her to pack up her belongings. Over the phone, CARA attorneys told ICE they were filing an appeal in her case and urged them to keep her put; Philabaum says those attorneys were hung up on.
While Mayra's attorneys were able to stay her deportation, as of late Thursday afternoon they still didn't know where ICE had taken her and her children. "We have been calling them all day," Philabaum told the Press. "We have no idea."