Commentary

11.08.17

The Right to Asylum: What Can We Do?

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In the last few weeks we walked together on the path to understand asylum; we discussed the horrors of detention and the lack of legal counsel, as well as many inhumane practices that violate human rights standards. For this last blog we will look at the situation regarding the right to asylum here in the state of Ohio, as well as examine the ways in which we, regular citizens, can respond to human rights concerns.
Following the recent reports of the mass-media it is alarming to see that asylum is being more and more deregulated, while more and more people are being apprehended and detained. For example, I simply could not grasp the story of 10-year-old Rosa Maria Hernandez. This particular statement should make us all question the fate of our humanity:

“Border Patrol agents followed the ambulance [as she went to hospital for gallbladder surgery] and camped outside the hospital room of a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy getting emergency surgery – then jailed her in a detention center for kids.” [Source: ACLU]

Moreover, Alan Gomez of USA Today, reported that Trump Administration is planning to increase the capacity of migration detention with thousands of spots, and collected quite appalling statistics:

“From January 22nd through September 9th, [ICE] arrested 97,482 people suspected of being in the country illegally, a 43% increase over the same time period in 2016. During the same span, ICE arrested 28,011 undocumented immigrants without a criminal record, a 179% increase from the same period in 2016.” [Source: US Today]

All of Trump’s plans come to the delight of the private detention corporations such as CoreCivic and GEO Group. Since Donald Trump’s election their stocks have skyrocketed (CoreCivic by 81% and GEO by 63%); the lists of new contracts expands for them too. For example, only in Houston, TX, GEO received $110 million for building an immigration detention facility – what an offset for $475k donated to the Trump campaign and his inauguration celebration… [Source: US Today]

Moreover, the US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions claimed recently that “This system [of asylum] is currently subject to rampant abuse and fraud. And as this system becomes overloaded with fake claims, it cannot deal effectively with just claims” – not noticing that the rise of ‘fake claims’ comes with violence, torture, rapes, and murders that prone asylum seekers out of their places of origin. Not sure if watching new Ai Weiwei’s masterpiece film: “Human Flow” could help Mr. Sessions to understand these circumstances, but, surely watching it, can inspire us to take action and shake our consciousness for lack of previous responses to amend this daunting reality.

Amongst this overall hopelessness appears a question – what can I do? In fact, there are many answers to it:

  • If you speak a foreign language – you can volunteer as a translator for asylum seekers
  • You can support the team of local pro bono lawyers (also involving a clerical support);
  • At your local congregation you can start a sanctuary that will secure those who are about to be detained and/or deported
  • You can also support the legal and advocacy efforts of your local ACLU.

For instance, starting a sanctuary at your congregation requires a joint effort of the members, but can be a perfect opportunity of bringing their faith to life. Check the interfaith toolkit. You can also press your local officials to create a sanctuary space within their jurisdiction. Such has already been achieved (more or less) in Lorain, Ohio. Moreover, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton are proclaimed “sanctuary cities” – described as, “a municipality that limits communication between local law enforcement officers and federal [immigration] agents.”

You can also gain more awareness on the issue. The forerunner of the Immigration & Human Rights Clinic at The Akron University School of Law – Professor Elizabeth Knowles* shares with us information about the situation of asylum seekers in the State of Ohio. She also provides examples of how she and her students have worked to alleviate human rights abuses for those who seek asylum here. Just to remind you – many asylum seekers were last year involuntarily renditioned to a private detention facility in Youngstown, Ohio, (owned by CoreCivic) .

To understand the nature of these issues I interviewed a forerunner of the Immigration & Human Rights Clinic at the Akron University School of Law – Professor Elizabeth Knowles*:

  • Q: What is the situation in regards to asylum seekers in the state of Ohio?
  • A: In Northeast Ohio we have four detention facilities, three of which are county jails Geauga, Butler, and Seneca, and we have the big detention facility in Youngstown which is the CoreCivic, and it shares space with the U.S. Marshals Service and with the State of Ohio. There is no family detention center in Ohio. The facility in Youngstown began detaining non-citizens for ICE in about November/December of 2016. They started the hearings by the immigration court in January of this year via tele-video, not with the judge present in Ohio, but with the judge in Kansas City, MO, who will handle these hearings. When I went there to observe these hearings initially in January, there were about 250 individuals and they had all came up from the Southern border, from Southern Texas and Southern California. About 95% of them were from South America and Mexico, and were Spanish speaking. They would have their master calendar hearing in a little room with the judge sitting in Kansas City. There was one ICE officer sitting in the room with them. The majority of them were seeking asylum at that time. The ICE officer would hand them an English asylum application as they finished up their hearing and the judge would ask them to fill that out and bring it back. But they could not read or write in English, so it was very difficult for them to follow the judge’s instruction.After observing for a while, I started a legal rights program there and a translation project at the university where I reached out to faculties, staff, students, and anybody who has second language abilities. The database was created, so the detainees could be paired up with translators in order to get these translations back to them for their court hearings. We also had a Spanish version of the application. But it is not official one; you can only turn in things that are in English language.As the weeks and months went by, and some of the policies and the executive orders that were issued at the beginning of the year started to be implemented – asylum seekers sort of fell of the map here in Ohio. I would say the majority, if not all, of these original 250 individuals had their cases processed, and the last few times that I have been out to the Youngstown facility there were no asylum seekers or non-arriving asylum seekers. There have been some people who have been in the country who were detained in interior, and are now being moved to the proceeding and they may have the claim for an asylum. But not nearly the numbers we have seen before both at the Youngstown Facility and at the Geauga facility. To give you an example, last semester, which was the first semester of the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic taking cases here at Akron Law we were giving legal orientations at Geauga county jail and everybody who I spoke with was seeking asylum. We had to be judicious in our selection with only four cases to take. That is not the situation now. There are no asylum seekers at the detention facilities. I speak multiple times per week with individuals that are working on immigration issues from a national level e.g., from the American Bar Association Commission on Immigration (my previous employer) and the American Immigration Justice Center. I always ask them for the latest statistics on what they are seeing nationwide, and they have told me that it is the same trend everywhere.
  • Q: How is Donald Trump’s administration affecting all of this?
  • A: I think it is a combination of factors that we do not see the numbers as they were before. The funding that the United States provides through the MERIDA Initiative, prevents entrance to the United States of asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle Countries: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Things like increasing the speed of the cargo trains – the most famous one called “La Bestia” which runs along the migration path through Mexico, or increasing the number of officials, the presence of immigration officials in federal police to deter individuals from making it to the United States through Mexico (they are the Mexican officials). These efforts are being funded by the United States.They started to place over head obstacles that would prevent people from riding safely on the top of the trains – that was a major way, a major route for individuals who were going to make it to the United States from the Northern Triangle Countries. They would ride on the top of the train and get all the way to the border, but you cannot sit up there if something is going to hurt you and the train is going on a higher speed. These efforts combined with the new political climate are the very clear messages that this administration has sent to individuals that may choose to crossover. Of course, some people are still going to come over if they need protection, but the administration has made it clear that the people are going to be detained; that the credible fear process is going to be more daunting, more scrutinizing; and the Trump administration declared that there are too many loopholes in the asylum process. I think it is a combination of those factors that are all contributing to the lower numbers of asylum seekers.Moreover, as far as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is concerned, we in the advocacy community are all sort of holding a breath to see what is going to happen and what will happen with the information that the government has of all of the individuals who are currently benefiting from that program.We are also hoping that there is not going to be anything that would prevent individuals from getting the U-visas if they merit that relief, and have unfortunately suffered and have been victims of violent crimes here in the United States and helped the law enforcements.
  • Q: Can you tell us more about your legal clinic?
  • A: I have been providing services, legal orientations, and direct representation of detained individuals in different facilities: a major one in San Diego – in Otay Mesa, and nowadays in Youngstown and in Geauga. There is definitely a bit of a ‘dance’ involved as far as maintaining excellent relationships with the staff at the detention facility, with the ICE officers, the supervisors, the field offices, and the courts.In Otay Mesa there is a different model because there is actually an immigration court located inside the detention center where three judges would adjudicate cases, which, in my opinion, is better for the detainees because they are actually sitting face to face with the judge and not looking at a computer monitor. Often, they may not even see the judge’s face and listen to what the judge has to say not through the judge’s own voice but through the interpreter. I remind them every time when I am giving the legal orientation – that day is for you; it is your right and you should in every way possible be present for it – mentally and physically – and be prepared. There is the tendency to shy away because all of these authority being involved. What is one of my main objectives in giving these orientations is to give them confidence: “This is your day to show up and to tell your story and nobody else is being able to do that except for you. The judge is not going to learn by osmosis why you are afraid.” I am really trying to tell them that although everything is on hold right now and you are essentially in jail – your only job is to put up front your defense as burdensome, as impossible as this may seem.In my experience sometimes little blocks are put up by the authorities, but I feel like I am able to go over on them and still do my best to maintain these good relationships and maintain my access to the detainees to make sure that we are able to provide service they need. I really do enjoy this work. I really do enjoy providing assistance to the people who are detained. They have the list of resources available to them. It is not like they can just jump on the Internet and look up what are the country conditions, or what is happening in my own town. These are monumental obstacles just to get the documents and then to find somebody who can translate them. And, if you speak Tigrinya who are you going to ask? Therefore it is a really my honor and pleasure to conduct this work; to have the law school invite me here to Akron to teach the students how to do this, to train future practitioners, to be competent and compassionate advocates for individuals who suffered more than you or I could even imagine in our worst nightmares. Some of these events that our clients have endured are just unbearable to think of. It really has been a learning experience for me every day.
  • Q: Your students advocate for their clients before the U.S. Immigration Judge – how does it go?
  • A: Yes, my students – they take the cases from A to Z. And, what I mean by that, is that they start with going to the interview with their client in the detention center. They get their entire story. They help to draft them their declaration. They fill an asylum application with their client. They contact all the family members and individuals that can provide documentary evidence. They speak with them, gather evidence, put evidence together. They are writing out all of their arguments and applying the law in 35-page briefs. They are representing their clients and speaking to the judge directly. I literally take a ‘back seat’. I am just there as a ‘net’.During our classes, we go over what is going to happen in the court. It is all about preparing for the next step in litigation and cultivating and strengthening their relationship with their client professionally and helping them figuring out what the next steps are. They are drafting the direct examination, they are preparing the opening statements, closing arguments, they are anticipating arguments from the government and cross exam questions. When the case is unfavorable in the end, if they decide they want to take the appeal I would supervise them and write the appeal brief and submit it to the Board of Immigration Appeals. They also get so much court time. We are in court probably three to four days a week.We may be the only clinic in Ohio to be doing the removal defense. There are and thankfully there always have been, a lot of non-profits that are founded to do the work for non-detained non-citizens for things like citizenship, and out of court based applications. But, the majority of them do not receive funding to go in and do direct representation for detained clients. And, a lot of that is because time is money, detention centers are located in very remote areas, by design (ugh!). Attorneys are unable to justify the expenses spending their entire day driving and being there for one or two individuals and then driving all way back, and focusing exclusively on them. That is what we are doing… I had number of students over the years. I also created and taught a movable defense clinic at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. It is very exciting, every single of my students from the first clinic I led in San Diego, is now a full-time immigration removal defense practitioner. It is absolutely wonderful to see. I can definitely say that teaching the students going out to the detention centers and really having the ability to do this things that I love is such a gift.

DISCLAIMER — The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ACLU.

Prof. Elizabeth Knowles is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Akron School of Law which she joined in 2016. At Akron Law, she supervises the Immigration & Human Rights Law Clinic and teaches asylum law. Before coming to Akron, she served as the Executive Director of the American Bar Association’s Immigration Justice Project (IJP). She is a member of the California State Bar, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the American Constitution Society (more information about prof. Knowles can be accessed over here: https://goo.gl/NZ1vJB).

* Lukasz W. Niparko LL.M., is a Humanity In Action Fellow (HIA) at the ACLU of Ohio. He graduated from the European University Viadrina with a degree in international human rights and humanitarian law. Prior to coming to the ACLU, Lukasz has served with various NGOs such as The Association for Legal Intervention, The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and Polish Humanitarian Action.


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