By: Madeline Kane J.D. ‘21
It’s 4:50am, and I’m up before my alarm sounds. The time change may be to blame—Texas is one hour behind Cambridge—but more likely, I’m awake because I’m thinking about the detained immigrants and asylum-seekers I’ve met this week. Together with a small group of HLS students, I am spending spring break at a border detention center.
We are here to support American Gateways, one of the largest legal nonprofits working in the immigration detention centers of Texas.
We are here because we believe in the rule of law. Congress has granted refugees and many classes of immigrants the right to stay in America. But certain detention centers seem beyond the reach of these laws: while some immigration judges deny fewer than 10% of asylum claims, others deny over 90%.
We are here because only one in seven detained immigrants has access to counsel. Immigrants have no right to a court-appointed lawyer—so those who can’t afford one have to face ICE attorneys alone. This week we will help prepare immigrants and asylum-seekers to defend themselves pro se.
We are here because the merits, not money, should control this process. Yet poverty dictates outcomes: asylum-seekers with no lawyer are five times less likely to be granted refuge, according to a 2016 study by Syracuse University. Those odds are sobering, considering that a person who is denied asylum stands to lose her freedom—or even her life.
It’s 8:30am, and I park our rental car outside the South Texas Detention Complex (STDC) after an hour’s drive toward the border. STDC is managed by a private corporation and houses nearly 2000 men and women from around the world.
We proceed through double interlocking doors to find dozens of immigrants in prison uniforms, sitting quietly on benches, waiting to ask us about their cases. They could be mistaken for patient passengers at a train station. But this place is a way station for people with nowhere to go.
The guards bring in Gloria*, a woman from central Africa who has escaped horrific violence. We speak in French—mine rusty, hers breaking into sobs as she explains she was separated from her kids along the journey. We work together to prepare for her final hearing before an immigration judge in two days. Gloria is terrified because she made a mistake on one of the forms she must present. If the ICE trial attorney uses the mistake to discredit her, it is likely she will be deported.
I switch to Spanish and meet with Fernando*, a father who has been working the fields in the United States for more than two decades. He may be eligible to stay, but only if his deportation would create “extreme hardship” for his two young children, both US citizens. Fernando is terribly shy, and I worry he will be too intimidated to make his case. I help him fill out an official form. “How tall are you?” He shakes his head. “Approx. 5 feet,” I write. “Weekly earnings?” $350 per week. “Assets in the United States?” He shakes his head, laughing softly. Zero dollars, he has zero dollars.
Another woman tells me she received death threats when she fought for poor farmers’ land rights. But her asylum claim was denied for insufficient detail. “I thought if I spoke the names of the bad men in court, they would find out and torture my family,” she says. “They killed my nephew.” She hands me a final deportation order and asks what it means. Tears stream down her face as I translate. Apparently, no one has explained to her that the court ordered her to be sent back. We will do everything we can to get her another hearing, I promise.
We will meet countless people whose strong claims may be doomed simply because they didn’t get legal help in time. A few have been imprisoned here for years. They have done nothing wrong but to seek refuge in Texas.
The injustice is striking, but the situation is not hopeless. Early legal orientation from nonprofits like American Gateways can help detained immigrants forced to confront our broken system pro se. What’s more, lawyers who take on pro bono cases can make a tremendous difference: in fact, our American Gateways supervising attorney will win relief for a Haitian man before our trip is over.
As for our HLS group: our work is just beginning. We will be headed back to Cambridge too soon, but we plan to follow up on our cases and continue this work in our legal careers. This week we’ve entered a dark corner of our justice system that few Americans have the opportunity to witness. Now our job is to keep shining a light into it.
*Names changed for clients’ confidentiality