Our Trip Inside an Immigrant Detention Facility and How Congress Can Improve the Asylum Process

Like everyone in America and around the world, we have been following the news about the border separation policy of migrant families seeking asylum in the U.S. As attorneys, we knew that we could offer a lot more than hand wringing – we could use our legal training, knowledge and experience to help these immigrants face-to-face and make a difference.

With the full support of our firm, our group of immigration and litigation lawyers from our Miami office worked with RAICES, (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), the largest immigration non-profit offering pro bono services in Texas, to arrange a week-long visit to the detention facility in Karnes, Texas – about 60 miles southeast of San Antonio.

Our contacts at RAICES provided us with background information and training, but nothing could prepare us for the emotions we collectively felt from the moment we stepped foot into the facility; nothing could have prepared all of us really for what we heard from the detainees at Karnes.

As we walked into the windowless room where RAICES meets with men, women and children for 10 hours per day, four days a week at the Karnes Residential Center, we were met with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. We would be preparing applicants who were fleeing uncontrolled violence in their home countries for their first step toward qualifying for asylum in the U.S. Before arriving at the detention center, we knew we would see young children with their parents. We knew those children had suffered long periods of separation from their parents and that they might be scared. But nothing prepared us to hear the heart wrenching stories we heard from the fathers – grown men who broke down in tears as they recounted their separation from their children for up to 3 months, during which they had almost no contact – at most one to five calls that would last two to 10 minutes.

We witnessed depression and feelings of worthlessness as a result of the fear of death, years of abuse, humiliation and other unimaginable experiences. All of us – but the parents in our group in particular – were visibly shaken as they sat across the tables from these fathers and children working to prepare them for their credible fear interviews or helping them (many of whom did not know how to read and write) complete their intake paperwork.

The children ranged in ages from 3 to 16 and all were recently reunited with their fathers after months of separation in a foreign country where they do not understand or speak the language. We were struck by the fact that many of the fathers would not let go of their sons, always sitting next to them, holding their hands or touching their shoulders as they walked in and out of that windowless room – it was as if they needed the constant contact to remind them that the separation had finally come to an end. With fear-struck, wide-eyed expressions, many questioned whether a second separation was a possibility. We also noticed how eerily quiet all of the boys were the entire time we were there. We never heard a sound while in the common area where RAICES works. We were able to work in complete silence while boys were around us, sleeping on the floor or quietly sitting playing with toys all day.

As we sat listening to their stories, we were all astounded that none of the fathers expressed anger. Instead, while repeatedly glancing over at their children, they expressed only fear, pain, hurt and a universally understood desire to keep their children safe from harm and violence.

Amid all this fear and heartbreak, it was inspiring to see the kind and considerate way in which the RAICES volunteers treated all of the people we saw – women, fathers and children alike. They thanked them for being patient as they waited to speak with us, for trusting us, sharing their stories with us and allowing us the opportunity to help them. We witnessed beautiful kindness toward those who have been treated so unkindly.

As seasoned lawyers with many decades of experience between us, our faith in the humility of our profession was renewed as we worked tirelessly shoulder to shoulder with the RAICES attorneys, staff and interns in less than ideal surroundings – taking turns in small interview rooms to meet with the women, fathers and children in need of legal guidance and crowding around printers and scanners propped on folding tables near the one available outlet to complete asylum applications and other legal documents. Their day-to-day reality provided a stark juxtaposition to ours because, as attorneys in private practice, we have the luxury of arriving every day to work in our comfortable high-rise office buildings with practically every resource and convenience available to us. While at Karnes, however, each day we spent approximately 10 hours inside the facility working in these surroundings, explaining the intimidating and complex process to immigrants and at times providing them emotional support, encouragement and showing them compassion. While we were only there for a short period of time, we know we were able to help at least 50 people understand what awaits them as they navigate the process that may change their lives forever and for the better.

In life we sometimes fail to realize how a person’s spirit can be broken by ongoing abuse and fear for one’s safety. We never think that things could be that bad. But they can be and are for these people. As a group, we feel privileged to have had the opportunity to live up to one of the oaths we each recited when we were sworn in as attorneys many years ago, “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed… So help me God.”

We are grateful to RAICES for allowing us the opportunity to hopefully make a difference to the women, fathers and children we met.

Lost in the news is the focus on the bigger picture and how to solve this problem. Currently, the attorney general has the power to certify any decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals and issue new precedence, which Jeff Sessions did on June 11, 2018 in Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 227 (A.G. 2018). In contrast, both tax and bankruptcy courts have their own independent judiciary, whereas in immigration matters, which are of much more personal nature dealing with life or death situations, there is no independent judiciary.

Much of the larger conversation and debate focuses on the choice whether to detain families separately or to detain them together. Neither should be happening. The trauma we witnessed at Karnes Detention Center is completely unnecessary, as the U.S. government could much more easily implement alternatives to detention. Alternatives to detention would be more humane and less cruel and would be less costly than having billions of dollars spent by U.S. taxpayers to cover the costs for the private prison companies who own the facilities where the Department of Homeland Security detains these individuals. Options could include monitoring and in-person check-ins for each applicant, with a clear understanding of what penalties they would incur should they fail to report. These alternatives would also prevent further trauma to an already fragile group who have been persecuted in their home countries and are thus already extremely vulnerable.

The release of families who are not flight risks and pose no risk of danger would also allow easier access to legal counsel and proper preparation of their cases, so they are more likely to succeed in meeting their burden of proof for asylum.

We must also make sure applicants for asylum have access to legal counsel, ability to prepare and are given proper consideration of their claims.

While at Karnes, it occurred to us that the government has tried to distance the applicants as much as possible in a very personal process from the adjudicators and legal counsel. The individuals are all detained in remote and rural locations where legal counsel is lacking. Many of these detention centers, including Karnes, are at least an hour or more away from the nearest metropolitan area and immigration court.

Further, it was a challenge to prepare the individuals adequately for their cases while detained. The time constraints to help so many people in so little time, due to the lack of attorneys were extreme. There was very little time to engage with the clients and gain their trust in order to elicit the facts necessary to properly prepare them to move forward confidently through the process. Their claims were all extremely sensitive in nature and difficult for the individuals to speak about, especially as the instances of violence they suffered in their home countries all happened fairly recently.

Additionally, we were very disappointed to find out the credible fear interviews, which would determine if the applicants will go further in the asylum process, were conducted by telephone by the USCIS asylum officers even though we were told the officers were somewhere in the same facility. Given the importance of these hearings, it seems odd that the officers would be able to properly judge the credibility of the applicant without an in-person interview.

We were also told if the applicant appealed a negative credible fear decision they would be facing an immigration judge in San Antonio, but again, not in person. The applicant would remain detained and appear via video before the immigration court, which is only an hour away.

For such a personal process it was all too impersonal. We continued to ask ourselves, why was this process set up to be so difficult and why were there such severe barriers impeding every step of the way? There isn’t a quick or simple fix, but now that the media has shed light on the asylum process, Congress must work to make necessary and important changes.

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