Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Representing Migrant Children: An Attorney’s Diary

Rebecca A. van Uitert, (J.D. St. John's University, 2007; B.A. Brigham Young University, 2002)

Rebecca van Uitert, J.D. has been volunteering with the AILA Artesia Pro Bono Project to represent some of the hundreds of women and children currently imprisoned in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement-run "family detention center" in Artesia, NM.  The volunteers provide free legal services to the women and children imprisoned in Artesia, who are not entitled to court-appointed counsel under current immigration laws.  These courageous immigrant mothers have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles through the most dangerous places in the western hemisphere to give their children a chance at lives free of domestic, sexual, and gang violence. Most have already been persecuted in their home countries. Some have been enslaved and violated by traffickers on their way. Now they are being held for months at a time with little to no access to medical care, psychological treatment, or legal services, which severely limits their ability to prepare their cases and have a fair hearing in court before being delivered back into the hands of their persecutors. Rebecca and a network of dedicated colleagues across the country are trying to stop these tragedies from repeating themselves, one family at a time.

What follows are a series of her compelling experiences that she posted as status updates to her Facebook page. They are reprinted with her permission. While her work has shown some success, people concerned with justice for these immigrants cannot be sanguine. In the face of pending litigation related to the deplorable conditions at the Artesia, NM family detention center, ICE is preparing to open its biggest facility yet in Dilley, TX. If you agree with Rebecca and her colleagues that this must end, please consider donating your time, or asking attorneys you know to donate their time to the project. The AILA Artesia Pro Bono Project has an excellent network of resources for attorneys of all backgrounds; asylum experience is not required.  If interested in learning more about volunteering, contact Rebecca directly at rvanuitert@fragomen.com. Please also consider contributing to the American Immigration Council’s fund for travel expenses for attorneys who are paying out-of-pocket to represent the women at Artesia. Lastly, please also join us in speaking out against the detention of mothers and children.

October 6
I'm in New Mexico this week, volunteering with a small group of immigration attorneys at the Artesia "family detention facility." Did you know we imprison babies and toddlers in this country? Over 500 women and young children are currently detained in Artesia. Many have been behind bars for months now, and it's taken a drastic toll on their emotional and physical health. Tomorrow we'll be conducting intake for 56 new families. The families are all headed by courageous mothers--women doing everything they can to protect their children from violence and oppression in Central America. 

October 7
First day inside the ICE detention facility was rough. At any given point there were about 10 women and 15 or so kids packed into a small annex trailer, along with us attorneys and a few paralegals, and also the guards. As soon as I finished one case, I furiously typed up a case note and tried to glance at the next file so I could greet the next woman and child(ren) by their names. We were literally on top of one another with laptops, cords, law reference books, and babies. Lots of babies. Many of the moms breast fed their babies as we conducted case intake.

The women I met with today were super emotional. Lots of crying. Lots of horrifying accounts. I totally lost it when one mom told me how a gang member beat up her young daughter and held a knife up to the little girl's mouth and told her he was going to cut her tongue out if she didn't do what he demanded. That sweet little girl now wakes up during the middle of the night crying, holding her hands over her mouth, begging her mom not to let them cut her tongue out. I saw the anguish in this mom's eyes--what would you do if you were her? You wouldn't hesitate--just grab your kid and run as fast and as far away as you could.

This is what is going on in Central America right now. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, as well as the highest child murder rate. The gangs murder babies out of spite. People are desperate to get out.

We are doing so little--almost nothing--to provide refuge. There's some outrage simmering in my soul tonight, but mostly just sadness. 

October 8
A day filled with extreme highs and lows. I represented 6 families in hearings today, prepared and filed bond motions, and also met with new intakes. The good news is that 3 of my cases were approved today, and these women and children are now eligible to get released on bond! During one of the hearings, the woman had a total breakdown when recounting episodes of sexual violence. I looked up and saw that the asylum officer was teary-eyed and shaken up as well. I don’t care who you are -- no one can hear these women’s stories and not be affected.

I've only had about 8 hours of sleep (total) since I arrived on Sunday, so today’s update has to be brief. I’ll be going to court tomorrow early in the morning so I have to get some shut-eye. Thank you to everyone who is sending positive energy and prayers our way -- I feel your love and support. Thank you also to everyone who has asked how to help. I promise I will post tomorrow about donations and other ways you can help these families.

October 9
So many generous people have offered to help the women and children in Artesia. Unfortunately, ICE will not permit us to provide any clothing, goods, money, etc. to detainees currently inside the facility. However, here are a few other ways you can help: 

PRE-PAID $20 VISA GIFT CARDS FOR BUS TRIP: A few families are now being released on bond, and we are allowed to give them things as they exit the facility and make their way toward their final destination (usually via Greyhound). We try to provide each family with a $20 pre-paid visa gift card so they can buy water/snacks and make phone calls during the journey.   Please mail the gift cards to: AILA Pro Bono Project, ATTN: Christina Brown, P.O. Box 1422, Artesia, NM 88211.

SPEAK UP: Using the tool provided by the National Immigrant Justice Center at this link, call or send a message to your representatives in Congress telling them to stop jailing refugee mothers and children.

ATTORNEY TRAVEL EXPENSES: I am incredibly fortunate that my law firm (Fragomen) is paying for my entire trip and my co-workers are covering all my clients for me. But the vast majority of the volunteers here have come without any financial assistance--paying for their own travel expenses AND facing loss of revenue for not doing any of their own client work while they’re away. A fund has been set up through the American Immigration Council to reimburse their travel expenses.

OFFICE SUPPLIES: We need the following supplies to be purchased and shipped directly to the volunteer attorney office in Artesia: filing cabinets, case file folders, two-hole punches, and copy paper. If you can help with these items, contact me directly at rvanuitert@fragomen.com, and I can put you into contact with the office manager as to what the needs are on a weekly basis. 

ATTORNEY VOLUNTEERS: There is a desperate need to have Spanish-speaking attorneys on the ground in Artesia every week. You would need to commit to arriving on Sunday evening for an orientation and then staying for at least 5 days. Contact your AILA Chapter Chair in your area to sign up, and to see if there are local funds to reimburse you for your travel expenses

FUTURE CARE PACKAGES: A non-profit here in NM is preparing to announce a project for donations of clothing, shoes, socks, diapers, wipes, water bottles, wrapped snacks, and coloring books/crayons to be made into care packages for the bus ride after the families get released. As soon as I have information about that project I will share it. 

October 10
One of the proudest moments of my life today. The first time I ever argued a bond hearing in open court -- and not only did we win, but the judge gave us the lowest bond in the history of bond hearings in Artesia ($1,500). Most bonds in Artesia have been $20,000-$30,000. I have been getting congratulatory emails from lawyers I don't know across the country all night. The moment we exited the court room the mom collapsed to her knees to thank God for today's miracle--she and her daughter have been in detention for over four months. Happy tears today. 

November 4
First day back on the ground in Artesia, NM. Happiest moment today was winning a bond hearing for a young mom and her 8 year old son. As we were leaving the court the 8 year old high-fived me with a huge grin on his face. They're on their way out of here tomorrow!  

November 5
Best moment in court today: Convinced the judge to overturn a previous (erroneous) finding that my client wasn't credible and couldn't establish a claim; we're now prepping her bond motion to get her family out of jail. Best moment outside of court today: Convinced a group of men at a local diner that imprisoning women and babies is a bad idea and a waste of their taxpayer money. At the beginning they were somewhat hostile, but by the end of the conversation one of them thanked me for coming to their community to help these families. He also asked me to visit their local high school to share about our project with a U.S. government class. Hearts and minds can and do change on this issue, if we're willing to engage respectfully.  

November 6
Huge win for Team Artesia today -- the court approved our first gang-based asylum claim -- for a mom and two young children from Honduras who have been imprisoned here for 4 months. Although I didn't participate in arguing their case, I had the privilege of personally escorting this beautiful family from detention tonight and helping them make hotel and travel arrangements. We cheered together as we drove past the guards at the gates. I asked the 8 year old little boy what he wanted for dinner and he said, "I've been craving pizza for months!" I wish I could have taken a picture of his face when he opened up that Little Caesar's box. Of course, sweet boy, eat all the pizza you want. 

November 7
Working with a stellar group of women (and one man) on the ground in Artesia this week. Most have come out here to the middle of nowhere at their own expense. I am honored to serve with them. 

November 8
While working with moms and kids in Artesia this week, my thoughts kept returning to E. She's not my baby, but even the thought of locking her up in a jail sickens me. "Family Detention" is cruel. There is no humane way to imprison children. Hugging her tighter and praying for the babies in Artesia tonight. 

The Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics at Loyola University Chicago offers online graduate degrees in Bioethics & Health PolicyJoin fellow physicians, nurses, chaplains, lawyers, social workers and other health care professionals in becoming future leaders in the field of bioethics.

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