Battle Stations

It’s difficult to convey the urgency with which our team had to approach each task on the ground at Karnes during our time there. Everything was time sensitive. Every assignment involved the prospect of serious detriment to highly vulnerable people if not properly completed. Identifying the appropriate order of operations was critical to achieving any favorable outcomes since many projects required multiple steps. With only a few days during which we could conduct face to face meetings with our clients, each step of representation had to be carefully planned out so that each visit to the detention center resulted in progress towards one of our representation goals.

We set up a sort of “command central,” in a vacant office at Raices. I was stationed here with my laptop, and the rest of the team took up residency in various corners of the building, wherever they could find a chair and a work surface.  I spent most of Tuesday morning sketching out decision trees for both of our cases, trying to figure out the contingencies that would affect case strategy for each. Meanwhile the students filed into my office on a rotating basis, requesting an additional assignment from the “master list” each time they had wrapped up a prior assignment. Imagine a sort of advocacy relay race—each team member working furiously on some aspect of the case and then hurriedly tossing it to a colleague to begin the next phase of representation. I wish we had recorded a full inventory of the specific assignments undertaken throughout the duration of the trip, but many of those assignments had barely rolled off my tongue or been hastily scribbled onto a post-it-note before one of our elite advocacy athletes sprinted into my office and disappeared with that task on her shoulders.  Since no comprehensive list exists, here is a snapshot from approximately 3:00 PM on Tuesday the 17th:

1)      EOIR: Get copies of all court filings from EOIR.

2)      BIA: See if they can tell us how to get a copy of file mid process. Call the BIA FOIA and determine whether we can request FOIA expedite. Identify timeframe.

3)      Country Conditions: Try to get conditions on Mam ethnic minority from UC Hastings and begin drafting a comprehensive Country Conditions summary for Guatemala.

4)      Country Conditions: Begin drafting a country conditions summary for Guatemala that reflects Gang-violence and DV, and emphasizes lack of state protection.

5)      Draft Affidavit(s): Draft questions to get testimony from Ms. Smith that tends to show ineffective assistance of counsel by “pro bono” practitioner who charged her $4,000 and then failed to timely-file appellate brief during briefing schedule.

6)      FOIA Request to the Board of Immigration Appeals: Draft, print and bring to detention center for signature by client in the event that there’s no quicker way to get copies of documents.

7)      Medical Problem: Detainee was refused Asthma medication by GEO. Write letter to GEO requesting evaluation by the detainee’s treating physician for an Albuterol prescription. Must be printed and ready for client’s signature on Wednesday morning.

8)      Wal-Mart Mission: Get data reader that’s compatible with the sim cards in the client’s property locker so that we can retrieve corroborating evidence of her claim.

9)      I-589: Start prefilling one in a PDF for Ms. Green’s case. Then put it on a flashdrive to bring into Karnes to keep working on it on Wednesday while at the facility.

10)   Brief for Ms. Green: Start working on it on Tuesday. Bring all useful cases, reference docs, etc. on a flashdrive on Wednesday since there’s no internet in detention center.

11)   Phone Cards: Determine how we can remain in contact with the two detainees while they remain in detention. Inquire with RAICES staff about this and buy phone cards, etc. to facilitate our future contact.

12)   Psychologist: Figure out how to get GEO to allow us to obtain psych records for Ms. Green and her kids. Lay the foundation for this by drafting an ROI/ Consent for Release to submit early on Wednesday morning to GEO. (Find out who pays the psychologists at Karnes to figure out who to solicit. We will try to get all existing records and hope to liaise with the psychologist to get other info in the future.)  ROI must be printed and ready to sign on Wednesday so it can go straight to GEO after client signs it.

13)   How can we get a notary in Karnes tomorrow?

14)   How can we get Ms. Green’s case lodged? And/or, will San Antonio allow withdrawal as attorney of record after lodging?

Perhaps even more impressive than the list was the enthusiasm with which all of the students approached each new individual assignment. The last ones were given out that night around 11:15 PM, just before we left the office and returned to our hotel. No one complained as our hours got longer each day, finally reaching an impressive crescendo on Wednesday night, when I clocked out at 1:30 AM and clocked back in again at 5:00 AM on Thursday so that we could leave at the crack of dawn for one last lightning visit to the detention facility. (We had hoped to get all of our final affidavits executed the day before, but were not allowed to leave the detention facility to print our documents—or, for that matter, to eat, necessitating a final visit just hours before I was supposed to be on my flight back to NC.)

The writings that have been generated by our team on this blog portray a frightening theme of a for-profit detention facility’s unapologetic obstruction of detainees’ access to counsel. There is another theme that has not been discussed yet, but that needs to be celebrated. That is the demonstrated ability of the six women who accompanied me to Karnes to put the needs of the many ahead of individual needs and to work tirelessly towards a common goal. Before embarking on the journey to Karnes, I had been apprehensive about how the extreme stress of the trip would affect group morale, work conditions and how it might strain relations between roommates and classmates. That was the only unfounded anxiety that accompanied me to Karnes. The professionalism, collegiality and diligence that were the hallmarks of this group’s approach to representation were truly remarkable. I would go into battle with them again any day.

— Heather



This was my Facebook rant, posted Wednesday afternoon:

Okay, time to rant.

I’m sitting in the lobby of Karnes Detention Center, where I have been working on drafting an asylum brief all morning. My colleagues, AbigailSharon,DaphneKarizzaAngelique, and Professor Scavone have all been in the “visitation room” for about 4.5 hours now. This room has no windows, the bathroom has no lock, and it is entirely made of cinder block. My group has been interpreting, babysitting children, taking furious notes, trying to obtain copies of psychological records and really important video evidence to back up our client’s claim. It’s now past 1:30 in the afternoon, and they are not allowed to leave for lunch. I have food we brought for the whole team with me in the lobby, but I’m not allowed to take it to them because I’m not visiting a particular client, and they are not allowed to come to me because this detention center has a no re-entry policy like it’s a freaking concert at the Greensboro Coliseum.

We are their legal representation. And my friends are being starved, to the point that they are in tears, because it’s a choice between leaving the clients to get lunch and abandoning their case and the last chance we have to interview them, or be hungry and continue working.

This is totally unacceptable. This detention center, which houses women and children, is stricter than state court maximum security prisons housing murderers and rapists. In state prison, attorneys go through security in order to ensure their own safety, so that their clients can’t possibly use any possession they have as a weapon against them. Here, we’re not allowed to bring in laptops or cell phones to conduct necessary legal research or language translation. The reason for this is becoming ever more clear — the Geo Group, which owns this facility and makes a profit off of detaining infants, wants attorneys to feel so uncomfortable here that they won’t come back. The environment has been openly hostile. We are their representation, and because we chose to help, our rights are being infringed upon. By extension, our clients are losing their right to due process. How is Abigail supposed to keep a clear head and accurately interpret every word of our client’s horrific story of torture and rape when her blood sugar is low?

I won’t even get into all of the other horrible injustices we have seen here — I’ll save that for our blog. This is just a small point in a big web of completely unnecessary restrictions on a population that poses absolutely no national security threat to the United States or its people. We as Americans should be ashamed of ourselves.

— Holly

Pissed Off

After about five hours of traveling, I stepped off the airplane in Columbia, South Carolina, where I would be spending the remainder of my spring break. I made my way to the baggage claim, and walked out the doors where my boyfriend would be picking me up. As soon as I saw his car, I ran over to it, threw my luggage in the backseat, and jumped in the front… I took a deep breath, and let all the tears flow.
For a minute, we both sat there in silence; I observed him watching the tears fall down my face. It was clear that he didn’t know how to respond. I started to recount all of the horrors of Karnes Detention Center, as well as the painful situations experienced by our two clients and their children.
I shared as much information as I could during the drive, but we soon arrived at home. As I got out of the car, I felt an enormous wave of guilt flood my stomach. I was able to leave Karnes. I effortlessly got on an airplane, flew across the country, and arrived at my clean, safe home. I had no question of whether my home, my loved ones, and my belongings would be where I had originally left them. I was greeted with bottled water and a fridge full of food. How could I possibly indulge in these easily-accessible things, when our clients at Karnes Detention Center had to beg for these basic human necessities?
Over the next two days, EVERYTHING reminded me of Karnes. As I approached my full fridge to make breakfast the next morning, I thought of a story shared by our client H. She told us that there was never enough milk to go around for the children, and the little milk they did have was often expired. She told us that there was never enough of anything to go around, and if the detainees were late for meals, they often wouldn’t be able to eat at all.
Later in the day, I found myself walking down the aisle in a supermarket, perusing the different brands to decide what to purchase. Again, it reminded me of H; during one of our interviews, myself, Angelique and Karizza gave H a bag of chips, a few cookies, and some dried mangoes. She ate very little, and then proceeded to sneak these rare snacks in an envelope, so she could give them to her son later. I was finally able to see the simple things I take for granted every day.
That evening, my boyfriend walked to the edge of our property, to go check the mail. When he left, I became engulfed by anxiety. I yelled out for him to return, and when he did, I started crying again. It reminded me of our other client, Y, who lost many relatives due to gang violence, and never knew when she would see someone for the last time.
After everything, many questions hovered on my mind; who has the right to determine the value of a human’s life? Why are the women and children detainees at Karnes Detention Center being deprived of food and water on a regular basis, and why are their health care needs being neglected? How can we, as a society, sit back and watch innocent women and children be treated like animals in an institution who could care less about their wellbeing? What more can we do to rehabilitate these women and their children after the atrocities they experienced in their home countries?
I’m angry. Karnes pissed me off, and they need to be exposed for the way they value the lives of the women and children living there.
— Sharon

So Angry We Could Cry

Something we haven’t been able to wrap our heads around in the Detention Center are its employees. Angelique jokingly told the other ladies in our group that she believes their training manual has a quota of how many visitors they must upset each day.

They arbitrarily decide what we cannot bring in on a day-to-day basis. Once we enter the attorney/family visitation area, the guards will let us leave to grab food or print documents we need, but if we choose to leave, they will not let us come back in for the day. Some days they let us in bring water and snacks; some days they don’t. There is one bathroom with a door that doesn’t lock and there are no water fountains. We usually go all day without food or drink in order to help these women. We’ve all had meltdown moments due to this treatment, but we know that what the women and children are going through is much worse. We have also come to the conclusion that this is their attempt at making our visits unpleasant in hopes that we won’t return. What they do not realize that making our visit miserable will only make us want to help even more and will encourage us to do something about this injustice.

We asked if we could bring in crayons and coloring books for the children, but the guards said no. There is a carpet in the corner with a few toys and a small play kitchen that the children may play with while they wait (sometimes for hours) for their mothers. When the kids bring the toys over from the carpet area to the tables (which are in the same SMALL room) where some of us are playing with the kids, the guard would tell the kids to either go back to the carpet area to play or put the toys back. The kids are so bored. Holly came up with a great idea to bring in colored pens and we let the children use them like crayons. They’ve made us tons of pictures that we will keep forever. Daphne managed to smuggle in a deck of cards one day and Angelique taught a little boy how to play “go fish” or “vaya el pescado.” We had the best time.

While the children wait, the mothers are in small rooms recounting stories of rape, torture, and murder. Those are things that no child should have to listen to, but unfortunately most of these children have already been witnesses to these horrific events.

One morning when we came to visit really early, a horrible loud siren was ringing and extremely bright lights were flashing. One woman told us that this happens regularly at both four o’clock and eight o’clock in the morning. She said that siren was much louder in their cells and children would wake up crying and screaming about how they just wanted to go back home. She told us that, even though she knew it was awful in the Detention Center that it would be much worse if they went back to Guatemala.

During the week we learned of additional horrors suffered by these women and children. The women described how they would be detained in the “hieleras” (which loosely translated means “icebox”) prior to being transported to the Detention Center. In these Iceboxes, the temperature was freezing and they were only allowed to wear one layer of clothing. They were fed two skinny tacos a day that were mostly still frozen. There was a toilet where they could use the bathroom, but the iceboxes were so crowed there would be people sleeping right next to the toilet and they would try as hard as possible to not use it.

The women told us that officials took their sweaters and made them strip down to one layer of clothing. They also made the children strip down to one layer of clothing and even worse, the infants would be naked! One woman told us she saw a woman holding an infant that was almost purple in color because of it was so cold.

We heard stories of a woman who had given birth to a child prior to crossing the border who was very ill. The mother was not eating or drinking and became unable to produce milk to feed her infant. The infant was about 15 days old upon arrival to Karnes when the baby began to get very sick. We were told that the baby eventually had to be rushed to San Antonio to the emergency room without its mother. One woman also told us that she had a friend whose child broke his arm while playing on the playground. She said that they tried to treat the child in the little infirmary in the Detention Center, but then when they realized they couldn’t fix it they sent the young child to the hospital in San Antonio without his mother. She told us she was afraid to let her children play because she did not want them to get injured and be taken away from her.

Prior to leaving, we were informed that there are two areas in the Detention Center where there are no cameras and word is going around that the detention center guards have been taking women to these places and sexually assaulting them.

We cannot handle the anger we have at these atrocities. Both of us had moments where our eyes burned from attempting to hold back tears of anger. There were also times when we couldn’t hold back the tears. We tried our hardest to stay strong for our clients.

How can our country claim to be the land of the free and the home of the brave if we are standing by like cowards allowing innocent children and women fleeing persecution to be incarcerated and treated worse than animals? We have to do something to stop this!

-Angelique and Karizza

We Are Free!

As we stepped out of the van the ladies grabbed four small backpacks. These backpacks contain all of the possessions that these three families own. A son of one of the ladies who is only six years old walked beside me holding my hand. We took three steps on the sidewalk when he paused, looked around, and as the breeze hit our faces, he shouted, “SOMOS LIBRES” (WE ARE FREE).

La Casa Maria Marta, is where I spent most of my day. This is a little welcome house owned by the Mennonites, and run with the help of volunteers. It serves as a pit stop between detention and total freedom. It’s a place where the women and children can stop to get breakfast, clothes, hot showers, and some home cooked food before boarding transportation that will take them to the people who have bailed them out of detention.

Today there were three mothers and their three sons staying at the home. The three boys ages twelve, six, and three years old instantly gravitated to me. We spent the whole day together acting normal. We played games, made puzzles, told each other stories, made friendship bracelets, it was awesome. I couldn’t help but feel this was the best gift I could give these women, who have suffered so much both with persecution in their home country and with being confined in the hielera and Karnes Detention Center in our country. I was thinking how nice it must be for them to relax and take care of themselves, knowing that their children were safe and happy.

— Angelique


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Helping the families who were just released on bond as they rest up for the bus trip to stay with family in other parts of the country. Angelique is great with the kids, who are amazingly cheerful despite what they’ve been through. These boys were in Karnes for 21 days, a relatively short stay. Their asylum hearing is scheduled for September.

— Abigail

Day One

Hi All!

Today was our first day in San Antonio! We arrived this morning, got settled in the hotel, and hit the ground running with the other law clinics in the area this week. We attended a training session at Raices, the non-profit organization doing amazing work with all of the cases from both Karnes and Dilley detention centers. Our group will be working at Karnes, which has 450 beds for women and children (which comes out to about 226 family units). The median age of children at Karnes is six; there are many children who have spent most of their lives in immigration detention.

We learned that before detainees (or shall we call them “residents”?) are taken to Karnes, they are held in what asylum seekers refer to as the hielera (or “freezer”), where they are subjected to 50 degree temperatures, denied access to a shower, given meals that are still frozen, and held for days on end – despite the fact that due process only allows for them to be detained for five days. After this, they are either taken to a facility like Karnes if there is a bed available, or released.

The number one priority of Raices is to get every detainee a positive outcome on his or her credible fear interview. A credible fear interview is an initial interview with an asylum officer conducted to determine if the immigrant has a reasonable fear of returning to his or her home country. If he or she is found not to have a credible fear, he or she is subject to immediate removal. If the credible fear interview results in a positive outcome, the immigrant may pursue an asylum claim in immigration court, which may still result in deportation.

Tomorrow we’ll be traveling to Karnes to perform client intake with newly arrived “residents” who have passed their credible fear interviews, and distracting their children with love and affection. We need to separate the children from their mothers during these intake sessions to ensure that the mothers feel comfortable candidly describing the horrible things that have happened to them. Three of our students will be working as Spanish language interpreters during these sessions. On Tuesday, we’ll be working in San Antonio at Raices, helping prepare bond motions for the detainees. The average bond at Karnes $7,500-$10,000, so we’ll be trying to get those numbers reduced. No bailbondsmen are available to immigrants, so their families must post the entire amount, which differs significantly from state criminal proceedings (Angelique may talk about this more later).

The employees from Raices explained that the advocacy work pro bono attorneys and law students are doing here is working. For example, when Karnes first opened last August, the Obama administration attempted to make a big public statement by putting a lot of detainees on a plane and deporting them back to Central America as a way of deterring future immigrants from attempting to cross the border. After attending some “Know Your Rights” trainings in Karnes, the women refused to sign a required liability waiver to disclaim United States responsibility for any harm caused on the flight. Because they refused to sign, the plane never left! The students from other clinics here have already been successful at reducing bonds from $7500 to $2000. We had the opportunity to meet a former resident of Karnes, who told us how awful the conditions were when she was confined. Thanks to the work of attorneys and Raices, she was released, and is now donating her time volunteering at Raices and raising her eight year old son, who was detained with her.

After our training, we ate dinner with the other clinic students and heard a speech from Bob Libal, who works for Texans United for Families, a grassroots nonprofit in Austin, TX.   He spoke about the problem of family detention: it is completely profit driven. The United States government contracts with private companies who build and run these facilities for profit. Therefore, they are incentivized to cut corners in any way they can. For a family of four, this costs US taxpayers $1400 PER DAY.

Overall, we are horrified by the events going on in Texas, but excited to get to the detention center tomorrow and begin doing what we can to help. Thank you to all of our donors and all of those keeping us in your thoughts and prayers this week!