August 13-17, 2018: Folkston Visit
SIFI currently has five sites. This week, the Lumpkin team took a field trip down to Folkston, GA, in order to see how other sites run. As SIFI grows, it’s good to check in with other OTG (“on the ground”) teams, both for esprit de corps and for general operating procedure; who’s doing what how.
We traveled on Monday, after Matt had a surprise bond hearing. Matt had been at Stewart on Sunday, visiting some clients to pick up documents, and on a whim asked to visit another client whose bond motion we’ve been working on, just to check in. When the client arrived on his side of the visitation glass, he informed Matt that he had gotten nervous and had filed his own bond motion pro se, and that there was a hearing tomorrow (Monday) morning. This was news to Matt, the lawyer, and in fact had gone against Matt’s repeated pleas for the client to be patient and not to file on his own. I know I have been shirking my duties, dear readers, in explaining what exactly goes into filing a motion for bond, but suffice it to say for the purposes of this story, they are very labor intensive when prepared by our office. Conversely, going around Stewart is what I heard referred to as the “boilerplate 9th Circuit motion for bond” by Judge Duncan on the record last week. This is essentially a form where the detainee simply writes in his name in the blank at the top of the form. This motion is what our client got nervous and filed with the court…and then didn’t tell us, his legal team! Thankfully, Matt was able to appear on Monday morning and withdraw the pro se motion.
So, after surprise court, we hit the road for Folkston. En route, I learned what pecan trees look like, what kind of plant peanuts come from, and got to know my fellow Lumpkinders a lot better.
Team Folkston currently consists of three permanent team members: the lead attorney, Henri; the direct services attorney, Meredyth; and the project coordinator, Ishrat. They have a deliberately nondescript office, which they are hoping to move, in order to have enough space for their staff and volunteers. However, because this week is an organization-wide professional development week, Folkston didn’t have weekly volunteers. So, Monica and I filled the role of volunteers, and seized the opportunity to go see the Folkston ICE Processing Center (“FIPC”), the facility which Team Folkston services. FIPC is run by GEO Group, which is right up there with the biggest and baddest for-profit prison corporations (which KLN is currently suing). However, our interest in GEO in this context is not because they’re awful, but rather to observe how much better virtually every aspect of their facility is than Stewart. Many of the favorable conditions have been the result of a cordial, professional, and ongoing dialogue between the SIFI team and GEO administrators. As just one example, when we arrived, Monica and I didn’t even have time to sit down before we were ushered through the metal detectors. Now, we did wait for a while just beyond the metal detectors before we were allowed back into the visitation room, but this is day and night from Stewart, where I personally have waited over an hour to even get to this step.
We were then escorted back to the visitation/”court room” area, and almost immediately let into a room with the detainee who we were there to see. In this room, there was no glass, no phones, no slit through which to pass documents. This was a full-contact room where we could shake the hand of the man we were visiting, a delightfully normal client-attorney salutation, and sit and talk to him comfortably face-to-face (a fact for which I was doubly grateful because we were there to tell him that his sponsor had pulled out, and if he couldn’t find another one this week, he might lose his case entirely). All of the visitation rooms at Folkston are full contact like this. Three or four of them are cubicles, which are open at the top (purportedly for fire code reasons), so the conversations had within are less than confidential. I was prepared to be incensed about this lack of privacy, but Meredyth explained that these cubicles had originally simply been empty, and SIFI had asked to start using them for client visits. GEO agreed, and willingly installed phones (where lawyers are allowed to use GEO’s language line for free) and white noise machines, to at least try to make things a little more private. And so my outrage was dampened slightly. There are also at least two rooms which have computers and video cameras, where detainees can be interviewed via Skype.
On Wednesday, I went to a bond hearing with Meredyth and Matt. It is important to note that Folkston, because it is much closer to the ocean, gets a lot more “arriving aliens” who are coming into the United States for the first time. The odd thing about FIPC is that, like Stewart, they also have an immigration court at the jail, but literally no court staff are present. This is why I called them “court rooms” above (that’s also what is spray painted on the doors): they are very small rooms where the detainee sits in front of a videoteleconference array, and the whole court proceeding takes place at the immigration court in Atlanta. The judge is there. The clerk is there. The government attorney is there. Sometimes, even the lawyer for the detainee is there. The whole thing feels farcical, performative, almost like a sham. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that, as in Stewart, nothing is interpreted for the client if not directed at the client. So all the arguments of counsel are in English, and have to be summed up to the client afterwards.
Michael Baird, the judge we were supposed to be appearing in front of, at least examines the witness (although, according to Team Folkston, these questions are always the same and similarly farcical: “do you own any property in the United States?” is a favorite question to pose to arriving aliens. When they say no, because they were immediately apprehended when they entered the country, Judge Michael Baird then uses that as a factor which weighs in favor of them being a flight risk.) During this direct examination by the court, the detainee is at least allowed to make his own record, and have at least some of what’s happening during his hearing explained to him in his own language. Judge Baird, however, was not presiding over our hearing, to the surprise of everyone on our team. Instead, newly appointed Angela Munson from LeSalle Immigration Court was presiding. Meredyth, Matt, and the client were barely able to squeeze into the space in front of the camera.. There was so little space, I had to stand behind the television monitor, looking, instead of at the court, at our team and client.
As the hearing proceeded, Judge Munson asked all of the questions Meredyth had predicted (relating to where our client was planning to live if released), but instead of directing them to the client himself, as Judge Baird would have, Judge Munson instead directed them to Meredyth, who answered on the client’s behalf. The judge seemed particularly concerned with the fact that the client had arrived in the country with his family, that they “had arrived in the same manner he did” (she repeated this phrase word-for-word several times), and that they were “his only ties to the community” (despite having an aunt in Texas who was willing to sponsor him). She also lamented that “his employment history is vague at best.” Please remember, this is a man who was immediately locked up upon entering the country, and now the Immigration Judge is lamenting that he hasn’t worked in the U.S. (Matt made an excellent record about how the client had successfully owned a business for many years in El Salvador, but the judge was not convinced). With minimal argument from the government, our motion for bond was denied. We then retreated to one of the cubicles to explain to the client what had happened and what the next steps were. The client thanked Meredyth and Matt repeatedly for their work, and said he would need to talk to his wife before making any further decisions.
Hanging in the hallway before you enter the visitation rooms, there is a poster with rocket ship on it that says “Just remember, when you think all is lost, the future remains” – Dr. Robert H. Goddard. I can’t stop thinking about it. I know it’s meant to be inspirational, but in the immigration detention context, it seems almost cruel.