Jena, Louisiana

I spent the last week in Jena, Louisiana, home to the LaSalle ICE Processing Center. Jena itself is best known for being the home of the Jena Six, six young men who were grossly overcharged for an assault following several racially charged incidents at their high school (including the hanging of several nooses from a tree that was recognized by the high school community to be a place where only white kids could hang out).

Jena is a nice enough town, with laughably more options than Lumpkin (a grocery store! Several restaurants! A Walmart!). I was asked to come because most of the permanent Jena staff was supposed to be at a retreat, but there was still a cadre of volunteers scheduled. (The retreat was ultimately canceled, however, due to Tropical Storm Gordon.) The volunteers were a group of friends, many of whom had just finished clerking in the 10th Circuit in Denver! Having been freed from the “no political activism” shackles of working for the judiciary, they decided to come down and help out for a week. They proved to be a really great group of volunteers, in no small part because they had just come from clerking. This meant that when they returned from the detention facility with documents from clients, the volunteers scanned the documents in themselves, and uploaded them to the appropriate place on our digital interface (called Law Lab).

This may seem like an unremarkable thing to be grateful for, but very often we get volunteers who have been in private practice a long time and are used to having paralegals or other staff do their scanning and uploading for them. This means that they will often come back to the office from the facility and hand a big stack of documents to the project coordinator. “Here” they’ll say, “the client gave me these. Please let me know when they’re up on Law Lab.” Now, very rarely are they so brusque, but you get the idea. This is one more task generated for an employee who is already up to her eyeballs in work. So, shout out to you, Colorado-Jena volunteers, for being willing to do whatever it takes to actually take work off the plates of the permanent staff.

This week was an odd week to be in Jena, because it’s actually their last week in their current office, and in Jena itself. It’s also the last week for their lead attorney, Jeremy. Jeremy will be working as the remote lead for a few months, but will no longer be on the ground (or “OTG”, a favorite SIFI acronym). The rest of the Jena staff (one direct services attorney and the project coordinator) will be moving to Alexandria, Louisiana where the new SIFI office will be located. From Alexandria, SIFI will begin to serve immigrants detained at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center while continuing to serve folks at LaSalle.

It was also a banner week for Jena in terms of releases: four clients were released from detention, three of them women. The whole team agreed that this was a great way to “go out” but also assured me that this was not normal. While we waited for her ride to arrive, I chatted with one woman who had been in detention for more than eight months. She told me about how she’d like to to be a NICU nurse because her son was born with serious medical issues, including needing a feeding tube from a young age. Had he been born in Guatemala, she assured me, he simply would have died. “We don’t have anything like that in Guatemala. It’s such a blessing to live here in the United States.” However, the classes would cost $8,000 a month, so she was going to focus on bettering her English first. She also told me about how to make tamales with the things you can buy in commissary: first you take potato chips and crush them as finely as you can inside the bag to make the masa. Then you fill them with chicken (which apparently is available for sale) or cheese (“better yet, spicy cheese” she insisted), wrap them in paper towels (which she had to take from the laundry room), and microwave them for several minutes. They also make mole using the chocolate they would get as a reward for cleaning especially well.

Beyond getting prison survival recipes, much of what I did this week was supervise the volunteers so that Team Jena could do all the things they needed to in advance of the move. When the volunteers were at the detention facility, I worked on my first ever parole request, which we are hoping to file for a client back in Stewart in the next few weeks. Like all lawyers know, jumping in on a case that didn’t originate with you takes a not-insignificant amount of getting up to speed on the facts and the documents, so that took some time. In starting to draft the parole request, I also discovered some documents that we still need, and am starting to look for/request those. I also put in a request with the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies for information about my client’s particular factual situation.

The intellectual debate about requests for parole is what, exactly, they should contain. Parole requests, unlike bond motions, are not filed in immigration court or otherwise presented to a judge or lawyer. Instead, the decision whether to grant someone parole is made by ICE. The requests are submitted to ICE and reviewed, granted or denied by an ICE Officer. Although I do not know for sure, I feel it’s safe to assume that none of these officers have a legal background, let alone a law degree. So, the question then becomes: how much legal analysis should your parole request contain? Do the ICE officers even read the requests themselves? Or do they just skip to the supporting documents which show all of the factors which weigh  in favor of paroling the client. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides for the parole of individuals due to “urgent humanitarian reasons” or for “significant public benefit.” INA § 212(d)(5)(A). A 2009 ICE policy directive indicates that since continued detention of aliens who have been found to have a credible fear of persecution is not in the public interest, ICE should grant such aliens parole once the alien establishes: 1) his or her identity, 2) that he or she will not pose a danger to the community, and 3) that he or she will not pose a flight risk.

There are two schools of thought on this. One is that a parole request itself should generally be one page, (two or three if the case is especially complicated), and then include a detailed index of supporting documents. The Lumpkin approach, on the other hand, errs on the side of a detailed analysis, more in the style of a traditional brief.  This debate only matters of, of course, if ICE reads the petitions at all. I’m not sure we’ll ever know if one approach is better than the other, and I haven’t been here long enough to form my own opinion. I want to believe, as I always do, that the recipient of my work is reading it carefully and considering the arguments I am putting forward, but unfortunately, I think that’s more naive in this setting than in any other. We’ll see how it works out for my client. 

So, thanks Team Jena, for having me, even if you ultimately ended up not needing me. It’s always interesting to see other sites, and to visit other towns I would otherwise have lived my whole life not knowing they existed.

3 thoughts on “Jena, Louisiana

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