Chickenpox and Mumps, oh my!

A lot happened in my last month in Lumpkin, and I fell down on the blog (see what I did there?). So, I’m going to backfill a bit. We got a new lead attorney OTG, Erin Argueta. She was a direct services attorney at the Ocilla site, and agreed to uproot her family once more to come watch over Team Lumpkin. It was absolutely wonderful to have a smart, knowledgeable, capable boss on the ground, someone who was only a few feet away in my case, as we were sharing an office. 

There were also not one but two quarantines: one for chickenpox, and one for mumps. The chickenpox started before the holidays, and for a while, we were unsure whether anyone actually had mumps. We were hearing that “some people were exposed to mumps before they got” to Stewart. However, in recent weeks, we have heard from our clients and potential clients that there are two confirmed cases of mumps, one which is proving to be rather serious.

Of course this is dangerous for the people detained at Stewart, but it also makes an already inconvenient situation exponentially more so. When you want to visit a client who is in the quarantine, no other visits can happen at the same time. This means that no families can visit, and no other attorneys can visit clients in the other rooms. The quarantined person has to be brought to visitation alone, and once they are back in their “pod”, the visitation room they were in has to be “disinfected.” (We are fairly sure that this just means wiping everything down with a Lysol wipe, but it still takes a full 30 minutes). This leads to an average wait time of approximately 3 hours to see a single client. A week or so ago, volunteers who arrived any time after noon were told that they probably would not be able to get in to see anyone before 5PM.

The quarantined detainees have to wear face masks, and sometimes rubber gloves. The masks make it harder to hear them through the already subpar phones, and it also means that the guards are monitoring your visit a lot more closely to make sure that the client keeps the mask on. An African client of mine had drawn a face on his mask, with spiraling nostrils and a mouth full of bared teeth. (Add that to the list of images I wish someone could capture on film.) In the middle of a visit, a guard came in and told him he was “off quarantine” and could take his mask and gloves off. I almost asked to keep the mask with the ferocious teeth, but common sense prevailed.

In the beginning of the quarantine, I was also told twice that I would have to talk to the HSA (Health Services Administrator). The first time, the HSA shook my hand, introduced herself, and gave me a little spiel about the dangers of exposure to varicella (the virus which causes the chickenpox) to unvaccinated adults and pregnant women. The whole talked smelled a little like a “mea culpa” for the inconveniences of the quarantine: “we know this is an enormous pain, but think of the dangers!!! This is for your own good!” I smiled, listened politely, thanked her, and went back to my visit. The second time I was told I would have to wait to talk to the HSA.  I explained that I had already spoken with her less than a week ago. The guards at the front desk seemed unconvinced. So, I waited. And waited. And waited. Maybe an hour later, the HSA appeared in the waiting room, took one look at me, and said, “oh, I’ve already talked to her. She’s okay.” I then waited nearly another hour for a visit that took approximately ten minutes. I simply needed some client signatures.

There is also an intense peer pressure component to the quarantine. The first time I finished a visit with a quarantined client, the guard working the front desk announced to an entirely full waiting room (mostly women and children) that I had been the reason they were waiting and, “now that she’s done, you can all go in.” I was, of course, mortified, and guilt stricken to have made all of these people wait even longer to see their loved ones, despite the fact that it was not actually my fault. Another time, Erin and I were in the waiting room, knowing that our extern was visiting someone on quarantine. As more and more families (again, mostly women traveling alone with tired, cranky, and bored children) started to pile up, the more and more we felt inclined to go tell the extern to wrap it up, or simply come back later. In the end, we abstained, of course, because that quarantined guy is entitled to all the time he needs with his legal team.

Finally, and perhaps most alarming, people who are in the quarantine are not being allowed to go to court. Their hearings are being continued, or their lawyers are being asked to waive the client’s presence. In a place where one of the greatest enemies is “detention fatigue”, even a small delay can mean the difference between someone winning at least their custody case and getting out, or getting too fatigued and simply choosing to abandon their case in order to get out via deportation. (Sidenote: even this often doesn’t work as planned. The government can take weeks or months to actually get someone back to their country, even if they’ve been ordered removed by a judge.) The quarantine continuances are being set weeks or even months away, seemingly with no end in sight.

After alerting folks up the food chain from us at SPLC to the multitudinous difficulties the quarantine has created with regards to access to counsel, the higher-ups have been in touch with the higher-ups at Stewart, in hopes to create a work-around. The current proposal is allowing us to schedule visits with quarantined folks at a set time, so there’s not log jam created. Of course, it takes two to tango, so we’ll have to see if anyone is willing to dance.  


Feliz Navidad

It’s almost Christmas, and an email recently went around about ordering Christmas cards to send to clients. The prototype we received via email reads “Feliz Año Nuevo!” on the cover, with little red birds in snow-covered trees. On the inside, it says “De Parte de Southern Poverty Law Center, les deseamos felices fiestas y un feliz año nuevo!” (“From the Southern Poverty Law Center, we wish you happy holidays and a happy new year!”). While I get the idea, I couldn’t help but think this rang a little false; these are people who are in detention, and, if they’re still there on Christmas, will likely be there through the new year. These are people who are, in the case of Stewart, inevitably very far away from their families, and likely will be having anything but a happy holiday.

So the question arises: how do I address special occasions my detained clients? Do I just not mention it? Do I acknowledge the occasion, but with the caveat that being in detention for [your birthday, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, the birth of your child, etc.] sucks? Do I celebrate it like I would if the person weren’t detained? Thus far, my responses have fallen somewhere between these options, but I have yet to feel like I navigated the conversation gracefully. 

I talked about the content of the cards briefly with Monica who, as part of her many-faceted role as project coordinator, is also in charge of things like ordering Christmas cards. We agreed that we had some complex feelings, and she explained as much to the administrator taking orders. Instead, she suggested sending the cards to the thirty or so of our clients who have been released since we opened in April of 2017. 

Henri, the lead attorney at the Folkston site, then replied to Monica’s email and made an excellent point that I have been thinking about a lot. “Most of our clients are religious,” she wrote, “and for many this time of year is the most important to them.” Henri then went on to explain that she will often include a personal note in the cards, something to the effect of “God bless you,” being sure to keep the tone hopeful. I now feel stupid for having forgotten about the religious component of Christmas (I’m sure Knights of Columbus were aiming their “Keep Christ in Christmas” right at me) Christmas for me has always been about being with my family, eating, exchanging gifts, doing a puzzle, sitting by the fire. But for most of the world (including, I should add, a large segment of my own extended family) Christmas is a religious high holiday. So of course Henri is right. Hope is important, and hard to find from inside a detention center, and if a holiday card can help with that even a little bit, I’m all for it. 

Speaking of the holidays, we recently had the SPLC Holiday Party in Montgomery, AL, where SPLC is headquartered. Prior to the party, Matt and I, along with a maybe 75 other lawyers from all across the many branches of SPLC, attended a two-day deposition training led by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. The training included lectures on “the funnel method”, theory testing and gaining admissions, using exhibits, and even an ethics credit about ethical issues related to preparing clients or witnesses for deposition. However, the large majority of the two days was spent in small groups (divided up based on when you graduated from law school) practicing each of the skills discussed in the lectures. We had a fake case complete with a case file full of declarations, court filings, and other relevant documents. I was assigned to represent the self-declared “office Lothario” defendant in an employment discrimination case, which was a tough change of pace from my usual plaintiff’s employment practice. During each breakout session, we had a new “actor” (SPLC staff members) playing the plaintiff and the defendant. Every actor did a great job playing a different archetypal deponent: the evader, the monosyllabic answerer, the rambler, the blatant liar. The instructors also rotated, and each gave astute, detailed feedback for each practice round.

All told, it was an intensive, but hugely instructive two days, and I am so so thankful to have been allowed to participate. I am not technically an SPLC employee, so they certainly didn’t have to include me. I also won’t be deposing anyone in my current role as an SPLC pseudo-employee, since depositions aren’t really part of immigration law, so my developing these skills also doesn’t benefit SPLC as an organization. And yet, I was readily provided a spot in the class and a room at the hotel to boot, and I truly feel like I am a better lawyer for having taken this class. So, thanks, SPLC! And to anyone who is thinking about taking or sponsoring a NITA course, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

After all the mock lawyering was done on Friday night, we partied! There was a band, and a raffle, and all the amazing weirdos from SIFI all in one place, dancing the night away. I don’t know how I keep getting so lucky to be surrounded by such wonderful people, but that the fact of that remarkable good fortune isn’t wasted on me.

Bond Data by Court Location

Monica, who, in addition to all of her other talents, is big on statistical data analysis, sent the following information and link to one of our volunteers. I thought this would be a good thing to share here.

Three-fold Difference in Immigration Bond Amounts by Court Location

  1. National bond grant rate in FY18 (first 8 months): 47.1%; median bond amount: $7,500
  2. Stewart bond grant rate in FY18 (first 8 months): 44.5%; median bond amount: $7,500
  3. SIFI Stewart bond grant rate since we launched (April 2017): 40.6% (I think things have improved. Our grant rate is 57.1% using data from May-November 2018). SIFI Stewart median bond amount: $7,500 since April 2017 (I think this has gotten worse. Our median bond amount is $9,000 using data from May-November 2018)

Suffering and Starfish


I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering and grief lately, both in my personal and professional life. The quote pictured above is taped rather unceremoniously to the wall in our office, underneath the white board that lists the WiFi information and a little hand-drawn map of how to get to the detention center.  It reads: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly NOW. Love mercy NOW. Walk humbly NOW. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” This quote is attributed to Rabbi Tarfon

“Enormity” is the right word. There is so much suffering, lately, I feel like I am seeing it all at once for the first time. 

I lost my first bond hearing on Monday 11/19. We knew when we accepted the case that there were some complicating factors, but this was a hard one to lose. W.S.J. came to the United States when he was nine years old (he is now in his early 20s). He was a DACA recipient. He started his own business and had been taken in by his middle school librarian and her husband (who he calls his “American grandparents”). He got into some trouble when he was a teenager, but nothing serious. In support of his bond motion, we collected nearly thirty letters of support from his community here in Georgia. His high school principal attended the bond hearing, along with W’s “American grandpa.”

In denying the bond, Immigration Judge Randall Duncan (one of the judges who appears in person at Stewart) made a record about the importance of being consistent. He then went on to lament how much he hates disappointing young asylum seekers, “and I disappoint a lot of people.” 

There’s no where to talk privately on the court side of Stewart, so I told W. that I would come back in the afternoon to talk to him. There’s also no touching allowed in the courtroom, but W’s grandpa still managed to sneak in a hug. 

Later that afternoon, while I was in the waiting room, there was a woman there with four little kids, all maybe under the age of eight. She was crying, and filling out paperwork. Then she started to address “the kids” in a loud voice which was clearly meant for the CoreCivic employees working the front desk. “You’re probably NEVER EVER EVER EVER see your daddy ever again. It’s not fair that they treat people like this.” There were also some swear words thrown in sporadically for effect, but she went on like that for several minutes.

I’m of two minds about this: on the one hand, of course she has every right to be upset. I don’t know what’s happening in her husband’s case, but I imagine that she stands a pretty good chance of being left to raise four boys alone. And where do you direct that energy? The ladies at the front desk seem as good a target as any; they hold the keys that allow your person to move around within the prison and so on some level, you think, “well, why don’t they let my husband out then?”

After we dropped the woman (still crying loudly) off at the family visitation door, the guard and I continued down the hall to the attorney visitation rooms. “Boy,” I remarked, “she’s going to have her hands full with all those boys.” The guard, who is usually pretty jocular, nodded seriously. “But I don’t like the way she was going about it, talking loud and carrying on like that in front of the kids. There’s nothing I can do!”  And of course that’s how it works.  That individual guard isn’t the person who’s responsible for what’s happening to that woman’s husband. Seeing both sides of this interaction made me grateful, yet again, for the piece of the SIFI orientation that talks about how the individual guards are not the enemy, and advising the volunteers to be as kind as possible. 

When W.S.R. finally came into the attorney visitation room room, this young man, who is usually a chatty ray of sunshine, started to cry almost immediately. “What am I going to do in Honduras? I don’t have nobody in Honduras.” And of course he’s right. He has been in the United States longer than he was in Honduras, and has worked exceptionally hard to build a life here. Because he built that life, and because he is so young, it puts him in a uniquely difficult position in terms of immigration relief. He probably can’t successfully claim asylum because he hasn’t been back to Honduras in over a decade: how can he claim that he is afraid to go back for any reason other than the general one that things are terrible there? He never suffered persecution by the government (nor by the gangs that the government can’t control.) He’s not married, no kids, so no blood relatives for whom his removal would be a “extreme and unusual hardship.” So, the “next steps” conversation is one of Scylla (voluntary departure) and Charybdis (deportation). 

The unique part about W’s case is that he’s pretty happy at Stewart. He speaks English and Spanish, so has been able to help folks who are monolingual fill out paperwork, communicate with guards, etc. He has gotten very involved with religion, and has become a vibrant part of the Christian community within Stewart. He believes that his being in Stewart is part of God’s plan for him. So, unlike a lot of clients who can’t bear another moment of detention once they are denied a bond, W is comfortable enough at Stewart to stay and fight his case from inside (despite the fact that the odds of success are incredibly low). 

Some days I am placated by the idea that I am diligently tossing one starfish at a time back into the ocean, but some days there just seems to be so much suffering and grief in the world, I don’t know what to do. Which, I suppose, is precisely why this quote is posted in our office. You cannot be daunted by the world’s grief; not that of strangers, not that of your clients, and not your own. And that’s where the last part of Rabbi Tarfon’s quote comes in: “You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

in·fra·struc·ture: the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.

My Nicaraguan asylum seeker, R. O-V,  was finally released. His sponsor ended up making a $10,000 donation to Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN), who then paid the bond. This way, when R’s case finishes, the bond money will go back into BIJAN’s bond fund and can help other people pay their bonds in the future. This is a truly incredible development, and far from ordinary. It’s also a great reminder that there really are great people in the world. 

However, with release comes logistics, which has lead me to think a lot about the importance of infrastructure. Much of last week was consumed with making travel arrangements for R.O-V (who doesn’t speak a word of English) from Lumpkin, GA, to Bridgeport, CT. In the interim, he also needed new (warm) clothes, a backpack and a sim card for his cell phone. In Lumpkin, there is no public transportation, and the only store is a Dollar General. So, on Tuesday afternoon, I drove him to Walmart in Eufaula, AL, thirty minutes away. Thankfully, he had some money (from the Go Fund Me page I linked previously). The nice clerk at Walmart helped set up his new phone, he picked up a backpack, a belt, and some deodorant, and we headed back to the office. All told, this took about two hours.

The troubling part about this (beyond the fact that that was two hours I’m not at the office) is: if we didn’t do it, it couldn’t be done. There is no infrastructure in Lumpkin to support these men when they’re released. There’s no public transit to get folks where they need to go. There’s no hotel where they can stay. There aren’t even taxis available, and that’s to say nothing of the prohibitive cost of a forty-five minute taxi ride. So that ends up falling on the “down for the cause” people who live in Lumpkin, be it SIFI staff, SIFI volunteers, or Marty. 

One service that Stewart does offer is they will drive men to the Groome Shuttle station in Columbus, which means one of us doesn’t have to. After R.O-V was released on Monday, another man from Nicaragua set to be released on Wednesday. As both were traveling to the New York area, we thought it would be easier (and more fun) for them to take the Greyhound together.  We asked that the second man be taken to the Groome station, where he would then be picked up by Susan, (a retired schoolteacher in Columbus who houses, feeds, and drives recently released men while they’re in transit simply out of the goodness of her heart). CoreCivic had agreed to drop the second man off at Groome. However, when the time came (and the time is always fairly late), CoreCivic staff simply drove our guy and another recently released man to El Refugio and just dropped them off. When I say dropped them off, I mean literally just that: they pulled up, let the men out of the car, and drove off. Luckily, a Spanish-speaking SIFI volunteer was staying at El Refugio that night; ordinarily, the house is not staffed on weeknights, and is locked. Had the SIFI volunteer not been there, those men would have ended up either at Marty’s house or at Matt and Monica’s. You see, El Refugio, Marty’s, and the TroubleWide are all on the same lot. Luckily, Steve was there to intercept them, but then Monica had to drive them to Columbus anyway, as all the plans were contingent on the second man arriving in Columbus that night in order to travel to New York the next day with R. O-V. As with all things, Monica did this at 10 PM with a smile on her face, but the larger issue remains. This isn’t feasible, but there also doesn’t seem to be an easy answer. You can’t simply will a robust public transportation system into existence. 

The last issue I’ve been thinking about in regards to systemic deficiency is the need for travel documents from ICE.  A few weeks ago, I drove a released client, J.C., to the airport in Columbus to help him get on the plane. J.C. had what amounted to a permission slip from ICE: a single sheet of paper with his photo and biographical information on it, just like a standard ID, and some information about explaining why this was a proper form of identification. When security opened (because it’s such a small airport, there was only one flight that day and security is closed until an hour before the flight), we waited in line, and when we got to the podium, I explained the situation to the TSA agent. The agent then called his manager, and the manager came out and seemed annoyed and flustered. “I wish I had known about this an hour ago, he told me. “I have to make a call.” I explained that security had been closed an hour ago, and since we (SIFI) plan on doing this regularly, how should we alert TSA in the future? He told me where his office was and told me we should just knock there going forward, which I said I was happy to do. The phone call he had to make turned out to be, at most, a two-minute call to ICE, verifying J.C.’s identity. All of this was fine, albeit a little annoying from a bureaucratic standpoint (and my general distaste for people who act put out by being asked to do their jobs), but, as with all things, would have been virtually impossible for the client to do alone without an English speaker. It certainly was not as easy as it is meant to be: present the ID issued to you by ICE, along with your ticket, and head on through security to your gate. Had I not been there, I’m sure the encounter would have terrifying from the moment the first agent said he had to call his manager. Even I was a little nervous!  Or, worse yet, the TSA manager could have acted like it was impossible for the client to fly because he had not given sufficient notice (not that this particular TSA manager seemed especially malicious or obstructionist, but these days, I never underestimate people to be jerks, especially to immigrants). Ultimately, things worked out fine. J.C. got on the plane, made it to New York, and was reunited with his twelve-year-old sister from whom he had been separated at the border four months earlier.

However, I learned with R.O-V’s release that, when you are released on bond, ICE doesn’t return your identity documents, even if you are fortunate enough to have them with you in detention. ICE keep your documents until your merits (e.g. asylum) case is finished. (They do return them whether you win or lose). J.C. had been paroled by ICE. So, basically, if you win your freedom in court, no ID. If you get out by the grace of ICE, you get an ID. So how is this supposed to work? You have a mechanism that allows people to be released, often to a specific, pre-identified location that is not Lumpkin, and yet there’s no procedure in place for allowing the detainees to get from point A to B.

Like so many things in this system, and particularly here in Lumpkin, the problem is maddeningly complicated, and even in the abstract it doesn’t have a good solution. So, we’ll keep ferrying people to Walmart and Columbus and wherever else, and I will remain so grateful and impressed by the selfless people all around me who will stop what they’re doing to help anyone who needs it, day or night.

El Refugio Retreat

October 10, 2018

The office is closed today and tomorrow in preparation for Hurricane Michael, which is shaping up to be pretty serious. We’re a ways inland, but people are still battening down the hatches a bit. As a girl from Colorado, I’ve been through a surprising number of hurricanes! (Looking at you, Sandy and Irene). As of right now, it’s just raining pretty steadily. I guess it’s supposed to get bad tonight and tomorrow morning. I’m so grateful for all the people who have called and texted to check on me. Don’t worry: I have beer, bread, peanut butter and jelly, a case of water, and a full tank of gas. For the time being, I’m working remotely from Midtown Coffee House. 

I spent last weekend at the annual retreat for El Refugio, an organization without which we would be seriously limited in our work in Lumpkin. Without El Refugio, men would spend more time in detention for lack of a place to go between when they’re released and when they start their journeys to wherever they’re ultimately headed. Without El Refugio, families who don’t live in Lumpkin would have to make the trip in one day, because Lumpkin doesn’t have anywhere else to stay (no hotels, no AirBnB, etc.). For many who travel long distances (we get a lot of folks from North Carolina), this would be extremely grueling, if not totally impossible. Most families come on the weekends, not least of all because non-attorney visitors are only allowed to visit once a week for an hour (!!!!), but the week starts over on Sunday. So, if you visit on Saturday, you can visit again on Sunday, and you can stay at El Refugio for free. They’re a vital part of our work here, and so we were delighted to join their retreat. 

The retreat was held a Koinonia Farm, near Americus, Georgia. Koinonia Farms has a super interesting history, and lead me to think a lot about intentional communities, but that’s not really the point of this post.

Friday evening, we had planned to eat dinner at the TroubleWide (the affectionate nickname for the prefabricated house where Matt and Monica live). However, at about 4:30, Matt called to tell us that one of the ICE officers at Stewart, Officer Johnson, had asked Matt for a favor. An Egyptian guy was getting out, but his family couldn’t come until Saturday morning, and could Matt take him to El Refugio for the night? On a weeknight, this would mean that Matt would have to sleep at El Refugio with the released person, since there are no El Refugio volunteers on the weekdays. Since it was was Friday, the house happened to be staffed. However, the volunteer at the house had several visits at the detention center planned for Saturday morning, which Matt didn’t want to derail, so Matt agreed to stay with the Egyptian. The officer then handed Matt a plastic bag full of pill bottles and said “thanks, here are his meds. He’s getting released soon.” So, we waited. 4:30 became 5, 5:30, 6, 7, 8 P.M. Monica and I were waiting at the TroubleWide with Marty and a dinner that was getting cold. When Matt called again to give us a status update, Marty graciously volunteered to take over waiting for this guy.  “Plus, I need to practice my Arabic!” (Turns out that Marty lived in Palestine for seven years because of course he did). So, Matt came back, and Marty went to wait in the parking lot at Stewart. At 9:30, after we were already in Americus, Marty texted to let us know that he had picked up the Egyptian. So much for “he’s getting out soon,” but when an ICE Officer asks you for a favor, you try to comply.

On Saturday morning, I decided to skip 6:00 A.M. yoga, and joined the group for breakfast. After breakfast, we started the morning session by going around the circle and briefly introducing ourselves. There were about 25 people, all of whom were white and native-born, save three. The group included two young marrieds whose church in Oklahoma had assigned them to Georgia on their mission year. Many of the other group members were also “called by their faith” in one way or another to do the work of El Refugio. We then talked about the the core values of El Refugio (hospitality, visitation, and education through advocacy) and how they are reflected in the work that we do.

In the afternoon, we had some really excellent and energizing speakers : Kevin Caron  from Georgia Detention Watch, >Adelina Nicholls from Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), and Gabriela Marquez-Benitez from Detention Watch Network. Since I graduated from law school, I’ve gotten pretty far away from my former life in community organizing, and it felt so good to be back among these profoundly passionate people doing really radical, important work. All of their presentations were really thought-provoking, addressing what it would mean to actually abolish ICE (not just to use a trending hashtag), and focusing on the idea that radical policies (like those of the Trump Administration) require radical resistance. Some of the ideas that most struck me were:

  • The messaging error in “Families Belong Together” which became the rallying cry this summer as family separation was coming to light. The messaging should have been “families belong together out of detention” because, well, now the Administration is still detaining families, but now they’re keeping parents with their kids and this looks somehow like being more benevolent or listening to the will of the people or something.
  • The respectability politics inherent in advocacy like was happening around DACA/DAPA/the DREAM Act. There was this narrative that said “hey, I didn’t ask to be brought here. My parents brought me here when I was a kid. I didn’t do anything wrong, therefore I deserve to stay.” The problem is that this narrative implies that the inverse is true, that the parents who made the conscious choice to come here illegally (with their minor children) did do something wrong. Then we’re still parsing who “deserves” to stay and who doesn’t, which isn’t the way we should approach this issue.
  • ICE is developing relationships with other governmental entities, specifically Bureau of Prisons, to resist abolition. This can be as simple as claiming that immigration detainees have to be housed in BOP facilities because there aren’t enough beds in immigration detention centers. Then ICE and BOP get to try on their relationship, and what it would be like to work together. Gaby specifically mentioned this happening in Colorado, which is something I’d like to look into.

The presenters also did a great job of shouting out other organizations that are going great work in some overlapping areas, which I’m linking here (largely for my own future reference). I was again reminded of the community organizing staple of coalition-building. Your organization rarely has to learn how to do anything new. There is inevitably someone doing that work who can at least give you some pointers.

After the presenters, we went into Americus for the 20th Anniversary celebration of Cafe Campesino, which was a lovely event. There was a great band, a tour of the coffee roastery, and a bottomless beer option! We also toured the Habitat for Humanity Global Village and Discovery Center, as Habitat for Humanity started at Koinonia Farms too. (I have a lot of feelings about Habitat, colonialism, and the efficacy of “voluntourism” but there can only be so many feelings in one blog post).

Our last presenter on Sunday morning was from Laura, an El Refugio volunteer, and an immigration lawyer in Atlanta. She was talking about her experience volunteering at the South Texas Family Residential Center (how Orwellian is THAT?!) in Dilley with CARA Pro Bono. It was interesting to hear about this program now that I know slightly less than nothing about immigration law. There are 2400 women and children being detained in Dilley, largely from Central America. CARA has a double-wide trailer on the grounds of the detention center (i.e. inside the fence). In the trailer, the volunteers spend a week preparing women for their credible fear interviews (CFI). Having, and passing, a credible fear interview is the first step in seeking asylum. If the asylum officer conducting your interview finds that you have a credible fear of persecution should you be returned to your country, then you are referred to an immigration judge for your asylum case. At Dilley, once you pass your CFI, and you prove that you have someone to live with, ICE will parole you out of detention. Laura said that there’s about a 95% pass rate for these interviews, which is really great.

Volunteers also prepare women who do not pass their CFI to appeal that decision to an immigration judge, and then represent them at that hearing. If you don’t pass your interview, and you don’t win your appeal (or don’t appeal at all), then you’re deported.

It was interesting to hear about the limited scope of the work happening in Dilley, especially in contrast to the work being done at the SIFI sites. I would love to talk to someone who has volunteered in both places to hear what their impressions are of the efficacy of the one-week volunteer model at each.

All in all, it was so great to spend a weekend with all of these passionate people who are doing all of this remarkable work in their spare time. I’m so lucky to get to do this work for money (thanks again, Killmer, Lane & Newman for this unbelievable opportunity), and I’m so lucky to have known so many remarkable organizers in my life. As one of my favorite lawyers signs his emails: keep loving, keep fighting.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Wednesday was my first ever hearing in immigration court, a bond hearing for an asylum seeker from Nicaragua, and I won! 

When I met with the client the day before to prepare him for the hearing, he expressed some anxiety about our judge, despite my enthusiasm (of our choices at Stewart, we have the best possible judge). The client’s anxiety was based on the fact that he had heard that this judge had given someone a $12,000 bond. “Don’t worry,” I said, “there’s a fund that is paying bonds. The important thing is that the judge grants bond at all.”

8:00 AM comes, and the client and I are called to counsel table by Immigration Judge George Ward, who appears via video-telconference from Falls Church, Virginia. I presented my arguments to the judge as to why my client wasn’t a danger to the community or a flight risk, the two major considerations for all custody cases. The government argued (as it almost always does) that the client did indeed present a significant flight risk because the client’s sponsor is a stranger. However, the sponsor is a woman who has agreed to take a total stranger into her home because her parents fled to the United States in 1941 to escape the Nazis.  And so, she has agreed to sponsor this man to honor that kindness done to her family and to pay it forward, so to speak.

The judge then asked me what I thought a reasonable bond amount would be. The client and I had previously discussed that his family might be able to afford $2,000, and I conveyed that to the judge.

Ultimately, the Judge said that he agreed with the government that my client was a flight risk without significant ties to the community. My heart sank. This is traditionally the death knell in Stewart.  “However,” Judge Ward then explained, “I don’t believe that precludes me from giving him a bond, but I don’t think $2,000 is going to do it.” So, he granted bond in the amount of $10,000.

I was overjoyed. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, this isn’t the normal outcome in these courts. Bond is denied totally more often than not. And what a great outcome for my first hearing! As I left the courtroom, I congratulated the client and told him that I would see him later that afternoon to discuss next steps.  

I went back to the office, and called the client’s brother to tell him the outcome, and ask about ability to pay. The brother indicated that he might be able to pay something, but he wasn’t sure how much. I told him not to worry. I would just apply to the bond fund (RAICES) for the full amount. I called his sponsor, who was thrilled at the outcome and ready to welcome the client to Boston as soon as possible.

After closing these loops, I filled out the form to apply for payment of the bond. Less than an hour later, I got a phone call from the new bond coordinator at RAICES. He called to tell me he had received my application, but unfortunately, RAICES is no longer paying bonds for anyone other than people who are victims of the family separation crisis. They are keeping a backlog list, but they don’t anticipate being able to pay bonds in any cases other than family separation cases for a few months. He was very apologetic. 

My heart sank for real. This fund has been a game-changer for people who have nothing and whose freedom has a price tag of thousands of dollars. I told the client not to worry! I told the brother not to worry! I was GLAD to have a $10,000 bond imposed. And now I have to go back and tell a man who is totally alone in the United States that he has to come up with $10,000. (It does bear mentioning that RAICES is absolutely wonderful. They have done so much for so many, including SIFI clients. This is not in any way meant to bash them, or impugn their work or their organizational priorities).

In my moments of defeat and panic like this, I am so grateful for the bright, resourceful team OTG here. Monica immediately sprang into action, contacting people associated with other, smaller bond funds and community organizations, including the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN). BIJAN told me that they have a number of great community resources that will be available to my client when he gets to Boston, but their bond fund (which is smaller than $10,000 anyway) was currently tapped out. I then reached out to a volunteer from El Refugio who met my client on a social visit and had written him a beautiful letter of support. She agreed to set up a Go Fund Me page for the client. A complicating factor in all of this is that SPLC (and therefore SIFI) is not allowed to accept donations for specific clients or projects (we’re not allowed to “earmark” funds). So, creative thinking is key.

At this point, I’m not sure what will happen. The client has another master calendar hearing in 10 days where he is expected to submit his I-589 application for asylum. If he doesn’t, he could be deported. My week since the hearing has been mostly fielding calls from all of the wonderful people who are supporting the client, including his very worried brother in Honduras.

This was supposed to be a win, but the shifting sands of the immigration landscape strike again.

This American Life: Let Me Count the Ways

Since I now have a 45-minute commute to and from work, I listen to a lot of podcasts. Yesterday, I listened to a wonderful episode of This American Life that I thought I should recommend for anyone who’s interested. It’s episode number 656, published September 14, 2018, and is called “Let Me Count the Ways.”

Here’s the summary from their website: Yes, youʼve heard about the family separations. Youʼve heard about the travel ban. But there are dozens of ways the Trump administration is cracking down on immigration across many agencies, sometimes in ways so small and technical it doesnʼt make headlines. This week, the quiet bureaucratic war that’s even targeting legal immigrants.

You can listen to the whole episode or one “act” at a time here.

Stewart County Community Summit

Last week, we attended the Stewart County Community Summit. Our attention was brought to this event when Matt got one of the fliers and noticed that lunch was going to be “graciously provided” by CoreCivic (see flier below). We at the office have been having an on-going conversation about what our role should be as members of the Lumpkin community, and thought attending this meeting would be a great place to start. I was completely floored by a lot of the things I learned from this meeting, and thought they would be worth sharing here.
It should be noted that CoreCivic did not speak at all, not was their logo was not displayed. They just got a shout out for graciously providing lunch.
Mac Moye, the Stewart County manager, was the master of ceremonies.
Vernon Keenan, Director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, spoke about how the GBI works in Stewart county. The GBI has three main functions in Stewart County:
  1. Conduct all autopsies in the county. The closest laboratory is in Columbus. They received 11 coroner calls last year, resulting in 7 autopsies. This year, they have received 8 coroner calls, resulting in 4 autopsies. We assume one of those coroner calls was the suicide at Stewart in July.
  2. Manage the Georgia Crime Information Center (GCIC). They basically consolidate and house all Georgia criminal justice data in one place and share with national agencies. He did mention that “ICE’s alien pick-up list” is among the data housed in the GCIC.
  3. Investigate violent, property, and drug-related cases called up from local police/sheriff offices. They have regional offices in Macon, Americus, and Columbus.
Dr. Linda Buchanan, President of Andrew College in Cuthbert, spoke about the apologetic sense of nostalgia that is rampant in rural counties like Stewart. She mentioned the common refrain, “You should have been here when…” She implored the audience to stop apologizing and focus on what we do have and what we can all get behind:“pick one data point that everyone can get around.” Her suggested rallying point of data was 3rd grade reading levels in Stewart county. 10% of Stewart County 3rd graders are at the proficient or advanced level of reading. All other students are at the developing (which is technically passing) or beginning reading level. In contrast, 37.9% of Denver County 3rd graders read at or above grade level (40% statewide in Colorado).
We also talked about a new grant which will provide free dinner to students (in addition to free breakfast and lunch) after school starting on October 1. No child will be turned away, as everyone in the school district is eligible to participate if a certain number of students fall within qualification parameters. They anticipate feeding about 240 students.
Bari Geeslin, a retired principal and now a consultant, spoke about a new $330k federal grant for Stewart County that is specifically for literacy. Named the “Get Lit” initiative, this grant will promote 20 minutes of reading every night, pay for books, pay for family engagement kits for parents who can’t read or don’t know what questions to ask their children, and purchase e-readers and other technology. She has other cool ideas, such as a WiFi bus that travels around to help kids access WiFi and other materials that are not available after school hours. She invited everyone to a standing monthly meeting to discuss ideas for the Get Lit initiative.
The Richland library was there in full force trying to promote their services. They are not doing well financially. They talked about how they have to organize their books differently due to the low literacy rates of adults in the area, how they are on the verge of shutting down their GED program because they can’t get anyone to sign up, and they want to offer more classes (like a technology training) but attendance is extremely low. They think it may be a combination of lack of transportation and lack of awareness about the programs. They recently expanded their WiFi across the street and to the edge of the parking lot so that people can use the WiFi from their cars after the library is closed for the day. They recognized that free WiFi access is a big community need (it’s extremely difficult and expensive to get high speed internet in rural areas).
Student exposure to the world outside of Stewart County was also raised as an issue. Someone mentioned that field trips are not just your typical visits to the zoo or a museum, but rather a visit to see an escalator for the first time and learn how to behave on an elevator (Stewart County has neither). This got us thinking back at the office about ways to plug SIFI volunteers in the community, such as after school reading, meet and greets, etc. because it might give the kids of Stewart County an opportunity to be exposed to different kinds of people with all kinds of different backgrounds. For example, we just had a volunteer for two weeks who was born in Pakistan, was raised in Canada, and was  a practicing Muslim. We’re all fairly confident that Stewart County school kids probably haven’t ever had the chance to meet someone like that.
This is undoubtedly a back-burner goal, since we have plenty of other work to do here, but I continue to be totally fascinated (and blown away!) by all of the things I had never even thought to take for granted, like knowing how to ride an escalator, or which way to stand in the elevator.