By Isabella Fernandez, Rodrigo Juarez, and Juliann Peebles, NLG Portland Chapter
Following the summer of 2014, the Obama Administration contracted two for-profit prison corporations, CCA and GEO Group, Inc. to open and operate detention centers that detain family units of women and children, mostly asylum seekers from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These countries have the highest homicide and femicide rates in the world due, in large part, to gangs that operate with near impunity. From the start, the Administration’s stated purpose of these detention centers was to deter future migration from Central America, regardless of their actual individual merits for relief.
The NLG Portland Chapter provided Guild members, the majority Lewis & Clark law students, with funding to go to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas to assist the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project in providing free legal services to detained families. So far, Guild members have gone on a total of four trips with the possibility of a fifth trip in the near future.
While in Dilley, volunteers advocated for asylum seekers entering the asylum process. The first step in the process is a “credible fear interview.” Volunteers prepare families for their interviews and accompany them if capacity permits. The interview establishes whether an asylum seeker has a requisite fear of persecution based on one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. If the woman receives a positive determination, then she may be released on bond or parole. One Guild member represented several women in negative credible fear review proceedings, advocating for negative findings to be overturned by an immigration judge. However, the Department of Homeland Security has a policy of prohibiting attorneys from speaking during the proceedings—one of the many hurdles asylum seekers face while in detention.
Volunteers also prepared families for their bond hearings and participated in them under the supervision of an attorney. The attorney’s objective is to persuade a judge to lower a bond set by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The lowest bond amount statutorily permitted by an immigration judge is $1,500. It often takes families some time to gather money, which can result in prolonged periods of detention. Following a recent order from the Central District of California requiring families to be released without unnecessary delay, an increasing number of families have been released with ankle monitors in lieu of a bond. Volunteers explained the legal and practical consequences for both release on bond and release with ankle monitors. ICE Officers often coerce women into accepting release with an ankle monitor without explanation of her rights and alternatives.
Through a continuous flow of volunteers, the CARA Pro Bono Project provides families with the emotional and legal support they need in order to survive a foreign and complex process that often results in re-traumatization. The goal is to get families released as soon as possible. Volunteers also fight to protect families from due process violations, medical neglect, and intimidation occurring within the prison facility.