Advocacy Groups Challenge Latest ICE Immigrant Deportations

Posted Jan. 13, 2016

MP3 Interview with Swapna Reddy, Yale Law School student at Workers and Immigrants Rights Advocacy Clinic, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


At the beginning of January, 150 immigrants who arrived in the U.S. over the past two years fleeing violence in several Central American countries were arrested after being declared eligible for deportation. These were mostly mothers and children who turned themselves in at the U.S. border, were sent to immigration jails for processing and were released to the community while awaiting hearings in immigration court to determine if their stories were credible and they would thus be eligible to remain in the U.S. In almost all cases, those picked up did not have legal representation.

Rallies to protest the raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, a division of Homeland Security, have been held around the country. On Jan. 5 and again on Jan. 11, a notice signed by a total of 240 groups was sent to both the U.S. attorney general and the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, stating that many of the immigrants are disabled as defined by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 because they suffer from severe trauma. The notice requests that the government suspend ongoing raids pending a review to determine whether the asylum and immigration proceedings that led to these families' removal orders complied with federal disability law.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Swapna Reddy, a third-year student at Yale Law School and an intern with the Workers and Immigrants Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale. Here, she describes the situation many of these recently arrived immigrants find themselves in, what assistance is being offered, and the government's response her group's request for suspensions of raids and deportation.

SWAPNA REDDY: Our clinic drafted the letter from the beginning; however, the idea really originated with the work we've been doing with these families with a large network of legal advocates across the country to assist refugee families who were detained in detention centers in Texas and Pennsylavia. And from working with these families, we became aware that many of these families had suffered enormous trauma and that many of these families needed psychological evaluations and psychological treatment in order to be able to tell their stories to the government and to succeed in their immigration cases. And we realized that the government needed to be doing more to make sure families had these resources and were not failing in their immigration cases for reasons outside of their control. For that reason, we drafted this letter to put the government on notice for a series of issues that the government should already have been aware of, which is that families who suffered extreme trauma are in need of reasonable modifications as required by civil rights law.

What the letter is saying is that these families who have suffered severe trauma and developed disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders and depression, are disabled as defined under the Rehabilitation Act, and the government is required to make reasonable modifications for individuals who are disabled, due to this law. So what we're asking the government to do is to make sure that it identifies families that are disabled under the Rehabilitation Act, that it provides immigration proceedings that are trauma-informed, to ensure that these families have an ability to tell their stories, and that it provides counsel for refugee families who are unable to tell their stories because of the severe trauma that they've been exposed to. We are also asking the DHS and DOJ to take these disabilities into account before deciding which families to target in raids - raids which offer occur very early in the morning with armed guards coming into families' homes and taking children directly from their beds; they're obviously another source of significant trauma and can exacerbate symptoms, so we're asking the government to think carefully about the disabilities these families suffer from and to try to modify its procedures to make sure it's giving these families a fair chance at their cases.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, what if the government doesn't respond or responds and says it disagrees with you and will proceed to arrest and deport these families? Is a lawsuit the next step?

SWAPNA REDDY: We hope this letter is the beginning of an ongoing process to receive modifications for these families to ensure that they are not deported back to dangerous situations for reasons outside of their control. We have not set in stone any ongoing plans because we are waiting to see how the government will respond to our request. In the past, we have brought suit against the government for situations in which we believe the government was acting in violation of the law; however, we have not made any substantive plans thus far.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, Swapna Reddy, it seems like you had no trouble getting lots of groups – hundreds of groups – to sign on to your letter. It seems like it really touched a nerve.

SWAPNA REDDY: This really is a an issue that touches on a lot of problematic areas. We are talking about thousands of Central American families. The average profile is a very young single mother with young children. Many thousands of these families have been held in immigration detention centers, so, as refugees who came to the U.S. and presented themselves to border officials, they were then held in jail where they had limited access to medical care. Many of these women and even children are victims of severe sexual violence and gang and gender-based violence, so there really are a pretty large number of groups and issue areas that are really concerned about the treatment of these families, whether it is women's rights groups, disability rights groups, faith-based and labor groups – there's an enormous amount of intersectionality on the problems that are affecting these families.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, is the government agnostic on whether or not these people have suffered what they say they've suffered, but the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say these immigrants just didn't follow the rules and therefore are eligible for deportation?

SWAPNA REDDY: Yes. Well, the government, either because they believe the families did not state a valid refugee claim or because the family simply didn't show up to court, or had an incompetent lawyer who didn't make their case fully, they are now saying that the families are eligible to be removed from the U.S. And we are arguing that without reasonable modifications and without allowing families to present their cases in a way that are trauma-informed, the families have not actually had a fair shot.

And just to provide two anecdotes about the strength of these families' cases if they do have competent counsel, there was a detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, that was opened up to incarcerate many of these families, and in that context, immigration advocates took on 15 cases, they followed them through to conclusion and they were able to win 14 of them and the 15th is on appeal. And in Texas, in the nation's largest family detention center which has 2,400 beds, another student, Conchita Cruz, a professor from Columbia Law School, Laura Mukajee, and I created a national system to ensure universal representation to every family that was forced to proceed through their entire immigration case while detained, and in that context we did not get to choose which cases to take on; we just took every case that the government forced to go to trial in jail, and we have been able to win every single one of those cases. So we believe that these families, with competent counsel, the vast majority of them have winning claims and would be able to win their refugee status in the U.S. The issue is that the procedures are not trauma-informed and that these families often have incompetent or no counsel.

For more information, visit Workers and Immigrants Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School's website.

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