This dad was released
Last week, I talked about one of my clients being a Guatemalan dad who spoke a rare Mayan-based dialect (Akatek, with only an estimated number of 48,500 speakers). Representing him this past week was another lesson and experience about our country's current immigration system.
Finding him an interpreter was something my colleague had poured a significant amount of effort into doing. Through an amazing network of connections, she was able to find someone who also spoke Akatek.
Prepping for his Credible Fear Interview (the first step in obtaining asylum here in the US), I heard a story of corruption and despair. My client was living in a part of Guatemala that was known within Guatemala itself as being very poor. He had never attended school, and didn't know how to read or write. He lived on a plot of land with his wife and 4 children -- land that had been in his family since ancient times.
My client began working for a man who refused to pay him, and when my client demanded his fairly earned wages, this man threatened him with a gun. Suspiciously, another man came by and told my client that his best opportunity was to flee -- and he would give him enough money/a loan to leave the country for his own safety. And if my client failed to pay back this loan -- the land deed would serve as collateral.
Apparently, there have been a number of these cases that the other lawyers here on the ground have seen: indigenous people in Guatemala being forced this way off their land and the collateral being their land deed. And if these folks return back home (after possibly getting deported by the United States if they somehow don't qualify for asylum, for example), they come back to their land being seized.
I showed up bright and early at the detention center to be with my client during his initial Credible Fear Interview. I was very glad to be able to be there and offer my support.
I was very concerned about not only the aforementioned situation itself, but also due process issues. About a third into the interview, when the questions were more detailed and involved, I noticed that my client's responses were not directly answering the questions.
I had asked the asylum officer to please reword some of the questions she was asking to ensure that it was understood. And then the interpreter said: "I'm sorry if I am interrupting here. I know I am not really supposed to. But I have to say that although I understand the applicant, our dialects are slightly off. And I'm concerned he may not be understanding the question. He also comes from an area in Guatemala that is very poor and uneducated."
I was so relieved the interpreter had shared this. And in my closing remarks, I underscored my due process concerns and that the applicant may not have been given a totally fair opportunity to have his claim be heard.
I received the news yesterday that this man was released from the detention center (he obtained a "positive" credible fear finding) and was reunited with a family member in Alabama. There, he will process the rest of his asylum claim.
All politics are local
Some of you may have seen my recent post on Facebook below about how the local county commissioners are enabling these Central American families to be detained in Berks County, PA. And since posting, I have found out that the county commissioners are actually listed as the owners of this detention center. Whaaaat? This is why all things local -- and how we keep these officials accountable (!) -- are so important. As I shared previously:
Recently, a county commissioner here in Berks County, PA accused pro bono lawyers of making a profit off of immigrant detainees (wtf). He said these lawyers are not "pro-boning." (Yes, "pro-boning" was indeed said & recorded. You must watch this commissioner self-implode starting at the 51 minute mark, with pro-boning at 55: http://bit.ly/2e1LXbj. His mansplaining to my female attorney colleagues was also insufferable.)
The pro bono lawyers here don't make a damn cent representing these detained families. In fact, the county commissioner is self-projecting his own culpability in the county-run affair. After the Berks detention center lost its license earlier this year, it has been operating without a license ever since (wtf x 2). And taxpayers have been paying ~$100K+ in legal fees during the appeal. It also costs taxpayers $343/day per detainee here at Berks. (http://bit.ly/2bBOTKq) There have been a number of abuses by guards, including a guard who was convicted of sexual assault of a mother -- with an 8 year old child witness. (http://bit.ly/2eVilvn)
Earlier this week, a woman and her young daughter were finally released after being in detention for 7 months. They were found to be potentially trafficked, but incredulously this fact was lost in the proceedings up until recently. Upon hearing the news, I saw this woman collapse onto the floor and cry non-stop for 5 minutes.
Another woman and young daughter who were detained in Karnes City, Texas -- when I was there earlier this spring -- walked in and my colleague asked me if I knew them. I did not. As I work on cases here, I see the names of dear colleagues who have worked on these same cases back in South Texas -- from months ago. So much time has passed since then. And these women and children are still detained -- transferred here to PA.
These county commissioners are actively allowing and enabling this inhumane detention to continue. This facility is county-run and is supposed to be profit-free but they are suspiciously so defensive about allowing this prison to continue to exist.
This Election Day, we must remember that our local officials are far closer and enable our national injustices more than we may think. This presidential race is huge but we must not lose sight that there is so much at stake right in our own backyards.
And with that being said -- my next post will be on Election Day itself (!!!). I'll be writing from Norristown, PA -- a suburb in Montgomery County, outside of Philly. I will be organizing on the ground to get out the vote this election. I have been told by a local organizer here that these suburbs are critical to PA this cycle. A strong turnout here would ensure a Trump defeat.
Time to put on my organizing hat on for this upcoming week! 'Til next time.