going to court using skype
Since I have been working at family detention centers here in rural Texas, I have been getting a lot of experience representing clients in immigration court.
When I was working at the Dilley detention center, the immigration court was a couple of trailers down from the visitation trailer. If I had a court appearance, I would walk over to the nearby trailer and be reunited with my client who was also brought in. Interestingly, the immigration judges who presided over Dilley were actually located in Miami, Florida.
So, for the bond hearings I did in Dilley, I sat next to my client (sometimes with children) and represented her as the immigration judge was thousands of miles away via teleconference in Miami. One time, the video feed was stuck and I made a legal argument as the judge continued to speak, only his face was well, frozen.
This is week 3 for me in working at the Karnes Residential Facility in Karnes City, Texas. Its about an hour southeast of San Antonio, in a very remote place—exactly the type of place where most people don't go. Every time I pull up in my car, I'm reminded that this is exactly where these facilities are intentionally located—in places where the vast majority of people aren't going to go looking. This is how there is an entire detention-based subculture right under our noses.
What it's like so far working at the karnes residential facility
Again, the name "Karnes Residential Facility" makes it seem like it almost has this welcoming atmosphere when it's anything but. I'm here most afternoons during the week, and here's my routine at the detention center:
- I give my driver's license and bar card to the GEO Group, Inc. guard who is at the front.
- I go through security—both by putting all my stuff through the metal detector and then getting buzzed again to the visitation room in the back. In the visitation room, there are absolutely no windows. Just those awful florescent lights and there's a little play corner with a handful of toys where the babies in jail go play while I meet with their mothers and discuss their cases.
- I meet with women and help them prep for their asylum interviews to verify that they have a credible fear of persecution. I also meet with women who may be in the appeal stage of their negative credible fear finding. I listen to multiple stories a day based on domestic and gang based violence.
The thing about the immigration court jurisdiction in Karnes City, though, is that the judges preside in San Antonio—right up the road. So, the immigration judge review hearings I have been to—I have actually been able to go face-to-face with the judge in San Antonio.
But here's the thing: because the client is detained—they have to stay here in Karnes City. So, they are the ones being Skyped into the San Antonio courtroom.
The woman who grabbed my hands and said "thank you"
Over the last couple of weeks, I've had a number of hearings in front of a San Antonio immigration judge. The immigration judge presides at the bench, with a Spanish interpreter sitting on his left side. The Department of Justice seal looms above on the wall, and I take a deep breath. I walk up and sit at the table across from the judge—but I am sitting alone.
The videoconference system is turned on and my client is joining us from Karnes City, Texas. It looks like she is sitting in one of those rooms with the cinder blocks—the same type of room where I do my visitations—the same rooms with no windows.
We proceed to have a review of her case—the asylum officer gave a negative on her credible fear interview—the first roadblock to be able to apply for asylum.
The judge and I talk about the nuanced facts of the case—domestic violence in one country where the children have citizenship, but the mother does not. What happens if they are deported and this family is catastrophically separated? I try my best to focus on how it is imperative that this sweet family of three is able to stay together.
I periodically glance over at my client, who is on the screen. She understandably looks a little nervous, especially as the legalese takes root throughout the entire conversation.
The judge and I engage in more legal argument and he decides to vacate her case. (YAAYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!! is what instantly went off in my head, but I am sitting there in immigration court and need to keep composure...)
The judge conveys this to my client and how her negative fear finding has been overturned and that her case was being vacated. This was translated into Spanish for the client and I could tell that the legalese confused the actual message (that the negative decision was overturned! And that she would be able to leave that hellhole in Karnes City!).
The judge then turned it over to me to confer with my client—with the judge and interpreter listening. I knew I had to keep my excitement for her outcome understated. A little smile appeared on my face as I told her to talk to one of my colleagues who I knew was present in the detention center to be better able to express fully the news.
The next day, I show up at the Karnes detention center. I am waiting in the visitation area, and I see my client on the other side of the door in the detainee waiting area—where detainees sit as they are called in to be seen by a lawyer. A giant smile explodes onto her face and she begins to wave frantically. I feel emotionally overwhelmed—in the best possible way.
Another GEO Group guard lets my client into the waiting room and she gives me a big hug. She grabs my hands and tells me: "Thank you for your help. Now, we will be able to finally leave here." We then simultaneously had what could only be described as a YEEAHHHHHH!!!;sdkfs;dkfjs;kdlfj type of moment. It was a moment of celebration—a moment that needs to happen more frequently in these darkest of places.
Her two children, her 5 year old son, and her 4 year old daughter also come in and we exchange high fives and fist bumps. My friend/colleague and I debrief this small family on how important it is to secure another lawyer to take over their asylum case once they get resettled in the States and then wave our final goodbyes.
I drive home that night resting a bit easier knowing that this sweet family of three will be on their way to Tennessee in a matter of days.
And then my thoughts, as per usual, think about the masses of innocent people who are stuck at the Karnes detention center, or any other detention center for that matter.
Will they be as lucky? Will someone be able to represent them? Will the immeasurable number of roulette spins stop in favor of the client? Each morning, I wake up and find out.