A look at where detainees live at the Karnes City Family Residential Center via  MSNBC

A look at where detainees live at the Karnes City Family Residential Center via MSNBC

An asylee spinning the roulette wheel

I have written before about how a detainee's fate in the system often feels like spinning a roulette wheel. What I mean by that, is briefly the following (and I'll take a family detention case as an example):

  • A Central American woman and her young toddler are detained on the US/Mexico border—and the woman is seeking asylum from gang violence in her home country. 
  • There are three main family detention centers in the United States: 1) Dilley, TX, 2) Karnes City, TX, and 3) Berks in Leesport, PA. If a detainee goes to Dilley, TX—the immigration judges are based out of Miami, Florida (odd, I know). If a detainee goes to Karnes City, TX—the immigration judges are based out of San Antonio, TX. It appears that there are overall more judges that affirm many more cases than vacate them in San Antonio
  • So, the roulette wheel for an asylum case can look something like this: Asylee arrives in the United States --> What detention center will this person go to? --> What asylum officer will review the case? --> If the case goes to immigration review, based on what detention center this person goes to, what immigration court will dictate this person's fate? --> Then, what specific immigration judge will hear the case?

As you can see, it's a number of times spinning that roulette wheel and seeing just where it lands. One unlucky spin—and it could mean unfortunate news for the client. All it takes is a not-so-great asylum officer, a not-so-great jurisdiction, a not-so-great vacating rate for an immigration judge. And that could be the difference between being able to stay in the United States or being deported back to the very dangerous conditions that these women and children are fleeing from.

Three bad spins in a row

I was in the San Antonio immigration court a bunch last week. I have been grateful for the courtroom experience—I'm getting to know the security guards who scan in all my stuff as I walk out of the elevator; I am feeling more comfortable with sitting down in front of an immigration judge and engaging in oral argument; I am learning more and more about the immigration justice system.

I found out last week that I was going to represent three different women in front of one of the most conservative immigration court judges in San Antonio. And by conservative, I mean that the rate of vacating an initial negative credible fear finding in an asylum case, was very, very low. 

But, I organized all my oral argument notes, went into the courtroom that morning, and was ready to go. 

And all three cases were being heard back to back.

The first case was up, and the immigration judge conducts a line of questioning on my client who is being Skyped in from the Karnes City detention center. At the very end, he then allows me to make my oral argument. I do so. He didn't make eye contact with me while I was speaking. Then, he affirmed the case. 

The second case was next, and the same format occurs as the above. The immigration judge also affirms this case.

The third and final case for that morning came up, and I am mustering up my energy, feeling defeated after the first two cases. The exact same thing happens in the third case and it is affirmed.

Ooh, it was tough. It was tough to sit there in the courtroom and be handed a platter of crap in terms of affirming all three cases—one right after the other, to boot. But enough about how it felt for me—it was more knowing that the roulette wheel for each of these women had stopped on a halting, screeching result.

What's next for these women?

Now, all three women are in the discretionary request for reconsideration phase, where we are drafting letters to ask the asylum office to reconsider this final decision. I've seen clients submit 4+ requests for reconsideration—and the entire time, these women and kids are in the detention center awaiting their fate. It could take days or weeks for the asylum office to respond to the request letter. And it's entirely discretionary.

And each time a letter is submitted, it's like the roulette wheel gets filled with more slots that are undesirable—therefore reducing the chances more and more.

Admittedly, these are the moments where our legal system feels like it is in serious disarray (to say the least). What does it say if we have an immigration system that feels like it is based more on an arbitrary spin of the roulette wheel than really ensuring each applicant has access to justice?

The fight goes on

This is where reform lies. In the meantime, it can often feel like the worst of triage situations—plugging one hole in the sinking boat at a time. But it's another day, and it is time to carry forward and on.


This week, I was able to reconnect with a number of friends who live in the San Antonio area or who came down from Austin (thanks for coming down!). It is SO freaking important to be anchored to community, and this week was yet another reminder of that. 

Thank you for your support and friendship, as always. And it's another week, and another chance to give that roulette wheel one hell of a spin. Until next time.