Students Experience ‘Profoundly Human Stories’ of Immigration and Detention in Louisiana
In January, students and staff of the James H. Binger Center for New Americans traveled to Alexandria, Louisiana, for what has become an annual service trip to work with immigration detainees in rural communities. Previously, the Binger Center worked with detainees in Arizona and Texas. This trip included students from the Binger Center’s Detainee Rights Clinic and the Asylum Law Project.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently holds approximately 48,000 people per day in civil detention under conditions that are virtually identical to prison. Many of ICE’s largest detention facilities are private prisons operated in remote areas of the country where there is little to no access to counsel.
Until recently, there were no immigration attorneys in the area to provide services to detainees. In response to the numerous deprivations detainees are facing, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) started the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) in Alexandria, Louisiana. Using SIFI’s office as a base, the team from Minnesota Law worked at two immigration detention centers, the Pine Prairie Detention Facility and the LaSalle Detention Facility. Each of these facilities hold approximately 1,000 male and female immigrant detainees, and both are operated by a private company, the GEO Group.
The team consisted of Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor Kathy Moccio, Binger Center Outreach and Education Coordinator Kjerstin Yager, 2L Eduardo Castro, 1L Adam Green, 3L Allison Mrakovich, and 1L Nicholas Wolfson. They worked with 23 detainees, screening them for bond eligibility and working on bond motions so that the individual detainees could be released from ICE custody. Once released from custody, individuals can continue to work on their case to remain in the United States.
Meeting the Clients
The law students gained exposure to a variety of legal proceedings for immigration and detainee cases. Students screened cases in the detention facilities, contacted family members of individual detainees, collected evidence, and wrote motions. The team also tried to observe public immigration hearings, but were denied access.
“We saw large buses routinely roll in and out of the facilities,” says Professor Kathy Moccio. “Many of the detainees we saw were long-term residents of the United States who had significant family ties. There were a few recent arrivals who were seeking political asylum.”
Moccio found one case particularly haunting. A young man whose siblings had already been granted asylum and who had already been found by an asylum officer to have a credible fear of persecution was referred to the Immigration Court for a hearing. At a group hearing, the only hearing he received, the young man asked for additional time to secure representation, but the Immigration Judge denied the request. The young man felt pressured to agree to leave the United States.
“We met with the young man shortly after the Judge ordered him to leave,” Moccio recalls. “Tears streamed down his face as he recounted what happened at the hearing.”
‘Behind the Headlines’
Traveling to Louisiana presented a unique learning opportunity for the students. Not only were they able to see immigration and detention systems first-hand, they were also able to connect with clients and help them with their cases to remain in the United States.
2L Castro observes: “The most important learning experience was the chance to sit one-on-one with clients, who were predominately from Central America, for eligibility screenings. We heard the harrowing, unimaginable violence many were attempting to escape. We listened to the possibilities of a better life that could be afforded by the grant of asylum. We saw that, behind the headlines, buried beneath a sprawling bureaucracy, at the core of this system, were profoundly human stories. These stories had real, tangible consequences, but their outcomes could be swayed by the assistance of an attorney.”
The Binger Center hopes to return to Louisiana. “We hope to continue to support SIFI in its representation of detained immigrants and to use our experience to shed light on two places of darkness,” Moccio says.
—By Monica Wittstock