My parents came to the United States from Colombia and are therefore native Spanish speakers. My mother was a contract interpreter in the United States immigration courts for nearly twenty years. Sometimes, the immigration judges would permit her to bring my siblings and me to observe hearings. What I witnessed there not only inspired me to attend law school and dedicate myself to the legal profession, but also highlighted immigrants’ need for quality representation through the thorny complexities of the law. This was true twenty years ago; it even more true today.
As I grew up, I became proficient in speaking Spanish, French, and Russian. And after I obtained my law license, circumstances impelled me to open my own immigration practice. About a month in, I attended an annual seminar that the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN) hosts for Colorado practitioners to learn the basics of immigration law. At that time, I assured RMIAN’s leadership that I would aim to always be representing one of their detained client referrals. The Immigration Justice Campaign provides mentorship for lawyers who accept these referrals.
Thus far, I have represented three asylum seekers pro bono, and all with the mentorship of the Immigration Justice Campaign. With each case I have taken, the urgent need for attorneys to help the thousands of unfortunates held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE’s) custody has become increasingly clear.
My first referral was a Cuban professor who had been arrested, interrogated, and threatened with death because he refused to deliver a speech in support of the Communist regime. He had come to the border and asked for asylum, but he was never given a credible fear interview—the preliminary interview that is supposed to screen for claims that have no possibility whatsoever of succeeding. Instead, he was immediately placed in removal proceedings. This meant that, even though he had complied with all the instructions from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers and had not circumvented any immigration procedures, he didn’t have a right to bond or even to release on parole that most asylum seekers can receive under ICE policy. I did request humanitarian parole, but the standard there is much higher, and even though my client had done everything he was supposed to, ICE refused to release him.
I helped him through the asylum process, and because he had the courage to write a very detailed declaration about everything that had happened to him in Cuba, the final hearing lasted only about half an hour, and he was granted asylum. He is now living safely in Florida, but he had to endure several months in ICE detention before he finally got the protection he so desperately needed.
He was remarkable for the simple eloquence of his account and his stoic acceptance of his detention despite the fact that he had never committed any crime.
The second case I accepted concerned a homosexual man from Togo who had endured prolonged discrimination on account of his sexual orientation. Togolese law criminalizes homosexuality. He finally left Togo after he and his partner were taken to their village square, tied to a post, and beaten for several hours. His partner died from the beating, and he was imprisoned in a dog kennel in his family’s back yard. He only escaped because a maid felt sorry for him and let him out.
He had family in the United States, but no one was willing to sponsor him. ICE refused to release him, so he also had to spend several months in confinement.
RMIAN did not find him an attorney until late in his case. By the time I met him, he had already filed his asylum application and even an English-language declaration briefly setting out his experiences in Togo. His asylum application was filled out almost entirely correctly. This is an incredible accomplishment for native English-speakers, but it was truly astounding in this case because he didn’t speak English, only Ewe and French. But he had managed to convince others in the detention center to help him prepare as much documentation as he could.
Asylum seekers also have to submit certain materials in order for DHS to run background checks on them before the final hearing. My client had already completed this process all by himself.
My work in this second case consisted of finding the country conditions evidence to corroborate his claim and guiding him through recounting his horrific experiences in court. It was humbling to watch this man, who had seen his first love and confidant beaten to death and been abused and insulted by his own family relive all he had gone through. Not once did he break down or ask for time to compose himself. He simply told his story and provided whatever details I, the ICE attorney, or the immigration judge needed.
In a truly just asylum system, he could probably have won his case on his own. But his claim was so straightforward, and he related his experiences with such clarity and composure, that even with the changes the Trump Administration had already made to the courts, law, and procedure, the ICE attorney and judge agreed that a grant of asylum was appropriate.
He was able to obtain the assistance of a local refugee organization and is now living in an apartment as he waits for the chance to seek permanent residency here.
The resilience and initiative he displayed will benefit this nation tremendously as he applies it to making a life for himself here. And he is far from the only one of whom this is true. Most asylum seekers do not leave their homes and everyone they know on a whim. They do not travel to a distant shore where the people speak a language unknown to them for the fun of it. They do it because they have no choice unless they simply want to give up and accept whatever fate their persecutors have in mind for them. They have faith that a nation built on the idea that all people should be able to make what they will of themselves will welcome them. Their bravery demands our respect; their faith deserves vindication. Instead, all manner of insults and accusations are hurled at them. They are jailed, demonized, and blocked off from American society’s view as if they bore some sort of contagion. They are forced to try proving their eligibility for a very complicated legal standard on a very short time frame and under well-documented conditions of appalling medical neglect in detention. And for the most part, they do not even have access to counsel to help them with this herculean labor.
These people have already suffered enormously in their home country. They should not have to endure even more in their supposed haven. And yet they do.
The most recent case RMIAN referred to me brings the serious flaws in our system into terrible focus. A man from Cameroon was repeatedly harassed by the police and army in his country and thrice arrested and brutally tortured. Indeed, an order for his execution was issued. He escaped death only through the pity of one of his jailers. And all this he suffered because he participated in peaceful demonstrations against the Cameroonian government. He spent over a year traveling to the United States. In almost every country he passed through, he was extorted and, at the very least, threatened with violence. He was kidnapped multiple times.
When he finally arrived at the southern border, CBP agents turned him away on the pretext that they had met their daily quota for asylum seekers. He was forced to remain in Mexico for three months, coming to the border every day to see if his number had finally come up. During that time, he was attacked with a knife and most of his documents were stolen.
Finally, in September 2019, he was allowed to enter and ask for asylum. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration had issued its thoroughly illegal and inhumane third country asylum bar. And because he had not applied for asylum in the countries where he had already been assaulted or robbed, he was deemed ineligible for that benefit. But the harm he experienced was so severe that the asylum officer who interviewed him found he had a reasonable fear of persecution in Cameroon.
I entered his case relatively early, but he had already made a stab at filling out his I-589. Like my previous client, he did not speak English. Fortunately, I was able to help him fill it out and submit it to the court.
By the time we met, he had been in detention for four months. Lent was approaching, and as a devout Catholic, he asked me to see about obtaining a rosary so he could pray for strength during the months ahead. The RMIAN coordinator helped me guide him through the process for obtaining one.
And though I speak French, I wanted to make sure that he fully understood the contents of both his application and the declaration I prepared for him. So I contacted RMIAN, and they were able to find a volunteer interpreter.
I also managed to find a volunteer doctor who conducted a forensic medical evaluation of the scars on his body from the previous torture and a volunteer clinical social worker who evaluated its psychological impact. We worked together as a team to assemble a packet of supporting evidence in advance of his final hearing, which occurred only two and a half short months after I filed his asylum application.
Despite the self-evidently clear-cut nature of his claim, the ICE attorney put up a ferocious fight and attacked his credibility and morals. And though he never asked for a break, he did begin to lose his composure during the hearing as he described why his brother was angry with him. Near the end of his last interrogation by the Cameroonian authorities, my client was asked for the names of his family members. In an effort to convince them of his truthfulness, he gave the information, never dreaming that his brother could suffer as a result. But two years later, the authorities arrested and tortured his brother to the point where they broke his foot, rendering him incapable of caring for his newborn child. And he blamed my client for this situation. As the ICE attorney insisted on knowing why he had given up his brother’s name during the interrogation, my client broke down for a moment.
During closing arguments, the ICE attorney further insisted that asylum should not be a “gold ticket” to the United States. The immigration judge denied him all relief, and we were forced to appeal.
He was held in detention as the novel Coronavirus pandemic raged throughout the nation, and detention facilities in particular. ICE refused to grant him parole for months, even though he had found a sponsor.
Finally, after a long battle and a near-deportation back to Cameroon, my client won release from detention. Reflecting on his release he stated, “I will always remember that day, it felt like Christmas day. I was overwhelmed with joy, it felt like the darkness had finally been lifted. I had dreamed of my freedom for so long and now I was finally given a fresh start.”
That this straightforward case could drag on so long, all while my client, who has no criminal history of any kind, remained detained for nearly eighteen months, shows how unfairly those coming here to seek refuge are being treated on a daily basis. Our local detention facility is far from the worst in the nation. Thousands of other desperate refugees, who fled in fear for their lives and the lives of those they hold most dear, languish in indescribably inhumane conditions. Many of them have no hope until they meet a practitioner dedicated to helping them. So often, we lawyers are their sole contact with the outside world, their only voice before the massive federal bureaucracy. And those who do not yet have a lawyer are deprived of that hope, that contact, that voice.
The Immigration Justice Campaign provides a national network of mentors to help anyone with basic legal knowledge and a law license guide these most vulnerable victims of our legal system through the process of saving their lives. I encourage anyone who has the time and compassion to take a volunteer case, wherever you might be. Not only will you stand with people of stout moral courage. You will also gain perspective on those with different world views who are just trying to lead the most free and honest lives they can in what for them has been a cruel world.