September 26, 2014
My experience with the women and children at Karnes County “Residential” Center
On Friday, September 19, 2014, one of my small firm’s associate attorneys, the office manager, and I visited the Karnes County “Residential” Center in Karnes City, Texas for the first time. The Center was converted for the purpose of holding women and children on August 1, 2014. We were there for six hours and visited around 15-16 women. I am writing this note to express the great need for attorney volunteers and to inform attorneys of what they can expect upon arriving at Karnes.
I would like to echo the sentiments expressed by other attorneys who have been volunteering in Artesia, New Mexico. I am dismayed at the lack of access to information for the clients from the courts about their own cases and the large amount of deserving people in desperate need of representation being forced through the rigor of the US immigration system on their own, with their young children in tow, at a rapid and surprisingly expedited pace. Many of these immigrants speak predominantly Mamean or Quichean and yet have been conducting their credible fear interviews in Spanish. If the error is caught and challenged, this often turns into another round of credible fear interviews with the requisite wait time. Others prepare themselves as much as possible only to find out that their bond is too high to be paid, way above the national average of $5,200.
Before visiting Karnes I had already tried to convince myself that my firm wasn’t going to take any cases, we had already taken a UAC pro bono case in Houston, but only help as much as possible for the short period of time that we would be there. My law office is 3.5 hours away from the Center and I have a growing firm and two small children under 4 years old at home. However, once I realized how much these women needed adequate representation, I changed my mind and ended up taking a case of a woman and her two children fleeing from El Salvador where she was a victim of severe domestic violence and gang violence. I volunteered for the case even before I arrived at the Center. Things move quickly in Karnes. I learned of the client’s situation on Thursday from a fellow volunteer attorney. On Friday, I met the client, took her information and submitted motions with the court and by Monday, had a telephonic bond hearing via San Antonio. In taking the case I believed that it would be granted some leeway as I was a pro bono attorney who had just taken the case. However, I realized in conducting the hearing that the immigration judge had high expectations and required a thorough I-589 and statement with supporting documentation before granting a favorable decision. I now have one more week to prepare an I-589 and translate the client’s statement in hopes that it will meet the requirements meanwhile also learned about the 52-page motion from the trial attorney on how the family is a national security risk. Oh, and I am still 3.5 hours away from my pro bono client. It appears that in some cases the judges conduct mini-merits hearings for bond hearings, requiring pro bono attorneys to prepare in several days what they would usually have months to prepare for an asylum hearing.
The team of volunteer pro bono attorneys, the Karnes City Immigrant Family Pro Bono Project, supporting Karnes is amazing. They were all communicating and trying to help triage the cases as quickly as possible. I got a list of names from various members of the project the day before our visit with some instructions on what to do and handout materials to use as a guide. While there, I talked with other volunteers who helped answer questions.
Before going to Karnes it is important to get any paralegals or translators cleared in advance by the facility regardless if the person had been cleared somewhere else before. The attorney must fax a signed letter (I believe on letterhead would be ideal), a copy of the person’s driver’s license and social security card to Officer Acosta at 830-254-2975. I was told that it is helpful if someone calls them at 830-254-2500 about fifteen minutes after the fax is sent to confirm that the fax was received. It is said that pre-clearance should be faxed 48 hours in advance of going to the Center. We brought a copy of the clearance with us so there would not be any questions when we arrived. Though the clearance letter states it is valid for a year, I am told that the clearance letter must be brought every time that a paralegal or translator goes to Karnes.
We stayed in a hotel about 30 minutes away the night before so that we could get started as soon as possible the following day but traveling and visiting the Center could be done in one day if necessary from San Antonio, Austin, and Houston, for example. The Center is open from 8:00am to 8:00pm.
Upon arriving at Karnes we had to wait for thirty minutes to an hour for the detainees to be called into the waiting area. On the day which we visited the supervising officers had initiated a new policy we learned about mid-day which limits an attorney to only see five people per day and it is limited to the persons on the sheet of paper that has been filled out upon arrival. If a detainee passes you a note that a fellow detainee needs to see an attorney that detainee’s information has to be faxed in to the center before being able to see them. I figure you could use e-fax from your computer. In the end, I challenged this new policy and they let us see all the women on our list without any problems after that. We were grateful because that confusion was stressful as we were trying to work as fast and diligently as we could. I would just caution a volunteer to be prepared for policy changes without notice.
It is a requirement that cell phones and wallets be left in lockers for which we were provided a key at the entrance of the Center. There are a few vending machines attached to the waiting area and they require quarters or dollars. You cannot give food to the detainees. In six hours, I drank one bottle of ice tea for my caloric intake. My staff and I were running on empty. We didn’t want to waste time to eat. You could run to your car or locker for snacks. I don’t think there are a lot of restaurants in town.
There is a large waiting area with approximately six adjoining private consultation rooms. Each consultation room has a table and chairs. Laptops and wifi hotspots are allowed. There is a unisex bathroom in the waiting area. We were lucky enough to be able to use a printer brought by another pro bono attorney there at the time. Even the most basic of printers and copier can go a long way when you have no other options. A mobile scanner would be a great addition since a detainee’s documents are so critical for them to possess and yet share with potential volunteer help. Detainees are able to access email accounts if they already had created them previously though I am not sure that many of them would know how to check their email account if one was set up for them by a volunteer. It would also be helpful to bring plenty of I-589’s and forms in Spanish for the pro se client.
We had been told going in that attorneys were allowed a phone to call an interpreter. When I was entering the private consultation rooms, all of the landline phones were taken out. When I asked the guard which phone we were supposed to use to contact the interpreter, I was first told we can’t use phones. Then I pressed the issue with the help of another volunteer attorney who had been working at the facility on know your rights presentations. In the end, after talking with the supervisor, he told me that we could use our own cell phones only for that purpose. I was escorted to the locker to get my private phone and call the interpreter for whom I had been given for Mamean. While I was walking back, the supervisor said, you might not be able to get reception because a lot of staff say that their phones don’t work in the building. Luckily, my cell phone worked and I was able to reach the volunteer interpreter. But this could make contacting an interpreter difficult. For Quichean, I used a 12-year old girl who was also detained but happened to speak both Quichean and Spanish. She had to be called to my consultation room from her classroom.
The detainees wear plain clothes. The children attend school and there are toys in the waiting area for kids when they accompany their parents to the waiting room. There appears to be a playground in the backyard.
I would like to encourage my immigration attorney colleagues to take on one pro bono case or part of a case to help these victims. At this time there is a critical need for attorney representation for Immigration Judge reviews of Credible Fear Interview (CFI) denials, bond hearings and original filings of I-589’s.
All the detainees that we met with were victims of either domestic violence or gang-based violence. Many have entered prior to the September 2014 Matter of A-R-C-G, in which the Board of Immigration Appeals determined that married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship constitute a particular social group for asylum purposes.
The detainees seem to have a peaceful disposition, perhaps because they and their children are in a safe place with food and a roof over their heads. It really plays with your mind to see little babies and kids in the consultation rooms with the women in a detention facility, no matter what you name it. You wonder if you should be allowed to talk about such horrible experiences in front of young impressionable minds. I know I wouldn’t want talk about these stories in front of my two young kids. Imagine that the moms have to have the young children with them when they do the CFIs.
Although there might be a hint of peace, there is also a sense of fear of the unknown because they know that if they are unable to convince someone of their story and the relatives of their plight, that they will have to return to their country in which their violent husband or the violent gangs will be there waiting for them or their children. The despair on one woman’s face in particular who has two children with her and her husband is detained in Miami whom she has had no contact with was unbearable. I spent more time thinking how can I really help this lady and debating about taking yet another case. Her husband was a police officer in El Salvador and had actively fought the gangs. In retaliation, her family was threatened and even her uncle was killed. She now faces a $15,000 bond. Her father in law can only afford to bond out her husband and not both sets of detained members. She said the judge didn’t ask about her story but asked if she used a coyote and how much she paid. Gratefully, I learned today she found pro bono representation.
Another woman has lacerations in her uterus from sexual violence from her husband. Her children regularly saw him beat her. One woman’s father threw boiling water on her causing an obvious scar on her arm, when she tried to run away from her abusive husband and go home. She is 18, married at 14, and has a 2 and a half year old. After six hours and 8 women’s stories, I started to mix up all the stories. They all seem to have abusive husbands, no support, and running away from gangs and somehow brought one to four kids with them traveling about 1,500 miles. Of course there is more to that but the violence and impunity they experience is heart-wrenching. At one point, without a tissue box in my consultation room, I thought to go get toilet paper from the bathroom to hold back some of the tears for the women and myself.
I have a love-hate relationship with this experience. I love that I am helping people, through advocating for them and empowering them to be able to advocate for themselves as best as they can. I am doing what I went to law school for. At the same time knowing that this situation exists and that it is happening cannot easily be ignored. There are feelings of guilt that I should be there taking on more cases or that I should volunteer there more often. One thing that I can do whether in Houston or in Karnes City is spread the word to other immigration attorneys that there are many deserving women and children who need legal representation or simply be given advice on how to best argue their own case and I guarantee that you will not regret the time you spend helping these families.
If you have any questions about volunteering at Karnes Residential Center contact Lin Lichtenberg with the Karnes City Immigrant Family Pro Bono Project at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ruby L. Powers
AILA member and Karnes volunteer