Oregon State Bar Bulletin AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2015
As the debate over immigration rages on socially and politically, Stephen Manning would like Oregon’s legal community to understand two things. The first is that the volunteer efforts of local attorneys and law students have prevented hundreds of detained families from being deported in a system designed for expediency. The second is that more Oregon attorneys are needed to help prevent the deportation of women and children, many of whom face murder, domestic abuse or other threats if they return to their homeland.
Manning, a partner with Immigrant Law Group in Portland, is a member of the Amicus Committee for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). As a coordinator of nationwide litigation strategies to advance the rights of immigrants and asylees, he and his volunteer brigade represent families detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. The facility opened earlier this year and was specifically designed to house up to 2,400 women and children, primarily from Latin America.
“These facilities help ensure timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States,” Thomas Winkowski, Acting Director of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement.
This spring, Manning traveled to Dilley with a group of students from Lewis & Clark Law School. He called the conditions at the center “deplorable,” noting its population recently topped 1,200 women and children.
“You’re either part of it or you’re not. You’re either going to be in it to stop it, or you’re going to it be in to watch it happen,” he says of his involvement.
Manning notes that volunteers from across the country, including Oregon’s strong immigration rights community, have been invaluable partners in the volunteer brigade’s success so far.
“Had we not gone, everybody would have been deported within a week,” he says.
Women and Children Focus of Pro Bono Efforts
The group that traveled to Dilley is representative of the scores of Oregon lawyers and law students who are volunteering to help immigrants within the state and beyond. They are taking on an array of cases that are both intellectually and emotionally demanding, including asylum hearings, deportation proceedings and visa applications. Many help prepare people for U.S. citizenship as well.
Jennifer Morrissey, chair of the AILA’s Oregon chapter and an attorney with Portland’s Black Helterline, says women and children, including unaccompanied children involved in deportation proceedings, are at the forefront of the chapter’s pro bono work.
“There is no automatic counsel for children, so they don’t have an attorney. And, of course, the odds of winning a case multiply by five times if you have an attorney,” she says. “Some kids qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and we do see people taking on those cases because these are children who ... have a path to permanent status because they no longer have parents who can care for them.”
The chapter’s Deferred Action Working Group partners with community organizations to educate young people who entered the U.S. illegally about whether they are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program President Obama expanded through an executive action in 2014. In addition, chapter members help obtain U visas for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are willing to help law enforcement and government officials investigate and prosecute criminal activity. The chapter also partners with Oregon’s justice department on education and outreach for those who may be eligible for U visas.
“Oftentimes those are women who have been victims of domestic violence, although there are other people who qualify,” Morrissey says. “Individual chapter members are taking on pro bono cases on their own initiative, particularly with regard to the U visas, asylum cases and representation of minor children.”
The chapter collaborates with the Multnomah County Library system to present citizenship classes and help participants review the legal requirements for citizenship. It also frequently works with the Portland-based Immigration Counseling Service, which was founded in 1978 to provide affordable immigration legal services and free informational forums. More recently, Immigration Counseling Service’s mission has expanded to include unaccompanied children and survivors of human trafficking.
Law Students Learn How They Can Help Improve Lives
Unaccompanied children and survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking are a top priority for the Human Rights and Immigration Clinic at Willamette University’s College of Law. A recent case involved three young, unaccompanied girls from Central America who were sure to suffer violence and lose opportunities for education if they were deported, says Gwynne Skinner, the center’s director and an associate law professor.
About 16-20 students participate in the clinic each year, working on a variety of cases under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act. Students also conduct human rights fact-finding and reporting. Most recently, the clinic prepared “http://www.willamette.edu/wucl/pdf/centers/clp/clinics/Human Trafficking Native Peoples.pdf">/a>,” a report that summarizes the vulnerability of Native Americans to human trafficking and makes recommendations to help government officials better fulfill their legal obligations, according to the clinic’s website.
Skinner notes that, through the clinic, students are able to interview clients, conduct “significant” legal research and brief writing, and learn about the living conditions in other parts of the world, from Iran and Iraq to Africa.
“They are learning to interview people who oftentimes have gone through pretty horrendous things. I think it really helps them prepare themselves both in immigration law and with clients generally,” Skinner says. “The students work so hard, they learn so much and they are really transformed in their view of the world. They see the role of the law in being able to help people and improve their lives. They are able to do good in the world and they absolutely thrive.”
She adds that many of the students remain in Oregon after graduation and specialize in immigration law, with firsthand experience in obtaining green cards, work permits and visas and the ability to negotiate an immigration system that is often complex and daunting.
“So many people do this without lawyers and it’s difficult to imagine how they manage it, because it’s difficult for the lawyers,” Skinner says. She notes that many immigrants who are here illegally could just as easily be here legally, given the appropriate legal support.
“They are hiding in the shadows, and it makes their life and the lives of their loved ones very difficult. Immigrants are very afraid that if they are out of the shadows, they will be deported and it will interrupt their family life and their work life.
“Immigration reform is just crucial for not only these immigrants, but for our society generally. These are individuals who work very hard and can contribute a lot to our economy, and oftentimes do contribute a huge amount to our economy,” Skinner says.
Stories of Determination, Resilience Continue to Resonate
According to the AILA, the Department of Homeland Security unnecessarily detains more than 400,000 people, including asylum seekers and other vulnerable immigrants. Many detainees are held for prolonged periods despite the fact that they have strong ties to the U.S. and pose no threat to public safety.
“The Obama administration’s massive expansion of family detention began in the summer of 2014 and will incarcerate thousands of children and mothers this year. This practice is a due process and humanitarian disaster and must end,” the organization states.
The AILA estimates detention costs American taxpayers $2 billion a year, with family detention alone costing $343 per individual per day. “Proven alternatives to detention, by contrast, cost between 17 cents and $17 per day. Detention should be a last resort, used only when other means of supervision are not feasible, and only after a truly individualized assessment of someone’s public safety and flight risk. Alternatives to detention should be used to reduce our reliance on costly institutional detention, and never as an alternative to release,” it states.
Manning, who spoke about the issue of family detention in a Feb. 4 New York Times Magazine article, recently told the Bulletin he is continually impacted by the stories he hears in his practice and his pro bono work. He shared the story of a woman from Guatemala who basically walked to the United States with her four children to escape an abusive husband who wanted to kill her.
“Immigrants are powerful people, and I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want someone who is so strong and resilient in our country,” he says.
Prior to his work at the Dilley center, Manning represented clients at the Artesia Family Residential Center in New Mexico, and he describes some of his experiences in a report titled “Ending Artesia.” In the report, Manning explains the mass influx of women and children from Central America, where gang and drug violence, sexual assaults, domestic abuse and murder escalated so sharply that it has been termed “femicide.”
He wrote of the poor living conditions at Artesia, an isolated area surrounded by razor wire where the women and children were housed in corrugated trailers that were often blazing hot during the summer and freezing cold in the winter. Many children were hungry and rapidly losing weight, yet their lawyers were not allowed to bring food to them.
“Psychologically, the detention center is an enormous well of grief,” he wrote in the report. “All of the women and children professionally evaluated through the Pro Bono Project presented with symptoms of depression or trauma. Eighty-eight percent were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder based on their past experiences of violence, including sexual violence. Several children engaged in self-harm and displayed erratic and disturbing behaviors that private mental health professionals attributed to the past violent trauma being aggravated by the trauma induced by the detention setting.”
Lawyers and Law Students Play Critical Role
Manning, citing the Obama administration’s goal of deporting families as quickly as possible, also details the complete lack of legal structure that existed before the pro bono project began. When the first wave of attorney volunteers showed up shortly after the deportations began, there were 400 to 500 families in the center.
“None of them had been screened by attorneys to evaluate their cases. There was no telephone access. The only facility for meeting with the detainees was the front half of a double-wide trailer. The children were sick. The guards were hostile. There was no infrastructure. There was nothing, really, at all, but hopelessness and children wasting away because of the detention and a clock counting down to the next wave of deportations,” Manning wrote.
While some say the conditions at Dilley are slightly improved compared to Artesia, the issue at hand for Manning and other members of the legal brigade is that the women and children held in the detention camp have the right to due process. The brigade adopted an on-the-ground team approach that succeeded in winning many cases. When the Artesia detainees were moved to Dilley the brigade continued that model, which Manning describes in his “Ending Artesia” report. Manning urges others to come join the team.
“I’m a firm believer that the government is a good thing, but that good government doesn’t happen by itself,” he says. “The lawyers are really important. Lawyers get busted on all the time, but lawyers are the ones who change the entire dynamic because we know what the law is and what we must do.”
Manning encourages Oregon lawyers to get involved in the brigade, not only to help the detainees but also because it can be what he calls a “transformative experience.”
“One of the beautiful things about this project is that it creates an incredible bond with your colleagues. You don’t have to know immigration law, you just have to be willing to work very hard, very long days and in difficult situations. People just do it and it’s amazing to watch,” he says.
The Dilley advocacy team holds a “Big Table” meeting each evening, which is essentially a roundtable discussion of the day’s events and strategies for the next day. Sometimes the big table is an ironing board, depending on the space available, but the evening sessions provide a sense of collegiality that many attorneys do not often experience in their work, Manning explains.
“A lot of people go to Dilley and say, ‘Oh, this is why I became a lawyer,’ ” he says.
Philip Smith, a partner with Portland immigration law firm Nelson Smith, volunteered at Artesia in August 2014 and continues to handle cases stemming from his visit. He says the detention camp’s isolation and lack of legal infrastructure quickly made it clear that there were few resources available to the women and children there.
“It’s literally a life and death situation for those people, and it’s not an exaggeration to say there are women and children who are here legally now who would have been killed if they had gone back to Central America,” he notes. “It’s probably the most worthwhile work I have experienced while having a law degree, and it’s made me proud to be a lawyer.”
Rodrigo Juarez, a third-year student at Lewis & Clark Law School, volunteered at Dilley in March and May while attending Manning’s Transformative Immigration Law seminar. Juarez was writing about family detention at the time, and says he was impacted in both negative and positive ways by seeing it firsthand.
“It was horrible and great at the same time. Working with trauma victims gives you some residual trauma. And it was kind of bizarre and surreal to be in that environment and know you are in a prison, and not only does the government condone it but it has contracted with a private prison corporation to run it,” he says.
“The great part was seeing all of the volunteers working so hard for their clients,” Juarez adds. “The biggest thing for me was seeing the women’s strength. Even after all of the trauma they had been through and then the imprisonment, they still kept it together for the sake of their children.”
Juliet Stumpf co-teaches the Transformative Immigration Law Seminar with Manning and volunteered at the Dilley center with Manning and their students in May.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the work the Lewis & Clark students did there prevented the return of mothers and children eligible for asylum who would otherwise have returned to the violence they had fled,” Stumpf says. “From the perspective of a law student, knowing that your work may save someone else’s life is a profoundly life-changing experience.”
Editors’ note: At press time, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that the detention center in Dilley and two others fail to meet the minimum legal requirements of the 1977 settlement for facilities housing children (Flores v. Meese).For background and a copy of the settlement, see http://immigrantchildren.org/Flores_Case.html. The July 24, 2015 decision requires the federal government to submit a plan to meet the terms of the settlement within 90 days.
Also, a report on the expansion of immigration detention released in late August by the American Bar Association conlcudes that the federal government’s use of family detention violates applicable laws and human rights norms. To read the report, visit www.americanbar.org/news/abanews.html.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin. Reach her a firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2015 Melody Finnemore