By Pamela Yaacoub, J.D. ’17

“I’ve been talking about this for so long. Every time we go somewhere, questions, talking, talking. I hope that one day, I never have to talk about this again.”

My client said this to me while I was visiting him at the South Texas Detention Complex. I spent my spring break with 7 other HLS students, helping detainees complete asylum applications under the supervision of American Gateways in San Antonio. That Wednesday, I was focused on finishing my client’s “declaration,” a statement by an asylee telling the immigration judge their story, and why they are afraid to return to their home country. In my overzealous pursuit of detail, I forgot that my client was tired, that he has been trying to prove his family’s humanity for months, traveling through 10 different countries only to arrive to the United States and be imprisoned, without family, without friends, without comfort, without liberty.

We made our way to the detention center every day, driving an hour from San Antonio to Pearsall. We were each assigned 3-4 detainees to assist throughout the week, and we tried to meet with them every day. We scrambled to answer all the questions on the asylum application, explaining that one mistake or one omission could lead to a fatal (and irrational, and cruel) perception of inconsistency. We did our best to help our clients produce detailed declarations (which had to be in English) that conveyed their story and their pain. One of the most difficult obstacles was the lack of adequate language services. My clients spoke Arabic, Fulani, and Wolof; others spoke Haitian Creole, Somali, French, Spanish, Garifuna, and Portuguese. Most days, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO, the private corporation that runs the detention center, only allow American Gateways to use one phone, two at the most, in order to access a language interpretation line. Between bad service, dropped calls, limited time, and limited phone access, I sometimes had only 20 minutes to talk to a client before time was up. How can they answer questions requesting every possible detail of their lives in 20 minutes? How can they access justice like this?

So often, we talk about immigration in numbers and hypotheticals. But it’s important to remember that immigrants are people with lives and loved ones, values and dreams. They are vendors and engineers, managers and construction workers, political activists and salespeople, doctors and farmers, ministers and students. They are unfathomably brave women from Haiti fleeing years of domestic violence, they are a gay Senegalese man who was beaten by an entire village, they are a Sudanese woman who stood up for the rights of rape victims from Darfur. They are a Salvadorian baker and father of four who was tortured by both the Barrio 18 gang and the police. And here we are, forcing them to fit their suffering into narrow legal categories. But they are human beings, and they have every right to be treated as such, everywhere they go.

It was my privilege to listen to the stories of my clients, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to play an infinitesimal role in their legal empowerment. I am also outraged at the inherently corrupt power structure that diminishes and dehumanizes them, that requires a national quota of 34,000 beds filled, that benefits from their chained bodies. But then I remember that there are heroes at American Gateways and elsewhere who have dedicated their lives to immigrant justice, and we can join them. We can channel our rage into action. If this story resonates with you at all, please take the time to support local immigration advocacy and community organizing, volunteer whenever you can, and actively engage others on issues of social justice.

Filed in: Pro Bono

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