Voices from The Border

Sanctuary attorney Natali Soto writes about our legal team’s experience assisting asylum-seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, as the U.S. implemented new deterrence protocols.

Natali Soto is an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow and an attorney in Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project

In light of the current humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, my fellow Sanctuary immigration attorneys and I spent the first week of February working with asylum-seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. That same week, the U.S. rolled out its “Migrant Protection Protocol,” a policy which requires most asylum seekers who have passed their credible fear interviews to remain in Mexico, instead of the U.S., while they wait for a U.S. Immigration Judge to hear their asylum case.

Throughout our time in Tijuana, we met beautiful souls from all over the world – including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti, Ghana, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Tajikistan, Chechnya, and Russia – who had fled gender violence and other forms of persecution and violence in their home countries. These migrants had traveled thousands of miles by plane, bus, boat, and by foot, driven by hopes of finding asylum in the U.S.  They endured unimaginable hardships throughout their dangerous journeys only to find out, upon their arrival at the U.S.- Mexico border, that they must “wait in line” for weeks, even months, before being allowed to present their asylum claim to a U.S. Immigration Officer.

Listen to our attorneys describe the circumstances that have forced survivors to flee their home countries and seek refuge in the U.S.

The Current State of the Asylum-Seeking Process

This line-keeping system is a direct outcome of the Trump Administration’s “metering” policy, implemented in November 2018, which limits the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the US each day. The system, however, is anything but official. Rather than being run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or any other U.S. or Mexican government agency, the line is managed by migrants who have assumed a leadership role among their peers. Newly-arrived asylum seekers must provide their names and nationalities to these migrant leaders in order to be assigned a number that corresponds to their place in line, supposedly based on the order in which they arrive.

Every day, CBP settles on a seemingly-indiscriminate number of people to allow into the U.S. and notifies Mexican officials who, in turn, pass this information to migrant leaders. The leaders then call out certain migrants’ numbers to indicate that those individuals are now allowed to cross into the U.S. to kickstart the asylum-claim process. Because the U.S. is inconsistent in the number of asylum seekers they’ll accept on any given day, these migrants must show up every morning, with their children and all of their belongings. If they are not present when their number is called, they will have to either plead to keep their spot in line or sign-up for a new number and wait several more weeks.

Migrants whose numbers have been called are lined up, put into vans, driven across the border, and kept in detention centers until their credible fear interviews, where a CBP officer will assess their fear of return to their home country. Unfortunately, even passage of these credible fear interviews does not guarantee temporary safety in the U.S. – under the Migrant Protection Protocol, asylum seekers must meet an even higher “reasonable” fear standard by demonstrating they fear persecution both in their home countries and in Mexico. Unfortunately, many vulnerable individuals who “have not had time to gather evidence that would show their credibility,” or whose claims include trauma-related inconsistencies or omissions, will fail to meet this higher standard and be sent back Mexico to await the adjudication of their asylum case.

Watch Lori Adams, Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project, describe the situation at the U.S.-Mexico on the third day of implementation of the “Migrant Protection Protocol.” 

Our Work at the Border

Part of our duties as volunteer attorneys in Tijuana included delivering “Know Your Rights” presentations and meeting with migrants individually to provide them with legal counsel on their respective asylum cases. We also held last-minute credible fear interview prep sessions for migrants whose numbers had been called that morning. Although some migrants had anticipated the strenuous conditions they were about to face upon entering the U.S., others had reasonably assumed the worst of the asylum process was over. Had we not told them, the latter group would not have known that upon entering the U.S., they would be stripped of their extra layers of clothing and forced to await their credible fear interview in freezing holding cells for days at a time.

Listen to Sanctuary attorneys describe how they assisted migrants as they prepared to cross the border to deliver their credible-fear interviews — the first step for claiming asylum in the United States.

While conducting these last-minute interview prep sessions with migrants about to cross the border, my colleagues and I acted as “human shields” to provide privacy for those who needed to change into their warmest base layer. We also provided migrants with Sharpie markers so that they could write their loved ones’ phone numbers on their forearms, in the likely case that ICE would take away their possessions. We also encouraged parents to write their own names and dates of birth on the backs of their children’s shoulders in preparation for the tragic yet foreseeable case of ICE separating families upon crossing. Two young kids with whom I worked thought of these as “cool new tattoos” and showed them off to fellow migrants while their mother held back her tears fearing that these marks would not be enough to keep her children by her side.

Having to explain to families that they would most likely be separated at some point during the asylum claim process and that they would most likely be returned to Mexico while they await adjudication, was soul-crushing. When migrants learned about the new policies central to the current U.S. Immigration System, their hopefulness and excitement would immediately turn into anguish and disappointment, yet for many of them turning back was not an option. When you are fleeing for your life, not even a cruel system that is purposefully set in place to deter you from seeking asylum will dissuade you from pleading for safety.

Listen to our attorneys describe the anguish experienced by migrant families facing separation at the border.

My colleagues and I stayed in San Diego and crossed the border by foot twice a day since the people we were working with were in Tijuana. Throughout the week, I could not avoid thinking of the irony and privilege that underlined our back-and-forth crossings, during which we did as little as wave our U.S. passports to border officials. We were able to easily cross this arbitrary line only because we were born on the “right” side of it, while those who were born elsewhere and are fleeing for their lives were kept waiting for weeks for an opportunity to plead asylum in our country.

We hope that our experiences at the border can further shed light on what has become an undeniable reality – that our current immigration protocols are inhumane and deprive thousands of migrants of their basic human rights. These asylum seekers are fleeing domestic violence, gang violence, and government torture, among other types of unbearable persecution.  Sending them back to Mexico, even after they have passed their credible fear interviews, is a violation of due process. It also puts them at greater risk of harm, for many of them are still being followed by their persecutors and perpetrators.

As a nation founded under the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must embrace those who are most vulnerable, not turn our backs on them.

Please consider donating to Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project to support our work with immigrant survivors of gender violence.

Pa’ lante, mi gente.

Gender Violence Survivors Seeking Asylum Need Our Protection

Last week, President Trump addressed the nation to warn of “a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border.” His administration’s rhetoric and immigration policies are endangering the lives of survivors of gender violence. Read our statement.

On Tuesday night, President Trump used his address to the nation to argue for a border wall that he says will make our nation safer. Sanctuary for Families believes that the President’s statement failed to address the deep-rooted issues in our immigration system and instead, focused on policies that would further harm and endanger refugees and other vulnerable immigrants, including survivors of gender-based violence.

At Sanctuary, we work with gender violence survivors, 70% of whom are immigrants. Many are seeking asylum due to extreme intimate partner violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), and/or death threats they experienced in their home countries. Some have been tricked or forced into the U.S. by traffickers. Some come directly to New York. Others have been detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, itself dangerous and re-traumatizing, and eventually, make it to New York where organizations like Sanctuary can help.

For those currently stuck on the Mexican side of the border, however, the consequences can be deadly. Due to the Administration’s new metering system, thousands of adults and children, most of whom are seeking asylum, will have to wait weeks, even months, before making their plea for protection in the U.S. Sleeping on streets or in over-crowded migrant shelters, their desperation and fear only increase, and they become more vulnerable to the kind of violence they fled in the first place.

To be clear, seeking asylum at any of our borders is not illegal. Turning asylum seekers away, however, is a cruel violation of international law. We need policies that protect survivors of gender violence seeking refuge within our borders and provide clear pathways to legal status, not ones that scapegoat immigrant communities and use their lives as political tools. To these ends, Sanctuary is taking action.

Every day, Sanctuary provides free high-quality legal representation to ensure that immigrant gender violence survivors receive the committed advocacy they need to present their best case for immigration status. Here in New York, we advocate for State legislation to better protect our immigrant communities and deepen our partnerships with fellow immigration agencies. Across the country, we partner with advocates to push for a functional immigration system and rational border policy.

For over 30 years, Sanctuary has served survivors of gender violence regardless of immigration status. As we enter the New Year, we reaffirm our long-held commitment to our immigrant communities both here in New York and across the border. Thank you for standing with us.

Warmly,

Hon. Judy H. Kluger
Executive Director, Sanctuary for Families

 

Skadden Arps Team Secures Asylum Status for FGM Survivor and Helps her Build a New Life in the U.S.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, we’re honoring a team from Skadden Arps for their dedicated pro bono work on behalf of an asylum seeker from Guinea. Read to learn more.

Todd Schmid is Legal Counsel at HSBC Bank and member of Sanctuary’s PBC.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team from Skadden Arps for their dedicated pro bono work on behalf of an asylum seeker from Guinea.  The Skadden team includes Mariam Adamashvili, Avelina Burbridge, Sarah D. Kalin, Ana Maria Pearce, Sarah R. Ridel, Victoria Smallwood, and Gabrielle E. Wolf.

Aimée

Picture this: a group of women huddled nervously but hopefully around a desk counter at a quiet government building on the fringes of New York City, awaiting a decision that would directly impact the life of one, and would ultimately affect the lives of every woman in the room.

When Aimée received the news that she had been granted asylum in the United States, she grew weak in the knees, falling back into the arms of her legal team. It was an emotional and powerful moment. It was the culmination of the hard work of a dedicated team of attorneys and legal staff at Skadden Arps and the consistent determination of their ever-brave and motivated client, Aimée (not her real name), a woman from Guinea, all with the incredible support of Sanctuary for Families over the course of two years.

Female Genital Muilation

Aimée, as a child, endured female genital mutilation or cutting (“FGM/C”), and other domestic abuse, in her home country, Guinea, where the practice has deep family and sociocultural roots and is often considered a rite of passage, despite the immediate complications and long-term physical, sexual and psychological consequences that so often result. “It is often viewed as a way to control a woman’s desire, as a way to inhibit her freedom,” noted Gabrielle Wolf, Director at Innisfree M&A Incorporated and a former Skadden attorney.

Guinea formally banned FGM/C in the 1960s but still has the second highest rate in the world, with virtually no enforcement or cases brought to trial. International political recognition of the problem is a key step forward, as the human rights issue rarely attracts the public attention it deserves, let alone political resolve.

The United Nations, the World Health Organization and many other international and national government organizations fully recognize this practice as a violation of the human rights of girls and women, reflecting deep inequality between the sexes, and an extreme form of discrimination against women. However, there are many ongoing challenges to building an effective on-the-ground public health and advocacy response, and the practice has far from disappeared in many countries, including Guinea.

Sanctuary Turns to Skadden Arps

When Aimée came to Sanctuary for Families, they quickly discovered that the original asylum application she had filed was patchy and did not adequately detail the abuse she had suffered as both a child and an adult.   Sanctuary turned  to Skadden Arps to prepare a more robust application on her behalf. The firm quickly assembled a team of attorneys and legal assistants, who began working to understand Aimée’s case and to fortify her application in an ever-evolving political and legal environment. Representing Aimée was not without its challenges. Skadden attorney Sarah Kalin explained:

“Asylum work is not our day job, so trying to remain abreast as laws, policies, even as the sentiments of these agencies were changing day to day quickly became more of a full-time job than we expected.”

The women who endure FGM/C often lack the political voice to share their stories. “But for Aimée, working with a talented group of dedicated women, who not only met with her on legal matters but often accompanied her to medical and other appointments, was empowering,” said Skadden attorney Avelina Burbridge.  In reflecting upon her team, Aimée shared:

“These wonderful and brave women lawyers have spared no effort to get me where I am today.”

Yet the women who had the chance to represent her felt that Aimée inspired them, too. Sarah Kalin shared:

“She is not unlike each of us: she’s about our age; she’s smart and educated, but she just happened to grow up in a different part of the world. To see how she made her way to the U.S., without speaking the language, without much in the way of support; to witness her story evolve and watch her integrate into American society, always with the support of Sanctuary, and to really build a life for herself is inspiring. She is a real asset to American society.”

Looking Toward the Future

The team still stays in touch with Aimée today, and with Sanctuary’s talented support, they have watched her confidence soar, as she improves her English skills and receives robust job training to further her aspirations to pursue a career in health services. Recently, she obtained a Home Health Aid Certificate and graduated from Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program.

“I’ve regained the humanity, the self-confidence, and the appetite for life that I thought I’d lost forever. Today I have a good head on my shoulders and find fulfillment in the unconditional love of my son. If there exists an American dream, mine is my encounter with Sanctuary for Families.”

– Aimée

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 13, 2018, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor Skadden Arps’ outstanding pro bono work.  You can buy tickets here

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

Attorney General Endangers Women and Children with New Restrictions to Asylum Law

Attorney General Sessions’ decision concerning Matter A-B- reverses decades of asylum law and puts at tremendous risk the lives of women and children who have suffered horrendous domestic violence in their home countries. Read our statement.

Our Statement

Sanctuary for Families stands with survivors of violence in condemning yesterday’s announcement by U.S. Attorney General Sessions to overturn Matter of A-B- — a case which he referred to himself and one in which he directed immigration judges to deny asylum to survivors of domestic violence.

That heartless decision reverses decades of asylum law and puts at tremendous risk the lives of women and children who have suffered horrendous domestic violence in their home countries. It also leaves vulnerable victims of other human rights abuses including forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The United States has long been a safe haven for immigrants who have been persecuted and cannot rely on their own governments to protect them. This decision by A.G. Sessions eviscerates that safe haven, limiting the types of cases in which immigration judges can grant asylum and thereby increasing the likelihood that women, children, and others will be sent back to their persecutors.

Hon. Judy Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families, stated:

“At Sanctuary for Families, too many of our clients bear the scars of unrelenting intimate partner violence that occurs in countries where no government or authorities will intervene. For many, a forced return to their nation of origin will be nothing short of a death sentence.”

Lori Adams, incoming Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project, said:

“This callous move by the Attorney General threatens the lives of those seeking refuge in the United States, after having suffered tremendous violence and believing that this country would stand by its promise to protect those who cannot find safety in their own countries. It is a huge step backward for this country and an atrocious way to treat vulnerable immigrants who came here seeking our help.”

This decision was issued in the wake of other brutal immigration changes including a sharp increase in the criminal prosecution of asylum-seekers for “illegal entry” and a practice of separating mothers from their babies and young children at the U.S.-Mexico border to detain them in separate immigration jails, for the stated purpose of deterring families from making the journey north to seek protection in this country. It is cruel and inhumane to treat mothers and children as pawns in a political game.

Sanctuary for Families and other legal services and human rights organizations will continue to work together to push back against this incremental erosion of the rights of asylum-seekers to seek protection in this country. We invite you to stand with us and to fight for the rights of all survivors of gender-based violence.

Take Action

Donate to support Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Program

Call your Senators and Congressional Representatives and use the script below:

“Hi, my name is NAME, I’m from CITY, STATE, and I’m a constituent of SENATOR / REPRESENTATIVE NAME. I’m calling today to ask SENATOR / REPRESENTATIVE NAME to stand up for victims of gender violence, those escaping gang warfare, and LGBTQ+ people, and demand that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reverse his decision on the Matter of A-B-. Sessions’ decision to deny asylum to those persecuted by private actors is a cruel step backwards for our country. Please speak out. Thank you.”