Yijie’s Story: I am not a victim

Yijie, a Sanctuary for Families client, shares how the Economic Empowerment Program helped her reclaim her humanity.

The following speech was delivered by Yijie, a Sanctuary for Families client, at the Spring 2016 Economic Empowerment Program (E.E.P.) graduation. Of the 43 graduates in this year’s spring class, four women were selected by class vote to share their stories with the audience.

This is Yijie’s story.

I am honored to have the chance to speak with you on this special occasion. I would like to start by saying thank you to Sanctuary for Families and the Economic Empowerment Program (E.E.P.) Department for this life changing opportunity. I would also like to give a special thanks to Angelo, Sarah, Maggie, Jessica, Saloni and Eve for their dedication to this program.

Above all, I want to say congratulations to my classmates in the Office Operations Workshop (O.O.W.) program. We have worked so hard and learned so much over these past five months. It has been difficult at times, but all of us here are no strangers to difficulty. All here have been victims of domestic violence.

My participation in this program was not only an opportunity for me to improve myself professionally as an immigrant in a new country, but also a necessary step I needed to take in the process of reclaiming my humanity.

After two years of being a victim of domestic violence, I finally found the courage to leave my abuser. This is difficult for anyone in this situation. It is even more difficult when you are a stranger in a strange land. I felt like I was at the mercy of a system and a city I did not understand. As a single woman with no children, managing the domestic violence system was a constant challenge.

Even though I was free from abuse, my freedom was a harsh experience of shelter and struggle – I lost hope and wanted to give up. But I didn’t. I kept going.

This program has allowed me to improve myself as well as my professional skills. I was a professional in my native country of China. Now I feel confident and ready to be a professional again in America. Most importantly, I feel human again. I am not a victim of domestic violence. I am a survivor of domestic violence. I have taken my life back. 

Again, I thank everyone at Sanctuary for Families for giving us this opportunity. Your work is so important to so many. I wish my classmates the best of luck in their personal and professional lives. Congratulations again to all of you!

 

Learn more about the Economic Empowerment Program’s success here.

The dangerous game of immigration judge roulette.

When justice is subject to the whims of one immigration judge, immigrant families face dangerous consequences.

Carmen Rey, Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project spent last week in Texas providing legal service support to detained mothers and children at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, which houses up to 2,400 detained immigrant families.
This is Carmen’s second post about her experiences in Dilley. Read part one.

It’s the toss of a coin. Heads up, you stay, heads down, you get deported. The circumstances that affect the toss range from judicial quality to the immigration judge’s mood.

Asylum grant rates for immigration judges range from 7% to 96% across the United States, depending upon the judge. As cases are randomly distributed amongst judges, it is hard to explain why some judges grant nearly all the asylum cases before them, while others effectively grant none.

With all immigration courts being overcrowded, those of us practicing in immigration court know that the persecution that leads an asylum-seeker to seek refuge in the United States, and the actual danger they face in their home country, may have little effect upon the outcome of their cases. And so it seems to those of us in the trenches that sometimes justice is reduced to little more than immigration judge roulette.

This is particularly true for the thousands of women and children detained along the southern border.

And yet, knowing all of this, today still came as a surprise. I was barely settled into Court when the judge told me that she reviewed the evidence on my first two scheduled cases and was going to grant both. She indeed proceeded to grant the first.

She then called the second client into the courtroom, swore her in under oath, and told her that she was going to grant her case, because she had a “very strong case.” And then fate intervened.

The satellite connection between our courtroom in the detention facility and the Miami courtroom where the Judge was holding the hearing by videoconference disconnected, apparently because of thunderstorms sweeping through Texas and Florida. The Judge granted us a 1 hour recess and told the client to go to lunch.

My client went to lunch, ecstatic that she would not have to return to the country where she and her young son had lived under daily risk of death. As ordered, she returned to the courtroom promptly at 12 PM, where we reconnected with the Miami courtroom, and the Judge went back on the record.

Same Judge, one hour later. Except this time, the Judge opened by saying that my client’s case is very weak, and that she just cannot bring herself to grant it. When I try to explain that this is the same case we had been in the midst of only an hour earlier, the Judge exclaims that I am wrong, that she has never heard the facts of this case and has never seen my client.

Meanwhile, my client crumbles beside me; ten minutes ago she thought she was free and safe, and now the Judge is telling her that she may be deported to her home country.

As my client starts involuntarily shaking, the Judge proceeds with a line of questioning along the lines of: “Yes, I know that your uncle was killed, I know that your neighborhood has been set aflame, that even the military of your country is too afraid of the violence in your hometown to enter it, and yes, I also know that your family has been specifically targeted by the same people that killed your uncle. But that’s just not the point.”

With every question she is asked, my client shakes more violently.

I try to intercede, but the Judge curtly interrupts: “Ms. Rey, if you don’t shut up, I will conduct this hearing without you.” So I stop talking, because I can’t fathom leaving my client to face the Judge on her own. My silence does little to change the proceeding as the Judge continues to berate my client, until the satellite disconnects again.

Over the next 30 minutes, under the watchful eye of the Court Officer, who is there to ensure that I do not speak to my client while awaiting continuing questioning from the Judge, I hold my client’s hand and rub her back, as she continues to shake and cry in small wet sobs.

We wait and wait for the satellite to reconnect with no luck, until, half an hour later, the Court Officer loudly exclaims: “Boy, y’all are lucky today: the Judge has a doctor’s appointment. She’s too busy to deal with this so she’s granted your case and the other two cases this afternoon.”

So my client was saved from deportation by a Judge’s doctor’s appointment. This is justice for thousands of detained immigrant women and child refugees on our southern border. Welcome to America.

Photo caption: artwork made for Carmen by a young client in detention. 

Where children are prisoners and crayons are contraband.

As an immigration lawyer, a week of immersion in immigration and refugee law is a dream, but as a human, I dread the crying children.

The Central American refugee crisis has sent tens of thousands of people, primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, through Mexico and across the US border. These refugees, the vast majority of them women and children, are escaping extreme violence and abuse in their homes and communities. Their path to safety in the US is littered with danger.

For many who make it, another brutal reality awaits – family detention in facilities across the southwest US, and deportation back to the danger they left behind.

Many of the refugees are victims of gender-based violence, and Sanctuary’s attorneys are eager to help. Carmen Rey, Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project is in Texas this week to provide legal service support to detained mothers and children at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, which houses up to 2,400 detained immigrant families.

This is the first of three posts Carmen will be sharing from Dilley. Check back throughout the week to follow her journey and hear about the mothers and children she defends.

As an immigration lawyer, the prospect of a week of complete immersion in immigration and refugee law is a dream, but as a human, I dread the crying children.

Starting in 2014, in response to the influx of refugee mothers and children from Central America arriving at the US border in search of protection, private prison subcontractors working with the Department of Homeland Security created a series of detention facilities in isolated areas across the southern US.

In these jails, these refugees are held far from their families and from legal resources, and in conditions that sometimes violate basic standards of decency. As a lawyer, that all makes me furious, and so the prospect of helping them fight against their continued detention is energizing.

But what scares me is that, because of the arbitrary rules of these jails, there is little we can do to comfort the children.

The innocuously named South Texas Family Residential Center is one of these jails. Located in Dilley, Texas, over an hour away from the nearest city, San Antonio, it is one of the largest civil detention facilities in the US, and it is where I will be volunteering my time for the next week.

During these seven days, in a warren of small rooms in a trailer in the middle of south Texas, volunteer attorneys and legal assistants from across the US, will spend long days meeting with hundreds of refugee mothers and their children. Guided by the on-the-ground expertise of the CARA Project, we will work to prevent these families from being immediately deported back to places where they face severe violence and even death.

In these rooms, we will ask these families the horrors that brought them to our borders, and get the details that allow us to help them win their freedom. And that will ease my fury and make me proud to be a lawyer.

But in the telling of these horrors, the mothers will cry. And when children see their mothers cry, the children will cry. But because these children are prisoners of our government, the attorneys and legal assistant volunteers can’t so much as give these children pack of crayons to distract them.

In the South Texas Residential Center, children are prisoners and crayons are contraband.

And so, watching the children cry, I will feel my eyes fill with tears and feel powerless to help a young child stop crying. And as a human being, that is what scares me.

Carmen Rey is an attorney and the Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project