For months now, we have been hearing about the “immigrant crisis” that is causing thousands of women and children to flee the violence that is wracking parts of Central America (and that is rooted in U.S. interventions in Latin America). This crisis has increased human rights violations in the detention system and given the U.S. government the excuse to deny women and families the due process they deserve in seeking asylum. But these women and the civil rights groups and volunteers supporting them aren’t having it, and it seems that politicians just might be listening.
Last week, civil rights groups filed a lawsuit on behalf of migrant mothers and children being held in a detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, arguing that they were being denied a fair deportation process. According to the complaint, “Plaintiffs have an indisputable right to seek asylum and related relief, and to a fair hearing to present their claims.” They also have the right to legal counsel.
But there a number of barriers standing in the way of that theoretical right. How is it possible to access anything when Artesia is 200 miles from the nearest city? One cannot claim one’s right to legal counsel when there are no legal service providers in New Mexico who are funded to represent people in detention centers. Currently, detainees are being served by volunteer lawyers who fund themselves to travel to Artesia and support these women. When women are forced to recount their horrific experiences with violence and rape in front of her children, or next to strangers she does not know, how accurate can her statements be? After hearing their stories, how can anyone possibly argue that they are a national security threat?
For women detainees, legal representation can be the difference between being fast-tracked back to Honduras, or getting a tiny chance at asylum here in the U.S. “Ashley,” a 15 year-old girl who fled violent gangs threatening her family in El Salvador, explains:
“We still don’t have a lawyer. We don’t know what to tell the immigration judge. We don’t know what the American laws are like. We can’t defend ourselves in front of a judge if we don’t even know the language, let alone the laws of this country.”
The complaint also explains that the Obama administration has adjusted procedures to decrease the number of people who are granted asylum status. Nearly insurmountable obstacles are placed in front of these women who are fleeing death threats, rape, and persecution in their home country — violence that has its roots in U.S. foreign policy. Speaking on PBS News Hour, Laura Lichter, a volunteer attorney in Artesia, described her frustration at the injustice of the system:
“I have never seen a process where the government was so hell-bent on moving people through a process, just completely pro forma, like a matter of checking boxes, with the assumption that nobody here has a real case, and that we just need to run them through.
It is — I run out of words to describe how frustrating, maddening, Kafkaesque, unfair, irrational some of the procedures have been that we have seen. We have seen cases that have been pushed through this process so fast that there literally could not have been any meaningful opportunity for the person to be heard.”
But there is good news too. On Tuesday, the U.S. Board of Immigrant Appeals ruled that some women fleeing domestic violence may be eligible for asylum. This is the first time that gender has been considered as a protected group, which is heartening, but mostly infuriating. Gender plays a crucial role in one’s ability to remain safely in a country torn apart by violence, or the chance that one might have children to support, or even the obstacles that one will face trying to survive as an immigrant living in the U.S. I find it absurd that migrant women should have to prove that they have experienced such horrors in order to be treated like human beings. Back in June, I wrote about the false narrative of the “good” vs. “bad” migrant:
“There is no such thing as a “good” immigrant who deserves to be treated with dignity, and a “bad” immigrant who is not owed their basic human rights. The “good” vs. “bad” migrant dichotomy was created so that those we construct as “other” can never have the capital, power, or security to fight back. This is a lie we are told in order to justify a system that creates economic conditions forcing black and brown people to migrate, then exploits them and criminalizes them.”
These women are refugees, and considering that the United States has created national security threats in their countries, we at the very least owe them a fair try at asylum status.