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The Feministing Five: Swapna Reddy

For this week’s Feministing Five, we spoke to Swapna Reddy, current law student and immigrant rights’ advocate. She recently co-authored a letter to the Obama Administration that calls for an end to the government mistreatment of Central American immigrants. Feministing, along with many others, endorsed the letter, so we were especially keen to learn more about one of its co-authors!

Swapna_Reddy_2The letter specifically addresses how a high proportion of Central American mothers targeted by ICE raids have suffered severe sexual abuse and violence. The resulting trauma that these women and their children have experienced, Swapna and others argue, makes them eligible for protection under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973:

These women and children were traumatized both in their home countries and then here in the U.S.—detained at our border under inhumane condition. As such, many of them are suffering from the effects of this trauma, including anxiety, PTSD and depression. They are an extremely vulnerable population and should be treated as such.

When we checked back in with Swapa two weeks after our initial interview, we were thrilled to learn that her letter and work had already generated awareness and initial action in the federal government. You’ll see that exciting update in the interview below.

And now, the Feministing Five with Swapna Reddy!

Suzanna Bobadilla: You’ve recently co-authored a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch decrying immigration raids that started earlier this month. Could you describe the letter’s details and the story behind its creation? 

SR: I — along with other students at Yale Law School in the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic — co-authored a letter to both the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, alerting the departments to the fact that a very substantial proportion of thousands of Central American refugee families that are in danger of ongoing immigration raids have experienced severe trauma and, as a result, are disabled as defined under the Rehabilitation Act. The Rehabilitation Act is a civil rights statue that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities.

The letter says the government has an obligation to individuals with disabilities to make sure that its programs are conducted in a way that accommodates their disabilities and to ensure that their participation in government programs is still possible despite the fact that they may need some different accommodation due to their disabilities.

A group of students were working with these Central American families, which are comprised of predominately young, single mothers and their children who are being detained in Texas. From working with those families and trying to help them vocalize their immigration cases and to get out detention, it is very apparent that these women have been exposed to such profound trauma and that the government was doing a very poor job of letting these people tell their stories.

For example, a mother would request a female asylum officer, but instead would be forced to discuss repeated rapes in front of a male asylum officer.  Additionally, the mother would have a phone translator instead of an in-person translator who was difficult for the mother to understand. We were just seeing huge numbers of problems in terms of accommodating issues like post traumatic stress disorder and severe depression and anxiety. We wrote the letter to respond to those issues.

SB: What has the response been so far? 

SR: The response from partner activist, civil rights, labor, veterans, and faith-based organizations has been incredible. We have been extremely excited to be working in collaboration with such a diverse group of organizations. It has been, at least from a partner organization standpoint, a really empowering and exciting thing to see so many different kinds of interest groups get behind the fact that we need to improve the way we are treating Central American immigrants with disabilities.

From the Administration, we have yet to hear back about how they plan to accommodate these families with disabilities but we are hopeful that they will take to heart what these hundreds of organizations and thousands of families have told them — that these are victims of extreme trauma and that they need accommodations.

Legal advocates have been able to win stays in a couple cases in which disability claims were raised saying that the government needs to make accommodations for these few individuals. So we are hopeful that these individual cases can bring the federal government to more broadly help thousands of families who have suffered.

**SR’s update on February 7th: The U.S. Civil Rights Commission approved a letter to President Obama and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson requesting that they immediately end the ICE raids and deportations of Central American refugee families on civil rights grounds. The letter highlights our disability notification as one of the grounds on which their argument is based. Also, 34 Members of Congress have since issued a letter urging DHS and DOJ to cease the raids. The letter was based on the disability-rights arguments originally raised in our letter.**

SB: I’m really interested by your decision to use a public letter as an activist tool. Can you describe why you chose this tactic? What was the response like from partner organizations?

SR: We decided to write a letter because we wanted to put in one place and in a clear fashion an argument to these government bodies about exactly what kinds of extreme trauma these families have experienced and exactly what the legal implications are of the government’s failure to accommodate them. We wanted to make it as clear as possible that what was happening was in violation of federal law and wanted both agencies to understand that.

Working with a huge number of national organizations from across the country, we knew that different organizations would have different questions about the content of the argument, its basis, and things like that.

We also wanted the letter to be interpreted by and useful for a large audience which included activist organizations, the government, and the press.

In terms of working with partner organizations, it was really wonderful. The letter was drafted by students working with these families and it was really a client-oriented effort. We tried to write something capturing the experiences that families had reported to us. The initial set of signatories were local Connecticut organizations that we partner with often on civil rights issues. It then grew beyond those organizations to a national effort. It was an organic, growing coalition of organizations. It was very meaningful to work with groups beyond immigrant rights’ groups — to see other organizations care about how these individuals have been treated and argue that they should not be treated as such.

SB: What can our readers do to help these women and their families? 

SR: One thing that you can do to help is to share good information about what to do if there is a raid. Also, a lot of families have been ordered deported  because they didn’t know that they had to go to court, or they got a court hearing date but the court was four hours from their house and they couldn’t figure out child care. There are things that you can do that involve helping families get to courts, along with donating pro bono legal services.

Conchita Cruz, Dorothy Tegeler, Liz Willis, and I — who have been working with these families since the Spring of 2015 after traveling to the detention centers in Texas — are actually now forming an organization, called the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, that will be housed at the Urban Justice Center in New York. The goal of this new organization is to coordinate national efforts to assist these refugee families. So far, nationally only 1.5% of families who are unrepresented for their asylum cases are able to win their case. But when families are represented, they are dramatically more likely to win.

For example, there are two detention centers where attorneys have taken on the cases. One was in New Mexico where a set of attorneys took on 15 cases and they were able to win 14 (the 15th is currently on appeal). In Texas, Conchita Cruz [another student], Columbia professor Elora Mukherjee, and I set up a national system at the Dilley family detention center to ensure representation for every family that was forced to go to trial while in detention. When represented, families were able to win every case. We really don’t think that only 1.5% families have viable claims; we think it’s an impossible task if you don’t speak English, don’t have money, and travel hundreds of miles with two small children as a 22-year-old mother.

Let’s pretend you get to throw the best party ever. What kind of food and drinks do you serve and who is there with you? 

SR: If I really could choose, I would want my mom’s Indian food. I’m a beer person so that would be the default drink. For people, I would bring a lot of the activist people that really inspire me. Young activists who don’t have a lot resources who come up with ways to get things done.

Featured imaged by Mia Avramescu and profile to Emily Feigenberg. 

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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