In recent weeks, raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have made headlines, and have sent entire communities into a state of fear. For one immigrant group—asylum seekers already living in the United States—the fear is especially intense: deportation is a death sentence.
While thousands showed up to support refugee families at airports in response to the refugee ban, many Americans do not realize that a different group of refugee families stands to be picked up in raids, detained and wrongfully deported from the United States. These refugees are called “asylum seekers” because they are seeking refugee status from inside the United States instead of abroad.
For many asylum seekers, there is no mechanism to apply for refugee status abroad, which causes them to come to the U.S.-Mexico border and turn themselves in, seeking refuge. Like their counterparts in airports, they have experienced incredible violence in their countries of origin. They have been brutally raped, threatened by gunpoint to join gangs, or witnessed the murder of loved ones.
In response, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) holds asylum seekers in detention centers for weeks or months until they pass a preliminary interview with an asylum officer. If they secure release, they move in with relatives or friends while remaining in deportation proceedings pending a full asylum trial.
Asylum seekers do not have a right to government-appointed counsel though their lives hang in the balance. Instead, families are forced to navigate the complex immigration system alone in a language they do not understand. Many also suffer from trauma-based disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder due to the persecution they experienced in the countries they fled.
More than 150,000 families have sought asylum in immigration courts in the United States since 2014. Less than 30 percent have secured representation. And without an attorney, fewer than four percent have won refugee status, despite many passing a preliminary interview with an asylum officer before trial.
In contrast, since May 2015, we have coordinated volunteer attorneys and law students to represent all families forced to go to trial while held at the immigration detention facility in Dilley, Texas. Every family represented by our teams has won their case—with no filtering on our part for strength of claim. Quality representation makes a world of difference for families fleeing violence and seeking refuge in the United States.
Asylum seekers now need the help of advocates more than ever. Due to ongoing raids, many live in fear of ICE officers knocking at their doors and deporting them. The reason? It is incredibly common for asylum seekers to receive deportation orders in error.
While thousands have lost their asylum trials due to lack of representation, others have not even made it that far. Since 2014, more than 26,000 families have received deportation orders by falling through the procedural cracks of our broken system without receiving so much as a trial.
We have seen how easy it is for families to receive wrongful deportation orders, and have coordinated volunteers to reopen their cases in 14 courts in 12 states.
In some of these cases, families did not receive a hearing notice from the immigration court and did not know when to appear. Several families provided ICE with their change of mailing address, but ICE neither notified the court nor told the family to do so. One family received notice, but a court clerk had mistakenly written the wrong hearing date. Another fell victim to an unscrupulous attorney, who intercepted the family’s hearing notice and did not share the court date.
Other families could not appear in court due to transportation or health issues. Some struggled to reach their immigration courts, which were located more than seven hours away in different states. Others could not attend hearings due to medical emergencies or domestic abuse. When families promptly called ICE or the courts to explain their circumstances, officials refused to reschedule their hearings.
In all of these cases, families received deportation orders for reasons beyond their control. Thankfully, our volunteers have since reopened these cases, some only after appeal.
With cases reopened, families no longer need to live in fear of raids, because they cannot be deported while their cases are pending trial. But the process of reopening cases requires legal assistance, and thousands of asylum seekers with wrongful deportation orders remain unrepresented.
Over the last month, immigration raids have taken place in at least seven states, causing asylum seekers to panic. Recent reports suggest that DHS plans to ramp up detention, and is considering a policy of separating women from children to deter families from seeking asylum in the United States.
As Americans, we must continue to fight against the detention and deportation of refugee families—both in airports and in communities across the United States. And that means standing up against this administration’s abuse of detention and raids, helping families to overturn wrongful deportation orders, and ensuring that families have a fair chance to secure refugee status both inside and outside of the United States.
Conchita Cruz and Swapna Reddy are co-founders of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) at the Urban Justice Center, and recent graduates of Yale Law School.
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