Immigrants’ Rights Clinic Student Reflects on Visit to Immigration Detention Facility

Immigrants' Rights Clinic Student Reflects on Visit to Immigration Detention Facility

Now that I’ve been back from my first visit to an immigration detention center for a day and a bit, I realize that it will probably take a while to process what I encountered during the trip, making this reflection just one early stop on that journey. Like most or all of my classmates, I enrolled in this clinic because of an enduring frustration with the immigration system in the United States. Nevertheless, I have no prior experience working with people facing challenging immigration cases, or visiting places of incarceration. I suspected that my perspective would alter in some ways from the visit, but I’ve been somewhat surprised by just how affected I was by meeting both the facility’s management and its detainees.

Meeting the detainees that afternoon and throughout the following day turned out to be a very meaningful experience. I felt I was able to remain focused enough on our questions that I could get the kinds of information to learn more about the their experiences living in a detention facility. But I was also increasingly saddened as detainees came into the interview room believing I was there to represent them in their cases. It was difficult to see how deflated people became when we told them we were there to ask questions about their general experiences and perspectives on immigration detention (though some of the savvier interviewees understood the system well enough to be suspicious that the “attorney” here to see them would really be offering representation). But it was particularly painful to try to explain myself to the three or four detainees who said they understood, but later in the interview would try to give me their immigration application forms, or ask when they’d see me again.

We had developed various methods of building rapport with detainees from the outset. I found across the two days that the method that worked best for me was to let them open up about how they ended up in detention, why they were picked up by police, and their experience of being met by ICE agents as they left prison or court. For me, the stories were informative, but I think it also gave them the opportunity to feel that someone from the outside was listening and taking notes, and this made it easier to get more expansive answers. Essentially, because I was starting out on a bad note by telling them I was there to ask about general experiences, and not to help them in their individual cases, I felt it was then especially productive to shift back a step and allow them to tell me about their cases in some detail.

Since leaving the facility, several of the detainees’ personal stories have stuck with me and cut particularly deeply. At the end of eight or nine interviews over two days, I found myself most haunted by the story of one inmate, because of his description of the challenges he’s facing in detention that may very well prevent him from accomplishing both complicated and mundane tasks that are necessary to make his case at his upcoming hearing. He was brought to the U.S. at 7 months old. He’s gay, and is facing deportation because of a conviction for drug possession. He’s been unable to get a lawyer because he can’t afford phone calls. At first, he tried and failed to use the phones to reach a lawyer, using money he made as a barber at the facility (one dollar per day). But then he was moved to another unit where he can no longer work in that job. An Immigration Judge instructed him to complete an application for asylum. In addition to completing the form, he was also instructed to bring evidence (in the form of news reports) regarding the dangers he would have as a member of the LGBT community if he were forced to return to his country of birth. Unfortunately, while the detainee had the actual form, he had no means by which to access the instructions that explained how to complete the form. Additionally, he did not have access to internet or a printer and so was unable to comply with the Judge’s instructions. He called a hotline number for a gay and lesbian international organization listed on the computers at the facility, but the number was disconnected. He managed to get the UN to send him a small handful of news items – not enough, he fears. His hearing date is fast approaching, but at every turn he has encountered obstacles to presenting a defense to the threat of deportation to a country he fears he may be killed.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to visit an immigration detention facility and hope that the insights we’ve learned from speaking to detainees can help us better understand the barriers to accessing justice.