The asylum conundrum

Seeking asylum in the United States is not as easy as some might think. Just ask immigration attorneys Natalie Teague L’09 and Allison Lukanich L’12, who know firsthand the complexities of the process.

By Roselee Papandrea

On most days, mobile phones and laptops are allowed in the attorney work areas at the immigrant family detention centers the U.S. Department of Homeland Security oversees near the Mexican border. Cameras, on the other hand, are not. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents require that attorneys cover phone and laptop cameras with blue painter’s tape.

When immigration attorneys Natalie Teague L’09 and Allison Lukanich L’12 spent a week in October 2014 providing pro bono legal services at a temporary detention center in Artesia, N.M., they couldn’t take photos at, near or inside the facility. Heather Scavone, an assistant professor of law and director of the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic at the Elon University School of Law, had the same experience when she and six Elon Law students volunteered last March at another federal detention center in Texas, which is operated by a for-profit organization that now faces a class action lawsuit along with Homeland Security for alleged mistreatment of detainees.

Natalie Teague L’09 spent a week in October 2014 providing pro bono legal services at a temporary immigration detention center in Artesia, New Mexico.
In both cases, the attorneys volunteering were not permitted to record the faces of the many women and children receiving legal services. Government officials have said in media reports that cameras or smartphones are not allowed to protect the privacy of the children. Teague thinks otherwise. “I feel like the decision to not allow cameras was calculated on the part of the government so that these women and children could remain in the shadows and that the struggle these women are facing would seem distant and abstract,” she wrote on a blog that she, Lukanich and two other immigration attorneys kept to document their time in Artesia.

That detention center opened quickly in summer 2014 after an unprecedented surge of immigrant women and children fleeing gangs and sexual and domestic violence in Central America crossed U.S. borders in the Rio Grande Valley seeking asylum. Some had entered the country illegally under the cover of night, hoping to avoid complicated legal proceedings or, worse yet, deportation back to a home they feared. Others presented themselves to ICE officers at the border, and while they didn’t have documents, they were afraid for their children’s lives and their own.

Lukanich and Teague say much of what they witnessed in Artesia seemed to have an air of secrecy and a disregard for the legal process, despite the number of attorneys volunteering to assist the families navigate immigration laws. And while that detention center closed in December 2014, similar centers remain open—a constant reminder of the complexities of the immigration process, particularly when it comes to asylum seekers. “If someone truly understood our immigration laws and understood how difficult it is to come into our country and the vetting process,” Lukanich says, “they would have full confidence in the safeguards put in place.”

An intricate process

In fiscal year 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 21,553 unaccompanied children and 7,265 families along a 320-mile portion of the border the U.S. shares with Mexico. In fiscal year 2014, those numbers skyrocketed with a more than 100 percent increase in the number of unaccompanied children apprehended and a 500 percent increase in the number of families that were stopped. A total of 13,370 families were apprehended in June alone, according to federal figures. The massive influx of people strained Department of Homeland Security’s resources and operations, including that of ICE, and also changed how officials handled them. Prior to the surge, undocumented immigrants who sought asylum at the border were allowed to enter and stay with family in the U.S. until they could plead their case at one of eight asylum offices in the country or before an immigration court, Lukanich says.

That changed in summer 2014, she adds, when the U.S. government decided instead to hold undocumented people in detention centers, including the center in Artesia. Undocumented people who crossed the border but didn’t express a fear about returning home were automatically deported. More than 500,000 unauthorized immigrants were deported in fiscal year 2014, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

<p>Allison Lukanich L&rsquo;12 has provided pro bono legal services at both the Artesia Family Residential Center in New Mexico and the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley.</p>
The facility in Artesia, made up of a fleet of trailers on gravel surrounded by barbed wire, was located 3.5 hours northeast of El Paso, Texas, and 45 minutes south of Roswell, N.M., in the middle of the desert on undeveloped land inside the perimeter of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. It was an isolated facility and with no legal services nearby or proper representation, Lukanich says, deportation of detainees, even the women and children with viable claims for asylum, happened quickly. The language barrier, she adds, also made it nearly impossible for these women to adequately tell their stories to an asylum officer or a judge and move beyond initial interviews. “If someone comes to the border and says ‘I have a fear of returning home,’ we can’t legally turn them away because of our asylum laws,” Lukanich says. “Anyone who expresses a fear is given the opportunity to present a case.”

That’s not to say the process is a simple one. After asylum seekers prove in an interview that their fear of returning home is credible, they are no longer mandatory detainees. And even though the cases are civil—the detainees are not charged with any crimes—asylum seekers are placed under bond so they’ll return for hearings. For many, that bond can be as high as $20,000 per person, and they have to pay 100 percent of it before they can stay with family in the United States while they go through a process that can take years due to delays, paperwork requests, hearings and appeals. Most can’t afford the bond so they are required to stay in the detention facility until they at least have a merits hearing, which often take months to schedule. On the other side, Department of Homeland Security lawyers argue that prolonged detention is necessary to deter others from crossing the border.

A legal trauma unit

In August 2014, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) gained access to provide pro bono legal services at the detention center in Artesia. Teague and Lukanich were among the many attorneys from across the country who participated in AILA’s project. “Artesia was one of the hardest things I’ve done,” says Teague, whose career goals were very heavily influenced by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

After witnessing that tragedy from her apartment in Brooklyn, she became interested in international politics and helping others. She went backpacking in Guatemala, earned a bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and worked with a women’s sewing cooperative in Nicaragua. “My common theme became speaking Spanish and working with immigrants.” That new focus led her to pursue a law degree at Elon. Before she graduated, she logged more than 675 hours of pro bono service in immigration-related internships and in December 2013, she opened Teague Immigration Law Office in Asheville, N.C.

<p>While school was a requirement, classes were held sporadically for two months in the Artesia Family Residential Center before it was closed in December 2014. <em>(Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Homeland Security)</em></p>
Like Teague, Lukanich’s career path was shaped after having a transformative experience in Mexico while she was an undergraduate at Wake Forest University. Her father was in the Air Force and they moved a lot, but she had not been exposed to immigrant populations, or even communities outside of the military, until she went to Mexico. Her experiences at Elon Law and in Elon’s Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic in Greensboro, N.C., solidified her goals. “Immigration law was where I saw myself from a public standpoint, and the relationships I was able to build really cemented where my career was headed,” says Lukanich, who plans to take the exam necessary to become a board certified immigration specialist.

The week of pro bono service the two attorneys provided at Artesia was overwhelming. With 400 open cases, no privacy and no prior relationship with any of their clients, they described the experience as a legal trauma unit. “We were doing all we could to put Band Aids on; given the nature of what these people have gone through, most of them have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Lukanich says.
Some of the time Teague spent representing clients was often cut short for reasons beyond her control. “It was really, really hard to be a legal advocate and do complex legal work in these conditions with minimal privacy,” Teague says. “I tried to prepare a woman for a video court appearance, and she couldn’t concentrate because her child was despondent due to an extremely high fever.”

One thought continually repeated in Teague’s mind: We can do better. “I had several moments where I thought this cannot be happening in my country,” she says.

A hard reality

Meanwhile, a legal battle is underway involving the government and the women and children being housed in the detention centers. A lawsuit filed against the Department of Homeland Security last year for abuse, neglect and trauma allegedly suffered at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley is still pending. Also pending is a lawsuit for alleged mistreatment at the Karnes County Residential Center, filed in April 2015 against ICE and the GEO Group, the for-profit organization that built, finances and manages the center.

In addition, a judge in federal district court ruled in 2014 that the government’s policy of incarcerating children with their mothers at family detention centers violates the Flores Settlement Agreement, which has been in place for almost 20 years and establishes standards for the detention and treatment of immigrant children in government custody. According to the agreement, children should be released to family members when possible and if detention is necessary, children must be held in the least restrictive setting that meets basic child welfare standards.

<p>An exterior shot of the Karnes County Civil Detention Center in Texas, which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement modified in 2014 into the Karnes County Residential Center to deal with the large influx of immigrants. <em>(Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Homeland Security)</em></p>
In August 2015, the court ordered the government to implement remedies by Oct. 23. The government appealed the decision and has yet to comply with the order. Even so, on Jan. 2, ICE agents arrested 121 women and children who had lost their cases and were ordered deported by immigration judges, according to The New York Times. Of the 905 cases involving parents with children that went before judges as of Nov. 24, immigrants were granted asylum in only 156 of them. In most cases, those women and children who were allowed to stay in the U.S. were those represented by attorneys, according to AILA.

The situations allegedly experienced at Dilley and Karnes were similar to Artesia and conditions were challenging for the detainees as well as the attorneys, who felt like they were being prevented from doing their jobs at every turn, Scavone says. When she and six Elon Law students went to Karnes through the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services pro bono project, they were caught off guard when their legal services were allegedly obstructed by the GEO Group. “We were prepared from the legal advocacy side,” Scavone says, referencing all the work she and Elon Law students do in Elon’s Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic. “We work with survivors of torture and sexual violence in the clinic so that was not new to us. What we were not prepared for was the obstructionism by the employees of the detention facility.”

On one occasion, Scavone says, GEO staff refused to allow the group’s clients to use the restroom that is in the visitation area. The staff, she adds, made it difficult to get psychological evaluation records released and denied requests to get a detainee a prescription for needed asthma medication. On one day that Scavone and her students were meeting with clients in the facility from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., they were not allowed to bring in food or drink. “We were told that if we left the building to get our food, we would not be permitted to re-enter,” Scavone says. Attempts to reach GEO Group officials were unsuccessful before press time, but they have maintained in media reports that allegations of wrongdoing made by attorneys and detainees are false and that the Karnes center offers a “safe, clean, and family-friendly environment.”

A lasting effect

Regardless of the detention facility visited, many volunteers walked away with similar reflections. It was the hardest thing they had faced, but it was also rewarding and life-altering. After spending a week in Artesia, Lukanich was compelled to volunteer her services a second time. In January 2015, she went to the Dilley center. While there, she met a woman who said she had endured years of sexual abuse and gang violence and was seeking asylum for herself and her 3-year-old daughter. It’s a case that Lukanich, who is an immigration attorney with Melo & Rojas in Raleigh, is still fighting. “Part of proving an asylum case, is proving the reasons for asylum are credible,” she says.

<p>The Salvation Army in McAllen, Texas, sets up a feeding truck for Central American women and children seeking refuge. <em>(Photo by David Davies)</em></p>
The first step in the process is preparing clients for credible fear interviews with an immigration officer. “I didn’t speak to a single woman who had not been raped or severely beaten by a partner or a family member,” she says. “They were victims of incest or their children were victims of incest or their children witnessed brothers and cousins shot in the middle of the street by gang members because they didn’t give them money.”

As Lukanich worked to gain the trust of her client, she realized the woman was sharing a lot more with her than she initially had with the ICE officer. “I asked her why her story wasn’t the same,” Lukanich says. “She told me that her 3-year-old daughter was in the room with her when she was interviewed, and she didn’t want her to hear that her mother had been raped by her stepfather for 12 years or that a gang had put a gun to her head.”

There is no telling how long it will take for her case to be resolved, but Lukanich is resolute to see it through. “This is where my passion is and what drives me to do this work to the best of my ability every day.”