Reflections on the Border: Part 3

Reflections on the Border: Part 3

May 15, 2017

This is the third of a three-part series sharing individual NMILC staff member’s views related to border issues. Part 1 discussed a trip to a youth “shelter” located at the Mexico-US border, and Part 2 shared one employee’s views from a tour of the border with a Customs and Border Patrol officer. The views expressed herein are those of individual NMILC staff members and may not necessarily reflect the views of the organization as a whole.

NMILC attorney Rebekah Wolf was born and raised in Santa Fe, NM. After studying at NYU, Rebekah moved to Palestine full-time for five years and founded The Palestine Solidarity Project. She moved back to the US in 2011 and attended law school at University of California-Hastings. She joined NMILC in October 2016  as an Equal Justice Works justiceAmeriCorps fellow. She currently lives in Santa Fe with her daughter Rafeef. Legal assistant Zoe Bowman sat down with Rebekah to discuss her previous work in Palestine and how it relates to her work at NMILC.

Wolf at the border of Juarez and El Paso

Wolf at the border of Juarez and El Paso

Tell me a little about the work that you do at NMILC.

I provide direct legal services to unaccompanied children in immigration court, I’m the pro bono attorney coordinator, and I’m one of the coordinators in the Cibola Program for Access to Legal Services.

What you were doing in Palestine?

I ran a human rights organization that incorporated international volunteers as trained observers in documenting and publicizing human rights violations in the Palestinian territories. In addition to reporting we also had campaigns and advocacy projects around political prisoners and the building of the Annexation Wall. It was similar to the campaign tactics used here against the wall and immigrant detention. A huge part is reporting on it so people gain a better understanding of what is happening on the ground.

I did that work for about 10 years. Palestine Solidarity Project is, located in Beit Ommar, a village outside of Bethlehem, and is still going strong.

What stuck out to you or concerned you during the Mexico-US border tour?

In Palestine, the wall that is built in the West Bank separates it from Israel, and exists in the context of a military occupation that an overwhelming majority of countries believe is not in compliance with international law. When you see the same level of militarization here at the US-Mexico border in El Paso, it’s shocking because people conceptualize the border and the wall on the border as a benign structure, like ‘good walls make good neighbors’. In reality, it has a police force that is acting like a military force. When a military is enforcing civilian law, that has grave consequences. You can see that in Palestine and on the border here.

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CBP Agent gives tour of the U.S. border in El Paso

How did your experience working in the field of human rights in Palestine influence your desire to study immigration law in the US?

I moved back here [Santa Fe] because I was born and raised in New Mexico, and part of human rights work is figuring out where you would be the most useful–I figured I could do really good human rights work in my own community. I went to law school because the law is one tool to enforce human rights, and it was a tool I felt comfortable using. In the fight for human rights we have to use as many different tools as possible.

Doing work for immigrant communities is fundamentally a human rights issue. It’s about how we as a society treat people, whether we are acting in a way so that their dignity and integrity remain intact. A huge part of doing this work [human rights] is drawing attention to what is happening in communities outside the view of the wider public. Human rights violations occur when governments think no one is watching.

How do you see the work that you do at NMILC as a continuation of your human rights work?

The Immigration Corps project that I’m working on with Equal Justice Works has been an amazing experience. The project is designed to engage the immigrant community–not just as people we’re providing services to, but also as a way for immigrants to enter the legal profession and have more agency in the services we provide. I think that this model for human rights work is the most effective. We’re not treating the immigrant community as outsiders, but engaging the people we serve, and hopefully empowering them to advocate for themselves.

Reflections on the Border: Part 2

Reflections on the Border: Part 2

May 8, 2017

In February, staff members from NMILC visited the Mexico-US border, touring a youth “shelter”, local processing center, and segments of the wall. This is the second of a three-part series sharing their thoughts about the experience; click here to read part 1. The views expressed herein are those of individual NMILC staff members, and may not necessarily reflect the views of the organization as a whole.

With the passage of President Trump’s 100th day in office, there has been a great deal of reflection on what has and hasn’t been accomplished in the first 100 days. Thus far, one of Trump’s most famous campaign promises, the building of a wall along the US-Mexico border, seems to remain a top priority in office. With all of the discussion, excitement, and anxiety surrounding the building of the wall, it can be easy to forget that the US already has heavily policed borders, including segments with a “great wall”. This past winter some of the NMILC staff embarked on a tour with U.S Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in El Paso to see part of the wall up close and to learn more about how our border is policed.

Our tour began outside of the immigration courthouse in El Paso in what can only be described as a luxury minivan, complete with a flat screen TV. There we were introduced to our two photogenic Border Patrol agents charged with the duty of giving tours to ‘stakeholders’ such as ourselves. As we hurtled through the streets of El Paso, they began a sort-of sales pitch/CBP advertisement complete with powerpoint slides and pie charts. We were given a glamorous rundown of the different border patrol groups, which included descriptions of various elite squads of border patrol agents with special ‘tracking techniques’ (read: drones) that enable them to hit their ‘targets’ (read:migrants).

Eventually we arrived at the wall itself. Even though I’ve seen images in the news of the border wall, it still was startling to see in person. The wall is tall and barbed, like a long snake cutting through the Chihuahuan desert. Interestingly, the land was not originally federal land, but land owned by a waste disposal company and paid for by the US government. Needless to say, the obligatory “on the taxpayer’s dime!” joke made by one of our staff members did not go over well. After giving us some explanation of what we were looking at, our tour-agents pointed to a group of houses a mile or so away. This, they claimed, was the crucial point before which to catch migrants. Once they pass those homes, they are able to ‘blend in’ with the rest of El Paso.

The final part of our tour was the El Paso Processing Center, where immigrants caught crossing without status are given Credible Fear Interviews to determine if they are even eligible to apply for asylum. In this isolated facility, the conversations between our immigration attorneys and the border patrol agents went from fake polite to something a little more heated. Deportation rates were at an all-time high under the Obama administration, but still the agents claimed it had been too easy for migrants to cross. They further insisted that those days were over–there would be no more Mr. Nice Guy on the border. To me, the most troubling part about this encounter was the lack of knowledge about even rudimentary aspects of immigration law on the part of the CBP agents, who are the front lines of enforcing this law.

Much like the political rhetoric that often characterizes discussions of building a wall on the US-Mexico border, the language used by the Border Patrol agents sought to dehumanize migrants by reducing them to ‘targets’ or statistics. This sentiment seems to be widely echoed by the media and members of our government. But the truth is that migration is a human issue, and behind each statistic is a human story. Rather than building a wall to “protect” borderlands that are already heavily policed, we need to fight for a more just immigration system that recognizes that families should be kept together and those who are fleeing violence from their home countries have a refuge in the U.S. We need to work to reframe the perception of immigrants in this country and decriminalize the actions they take to protect themselves and their families.

Zoe Bowman                                                                                                

Legal Assistant

NMILC recently started working on a project to provide a legal orientation program at a detention facility in Cibola County. Many of the people currently detained in this facility have passed their Credible Fear Interview and are seeking asylum, but without access to attorneys are at a grave disadvantage when advocating for their case. Your support will make this project possible; please consider sponsoring a trip to the facility today by making a donation here.

Reflections on the Border: Part 1

Reflections on the Border: Part 1

April 21, 2017

In February, staff members from NMILC visited the Mexico-US border, touring a youth “shelter”, local processing center, and segments of the wall. This is the first of a three-part series sharing their thoughts about the experience. The views expressed herein are those of NMILC’s staff members.

Southwest Key is an “Immigrant Children’s Shelter” located on the outskirts of El Paso. In this detention facility, children ages 6-17, most of them from Guatemala and other countries in Central America, wait to be placed with family members or friends able to take them in while they go through court proceedings in the US. Here are some reflections from staff members who toured the facility.

Kate Hopkins, Legal Assistant

20170209_125832Southwest Keys was a poignant embodiment of the unjust and unsustainable nature of our current immigration laws. Too often we hear the argument over immigration reform grossly oversimplified to a stalemate between those who think that if you break the law you need to suffer the consequences and those who think that anyone who breaks immigration laws should be forgiven, just because. But the truth is that that isn’t the argument at all. Those of us who see the immigration system as broken are not arguing that those who break the law for immigration purposes should just be forgiven. We are arguing that the laws themselves are unjust and do not sit naturally with our standards of what is humane and what is not, which is why they are being broken so often in the first place.

The Immigrant Children’s Shelter for me served as a powerful example of this disconnect. In the eyes of the court, the children in the shelter are considered to have done something “illegal” and thus expected to be held in detention and deal with the consequences of having broken the law. In the eyes of literally any humane human being, however, they are seen as children and thus deserving protection and help. They should be able to do whatever they need to do in order to be safe and secure, even cross borders. When these two ideas meet, the result is shelters like Southwest Key, which are really just detention centers with brightly painted walls.

Children who come to the United States unaccompanied are not illegal. They should not be criminalized. They are brave and young and deserving of help and protection because for them, for one reason or another, being alone in a foreign country is a better alternative to being at home.

Adriel Orozco, Attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow

Though Southwest Keys is called a “shelter,” it was hard to ignore the fences that lined the exterior of the building and that were topped with barbed wire. We were also constantly reminded that we couldn’t open certain doors without sounding off the alarms. During lunch, one young boy from El Salvador told me that he had been in detention for more than 4 months. He had an uncle and aunt in the midwest who were willing to care for him, but red tape and lack of resources were preventing his family from meeting the definition of a “safe place” that is required by the government. So he continued to wait, hoping that one day the administrative process would allow him to get out of detention and be with his family.

Zoe Bowman, Legal Assistant20170209_125839

If you visit the website for Southwest Keys, you’re taken to a sunshiney non-
profit page with a motto that reads, “Opening doors to opportunity so individuals can achieve their dreams.” And indeed, when touring the detention facility outside El Paso, you are assured over and over again just how
great it is here. How the kids are so happy and thank goodness Southwest Keys is here to protect these poor children. They’re so convincing, that at one point I referred to Southwest Keys as a school.

But the truth is that Southwest Keys is not a school. And it’s not where these children need to go. Shelter is another word for detention center which is another word for prison. And when you look at the beige cluster of boxy buildings and barbed wire on the outskirts of El Paso, you can see it as just that. Southwest Keys doesn’t open “doors to opportunity”, it traps children for months at a time, even when they have friends or family members in the US waiting for them. The existence of Southwest Keys and places like it presupposes that unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America need to be locked up.

At NMILC, we are fighting for a just legal system for all immigrants, including those who are currently detained in prisons. We recently started working with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project to provide a legal information program at an adult detention facility in Cibola County. Each trip to the facility costs us about $200 in transportation and materials costs and staff time. If you are interested in sponsoring a trip to the facility, please make a donation here and specify “Cibola County detention facility” in the acknowledgement line. Your support makes programs like this possible. Thank you for standing with ALL immigrants in New Mexico.