UT Immigration Clinic lawyers represent detained immigrant women, children

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Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

UT clinical professor Elissa Steglich has seen the despair and fear that resides in Texas detention centers firsthand. One woman she spoke to, a tailor from Central America, terrified by gang threats and the sound of gunshots down her street, fled to the United States with her daughter. Another made the journey with her 13-year-old son, who had not attended school in three years for fear of gang recruitment.

Steglich, along with other members of the UT Immigration Clinic, is representing several families detained in the South Texas Family Residential Center and the Karnes County Residential Center — two south Texas centers that hold only women and children immigrants. The families — migrating mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — are seeking asylum in the United States, fleeing gang violence in their home countries.

UT Immigration Clinic founder Barbara Hines said because residents aren’t allowed to leave the premises, the detention centers are in violation of the Reno v. Flores decision of 1993. They are also not licensed as child welfare facilities, although a decision is currently being made whether to grant the centers that license.

“These are not childcare centers,” Hines said. “The government says it’s a residential facility, but when you talk to any of these children or moms, they will tell you it’s a prison.” 

Hiens said the facilities are run by people without training in childcare and are not suitable for children; metal detectors have been placed at the entrance. Inside, families sleep on bunk beds in cinder block rooms. Hines said officers have prevented some mothers from letting their children walk or crawl on the floors, which can hinder their development.

The centers are located in remote areas, which make it difficult for many detained women to receive legal counsel. Those that fail to find legal representation are often deported, and those that do find a lawyer are eligible for expedited removal. In this process, women meet with an officer to discuss their immigration in a threshold interview. If the woman’s case is deemed worthy of asylum, she will not immediately
be deported.

Often, the interviews take place before the trauma the women have suffered has been realized. Some interviews must be done over the phone and with the assistance of an interpreter. Steglich said the passing rate of these interviews has dropped significantly in the past few years. One woman she spoke to, who failed the interview, was desperate to avoid returning to her home country, terrified her daughter would be killed in gang violence.

“It should be that everyone [is] given access to the court in order to fully present and develop their facts and overall context,” Steglich said. “Instead, we see a good percentage of women and children prohibited from going to court on their claims.”

Mothers who have established credible fear may be released from the detention centers, but are assigned ankle bracelets. The bracelets are monitored by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office for anywhere from a few weeks to a year.

Steglich said the companies that run the detention centers also run the ankle monitoring companies and that the industry is highly for-profit. Senior government major Montse Alatorre’s brother was detained at the Rolling Plains Regional Jail detention center for several months. Phone calls, monetary transfers and food expenses cost her family about $100 per week. If detainees wish to work within the centers, they are paid no more than a few dollars per hour.

“This has been happening for years,” Alatorre said. “It’s very much a money-making business.”

Hines said it costs over $300 per day for each person detained in one of the South Texas centers. She suggests instead of spending the money on detention center, direct that money toward legal representation for the asylum-seeking families. Steglich said she believes the violence in Central America needs to be addressed on a larger scale to stop the inflow of immigrants.

“[The United States] is not only doing irreparable harm to the women and children we’re detaining and deporting,” Steglich said. “It’s a black mark on [the country’s] reputation.”