Finding the True Christmas in the Detention Facility

Austin Region JFON seeks to help those facing deportation

“The advocate’s sole responsibility is to succor the afflicted, the enchained, and the oppressed as people in need, having eyes only for their suffering, and not for their virtues or vices.”

Virginia Raymond, legal director for Austin Region Justice for Our Neighbors, (ARJFON) paraphrasing Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

“Cervantes’ wisdom resonates with me,” says Virginia.  “As an advocate, I don’t want to decide who is more “worthy”—is it the 20-year-old mother with a child or the journalist whose life has been threatened?” She shakes her head. “We set a priority of serving people with the most urgent need. Today, in terms of immigration, the people with the most urgent need in the Austin community are those facing removal [deportation].”

Although other JFON sites also serve those in detention facilities or facing imminent deportation, the Austin site has made it a particular focus of their ministry.

Longtime JFON attorney Rebecca Rosenberg mostly works on Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) cases for unaccompanied migrant children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by one or both of their parents.

Virginia’s caseload, meanwhile, includes adults in truly desperate situations: a 19-year-old Cuban political dissident who was kidnapped and raped en route to the U.S.; a Mexican campesino whose father and brothers were murdered because they refused to grow opium; a Christian minister and his family fleeing persecution in Cameroon.

At many of the immigrant detention facilities that dot the Central/South Texas landscape, you will find people who have been, are currently, or will soon be, represented by Virginia and Austin Region JFON.

A fair amount of ARJFON’s referrals come from existing clients or from people who found its name on a list somewhere. But many of its new clients come via other nonprofits that offer immigration legal services in the area.

Virginia Raymond, site attorney for Austin Region JFON.

“In other words,” explains Virginia, “people are calling us after another organization has turned them down.”

In 2017, the Immigration and Civil Rights Section of the Austin Bar Association recognized Virginia with a Hero Award for her exemplary dedication to justice, civil rights, and immigration activism. This was preceded by a long history of social justice advocacy as a lawyer, organizer, and educator. When she came back to the full-time practice of law, her intention was to give half her time to criminal defense and half to immigration law.

It didn’t quite turn out the way she had planned.

“Immigration swamped everything else,” she admits.

Make ye straight what long was crooked

His name was Vinicio. He fled Guatemala because the government could not, or would not, protect him from his torturers.

“He came to the U.S. fearing for his life,” says Virginia, who became the young man’s pro-bono lawyer. “But he did not know that he should ask for asylum. So he was immediately deported.”

When Vinicio arrived back in Guatemala, his persecutors quickly tracked him down.  They attacked him, stabbing him with a knife before he could get away.

“He hid in a confessional of a church near his home,” says Virginia, “and waited until after dark to make his escape.”

Vinicio again fled to the U.S., but this time he told the officials why he could not return to Guatemala. He was put into a detention center. Because of his earlier deportation, the immigration court did not have the jurisdiction to release him. So Vinicio stayed in detention, waiting, hoping and praying.

Immigrant detention is big business for America’s private prison companies. Photo: Ross D. Franklin.

Virginia was able to secure Vinicio protection from deportation via the Convention against Torture (CAT), a treaty that the U.S. signed in 1985. CAT protection isn’t permanent, and it doesn’t lead to a green card. But it does keep Vinicio safe, and it did get finally get him out of detention. It also gave him authorization to work.

“He wanted very much to play music in a church,” remembers Virginia. Three years later, she notes with satisfaction, “and that is exactly what he is doing.”

Never Surrender

Removal defense cases, whether they are asylum, CAT, or “10-year cancellation of removal” (available to certain longtime undocumented residents), are a long, grueling and messy business. And the good guys don’t always win.

The Joe Corley Detention Center  is also operated by a private prison company. Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle.

When Conrad, a student and journalist from Sierra Leone, published an article sharply criticizing the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), he became the victim of intimidation tactics and serious threats to his life. He fled to the United States for his safety and eventually ended up at a detention facility in Laredo, Texas.

While asylum can be granted to those who are persecuted because of expressed political ideology, the judge acknowledged, the practice of FGM is cultural, not political. Conrad, the judge reasoned, had not been persecuted on the basis of his political opinion.

“That was a rough day,” Virginia concedes. “But, you know what?” She takes a deep breath and straightens her shoulders. “This is a great case for an appeal. That’s the next step.”

Unfinished Business

Alicia was bright, perceptive, and had a useful understanding of the English language. The terrible violence she had experienced in her native El Salvador had neither broken her nor caused her to shrink from the road ahead.  She didn’t have the money to pay the $7,500 bond the judge had imposed, so she couldn’t leave the T.Don Hutto “Residential” Center where Virginia first met her. But the 26-year-old woman remained positive and strong.

“I told her that arguing an asylum case while she was in detention was far from ideal, but we would do everything we could to succeed.  And I wasn’t worried about Alicia,” says Virginia. “I have clients I worry myself sick over, but I was not worried about Alicia.”

It never occurred to Virginia than Alicia would fall victim to traffickers while incarcerated at the detention center.

When Virginia went back to Hutto to see Alicia a few weeks after the bond decision, the staffer at the front desk told Virginia that Alicia was gone. He couldn’t tell her where, how, or with whom.

The walls of the T. Don Hutto “residential center” are painted pretty pink, but the women inside are still prisoners. Photo credit: The Blaze.

“Someone from El Salvador got me out,” Alicia told her when Virginia finally found her in San Antonio.

“So are you going to California, then? Can your relatives there help you?”

Alicia shook her head, avoiding Virginia’s eyes. “No, I’ll be staying in San Antonio for a while, I think.”

Virginia stared at the young woman, realizing with growing unease that something was very wrong.  She asked Alicia to tell her about her day.  Alicia eventually revealed the full truth of her situation: up at 4 a.m. every morning, working in a food truck for 12 to 16 hours a day, and paid $5 an hour. Out of those measly earnings, her “savior” took out for room and board. He also demanded that she pay back the cost of the $7,500 bond and the monitoring device she now wore around her ankle.

“The trafficker made a deal,” says Virginia bitterly. “He knew she would never, ever get out of that debt.”

But the worst was yet to come. Alicia’s countryman had made her a virtual slave—casi esclavitude—with “debt peonage.” But he was also sexually abusing her.

The first order of business was to get Alicia out of that house.

Alicia seemed reluctant to go. “If I leave, he’ll call immigration, and I’ll get deported,” she told Virginia. “And the other workers on the food truck will get deported, too.”

Within several hours, however, Virginia convinced Alicia to leave San Antonio. Virginia then spent days trying to retrieve the bond papers necessary for Alicia to travel to California. The Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents had given the papers to the man who had bonded Alicia out of the detention center. Of course, Alicia’s abuser had no interest in letting Alicia have the papers that proved she was in the U.S. legally while awaiting her hearing.

“Taking documents from people is a form of control,” Virginia explains gravely. “It’s what traffickers do.

“Detention, like poverty,” she continues, “makes people vulnerable in many ways, including labor and sexual exploitation. It makes people vulnerable to unscrupulous predators, notarios and unethical lawyers, too.”

Alicia is now in California with her relatives. Virginia is still working on Alicia’s asylum application, hoping that the hearing can take place in California instead of Texas.  It isn’t a happy ending yet. But it’s a good place to start.

An Unconquerable Soul

You can call them “residential centers.” You can paint them pretty colors and dress them up with plastic seasonal decorations. But they still look like and feel like prisons.

Uniformed correctional officers tell adults and children when to get up, when to eat, what to eat, and where to go. Those who are detained are under 24-hour surveillance.

Within the fences and barbed wire, there are hundreds of stories of suffering, separation, and tragedy. There are victories, yes, but there are also defeats, and things that are strangely neither one nor the other.

We may look at the path Virginia has willingly chosen for herself and think it too stony, too hard, and far too grim. We can admire the social justice warriors who toil among us, while we are uncomfortably reminded of our own weaknesses and inadequacies. And we can shake our heads and wonder, “How on earth does she manage to do that, day in and day out?”

“I’m lucky to have supportive colleagues and a supportive board,” Virginia answers, smiling. “I know what I’m supposed to do when I get up in the morning. And that is a gift.”