Original post in the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Opinion Column, written by Razvan Sibii on January 5, 2020
Throughout 2019, the journalists working the immigration beat have struggled to keep up with the near-daily indignities that the Trump administration has visited on the migrants seeking admission into the U.S. One byproduct of that is that many worthy stories about people fighting back against those indignities have been under-covered. Here are two such stories.
In the summer of 2014, as the so-called “surge” of families and unaccompanied minors overwhelmed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Obama administration decided to detain hundreds of families instead of releasing them conditionally until their cases could be heard in immigration court.
Megan Kludt, now a partner with the Northampton-based immigration law firm of Curran, Berger & Kludt, volunteered at the border helping people imprisoned in a makeshift holding facility in Artesia, New Mexico. The detention of children was unprecedented, and “at the time, felt like an absolutely off-the-charts violation of human rights,” Kludt says.
Upon returning to the Pioneer Valley, she joined forces with the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Immigrant Protection Project connecting local immigrants with attorneys. In 2018, the fresh hell unleashed by the Trump administration’s family separation policy brought Kludt’s focus back to the southern border. She now works with the El Paso Immigration Collaborative (EPIC), an alliance of several non-governmental organizations and law firms around the country, on the biggest challenge currently facing immigration advocates: helping detained migrants make a case in front of an immigration judge or an ICE officer that they are not a danger to the community or a flight risk, and can therefore be released until their case is decided. (Disclosure: Kludt occasionally guest-speaks to my UMass classes for a nominal fee.)
Local organizations do the best they can, Kludt says, but they have a hard time reaching everyone who needs help. Using a specially designed case management system and a production line approach to its work, EPIC is able to help thousands of people document their ties to the U.S. by contacting their family members or friends who have agreed to sponsor them, posting bond, and preparing parole requests. They also collect data about ICE practices that can then be used in lawsuits. More than 1,000 attorneys and volunteers, many of them fluent in Spanish, French or Portuguese, contribute to this massive effort remotely.
“Our goal is to provide service and to try to release as many people as possible, but if we’re not actually changing the system, we’re not really succeeding. So we also need to be constantly checking in about advocacy. What we want to see is policy changes,” Kludt says. “It’s really a human rights crisis. There’s a lot of things that are going on under this administration that are really heartbreaking, but everyone has their place and what they can do. In my case, I’m an immigration attorney, so this is my place, this is my stand at this time.”
While collaboratives like EPIC have managed in recent years to deliver at least some assistance to many of the refugees detained in facilities across the United States, tens of thousands of individuals and families remain largely out of reach in improvised shelters to the south of the border because of the government’s new “Remain in Mexico” policy. In the sad hierarchy of wretchedness, these people probably rate as the most vulnerable group of refugees, as they have to contend not only with miserable living conditions, but also with extortion, assault and even kidnapping.
Border Angels is one of the few U.S.-based outfits that have been able to consistently assist this category of people. For decades, the organization was best known for leaving water jugs in the desert areas of the border for migrants to find. They now also directly support 16 migrant shelters in Tijuana with donations collected from Americans, electricity and water bills, food, legal representation and bond.
That work is personal for Dulce Garcia, a Border Angels board member and a DACA recipient. “I’m still undocumented, even though I came here in 1987 when I was about 4 years old. Fast-forward to today: I’m a property owner, a business owner, I have my own law practice, and I’m also the executive director for this nonprofit. But no matter how much I pay in taxes, no matter how much I feel like I’ve earned my keep, I still will never be a U.S. citizen the way the laws are today,” Garcia says.
Her uncle died trying to cross the desert into the U.S. When she was in high school, her brother was detained by ICE, and now lives with a deportation order that will be enforceable as soon as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is ended. In September of 2017, Garcia successfully sued the Trump administration in a bid to retain DACA protections. When the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments on the legality of DACA in November 2019, Garcia was in attendance. But until the court, Congress and the American voter finally make their decisions, Garcia and the hundreds of volunteers she coordinates continue to fight back against inhumanity.
Interviewing migrants. Posting bond. Contacting family members. Drafting parole requests. Suing the government. Bringing toys and clothes to children stuck in migrant shelters. Leaving lifesaving water jugs in the desert. Paying electricity and water bills. They all chip away at the misery thousands of families are experiencing this winter.
Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.