BY SUSANNA SHARPE
It’s 7:30 on a Saturday morning. Barbara Hines has parked a large white van outside the law school at The University of Texas at Austin. Inside a small hallway of the school, a slightly sleepy group of students begins to assemble. Some are law students, others are master’s students in social work, most of them pursuing a dual master’s in Latin American Studies (LLILAS) and social work. On this sunny morning, they will pile into the van for a trip with Hines to Karnes City, Texas. There, they will meet with immigrant women who have been detained along with their children by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after coming to the United States to seek asylum. Hines is an alumna of LLILAS (then ILAS) who has practiced and taught immigration law since 1975. From 1999 through 2014, she was LLILAS affiliated faculty and clinical professor of law at UT Austin, where she served as director of the law school’s Immigration Clinic. She is currently a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective, which is based in Palo Alto, California. Yet despite having retired from practice and teaching, Hines has not stopped her advocacy work for immigrants nor, apparently, lost her desire to teach.
Hines has been representing families at detention centers in Texas for over a decade. In 2006 she first visited the T. Don Hutto facility in Taylor, 35 miles north of Austin. Housed in a former medium-security prison, the facility is run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America. Children lived there in cells, detained along with their immigrant parents, who were awaiting decisions on asylum and other immigration-related issues. The children were kept locked in the cells for up to twelve hours a day in a building where no natural light entered. They were made to wear prison uniforms, given only one hour of educational instruction per day, and had twenty minutes for each meal with no additional snacks.
In March 2007, Hines became part of a lawsuit filed along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the international law firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) challenging the detention of families at Hutto. The suit claimed that the children at Hutto were imprisoned under inhumane conditions, citing the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement reached in Flores v. Meese, which requires that immigrant children be housed in the “least restrictive” environments and that their release be without unnecessary delay. The litigation itself led to the release of dozens of children. A settlement was reached in the suit in August 2007, just before it was to go to trial. Among the results were further releases of families and a marked improvement in conditions at the facility.
As the two-year settlement was about to expire, in August 2009, President Barack Obama made the decision to end family detention, except on a very limited basis at the Berks facility in Pennsylvania. Hines, like many others, breathed a sigh of relief. But the relief was short-lived. In spring 2014, due to a variety of worsening circumstances in their home countries, particularly El Salvador and Honduras, large numbers of Central American immigrants began to arrive at the US southern border, seeking asylum. According to Hines, there is no legal way to apply for a person to apply for asylum from his or her home country. The only way to seek asylum in the United States is to show up.
The response of the Obama administration was to reinstate and greatly expand family detention, and to once again subject mothers and children to detention. Fathers who arrive with a family unit are separated and sent to a male detention facility. Fathers who travel alone with their children are quickly released. All of them are subject to expedited removal.
Under the expedited removal process, any migrant who is detained at a port of entry, such as an airport or an international bridge, or who is arrested within 100 miles of the border within 14 days of his or her entry to the country, may be summarily returned to the home country. This includes those who immediately request asylum protection. Only migrants who establish a “credible fear of persecution” are exempt from this expedited deportation process. Because asylum seekers may not be released, except under exceptional circumstances, until a positive decision on their credible fear of persecution, there was suddenly a need for increased detention space. Privately run facilities under contract with ICE quickly sprang up in Texas and New Mexico to detain Central American mothers and children.
The credible fear determination begins with an interview with a DHS asylum officer. The migrant must explain the reasons for her fear of persecution and answer questions posed by the officer. If successful, she and her children may be released to join family, a friend, or community members in the United States. ICE requires almost all asylum seekers to wear a cumbersome and stigmatizing ankle monitor and imposes other conditions of release. Fortunately, children are not subjected to ankle monitors.
The credible fear requirement poses numerous obstacles for Central American families. Asylum seekers are fleeing violence, extortion, threats, and gender-based harm in their home countries and on the journey north to the United States. Many of them have never discussed these traumatic details with anyone, let alone having to relate such private and terrifying details to an asylum officer in a legal system that is totally foreign to them. Nevertheless, they must be able to relate their experiences in a coherent and detailed manner in order to meet the threshold credible fear standard.
A Day at Karnes
Hines and the group of students file into the large lobby of the Karnes County detention facility. There, Hines checks in with a guard at the front desk, handing over her Texas Bar card and clearance letters that have been obtained in advance so that the students can enter the facility. One by one, the students hand over their IDs. Some of them get locker keys since items like cell phones and cameras are not allowed past the security desk. After that, each visitor passes through a metal detector after placing belongings on a conveyer belt to be scanned.
One or two of the volunteers go with Hines to procure a special cart set up with all that they will need for a day of credible fear preps, intake interviews, release charlas, and more. The cart holds a laser printer, paperwork, folders filled with forms, pamphlets to be handed out. At one time, the cart had contained crayons and coloring books to distract young children while their mothers relayed devastating events to the volunteers; the crayons were prohibited one day without warning, a stern facility supervisor announcing that the children could no longer use them because property had been defaced.
The student volunteers will be carrying out work coordinated by RAICES, or Refugee and Immigrant Center for Legal and Educational Services, a nonprofit agency based in San Antonio that provides free and low-cost legal services. RAICES came to Karnes in fall of 2014 to continue work begun by the Karnes Pro Bono project, a collaborative effort of the UT Immigration Clinic, the law firm of Akin Gump, and concerned lawyers in Central Texas begun in August 2014. Each weekday, a RAICES lawyer and sometimes a legal assistant work at Karnes. They are joined by lawyers and other volunteers from Austin and all over the country.
On a typical weekday, RAICES will have a list of women who have signed up for a free consultation to prepare for their CFI. Staff attorneys and volunteers will go through the list as quickly and efficiently as possible, meeting with women in groups or one-on-one, depending on the nature of the interviews they need to have. Sometimes volunteers must meet with children, such as when a child has his own credible fear case. Examples of this are when children are being aggressively recruited by gangs, or when their lives have been threatened because of their reluctance to join a gang.
Women at Karnes learn about pro bono legal services by attending a “Know Your Rights” legal orientation offered by American Gateways, through word of mouth, from an announcement board where RAICES posts signup sheets, or by receiving a RAICES business card from another detainee. However, ICE is only required to inform a woman about pro bono legal services if she fails her credible fear interview.
On the Saturday in question, there are no RAICES volunteers present, so Hines is “running the list,” making sure women who have signed up for appointments are being paged and brought to the visitation area, assessing who needs what kind of meeting or counsel. The visitation area at Karnes is more or less the size of a large elementary school classroom, with four small, private meeting rooms adjoining it. Volunteers meet with detained women in those rooms to the extent possible, but when all of the rooms are occupied, they are forced to meet with the women in the nonconfidential visitation area.
Throughout the day, Hines fields a variety of questions from her student volunteers. She has paired law students and LLILAS/social work students in teams to meet with women at Karnes. The meetings involve filling out a basic intake form with biographical information, and, when possible, inquiring about conditions in the infamous hielera or icebox (a Customs and Border Patrol facility that is the first stop for detainees) and the dog-kennel-like perrera, often the second stop before Karnes or Dilley, another detention center. If the list of women waiting for interviews is long, there is often not much time to hear about the journey or the conditions along the way. By far, the most important aspect of this interview is preparation for the credible fear interview. This has paid off, as women who have received pro bono services at Karnes have a very high rate of success in the CFI.
Most of the student volunteers speak Spanish, although not all. The non-Spanish-speakers are paired with a Spanish speaker. The LLILAS/social work students and law students bring different, and complementary, approaches to their meetings with detained women. One social work student talked about wanting to help women prepare emotionally for their interviews using a variety of relaxation techniques, such as breathing. Even on a day when the list was long and there were many names to get through, students of both schools take the time to listen, to ask gentle questions, to grab a few tissues from the cart if needed.
Barbara Hines does not hide her dismay at the existence of family detention facilities: “baby jail,” she calls it. As an immigration attorney, she is among the most knowledgeable and widely respected in her profession. She has a plethora of information at her fingertips, and can come off as tough and no-nonsense when discussing cases. But scratch the surface by talking to her about children in detention and you see pure heart and outrage. “To see children in prison,” she said in a 2014 Austin Chronicle interview, “I never thought I’d see that. A child should never be in prison.”
Perhaps one of the reasons Hines is so effective is that she turns her deep sense of justice into action, both as an attorney and as an educator. She says that teaching at the UT law school was the most rewarding time of her career. “I felt that I made an impact in immigration law and advocacy.” She is heartened by the vibrant advocacy community that has arisen in response to US immigration policy and to the recent wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in Texas and the rest of the country. In fact, she says, opinion polls show that most people in the United States do not have extreme views about immigration and immigrants. “The laws are an aberration of history,” she says.
The Road Home
Sometime after 4:00 p.m., the day’s interviews are done. Students have recorded the notes from their interviews in an electronic log so that RAICES staff will be able to follow up. Hines has consulted on cases and answered many questions. The list of women is updated with their current status and paperwork is stored in file folders. One by one, Hines and the students file out of the visitation area, past security, and retrieve their IDs and belongings. Outside the detention center it is sunny and the air feels good after a day in the windowless visitation room. The group snaps a quick photo at the van before piling in to head home.
On the two-hour ride back to Austin, the talk turns to the recent presidential election and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment. How might the prevailing rhetoric about immigration and immigrants shift? Hines offers the following: “We are a nation of immigrants. We need to remember that immigrants contribute to the US economy and are an engine of economic growth. Anti-immigrant rhetoric distorts reality, creating a fear of immigrants as criminals. We need to deconstruct this message.”
That is a tall order in the current political climate, but Barbara Hines remains undeterred.
Susanna Sharpe is communications coordinator at LLILAS Benson and the editor of Portal. She has traveled to Karnes City with Barbara Hines on numerous occasions to volunteer with RAICES.
Barbara Hines is an award-winning immigration attorney and emerita faculty at Texas Law, The University of Texas at Austin. She is an alumna of the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS, class of 1969).