All this week, immigration has taken center stage in Washington as the nation’s had to confront the reality of families being separated, and of people being incarcerated for daring to seek refuge in America. Just before President Donald Trump flies to Nevada to campaign with Senator Dean Heller (R) tomorrow, I spoke with an attorney on the front lines of Trump’s immigration conflagration about what she’s actually seeing on the ground, who her clients truly are, and why the White House’s actions are causing problems for immigrants.
“The consequences of [Jeff Sessions’] decision are huge and far reaching. It will be devastating for a lot of these people.”
– Laura Barrera, UNLV Immigration Clinic
Laura Barrera is an attorney at the UNLV Immigration Law Clinic. Most recently, she worked on Cecilia Gomez‘s case after ICE arrested her by surprise. After ICE succumbed to public pressure to release Gomez from detention and scrap plans for immediate deportation, Barrera successfully argued for termination of the federal government’s case against Gomez, thereby allowing her to resume her green card application.
Though Gomez won in court, most others haven’t been as fortunate, not even children escaping brutal gangs and other drug-related violence in Central America. As Barrera aptly put it, “For the kids in Central America, they’ve always had a hard time winning asylum.” And now, thanks to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to make asylum even more difficult for refugees to attain, it’s even harder: “The consequences of that decision are huge and far reaching. It will be devastating for a lot of these people.”
As Barrera explained, “Sessions overruled previous precedent that allowed for victims of domestic violence to be eligible for asylum. It affects anyone where the persecutor is not the government.” Or in other words, Sessions is raising the bar so unattainably high for most refugees requesting asylum. Barrera continued, “They are raising the standard to make it more difficult. You have to show that the government condoned the action, or the government couldn’t do anything about it, to where you must prove the government plays some role in your persecution.”
“If you don’t know about how the system works, it can be hard. […] You need a lot of money, and people don’t always have that.”
– Laura Barrera
When Donald Trump and his allies claim they want immigrants to “enter this country legally” or “do it the right way”, keep in mind that his administration is closing legal avenues for immigrants to do just that. And if one isn’t very plugged into immigration law, or if one can’t afford a good attorney, the system can be incredibly difficult to navigate.
According to Laura Barrera, “If you don’t know about how the system works, it can be hard. You might only have a couple of days [before a deportation hearing]. Especially in smaller communities like Las Vegas, there are limited resources. You need a lot of money, and people don’t always have that.”
Harkening back to Cecilia Gomez’s case, Barrera pointed out how even immigrants who believe they’re “doing it the right way” are still at risk: “If you have an old order of removal, it can come up. If you’re like Cecilia and a victim of notario fraud, they can come after you.” Or in other words, ICE will even target immigrants who’ve been defrauded, or immigrants who might not have all their paperwork in perfect order.
“Trump is trying to reimplement the Obama-era policy on family detention. […] He’s asking them to do something that the court says it can’t do.”
– Laura Barrera
This week, after an outcry of outrage from across the nation, Trump retreated from his earlier refusal to undo his own order that mandated family separation. However, this doesn’t mean this crisis is over. Far from it, Trump’s latest maneuver will probably ignite a whole new legal fight.
Why’s that? Then President Barack Obama already attempted combined and extended family detention during the 2014 Central American refugee crisis, only to be rebuked by the courts. As Laura Barrera pointed out, “Trump is trying to reimplement the Obama-era policy on family detention. It doesn’t look like an actual attempt to solve the problem. He’s asking them to do something that the court says it can’t do.”
And why is this illegal? In 1997, the federal government settled a lawsuit challenging the government’s policy of detaining immigrant children. As Barrera noted, “The court found that kids must be kept in less restrictive settings, and they can’t be kept longer than a reasonable amount of time, which they determined to be 20 days.”
“It’s not separate families, or detain them together. […] There are alternatives to detention.”
– Laura Barrera
So if Trump’s current approach to refugees and other immigrants doesn’t work, and if Obama’s attempt to handle the 2014 refugee crisis didn’t work, what can work? Laura Barrera says the federal government must look beyond detention: “It’s not separate families, or detain them together. […] There are alternatives to detention. Immigrants can be released under bond, or under recognizance.”
For Barrera, immigrants who pose no threat need not be kept in jail and treated like dangerous criminals: “Asylum seekers who are found credible should not be kept in detention. This is one problem that must be fixed. If someone can sponsor them, and they want to fight their cases, and they’re willing to go to court, they should not be kept in detention. Period.”
“Why aren’t we helping children? […] We should be affirmatively helping kids who are coming here to flee violence and persecution.”
– Laura Barrera
Though Trump initiated this latest migrant crisis with his administration’s own actions, he continues to blame others, including Congress. As a result, House Republicans have been advancing two bills: one by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), and one that House Republican leaders are still tinkering with. Both include Trump administration priorities like border wall funding, and both allow for continued indefinite detention of immigrants. The Goodlatte bill failed on the House floor yesterday, and Republicans leaders fear their bill may yet fail if they bring it to the floor next week.
Barrera is not a fan of either bill, and would like Congressional leaders to advance other bills that can make a real difference in improving the system and safeguarding immigrants’ civil rights: “There’s no reason why we can’t accept asylum seekers, and we can’t protect DREAMers, and we can’t help people who qualify for TPS. There’s no reason why we can’t do all of that.”
Barrera then came back to the central point in this whole conversation, that of refugee children coming here in search of a better life: “Why aren’t we helping children? These kids are coming to the United States seeking help. Why aren’t we helping them? We should be affirmatively helping kids who are coming here to flee violence and persecution.”
“These families still need your support. We have immigrant children here in Nevada who need your continued support.”
– Laura Barrera
Trump is set to appear in Las Vegas tomorrow to campaign with Senator Dean Heller (R). When asked what she’d like to ask Trump tomorrow, she responded, “I’d ask him if he’s interested to meet our clients. If he actually meets these children, accompanied children or children fleeing violence in El Salvador, he’d realize that these aren’t gang bangers. In fact, these are children fleeing violence. These are good kids. He needs to understand that.”
Barrera added that she and other immigrant rights advocates have already extended this invitation to Heller: “We’ve invited Senator Heller to meet these children. He hasn’t taken up this offer, but it’s still open.”
In the meantime, Barrera expressed hope that Americans will continue to express their outrage, and that they continue to demand real change that provides real relief for immigrants in need: “These families still need your support. We have immigrant children here in Nevada who need your continued support.”