Richmond, Calif. — As officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began a new wave of deportations of Central American migrants who entered the U.S. illegally in the past two years, 50 members of faith-based communities gathered outside the West County Detention facility here, Jan. 2, to protest the action. The demonstrators said the arrests target vulnerable families and unaccompanied minors who have not had adequate legal counsel before receiving deportation orders.
At the close of the Jan. 2-3 weekend, 121 adults and children had been taken into custody in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, according to Jeh Johnson, head of the Department of Homeland Security. He said these and thousands of others throughout the country will be apprehended within the next few weeks because they have exhausted their legal appeals. Last year, more than 330,000 migrants were apprehended at the U.S/Mexico border.
The Rev. Deborah Lee, immigration program director for the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity headquartered in Los Angeles, said her organization knows of targeted migrants who have moved to areas where there are no legal clinics to assist in their asylum requests. Others misunderstood the requirement to appear in court and thus received deportation orders in absentia. "Every immigrant deserves an attorney," she said.
Her organization wants President Barack Obama "to open his heart and shelve the deeply controversial plan," which, she said, "targets traumatized families whose cases were rushed through an unjust, conveyer-belt style process, often without legal counsel, basic information about their rights or adequate information about the hearing schedule."
She was referring to the "rocket docket" which speedily moves cases forward by maintaining strict adherence to laws that cover filing deadlines and other procedures. For the Central American migrants, this often means unaccompanied minors and families being rushed through the federal immigration system, wrote Stanford University law professor Jayashri Srikantiah and Lisa Weissman-Ward of the law school's Immigrants' Rights Clinic, Aug. 14, 2014, on the law school's website:
The rocket docket is particularly troublesome because it substantially hampers recent migrants' ability to find and retain attorneys. … The time currently permitted to locate and hire counsel is only 30 to 45 days. This may be insufficient, resulting in children and families returning to immigration court on a second occasion without the time to locate and hire counsel.
Because the majority of recent migrants are seeking refuge from the gang violence and drug wars that plague their countries and often arrive traumatized, "a 'rocket docket' makes no sense," they wrote. "Families and children with legal claims to stay in the United States need time to prepare their cases and find attorney representation, not an expedited process."
According to a Jan. 6 press release, the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Jan. 5 prevented four Central American families from being deported, families who had been apprehended by ICE over the weekend and were being held in Dilley, Texas. The families were scheduled for deportation on Jan. 6.
"Our interviews revealed that these families have bona fide asylum claims, but were deprived of a meaningful opportunity to present them at their hearings in immigration court," said Katie Shepherd, managing attorney for the CARA Project, in the press release. "It's beyond shameful that these families, who risked everything to seek protection in the United States, were being forcibly returned to the violence and turmoil they fled in Central America."
The CARA project is a partnership of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), the American Immigration Council, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
During the Jan. 2 demonstration in Richmond, led by social justice advocate and musician Francisco Herrera of St. Peter and St. Anthony parishes in San Francisco, participants prayed especially for the up to 300 undocumented migrants currently held at the jail, including an 80-year-old woman. The group blessed relatives of the detainees who had joined in the protest. Several spoke in Spanish about their grief and frustration. One woman said her brother "came here for opportunity. It is not fair that he's being treated as a criminal."
Hilda Cruz, Justice for Immigrants coordinator for the San Bernardino diocese and vice president of the board of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, told NCR that the current surge of detentions is "an important issue." On Jan. 10, the diocese will hold its 10th annual Immigration Mass with a focus on refugees. Bishop Gerald Barnes will celebrate the liturgy at Our Lady of Soledad Church in Coachella.
Lee said her organization is hoping churches throughout California will become sanctuary churches, offering practical help to migrants.
At Christ the King Parish in Pleasant Hill, several parishioners are already doing that, said Anne Daniele, chair of parish's immigration committee. She is part of a seven-person team assisting a woman with two daughters. Other members are helping a 17-year-old boy and a 21-year-old man who has no family in the U.S.
Daniele plans to talk with her pastor about the parish becoming part of the sanctuary movement. "I think he will be open to considering it," she said. "He's an immigrant himself."
In his Jan. 4 statement about the new detention activity, DHS Secretary Johnson said, "I know there are many who loudly condemn our enforcement efforts as far too harsh, while there will be others who say these actions don't go far enough. I also recognize the reality of the pain that deportations do in fact cause. But, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities. At all times, we endeavor to do this consistent with American values, and basic principles of decency, fairness, and humanity."
[Monica Clark is an NCR West Coast Correspondent. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]