“Quiero ser chef.” “I want to be a chef.” Braulio’s face lit up as he told me this during his legal screening. His cheeks rounded and his eyes brightened as a big smile formed. This was his response to my question, “Why did you leave your country?” In the hundreds of legal screenings I have done, I had not received such a precise, illustrative answer. I felt inspired by his enthusiasm, and I also smiled. The inspiration was replaced by dread fifteen minutes later when I had to mark Braulio’s intake with a “U.” U means unknown relief. U means that according to the information the child has disclosed during the screening, it is not clear that they are eligible for a visa. U means that Braulio’s intake will be put in a pile with others that we do not refer to an attorney once they are released and living in another part of the U.S. while in court proceedings. U means that Braulio will likely be deported. As I write the “U” on the upper corner of his intake, I feel a sinking in my stomach.
Wanting to be a chef, wanting to study or work, wanting to live with a parent or sibling who is already in the U.S., or wanting to escape extreme poverty and hunger is not enough. On intakes like that, I have to write a “U.” And don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of children I meet who are fleeing gang violence, who have been abused by their parents, who have suffered injuries because of working as small children in dangerous conditions. But there are others, like Braulio, who either do not disclose to me, or just honestly haven’t experienced such horrendous traumas. And without that compelling trauma, they are not eligible for any legal relief or any path to potentially stay in the U.S.
This reality makes me feel frustrated, sad, hopeless.
I am frustrated by a legal system that cannot serve Braulio. It is not that legal assistants like me and attorneys do not want to help kids like Braulio; of course we do! But there are so few attorneys and legal teams who are already working tirelessly to help children who DO have a strong case, who have experienced substantial trauma, and, therefore, might have a chance at obtaining a visa. In an overburdened legal system, strong cases must be prioritized. If a child is to receive legal assistance, the sadder, more traumatic the life story, the better!
I am frustrated by policies that do not provide any options for people who are starving, who can no longer make a living due to global environmental and economic factors, or who want to be with family members who are already working in the United States to support their hungry, struggling loved ones back home. It is one thing to understand on paper that economic migration is not authorized, but it is another to look into a smiling child’s eyes when he says, “Quiero ser chef,” and know that he doesn’t stand a chance in this system.
With these immigration policies and these inadequate legal systems, we as a nation are telling Braulio that he is unworthy. He is unworthy to share in what we have and enjoy everyday in this country. He is undeserving of the time and attention of attorneys. Braulio is marked with a U. He is unknown.
A major part of the Young Adult Volunteer program is the placement of a volunteer with a community partner. That is, in each city, the YAV program has community partners, usually nonprofit organizations or churches, that are doing important work in the community that aligns with the YAV values. Although volunteers cycle in and out each year, the aim is to maintain strong partnerships between the local organizations and the YAV program for ages. This practice demonstrates the concept of volunteering or practicing mission where invited, alongside locals.
The Tucson Borderlands YAV site has a number of local partners doing exiting, challenging work in the Southern Arizona community. (Check them out on our local website!) This year, I am partnered with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. We call it the Florence Project, or FIRRP, for short. The Florence Project is the only nonprofit organization that provides free legal and social services to the 5,000 immigrants who are detained on any given day in Arizona. The Florence Project began in a small town called Florence, Arizona, but now has offices in Florence, Phoenix, and Tucson, with over 80 employees.
My specific placement with FIRRP is with the Children’s Program based out of the Tucson office. We service a 300 children facility that is located within the city of Tucson, a 50 children facility that is located about 1.5 hours away from Tucson, hidden away on the side of a mountain, and a 30 children long term foster care program in Tucson. Our team consists of three attorneys, four legal assistants, a social worker, and an administrative assistant. I essentially work in the capacity of a legal assistant. To best demonstrate the work that I do, I will describe a typical week in my life at the Florence Project.
Mondays are my least favorite days. No, not just because they are Mondays, but because they are office days. A typical Monday for me is spent solely in the office, not at shelters interacting with kids, which I have come to learn is my favorite part of this job. However, I recognize that the office work is also important as it is when I work on casework for clients, such as writing declarations, drafting dependency petitions, and completing asylum applications. On Monday afternoons, we have our weekly team meetings, at which all of the above-named people (attorneys, admin, and legal assistants) gather to discuss surfacing issues, protocol changes, and upcoming events. Immediately after team meeting, we launch into what is called Joint Case Review (JCR).
JCR is an opportunity to bring up any challenging cases so that all attorneys and legal assistants can strategize together and offer each other suggestions and support. JCR is also when legal assistants bring up new, pressing cases that they have identified at the shelters and try to convince an attorney to represent the child.** Because we have only three attorneys and we service 380 children, of course, not all of the children who need an attorney can have one. Sometimes I leave team meeting and JCR feeling encouraged, sensing strong teamwork. Sometimes I leave these meetings feeling defeated by the system and all of the barriers that it presents.
**An important parenthesis: immigrants in removal (read: deportation) proceedings are not guaranteed an attorney, like defendants are in criminal proceedings. This means that most migrants, including children, must defend themselves in a court of law in front of immigration judges, against government prosecutors. A study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, found that “only 37% of all immigrants, and a mere 14% of detained immigrants, secured representation” in asylum hearing.
On a typical Tuesday, one legal assistant heads to the detention facility within Tucson to deliver a Know Your Rights presentation at 8:30am. We alternate giving these presentations, and I am a regular in the rotation. By law, children must receive a Know Your Rights presentation within 10 days of arriving at the facility. This presentation is conducted in Spanish, and delivered in a kid-friendly way with colorful graphics, interaction, and role-play. Following the approximately 1.5 hour-long presentation, the other legal assistants arrive at the shelter to assist with intakes. Intakes are a basic legal screening that all children who arrive at the facility receive. They are conducted in a private room, where we (ideally) cannot be overheard, but can be observed by shelter staff through a window or camera. As legal assistants, we explain confidentiality, and assure the kids that anything they tell us will not be shared with facility staff, ICE, or even their parents, without their consent. We then ask a series of questions designed to determine what type of legal relief the child may be eligible for, and to screen for abuse by Border Patrol. Intakes usually last from 10 am to about noon.
If all goes well for a child, we will not meet with them again. The best case, and most common, scenario is that within weeks (but it is usually several months) of their arrival to the shelter, they will be reunified with a sponsor already living in the U.S., usually a relative or close friend. When they arrive to their destination, we contact them to assist in finding an attorney to represent them in their legal case, which generally endures for years and years after being released from detention. If a child does not have a sponsor, or if their sponsor is rejected by the government, then we meet with child again to discuss other options. They can opt for a voluntary departure, in which they ask the immigration judge permission to return to their home country. Or, if they have a strong enough legal case (read: traumatic enough life), and are under age 17.5, we can assist them in applying for placement in a Long Term Foster Care program.
After a lunch break, we return to the facility at 1 pm to conduct follow-ups. Follow-ups are a second, third, fourth, or umpteenth meeting with a child because they are our client or they need specific assistance with their case, like applying for Long Term Foster Care or have an upcoming court hearing. After follow ups, I return to the office and complete office work for the remainder of the afternoon.
Wednesdays are my favorite day of the week! Although it is an early morning for me, arriving at the office at 7:30 am, compared to the usual 8:30, it is the day with the most direct interaction, which I have come to find very life-giving. At 7:30 am, I meet one other legal assistant at the office and we begin the 1.5 hour trek to the shelter located on the other side of Mt. Lemmon. The four legal assistants each rotate who goes to this facility each week because it is a big time-commitment. My “pet-project”, that was envisioned prior to my arrival at the Florence Project and assigned to me by my supervisor on my first day, is overseeing this facility by being a “regular” there. The goal was to have a more consistent presence for the kids there and to improve the rapport between FIRRP and the facility staff. So, while the full-time legal assistants only go to this shelter once a month, I go every week.
Beginning around 9 am when we arrive, the colleague accompanying me that day gives a KYR presentation while I conduct follow-ups. My consistent presence at the shelter has been very beneficial for follow-ups. The kids know me; I know them. I know exactly where I am in their case and what needs to be discussed each week. Some highlights of these relationships have included a child who loves to practice a bit of English with me each week and sings me Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” a child making me a thread bracelet that has my full name in the design, and children genuinely thanking me for just saying hi and asking how they’re doing.
After KYR and follow-ups, the other legal assistant and I conduct intakes with each new kid. We usually do not leave the shelter until 1 or 2 pm, so by the time we return to the office, I am almost at an 8 hour day, so a little bit of office work, and then I bike home. Though Wednesdays can be long and draining, I love the opportunity to work with the kids who are at such an isolated facility, showing them as best that I can, that they are not forgotten.
My Thursdays have a structure identical to Tuesdays. As the end of my work week, though, I tend to get a surge of energy to tie up loose ends, followed by excitement for the weekend. (The Tucson YAV model is a four-day work week at our site placements, committing to 32 – 36 hours per week. Friday is a designated community day featuring community discussions, work related to vocational discernment, local educational and activism events, and fellowship with housemates.)
You can see that my weeks are very busy, filled with work that requires much background information (which is why this post was so long!) I am very grateful for all of the opportunities that the Florence Project has afforded me over the last five months, and I am grateful to the YAV program for providing me the opportunity to work with FIRRP. I have learned about the system and its flaws through my work. I have learned about my strengths and my flaws through my work. This experience has, so far, solidified my passion for working with children, migrants, and survivors of trauma. It has also caused me to realize that channeling those passions through the legal field may not be the best fit. But, more to come on that later! For now, I hope that this post has increased your awareness of what I do with 32 – 36 hours of my life each week! There is so much more to be said, so I welcome any questions.
A few weeks ago YAVs from Albuquerque and Austin came with us to the U.S/Mexico border on a delegation. The purpose of the delegation was for us to bear witness to the lived realities on the border and to find a faithful response as people of God. The week was transformative for me, while I am still processing all that I experienced I wanted to highlight an experience that stuck with me.
During our time in Mexico we were hosted by Frontera de Cristo, a binational ministry of the Presbyterian church. On our first night we participated in a vigil for people who have died trying to cross the border. We lined the streets of Douglas holding crosses of peoples names who have died. After each name was read we responded with “Presente!”
As we were reading the names I thought about my countries policies, and how death on the border is systemic. On our delegation we learned that in order to have fewer people cross the border, the United States created barriers so that people had to cross through the most dangerous terrain. This policy did not deter people from crossing as the United States hoped; but it did increase the death rate along the border dramatically. With each name that is read I know that my country is directly responsible for their death.
At the end of the vigil our leader ends with “Jesucristo.” We respond “Presente.”
Jesus is present on the border. He is with those who are crossing. I am reminded of the verse Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,”
As we put the crosses away and walk back to our car I thought about how I can be present in the border communities, and how I can respond faithfully.
At the end of the delegation a few of us participated in the School of the Americas watch. My fellow YAVs and I stood in front of Eloy detention center, one of the most deadly detention centers, and chanted no están solos (you are not alone). As we stood across the detention center and chanted I saw lights flicker and people move inside. I turned to my fellow YAV and asked “do you think they can hear us?” She responded “I hope so.” After a week of heart break, to bear witness and to chant in the streets, “No están solos” is to respond with the love of God.
Every person I encountered on the border whether ministry partners, someone getting ready to cross, or people getting sober from addiction I am reminded that Jesus calls us to encounter and to be present. To bear witness to the oppression on the border and the communities that are resisting is to see the face of God.
As I was preparing to embark on my YAV year, a spiritual mentor emailed me the following questions:
Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?
Do you believe in the resurrection?
I told him we should talk.
Quakerism, though officially a Christian denomination, is pretty light on Jesus. I always appreciated this fact, preferring to worship, at various points:
These things brought me joy and awe, all the things I imagined real Christians derived from stained glass depictions of a dead hairy white dude.
We grow and change, though, right? I have to say, I now feel more passionately about the color blue than I do about the color orange. I also think that stained glass white dudes have little to do with Christianity as I conceive of it, as I am experiencing it.
I am convicted by the story of Jesus of Nazareth, a young, innocent man humiliated and killed by the authority charged with keeping the peace. Do I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior? It’s complicated. Do I believe in the resurrection? Yes.
In the first three weeks of my YAV year, I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of listening. I’ve heard some very radical sermons. I’ve heard the stories of DACA recipients shouted in protest before city hall. I’ve heard the stories of women chased out of their home countries, told in the visitation room of a detention center.
I’ve also had the opportunity to ask questions. Over cinnamon coffee, I asked local church leader Brad Munroe how I, how anyone, can be expected to believe in God when witnessing or experiencing the kind of injustice that abounds in these borderlands. In our government. I find myself reverting to the belief that Christianity is a tool for oppression, a story to pacify the masses.
Brad reminded me of a passage from the book “Night” by holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel. Wiesel recalls standing in a crowd, forced by SS officers to watch the execution of two men and a child. “Where is God?” a man behind him was lamenting. Wiesel writes:
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows.
So, the resurrection? I find it everywhere.
At a DACA rally, during a moment of silence honoring people of color killed by our current justice system, decaying in the desert or bleeding in the street.
Inside the walls detention center, watching asylum seekers in jump suits realize they will be indefinitely imprisoned for trying to survive.
I don’t find awe or joy in Jesus. I find deep dismay and a call to action, which feels equally powerful.
For the record though, I still love trees, and I’m dating a blonde. Some things never change.
I am 24 years-old and I come fleeing from Guatemala. The reason why is because gang members in my neighborhood tried forcing me to deliver drugs for them. I refused. Within a few days, I found out that they killed a transgender friend of mine for refusing as well. So I decided to leave my country so that I wouldn't end up the same way. Now I'm in the Florence Detention Center (FDC) and I need your help to get out and meet my goals and dreams to continue studying here in the US."
- Estrella, transgender person currently in detention
"According to a November 2013 report from the Center for American Progress, LGBT detainees are 15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than heterosexual and cisgender detainees."
Read more here: http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2014/10/14/op-ed-why-you-should-help-me-get-lgbt-people-out-detention
Detention is a horrible place for most detainees, but it can be an especially hostile place for LGBTQ individuals. Transgender or gender queer people like Estrella often face verbal and sexual harassment from guards and other detainees. Detention centers or prisons for undocumented people are divided by sex, leaving little room for people who identity outside of strict gender and sex binaries. Homophobia is rampant in these environments which creates a physically and emotionally unsafe place for LGBTQ people.
In addition many individuals like Estrella have experienced rejection, prejudice, and violent threats in their home country. When I visited Estrella at the all-male Florence Detention Center, she told me part of her story.
Estrella grew up in a large family in rural Guatemala. Accustomed to traditional gender roles, his family did not react well when he started to experiment with his gender expression and cut ties with him. Estrella moved to the city to find more economic and social opportunities. Unfortunately, Guatemala City was not a tolerant or accepting place. Powerful cartel members asked her to transport drugs for them. When she refused, they threatened her life. She fled Guatemala and migrated to the United States in search of safety and acceptance. After crossing the border, he was apprehended for Border Patrol and sent to detention. Estrella has been in detention since May 2014, seeking asylum.
Even though Estrella has faced unprecedented tribulations he remains positive and actively engaged in his community. He takes great pride in his work as a kitchen aid at the detention center, volunteering to work extra hours. As her name indicates, she truly has a powerful glow that surrounds her. Somehow, she has managed to maintain a sense of humor and generosity throughout this time. When I met with Estrella, we laughed about silly things, as he read my palm and predicted how many children is have. We daydreamed about delicious foods that are not available in detention. We cried about the abuses he has experienced. After talking for about two hours, we ended our experience by both praying for one another.
As I drove home from the detention center, part of me stayed back with Estrella. I imagined her walking back to her cell, escorted by a guard who probably inspires more fear than security. I imagined her serving food to the very detainees who had abused her earlier that week. I did not want to imagine her spending Christmas alone in a cold cell. More importantly I did not want to imagine him going back to Guatemala, where his life is endangered.
Please help us raised funds to pay the bond to get Estrella out of detention before Christmas. Give her the opportunity to fight her asylum case from a safe and loving place.
I will match every donation up to $100. Please let me know if you have questions or are interested in getting involved.
*Estrella uses masculine and feminine pronouns interchangeably.