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Stories of the European refugee crisis continue to flood the headlines, but mass media seems to forget we have a refugee crisis in America, too. Since the beginning of fiscal year 2014, over 120,000 unaccompanied children and an additional 120,000 people in family units–mostly young mothers with children–have arrived at the U.S. border seeking protection from violence in Central America.
In March, I spent a week volunteering for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES)–one of several partner organizations that comprise the CARA Pro Bono Project. I was assigned to represent women and children before the immigration court in San Antonio, Texas. Karnes County Residential Center, operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, houses these refugees in harsh conditions while they wait for a judge to determine their fate. Their stories are tragic, as is the reality that most of these desperate human beings do not qualify for protection under U.S. law, despite the well-documented probability that they will face severe violence and harm if they are returned to their countries of origin.
General violence, extortion, corruption and impunity are endemic in countries like Honduras and El Salvador. However, in order to qualify for political asylum, one must demonstrate that the persecution or harm she fears is targeted against her specifically “on account of” her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, or PSG. Usually, PSG is the only hope, and eligibility hinges on a combination of the facts unique to each case, access to representation, and the appointed judge’s interpretation of PSG (which is not strictly defined).
As I sat in the courtroom while my clients spoke to a judge via video conference from the Karnes detention center, I imagined how they must feel and the thoughts that might race through their minds. Karnes is about 60 miles southeast of the court in San Antonio, so it made more sense for other RAICES volunteers to prepare them for court. That means they had never met me in person, and here I was representing them in what could be the most important hearing of their life.
How could they comprehend who I am, why I am there, and how I could know best what to say to the judge? Imagine, these desperate women, completely dependent on the help of strangers speaking a strange language in a strange land. They don't understand our legal system, and how can they possibly trust institutions of justice here in the U.S. when parallel institutions in their own countries are so corrupt? To make matters worse, the first thing we do to them (and their 3, 4, 5-year-old kids) is lock them up in detention facilities. The only truth they know is that they had no choice but to leave home if they wanted to live and to give their children a fair shot at life.
There are no easy answers. My hope is for our elected officials and for individuals like you and me to confront our collective reality with courage and compassion. People all over the world are wrestling with these very real issues daily; some of us from the comfort of our homes and others from jail cells in unfamiliar places. We must seek solutions for those in need and fight for rights and dignity for all people.
For a minute, close your eyes and imagine if this was your story, simply to be born into a hostile environment. Say a prayer for those in need, definitely give thanks for the freedom and relative comforts you enjoy, and do whatever you can to make a positive impact in this world we share.
Sheryl Winarick is an immigration attorney, advocate and entrepreneur based in Washington, D.C. and Austin, TX. Before starting her own immigration law practice in 2007, she spent eight years working for national non-profit organizations–Catholic Legal Immigration Network and the Justice For Our Neighbors program of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. She is currently in Residence at the TED office in New York and serves on HIAS’ Public Policy Committee.
HIAS provides direct legal services to refugees and asylum seekers from Central America and around the world. If you or someone you know needs help with an asylum case in New York or Washington, D.C., email email@example.com for more information.