Immigration Detention in the United States

As an immigrant to this nation myself, I was very inspired to meet UC Davis Law Professor, Holly Cooper, a committed advocate for detained immigrants. Her work takes on the manifestations of our nation's anti-immigrant fever which often negates the universal right to dignity that every human being is entitled to receive regardless its nationality. I recently had the opportunity to interview Professor Cooper about immigration detention in the United States and her work to advocate for detainees' rights.

Rhina: Tell me about your work

Professor Cooper: I teach and train law students to defend immigrants in front of immigration court and to defend their cases on appeal. Detained immigrants do not enjoy a right to assigned attorney who can fight their cases. Their cases are considered civil violations, not criminal cases, and therefore immigrants in deportation proceedings do not have the full constitutional protections afforded to the criminally accused. Despite the fact that their civil liberties are at stake, they have to stand alone in front of an immigration judge.

Detained immigrants are extremely vulnerable because they often have no way to communicate with family and lack the financial resources to mount a full-scale defense against deportation. This is the reason that I have trained an army of students during the past six years. I want to ensure that detained immigrants, our clients, have proper legal representation and win their freedom from incarceration.

Around 150 students have been trained since I started, and students have advised hundreds of detained immigrants and won many immigrants’ freedom and achieved many legal victories for our clients.

What brought you to this work?

I get asked that a lot. I grew up in rural Texas near the border with Mexico. I was a child being bussed to a Latino school and learning Spanish. Learning the language gave me an entry to another culture.

When people I knew used to make derogatory remarks against Spanish speaking immigrants, I would intercept and defend them because I knew them. I was in school with their children. My connection with this new language and this new community opened my mind to a wider perspective.

In some way, it was the work of Ella Baker and civil rights activists that brought me into the folds – but for their courageous work, I never would have been bussed and never would have received a true public education, alongside all colors and races. Even at a young age, I began translating cases for victims of domestic abuse in shelter.

I was just 17 when I started hearing the horrific stories of migration by those escaping the civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. I started questioning US foreign policy in these countries as I witnessed first-hand the testimonies of torturesurvivors of repressive regimes supported by our government. 

As a young lawyer, I was jettisoned into the struggles of detained immigrants, when a colleague of mine asked me to cover for him as the attorney of the day in immigration court for the detained docket.  I showed up in court, and saw a group of 50 immigrants from all over the world – Mexico, India, Vietnam -- all charged with deportation, all chained and shackled together. I will never forget when a man from India, got to his knees, holding his papers in his hands, and begged me for help. The humiliation of their struggle moved me deeply. They had incredible stories and they inspired me. They were wonderful people. I had to do something. It seemed like their struggles were invisible to the world, locked inside the detention centers, and our government was trying to diminish their voices byuprooting them from their communities and detaining them far away from their support systems.

What are some of the shocking things you have witnessed in your line of work?
I find shocking that these detainees lack legal representation, and our government does nothing to help them navigate a complicated legal system.

I am shocked by the conditions of their imprisonment, it is both physically and emotionally dehumanizing. There are no services, no recreation, no programs, you are confined to your cell for days, months, and years.  Relatives travel long distances to visit their loved ones and people are lucky if they get to see their families once a month.

The heartbreaking uncertainty of the detainees’ children who don’t know when their parents are coming home. It weighs heavy to see a mother who can’t hold her kids because she is behind a thick plastic wall when they visit her in jail. Kids asking their parents “when are you coming home?”, and they unable to answer. They are in immigration limbo.

In criminal proceedings, you are given a sentence, you know when you are going home or being released. Being detained by immigration, you have no date of your release, there is oftenno bail, you are detained indefinitely until the case is adjudicated. Many attorneys don’t practice this type of law because it is really draining emotionally to see your clients deteriorate physically and mentally before your eyes.

What laws have had an effect in increasing immigration detention?
I believe that one of the most detrimental laws was 1996’s Mandatory Detention law. It took away the discretionary power of judges to release detainees in some cases.

Then came the wave of state enforcing provisions, like Arizona SB 1070. States’ local law enforcement have now become the arm of the federal government to increase detentionand deportation. States have acquired power through these laws to determine who is undocumented and who is not. Taken together, the federal and state laws have rapidly increased the incarceration rate of immigrants.

What can people do? What gives you hope?
I am inspired by the young activists pushing immigration reform – the Dreamers. What they are doing has increased the visibility of the entire immigrant community. They havetaken bold actions to bring attention not only to their demand of legalization, but also to the abuses against detained immigrants.

The Dreamers also stand in solidarity with immigrant detainees and are denouncing the poor conditions of the immigration detention centers. They are giving a voice to a once invisible community – detained immigrants. They educate and bring awareness to this issue. They give me hope.

Barbed Wire Photo from Shutterstock.

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