Things That Matter

An Ex-ICE Attorney Is Calling Out The Agency For Using False Evidence To Deport And Detain Innocent Migrants

A former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lawyer has revealed that in several cases ICE agents corroborated against immigrants in order to achieve their deportation. In an in-depth interview with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates those on power, Laura Peña revealed many of the behind the scenes details of the how the government agency pursued the deportation of migrants and asylum seekers. The investigative piece highlights some of the trials and tribulations that Peña has lived through as a legal assistant to the agency where, in different cases, there was a common factor: lack of evidence to accuse immigrants of any fault that prompts their deportation.

Now she’s getting to tell her side of the story. 

Who is Laura Peña and how did she end up working for ICE?

Credit: @ProPublica / Twitter

Growing up in Harlingen, Texas, which is close to Mexico, Peña was immersed in the migrant community. Living so close to the U.S-Mexico border gave her a unique perspective on what many Latino migrants endured. She went to school with friends who were undocumented and friends whose parents also worked for the Border Patrol. After graduating high school she left the area and would get a job in the State Department. 

She would eventually take her career path in the same footsteps as her father to become a lawyer. After graduating from Georgetown Law, she saw that ICE was looking for trial attorneys but the opportunity wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Peña wasn’t sold on the concept of helping see migrants get deported, especially growing up in a migrant community herself. Family and friends were in disagreement with the thought of her working on behalf of ICE. 

 But her father, who himself was a struggling attorney, consoled her and reassured her not to pass up an opportunity like this. “Do what you need to do,” he counseled her. “Don’t worry about what others think.”

 A fellow mentor, who was also an immigration attorney, also encouraged her to take the position. He said this could be an opportunity to take the job and try to make the government agency more humane. “We need people of your mindset working on the government’s side,” she told Peña.

Peña was hired in 2014 as an ICE attorney which would be the start of a turbulent and controversial time working on behalf of the agency. These are some of the stories she told ProPublica about her experiences. 

Credit: @HispanicCaucus / Twitter

One of the mentioned cases in the investigative piece was that of Carlos, a migrant who applied for political asylum. As soon as he made his request, border and immigration agents accused him of being a member of the notoriously famous MS-13 gang in El Salvador, so this made Carlos not eligible to enter to the United States. 

This is where Peña, who followed the case, started to see the ugly true side of ICE. She did not find any semblance of a connection between Carlos and the gang, not even tattoos, that are a key part of the gang’s look or even criminal record in his own country. To the contrary, Carlos even carried an official letter from the Ministry of Justice of El Salvador certifying and clearing him of ever setting foot in a jail cell. Peña demanded proof from immigration agents that he was connected to the gang but did not obtain any. Despite the lack of any evidence of his gang affiliation, Carlos did not obtain his asylum.

Another case she revealed was that of a 6-month-old baby who was scheduled to be deported because he had been separated from his mother. Peña would eventually reunite the child with his mother but the woman was accused of carrying a false document. The immigration judge used that against her and would then order her child’s removal from the country.

This would all lead to Peña taking a step back from the agency. She now works pro bono with clients seeking asylum at the border. 

Credit: @bykenarmstrong / Twitter

All of this immigration work would overwhelm Peña over time, especially during the Trump administration’s family separation policy went into effect in Spring 2018. “Everything was stacked against the immigrants. Most couldn’t afford to hire an attorney. Few would ever win their cases.”

Peña would go on to acknowledge that the immigration system refuses to provide due process to an immigrant. but also realizes that there’s not much that could be done there. She is now working pro bono as a visiting attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, helping migrants with asylum cases. She now hopes she can properly bring justice to the countless of people that have been wrongly deported or separated at the hands of ICE. 

READ: This New Border Wall Mural Features QR Codes That You Can Scan To Hear Emotional Stories Of Deported Migrants

ICE Is Taking Advantage Of Migrants Who Can’t Read Or Write In Their Court Proceedings

Things That Matter

ICE Is Taking Advantage Of Migrants Who Can’t Read Or Write In Their Court Proceedings

Sandy Huffaker / Sandy Huffaker

Last summer, images of undocumented immigrant children went viral. These images didn’t show them crying, or being taken away from their parents. These children were pictured alone in court. The nameless children had no one by their side, no one to represent them, and had no clue what was going on, despite the fact that they were there trying to seek asylum. In some cases, these children wore headphones as a means to translate what the judge was saying. However, given that they were just children, the translation was almost useless. Reports are now servicing that immigration officials are using the language barrier as a means to keep them out of the U.S. 

An op-ed, written by a volunteer at the border, states that asylum-seeking immigrants cannot read or write in English or in their native tongue and immigration officials are taking advantage of that.

Emily Reed, a recent grad student from Barnard University, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post that stated she witnessed this manipulation from immigration officials against illiterate undocumented people. Reed was at the border in Texas volunteering with classmates at the South Texas Family Residential Center volunteering with the Dilley Pro Bono Project when she witnessed this manipulation. 

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection often conveniently exploit asylum seekers who cannot read. Along with an unfamiliarity with our deliberately complex immigration system, the illiteracy of Central American migrants, especially women, facilitates the deportation of parents and separation of families,” Reed wrote. She added, “By manipulating illiterate refugees who often unwittingly sign away their rights, the U.S. government is violating the basic tenets of the internationally recognized and protected right to seek asylum.” 

Reed added that her volunteer program with the legal center provided Spanish documents to the migrant families, but they couldn’t under that either.

“Simple translation is not enough,” she wrote. “The Dilley Pro Bono Project provides documents in Spanish, but even this paperwork was difficult for many migrant women to understand. Many women I helped to fill out paperwork struggled simply to write their children’s birth dates.”

The migrant families are being rushed within the court and legal process, which in turn, is causing deportation to happen a lot faster.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that the haste paperwork at the border made it possible for immigration officials to rush and deport undocumented immigrants. The ACLU stated this process should not be rushed because people need to take their time and understand what is going on and what it is that they’re signing. 

“This waiting period is crucial to ensure that parents have an opportunity to make an informed decision about whether to fight their own removal cases, leave their children (who may have their own asylum claims) behind in the United States, or make some other decision,” the ACLU stated lasted year. “In short, families will be making life-altering decisions after months of traumatic separation — and the fact that the government is trying to shortchange them a matter of days to do so is galling.”

A New York Times report showed that 58,000 asylum seekers are currently stuck in Mexico under Trump’s policy because they’re awaiting asylum hearings.

The backlog for these asylum hearings is up to six to eight months, and when they’re ready for their hearing the majority of them won’t understand what needs to be done. This is why they need proper representation, and a patient legal system so they comprehend what is being asked of them and what the next steps are. 

What makes this matter even worse is that there’s not enough legal representation for each family unit, or individual, at the border. 

Last year, it was very apparent that there were not enough lawyers or legal help for undocumented immigrants at the border, and this year there’s even more undocumented people awaiting help and attempting to seek asylum. There people like Reed who want to help asylum seekers, but it’s not as easy as they might think. 

“People see the crisis happening, and they want to do something right now, which is great. But when we explain that this is a long-term fight, and we need your long-term commitment. That’s when people sort of back off.” Zenén Jaimes Pérez, the communications director at the Texas Civil Rights Project, told Huffington Post last year. 

If, however, you are willing to put in the time, or you’re interested in learning more about how you can provide legal help, or assist legal teams at the border, please reach out to: the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (“ProBAR”); the Immigration Justice Project (“IJP”); the ACLU of Texas; and RAICES.

READ: Selena Gomez Announces New Netflix Series ‘Living Undocumented’

This MLB Team Just Swore In 15 New American Citizens And Our Hearts Are Overflowing With Emotion

Things That Matter

This MLB Team Just Swore In 15 New American Citizens And Our Hearts Are Overflowing With Emotion

Screen capture. CBS News.

As the 2020 presidential election draws near, every public act that involves issues of citizenship and migration becomes a political statement (perhaps involuntarily, but a statement nevertheless). That is why having a civic act involving issues of immigration in front of a stadium full of baseball fans is a super relevant ideological statement. Last weekend, at Citizen Bank Park in Philly, a few individuals had one of the most significant days of their lives. 

Fifteen new American citizens were sworn in before the Phillies-Red Sox game last Sunday.

Credit: Screen capture. CBS News.

Yes, 15 new American citizens of all kinds of origins were cheered as they waved flags and swore their allegiance to the United States. The new citizens, of all kinds of backgrounds, are a true snapshot of multicultural America, a representation that goes counter to the Trump Era vision of exclusivity and privilege.

As reported by CBS News, MLB has become an advocate for this kind of ceremonies: “Fifteen new Philadelphia-area residents from 11 different countries were sworn in as U.S. citizens Sunday at the game. The newly minted U.S. citizens are among the over 700 new citizens who have been naturalized at 11 professional ballparks this summer”. By the way, the Phillies lost 6-3 to Boston, but the evening had a celebratory vibe, of course!

And what could be more American than becoming a citizen in Philadelphia, right?

Credit: Giphy. Anonymous. 

After all, the United States Constitution was signed by the Founding Fathers there, right? What a moment it must have been for the 15 new citizens, some of whom surely had perilous migration paths, when they heard: “”Congratulation, you are now citizens of the United States of America. You now share the same rights, the same privilege, the same obligations as any citizen of this great country”. And to be honest, there are few things as American as a day at the ballpark. 

And let’s remember that Pennsylvania was all red after the 2016 presidential election, so statements like this are increasingly important for those who wish Trump to be kicked out of office.

Credit: Wikipedia

Just look at that red tide. Pennsylvania is heavily reliant on manufacturing industries that have been hit hard by global trade and the move of American companies overseas. The steel manufacturing industry, for instance, has lived under extreme duress for decades. This is perhaps why Trump’s message resonated with disgruntled workers. The state has large numbers of Latino presence, mainly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. So statements of civil inclusion such as the citizenship ceremony at the stadium could send a message: we are all the same, we all deserve a shot, we are all equal. 

All it takes is a good hearted judge with a love for baseball.

Credit: Twitter. @PhillyInquirer

The ceremony was performed by Juan R. Sanchez, a judge of Puerto Rican origin who understood what multiculturalism really means on a personal level when baseball made him feel part of the community. He told CBS News: “We hope we remind people of the tremendous privileges we have under the constitution. And remind people that we have a responsibility to be engaged.” Preach, querido juez Sanchez. 

Last year the ceremony had 19 new Americans, so the trend is continuing that is just una chingonería.

Credit: Twitter. @GraceMarioano

The trend is constant now. Last year 19 new Americans were welcome at a Phillies game. By the way, those red hats are Phillies cachuchas, so don’t be alarmed!

But the trend goes back to the early 2010s, as reported by the Portland Press Herald. In 2012, before a Minor League game more than two dozen children were welcome as United States citizens: “The children were part of a pre-game ceremony that celebrated their new citizenship at Hadlock Field, home of the Portland Sea Dogs. The children, from Congo, Germany, the Philippines and Somalia, were presented certificates recognizing their citizenship, derived from their naturalized parents or adoption. After the ceremony was held between home plate and the backstop, the children and their families stayed for the Sea Dogs’ game with the Reading Phillies. The children held a giant American flag during the playing of the national anthem”.

Becoming a citizen of a foreign country is a big step in anyone’s life, particularly if they flee perilous circumstances at home, so having a whole stadium cheer you must be quite something!

Citizenship  ceremonies at Phillies’ games have a dual purpose: make new Americans feel welcome and educating the public.

Credit: Twitter. @SU2Citizenship

The best way to make a statement is a lived experience. The thousands of fans that have been overcome by emotion as new Americans are welcomed can see, and feel, how great cultural diversity is. This photo is from a ceremony in 2015. 

We are Los Dodgers fans, but the Philadelphia Phillies will always have a special place in our hearts.

Credit: Facebook. Philadelphia Phillies. 

As Angelenos and Latinos we remain loyal to our Dodgers, but we gotta admit that the Phillies are growing on us thanks to their approach. They make citizenship ceremonies a community affair