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

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2020 Has Been A Tragic Year As A Record Number Of Migrants Die In ICE Custody

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2020 Has Been A Tragic Year As A Record Number Of Migrants Die In ICE Custody

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The news out of 2020 continues to devastate and it’s getting harder and harder to be shocked by just how horrible things are looking. However, the level of neglect inside ICE detention centers is so shocking that it’s leading to a record number of deaths. No matter what year it is, that is shocking.

It’s been 14 years, during the presidency of George Bush, since ICE detention centers have recorded the level of deaths that they’re recording this year. Despite warnings from health and immigration experts, ICE has largely refused to release immigrants from overcrowded cells despite an ongoing and out of control global health pandemic. This blatant disregard for life has had a huge impact as at least 18 people have died while in ICE detention centers so far this fiscal year.

ICE is responsible for the well-being of individuals in its custody and has broad discretion to release people for humanitarian reasons. The government should test everyone in its custody for COVID-19 and increase releases to prevent further deaths.

Three recent deaths in ICE detention centers bring 2020’s total to the second highest since 2006.

The death toll for immigrants in ICE custody reached the highest level since 2006 after three more people died this week.

Last week, it was reported that two men died while in ICE detention on August 5. One of the men who died last week was James Thomas Hill, a 72-year-old Canadian citizen who tested positive for COVID-19 about a month before his death. He was detained for three months at Farmville Detention Center in Virginia, despite being high-risk due to his age.

A 51-year-old man from Taiwan, Kuan Hui Lee, also died on August 5. Lee had been detained at Krome Detention Center in Florida for 7 months because he had overstayed a visa 16 years ago. While further details of his medical condition and death have not been reported, ICE has a long history of medical neglect of people in its custody with serious health conditions.

Then on August 11, Buzzfeed News reported that a 70-year-old Costa Rican man died in ICE custody at a Georgia Hospital on August 10, 2020, after testing positive for COVID-19. The man had been detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. According to AJC.com, the detainee suffered from diabetes and hypertension and had been hospitalized since August 4, 2020. ICE officials confirmed the death to BuzzFeed News, but have not released any additional details yet.

These tragedies increased the total deaths in ICE custody this fiscal year to 18, the highest number since 2006. Many—if not all—of the deaths that occur in ICE custody are avoidable.

“Many of these deaths were avoidable, unnecessary, and a direct result of the Trump administration’s refusal to take basic steps to protect the health and safety of detainees,” John Sandweg, a former ICE director during the Obama administration, told BuzzFeed News.

Many deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 but that’s not the complete picture.

Coronavirus has swept through ICE detention centers like wildfire and this has had a major impact on the health and welfare of detainees, the community, and even ICE employees.

So far this year, more than twice as many people have died in ICE custody over last year. And, unfortunately, there are at least 1,065 active Covid-19 cases in ICE detention centers, meaning more people are likely to get sick and die before the year ends.

The number of deaths is especially alarming considering the average number of people detained has been significantly lower this year than in recent years.

Farmville, an ICE detention center in Virgina, has the largest COVID-19 outbreak in immigration detention. As of August 6, over 97% of people held in this ICE facility had contracted COVID-19. The outbreak began as a super-spreader event caused by a transfer of 74 people from Florida and Arizona.

Advocates have consistently criticized ICE for failing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the people it detains.

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The Trump Administration Raised Fees For Immigration Cases Including For Refugees

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The Trump Administration Raised Fees For Immigration Cases Including For Refugees

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In its continuing campaign against immigrants and refugees, the Trump administration has increased the costs of immigration proceedings – in some instances by more than 80%. These new fees could make the cost of seeking asylum protection in the U.S. or becoming a citizen out of reach for tens of thousands of immigrants.

The new fees are seen as little more than an additional tool used by the administration to further limit immigration to the U.S. and make life more difficult for those seeking to call the U.S. homes.

The Trump administration announced major changes to the fees charged for immigration proceedings.

On Friday, the Trump administration announced it would dramatically increase the fees for U.S. immigration services on everything from refugee asylum requests to naturalization services. The new fee structure, released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), is expected to take effect on October 2.

The new fees are seen as little more than an additional tool used by the administration to further limit immigration to the U.S. and make life more difficult for those seeking to call the U.S. homes. It will also have an outsized impact on business that hire foreign workers.

The agency, which has closed offices and suspended most services during the pandemic, has said it faces a significant revenue shortfall that could trigger furloughs. Earlier this year, the agency requested $1.2 billion in emergency funds from Congress.

The U.S. will now be one of just a few countries that actually charge refugees to file asylum requests.

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With the new fee charged to refugees and asylum seekers, the U.S. will become one of just four countries that actually charge for this application. The new fee for asylum is a blatant attack on the most vulnerable among us and is another way for the administration to target and restrict protections for those fleeing their home countries.

The $50 application fee for asylum applications now puts the U.S. in the same ranks as Iran, Fiji, and Australia. The new rule would also raise the cost for an asylum applicant to apply for an employment authorization document (EAD) from the current zero to $490, one of many policy changes to discourage potential asylum applicants. DHS commented, “DHS does not believe that the EAD fee is unduly burdensome for asylum seekers.”

However, one asylum officer who spoke with BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity said the fee was discouraging.

“The larger problem is that humanitarian applications by their nature should be free,” the officer said. “The idea of charging people who are fleeing — and not helping if they don’t pay up — is disgusting.”

Another asylum officer said it will cost the agency more to collect the fee than $50, “which doesn’t come close to covering the cost of adjudicating an asylum application.”

Other fees – from green card replacements to citizenship applications – will also be going up.

The new fee changes impact several categories of services offered by USCIS that will impact our community. Two of the most common types of visas issued by the agency (L and H-1B visas) will increase by 75% and 21% respectively.

The L visa – which is used for short term work in the U.S. – will increase from $460 to $805. The fee for an H-1B petition (which is used by employers to hire highly-skilled workers) will rise from $460 to $555.

For season workers in the U.S., of which there are hundreds of thousands, their fees will also increase by almost 50%. The current fee for these visas is $460 but the H-2A (season agricultural) will rise to $850 and the H-2B (seasonal non-agricultural) will rise to $715.

USCIS would increase the cost of the application (N-400) to become a U.S. citizen by more than 80%, rising from $640 to $1,160 (for online filings, although a separate $85 biometrics fee would be eliminated). 

The new increased fees come as the agency faces a financial crisis that many say are of its own making.

Many are concerned about the timing of these fee increases because USCIS is in the midst of historic mismanagement, that has face the agency from a substantial surplus to a deficit so severe USCIS has requested a $1.2 billion bailout from Congress.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chair of the House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, held a July 29, 2020, oversight hearing that helped explain how the Trump administration caused the financial problems at USCIS through its policy choices on immigration.

“Under the Trump Administration, USCIS has issued a flurry of policies that make its case adjudications more complicated, which reduces the agency’s efficiency and requires more staff to complete fewer cases,” testified Doug Rand, a founder of Boundless Immigration and a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “There are dozens if not hundreds of such policies.” 

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