By B. J. Coleman
SAFE Families Fund announces new fundraising project for immigrants
Accounts are heart-wrenching. Asymmetries in law are breathtaking.
Immigrant support advocates gathered in Downtown on Sept. 12, to announce a new fundraising project for improved access to legal representation for immigrants at risk of deportation. Alyssa Milano, actor and activist, led off the press conference at Civic Center Plaza. Other speakers included immigration law attorneys. Concluding speaker of the event was Wendy B, now a high school student in Southern California, who fled her circumstances of physical and sexual abuse in El Salvador and is seeking asylum status.
“I’m extremely honored to be able to announce here today — for the first time — that I’m working with the Vera Institute of Justice to launch the SAFE (Safety and Fairness for Everyone) Families Fund, a fund that will be used to expand programs such as the SAFE cities nationally to provide legal services and representation to immigrants facing deportation so that immigrant families are not deprived of due process,” Milano said.
Donations to the fund pay for lawyers, support services and programs that assist families in staying together and asylum seekers in precluding return to at-risk conditions.
Milano cited her 15 years of work in the Northern Triangle region of Central America. “I have seen the tragic violence and appalling conditions that often make remaining in one’s home country impossible,” Milano said.
Milano minimized partisan politicization of this policy issue.
“It is an era in which decades of harsh, punitive policies from administrations of both political parties, coupled with a broken immigration system, have culminated in an abandoning of our shared American values. We cannot allow this to continue,” Milano said.
Milano continued, “Here’s the hard truth about immigration courts: People appearing in immigration court currently have no right to legal representation if they cannot afford it.”
The SAFE Families Fund is intended to change that situation. The fund may change a lot more than that, too.
Milano stated that immigrants who have an attorney for legal representation are as much as 10 times likelier to be able to stay in the U.S. And 70 percent of children with a lawyer were allowed to stay in the country, versus 9 percent of children with no legal representation.
Immigration law specialist Andrew Nietor gave reasons why. One case he described involved a father living in San Diego County, married to a U.S. citizen, with three children born into citizenship in the U.S., who was stopped at a checkpoint. The man was eligible to legally remain in the country, a fact he was unaware of. Nietor obtained evidence that allowed him to remain with his family in the U.S.
Nietor mentioned the difficulties experienced by immigrants facing deportation who have mental health issues or brain impairments that prevent them from understanding the complexities of immigration court procedures.
Monika Langarica, senior staff attorney with the American Bar Association Immigration Justice Project, outlined another specific case. A man lived in the U.S. for nearly his entire life but returned to his country of origin, where he suffered horrific torture, and then attempted to cross the border seeking asylum. While in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, he was denied for a year the antipsychotic medication that alleviated auditory hallucinations. His wife was unable to care for the family’s boys, both U.S. citizens and of elementary school age. With two days to spare, Langarica got the man out of detention for a deadline appearance in dependency court to begin the process of seeking legal custody of his sons. Otherwise, the boys would have been put out for adoption and the family would never be reunified.
Erika Pinheiro, of Al Otro Lado [on the other side], spoke of the particular straits experienced by those stranded on the Mexico side of the border after being denied entry to the U.S. as refugees and asylum seekers. Pinheiro noted the inferior conditions in some detention facilities, which resulted in Reina losing her unborn child, and Roxana Hernandez dying from medical neglect while detained.
Lindsay Toczylowski, co-founder and executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center, expressed hope in achieving universal legal representation for all immigrants facing deportation.
Wendy B was last to the podium, speaking for herself and describing her difficult life experiences in El Salvador. At 5 years old, she began receiving beatings from her caretakers. At 7, a family member began repeatedly raping her.
Wendy came to the U.S. 2 1/2 years ago, seeking relief from that appalling persecution. She was unable to speak or read English. She could not understand the complicated process of applying for asylum legally.
“There’s no way I could have understood what was happening to me. There’s no way I could have fought my case without a lawyer. It’s impossible,” Wendy said.
Immigrant Defenders took on her case. Within a year’s time, Wendy learned English.
“I can’t imagine going to court alone and fighting against the government’s lawyer,” Wendy said. “Every person deserves this chance: the chance of a fair fight only a lawyer can provide. We should all have the right to a lawyer. The consequences are too high. They are life and death.”
If Wendy’s petition for asylum is granted, she plans to study in this country to become a neurologist, rather than returning to what she described as “the terror of our home countries.”
More information about the SAFE Families Fund is available at vera.org/supportsafe.
—B. J. Coleman is a local freelance journalist and editor/staff reporter with 22nd District Legionnaire. B.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.