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Advocates: ICE Unlawfully Detained Asylum Seekers During Raids

Tina Vasquez

A "substantial portion” of the Central American refugees targeted in the raids and many of those in removal proceedings are disabled, immigration advocates say.

The nationwide raids against Central American families January 2 carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) may have been performed illegally, advocates say.

Yale Law School’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization, along with 150 organizations, served notice in a letter Tuesday to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Loretta Lynch that “a substantial portion” of the Central American refugees targeted in the immigration raids and many of those in removal proceedings before the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) are disabled, as defined under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Advocates say in the letter that “a very high proportion of the Central American mothers and children now targeted for ICE raids have survived sexual assault or other forms of extreme violence and have mourned the loss of close family members to particularized violence.”

These families, as a result of these raids, “will suffer the inevitable consequences of exposure to this trauma.” The letter continues, “Mothers and children who witnessed and survived arrest, torture, and murder of family members, and attempts on their own lives, will be grossly re-traumatized by ICE raids.”

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A press release from the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization outlines how the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that federal programs, including removal proceedings and immigration enforcement operations, provide reasonable accommodations to ensure that disabled people are not denied meaningful access to benefits or services. The violence suffered by the Central American families seeking asylum, which are mostly comprised of single mothers and toddlers, has resulted in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, and depression.

Swapna Reddy, a law student intern with the clinic at Yale Law School, said she is “positive” ICE is aware they are targeting disabled people in the raids.

“Most of these people have cycled through family detention centers previously. Notably, there are two very large family detention centers in Texas and in those detention centers, legal advocates have been able to get in and work with some of these families and do evaluations, which are often submitted to ICE,” Reddy said in an interview with Rewire. “Immigration was aware that these families were disabled, that they’ve dealt with extreme trauma. The targets of these raids have had to share their stories of trauma in order to be released from detention centers. Immigration officers have heard about the murders of family members they’ve witnessed or the sexual violence they’ve experienced, as well as repeated beatings and burnings. ICE is definitely aware that this population has experienced severe trauma, and they’re choosing to target them anyway.”

Secretary Jeh Johnson in a statement released Monday explained that the raids are a result of a recent spike in the number of Central American migrants attempting to enter the United States. There is a direct correlation between the number of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States and spikes of violence in their countries of origin, often due to U.S. involvement, advocates say.

According to figures released Monday by authorities in El Salvador, there was a 70 percent spike in violent deaths in 2015, making last year the most violent since 1983, the height of the country’s 12-year civil war that pitted a U.S.-backed military dictatorship against left-wing guerrilla groups.

Besides targeting disabled asylum seekers, which is against the law, Reddy said, the other issue is that those being targeted in the raids didn’t come to the United States illegally.

“The secretary’s letter states it’s U.S. policy to target and remove families who’ve come here illegally in violation of the law, however that’s not really accurate,” Reddy told Rewire on Wednesday. “A very large number of the Central Americans being targeted came to the United States and presented themselves at the U.S. border. Under U.S. asylum law, if you come here, present yourself at the border, and explain that you’re here seeking relief and you are scared about what would happen to you and your children if you returned, that is the proper way to seek asylum. The U.S. government still detained these people and these people eventually lost their asylum cases because the process isn’t easy and they didn’t have the opportunity to properly tell their stories. It’s our position that these families haven’t done anything illegal.”

Reddy said Central American families overwhelmingly win their asylum cases when they are properly represented.

“It’s not that these are a bunch of families coming illegally in violation of the law; they’re doing what they were supposed to do under U.S. asylum law, which is get yourself here however you can and then ask for protection—and they’re still being detained and deported,” Reddy said.

ICE is targeting adults and children who have been ordered removed from the United States by an immigration judge. Overwhelmingly, these are mothers and their toddlers who have spent time in detention centers and lost their asylum cases in immigration court.

Advocates say many of those who lose their cases were not provided with a lawyer or struggled to detail the trauma they experienced, making it difficult to communicate their story through an interpreter.

It is believed that after the raids, the mothers and children are being sent to one of three family detention centers in the United States, which are for-profit centers built specifically to house migrant women and their children before they are released or deported back to their countries of origin. Reddy and other advocates report that the women and children are being held at detention centers for a short time because ICE is processing them as quickly as possible.

The CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project was able to halt the deportation of four Central American families apprehended by ICE who were scheduled for deportation. The group was able to appeal their asylum cases to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and request emergency stays of deportation. The BIA granted the stays.

Katie Shepherd, managing attorney for the CARA Project, said in a press release that the project’s interviews revealed that the Central American families had bona fide asylum claims, but were “deprived of a meaningful opportunity to present them at their hearings in immigration court.”

It remains unknown if legal advocates will be able to assist the remainder of the 121 asylum seekers detained during the ICE raids.

“What we know is these families were picked up in illegitimate ways,” Reddy said. “Not since Japanese internment has the U.S. government held so many kids in what are essentially jails. We’re talking about very small children, as young as one and two years old. We can’t be detaining families. We can’t be detaining children. This is not the country the United States is supposed to be.”

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