Cuffs Too Tight: The Shackling and Evacuation of Detained Immigrants during Hurricane Irma

Dec. 5, 2017

By: Lily Hartmann, AI Justice Jonathan Demme Human Rights Advocate

Masiel, a Costa Rican native and victim of gender-based violence, is waiting out her remaining time in the United States at the Broward Transitional Center (BTC), an immigration detention center in South Florida. She’s agreed to voluntary departure, but her deportation flight won’t be her first experience with ICE Air. As a matter of fact, she and several other women at BTC call themselves the “Texas Survivors” - and for good reason.

As Hurricane Irma approached Florida, all detainees were told late one September evening they were going to be evacuated – but they weren’t told to where. Each detainee was shackled and handcuffed, their hands chained to a belt at their waists. People’s arms ached in discomfort after spending hours in handcuffs. Masiel told me, “The handcuffs and shackles were put on so tight they left us with marks. I and many other women had swollen ankles after wearing shackles for many days. We were treated as if we were criminals.” Pregnant and elderly women were subjected to this treatment, too.

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A Day in Immigration Court

October 27, 2017

By: Lily Hartmann, AI Justice Jonathan Demme Human Rights Advocate

I came to AI Justice in early September from Providence, RI, where I worked with refugee community leaders and other stakeholders to support refugee families who had already been given the right to protection here while in their home countries or refugee camps. But the situation for undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers in the U.S. is much different; they must fight for legal protection within a system built out of draconian immigration laws. Although I have learned a lot about the immigration system in my time at AI Justice, my visit to Miami Immigration Court last week revealed the true nature of the uphill battle unaccompanied minors face in our legal system. 

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Reflection on “Building the Wall” and Discussion between Cheryl Little and the Playwright

October 6, 2017

By: Lily Hartmann, AI Justice Jonathan Demme Human Rights Advocate

“Who would want to come to the U.S. now?” asks Rick, a convicted former private prison manager, in his final line of playwright Robert Schenkkan’s BUILDING THE WALL. The play tells the story of an overcrowded Texas immigration detention center where a private prison company prioritizes its profits over immigrant lives. Schenkkan’s work is both a realistic depiction and a dystopic vision of the state of immigration enforcement. As Rick paints a picture of the horrid, man-made deportation machine, audience members are left to wonder which pieces of his story reflect our current reality and which imagine a tragedy years into the Trump presidency.

In a talk back that followed the play’s Miami premiere, Schenkkan said he was struck by the media’s efforts to normalize Trump’s violent rhetoric towards women and black and brown immigrant communities during the 2016 presidential election. “We had crossed the line,” the playwright reflected. As an artist, Schenkkan believes he has a responsibility to respond, to encourage truth telling and compassion, and to shed light on the stark realities of immigration today. From this sense of concern, BUILDING THE WALL emerged as a work in motion, responding to the Trump administration as it unfolds.

As the play centers on the inhumane treatment of immigrants in detention, it sends the message that the idea of Trump’s Border Wall is largely metaphorical. The ‘wall’ is really the collection of prisons, ICE agents, deportation orders, and other forms of violence against immigrants that will deter and prevent new immigrants from entering the country. It is a force that will only grow with new anti-immigration laws and attacks on the undocumented community.

Immigration advocates, lawyers, and service providers, including AI Justice’s own staff, will find this play eerily haunting and at times traumatic as it reflects on the ways the immigration enforcement system dehumanizes the undocumented. But for audience members with little knowledge of current immigration issues, BUILDING THE WALL is jarring and alarming. It begins to pull back the curtain on a deportation system largely hidden from the public eye. AI Justice’s Executive Director, Cheryl Little, commented, “The audience every evening should be full...these are things you think couldn’t happen in the U.S.” Little then shared stories about undocumented students living in fear and ICE’s neglect of immigrant detainees’ health that has resulted in life-threatening situations.

The issues of immigration enforcement discussed in this play touch upon the fears and daily challenges faced by Americans for Immigrant Justice’s clients. And so, today, October 6, AI Justice hosts a panel after the performance of BUILDING THE WALL with DREAMers directly impacted by Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. We look forward to the opportunity to share with our Miami community this powerful play as well as our own reflections on the current challenges faced by immigrants in South Florida.



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AI Justice in the Community

Newsletter  |  Fall 2014
Vol. 18, Issue No. 3

AI Justice is working closely with Catholic Charities Legal Services, AILA, CABA, FIU and UM to train attorneys willing to offer pro bono services to unaccompanied minors from Central America whose court cases have been “fast tracked.”  Three trainings for attorneys in private practice were conducted in the past few months which will expand the availability of free legal services to vulnerable unaccompanied children facing removal.

AI Justice would like to thank Jones Day, Greenberg Traurig and White and Case for hosting these trainings.

On Friday, October 24, attorneys from the LUCHA team traveled to Naples, FL at the invitation of Project Help, a rape crisis center. Staff trained several victim advocates and the Collier County State Attorneys office on the particular needs of immigrant survivors as well as potential protections.



Spotlight on LUCHA

Newsletter  |  Fall 2014
Vol. 18, Issue No. 3

Did you know that an abuser can use their partner’s immigration status as a tool to exert further power and control in a violent relationship?  Abusers may fail to file papers on their spouses’ behalf that would allow them to obtain legal status so that they can continue to abuse them.   Abusers dominate and manipulate every aspect of a victim’s life to ensure that the victim feels dependent on them. They threaten deportation in addition to other threats continually made.  Many victims fear reporting crimes and seeking help because they worry it could lead to deportation.  If they have children, they are legitimately concerned about being forcibly separated from them.  Language barriers and isolation from family and friends leave victims with no idea of where to turn for help.  They are unable to work because they lack legal immigration status and fear being homeless or unable to feed their children should they dare attempt to escape.

AI Justice’s LUCHA Program works on behalf of immigrant survivors and empowers them by giving them the tools to become independent and self-sustaining members of their families and their community. Once they apply to legalize their status, they can get a work permit, Social Security card and Florida driver's license.  AI Justice’s legal representation is especially critical as immigrants work to gain safety and independence. The majority of LUCHA clients are referred to us by local shelters and law enforcement officer.


USCRI Expands Legal Services for Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

Newsletter  |  Fall 2014
Vol. 18, Issue No. 3
The US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) has awarded AI Justice a million dollar one year grant to expand direct legal representation services for Central American unaccompanied minor children after their release from government custody. This is part of a pilot program that targets children’s cases in eight immigration courts across the country including: Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Memphis, Baltimore, Arlington and Miami.  

AI Justice will represent children living in the South Florida area, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, Lee, Collier and Monroe counties.
Drawing made by a child while in government custody

The Legal Equivalent of Triage in an Emergency Room...

Last month, the Daily Business Review published a story about the "rocket dockets" which have been adopted here in Miami to push unaccompanied minors through the legal system.  Four full-time judges and one part-time judge see up to 150 kids a day – as many as 60 cases per judge.  So what does the “rocket docket” look like in action?   

On Tuesday an AI Justice colleague, Tatiana, and I went to Judge Dowell’s courtroom where there were 29 unaccompanied minor cases scheduled to be heard between 1:00 and 3:00 pm.  Generally, the kids carried folders of official paperwork – notices of appearance, release paperwork from an Office of Refugee Resettlement Shelter, copies of a birth certificate or school registration – often carried in plastic grocery bags since it had been raining all day.  Over and over, I watched the bewildered kids hand their plastic grocery bags of paperwork (much of it written in English legal-ese) to Tatiana and look to her for help when their cases were called.

Some children came to court to face the judge and government attorney alone, and some came accompanied by a family member, friend, or pastor.  In the space of a few minutes, each child (through a Spanish-language court interpreter) confirmed their contact information, answered the judge’s questions, and was given a continuance in the space of a few minutes.  Adding to the confusion was the fact that several of the kids spoke indigenous languages, were not fully proficient in Spanish, and had no access to interpretation. 

After the hearings I took each child into an empty courtroom for a screening.  My goal was to explain what had just happened in court, prepare a summary of their case, as well as to orient them to what their next steps should be.

Often, there were complicating issues.  One of the kids has a sibling who is also in proceedings so I explained to the family member accompanying him that their cases could be consolidated so they wouldn’t have to drive from West Palm Beach to Miami separately.  Several of the children had changed addresses so they needed to fill out and sign two copies of an English-language form – one for the government attorney and one for the court.  While this is time-consuming, it’s important since communications from the court generally come through the mail.  A missed letter could mean a missed court date and a deportation order given in absentia. 

In general the kids were confused about what had just gone on in court and were looking for explanations.  I explained I was there to help guide them through the initial phase of their court cases.  I ensured they knew when their next court date was, gave them a list of legal service providers in South Florida, and warned them to be careful of notarios publicos who seek to take advantage of immigrants unfamiliar with the legal system and defraud them of money.

Then I moved onto the intake, a list of questions to determine if a child has experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment in the home country or if there is a credible fear of return.  There wasn’t time to develop a rapport with the kids, so I conducted the interview in a straight-forward way, acknowledging that these are tough questions about potentially sensitive issues, but that their honest answers would help us determine their potential eligibility for legal status. My shorthand hastily-scribbled-in-Spanglish notes from the interviews included things like “quit school b/c multiple gang death threats;” “abandoned by dad, mom sick, minor supporting family;” “fears return, dad murdered by mara, held for ransom by narcos, two US citizen sibs.”  As soon as I finished one intake, there were more kids who had just had hearings waiting to be seen. 

With so many kids in such a short period of time, it’s all kind of a blur but some stand out.  The Honduran girl who wants to be a lawyer when she grows up.  The Salvadoran boy who responded “because I have human dignity” when I asked why he left his home country.  The fourteen-year-old Guatemalan girl who asserted she wasn’t afraid when she rode La Bestia (the freight train through Mexico) because of her faith in God. 

As Tatiana and I drove back from court, sorting through the docket and the stack of hand-written intake forms, I commented, “This is the legal equivalent of triage in an emergency room!”

With the sheer volume of cases and the overwhelming number of kids to be seen, all I could do is offer them a legal analog of first aid – offering resource handouts, taking the basics facts of their cases, informing them of how court proceedings work, getting their contact information to follow up if we can take or refer their cases. 

Deportation for these kids can be tantamount to a death sentence and those without legal representation are much more likely to be issued deportation orders.  

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review claims that the expedited hearings will result in “fast and fair adjudication of cases before the agency.” If my experience at court this week is any indication, in spite of our triage efforts, the rocket dockets are certainly “fast” but far from “fair.” 

About the author:  Rhonda Miska is a partner in ministry with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary currently serving as a Legal Assistant with Americans for Immigrant Justice.  She is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and holds a master’s degree from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  


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AI Justice is an award-winning non-profit law and advocacy firm that protects and promotes the basic human rights of immigrants. In Florida and on a national level, we champion the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children; advocate for survivors of trafficking and domestic violence; serve as a watchdog on immigration detention practices and policies; and speak for immigrant groups who have particular and compelling claims to justice.