IJC: July 2018 Newsletter

IJC: July 2018 Newsletter

Fellow Game Changer: Ryan Clough

Since 2015, IJC has placed Justice and Community Fellows with RAICES (the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), a non-profit that provides legal services to immigrants across Texas including women and children jailed at the Karnes Family Detention Center. Initially, the Fellows traveled to Texas on two-week and three-month rotations, usually two or three at a time. In 2017, IJC decided to place Justice Fellows at RAICES for the entirety of their two-year fellowship. To date, IJC Fellows have assisted and supervised work on more than 3,000 detained parents with children cases. This month’s story from the frontlines highlights the tremendous efforts of Ryan Clough, one of the two Justice Fellows.


Ryan Clough’s morning commute is a drive south out of San Antonio to a rural Texas detention center, where he is the first IJC attorney to serve a full, two-year justice fellowship, helping detained mothers and children fight for asylum.

Ryan and a third year IJC fellow, Kristin Cates, arrived at RAICES in September 2017. Most days, Ryan makes the hour-long commute to Karnes in a car with attorney colleagues from RAICES. The detention center is a hulking facility that squats on the Texas prairie near Karnes City. Inside, the atmosphere is prison-like, with regimented schedules for the women — four check-ins a day. The private for-profit corporation that runs the facility on contract with the federal government provides classes for children, but no mental health care for their mothers, most of whom arrive traumatized by violence at home and by their harrowing journeys north.

At any given time, the Karnes Family Detention center houses approximately 600 Central American mothers and their children all fighting the possibility of deportation. Without the work of Ryan and other equally dedicated lawyers and volunteers, the women will face immigration judges and asylum officers alone, without legal representation.

It’s a challenging assignment, but Ryan arrives at the detention center invigorated to face each new workday because the face-to-face legal work with such vulnerable clients provides its own inspiration. “Our clients are so grateful to have somebody take the time to understand their story and help them lift their voices,” Ryan says. “They have incredible faith. That is the best part of the job.”

Ryan, a 28-year-old graduate of George Mason University Law School, worked with detained immigrants in Virginia and Maryland before joining IJC. He applied for the RAICES posting because he wanted to work with detained immigrants near the southwest border. He hoped that the work would help him understand how immigration public policy works for and against immigrant families.

At Karnes, the legal work is non-stop. Ryan may interview a dozen or more women a day about the facts of their persecution, while preparing them for an interview with an asylum officer or a hearing before an immigration judge.  According to Ryan “you lose track of time.”  Lunch is gobbling a sandwich in front of a vending machine.

Central to the asylum process at Karnes is the Credible (or Reasonable) Fear Interview, conducted by an asylum officer. These interviews are designed to determine whether a woman’s claim of persecution is genuine. Ryan explains that women must describe their persecution to an asylum officer or a judge “in a legally convincing and legally sophisticated way.”  “That is asking a lot of mothers who do not know U.S. asylum law, don’t speak English, are in jail with their children, and may not be able to talk about their worst experiences.”

When an asylum officer rules that a woman’s claim is not sufficiently credible, she has the right to a review hearing before an immigration judge. Not all women choose to fight on. Ryan and other advocates fear that the administration is pushing for the indefinite detention of families as the price for keeping families together, and that families will fold if they are detained indefinitely. Ryan believes that “the longer the families are in detention, the better deportation starts to look. It’s easier to give in and sign your deportation papers when your children begin showing signs of depression, like when they stop eating jail food.”  Any mother with the stamina to soldier on, however, can count on Ryan and his colleagues to advocate fiercely on their behalf.

Often, when Ryan sits down to prepare a woman for her hearing before a judge, there are surprises. She will describe a new, previously-unmentioned set of experiences that caused her to flee her country.  “Many times, the asylum officer fails to simply take the time to get the whole set of facts, so his or her decision becomes inherently flawed. “The truth takes time,” he says.

The immigration judges who review an asylum officer’s negative credible fear determination sit in courtrooms in a commercial building in downtown San Antonio. They do not see the asylum seekers personally – only on a video screen.

Through the end of 2017, the judges conducting these reviews were drawn by rotation from among four or five judges assigned to the San Antonio Immigration Court. Ryan and his colleagues achieved moderate success at these hearings, with judges vacating as many as half of the asylum office’s negative determinations. In January, however, the Trump administration established a separate, two-judge detained court. These two judges rarely overrule the asylum office. “They treat deporting women like it’s the normal order of business,” Ryan notes. “That’s been a real struggle.”

After an immigration judge upholds the asylum office’s negative finding, as a last-ditch effort, Ryan and his colleagues can ask the asylum office to reconsider its own initial negative credible fear determination. And even as judges’ rulings have become more draconian, the asylum office has been more willing this year than last to overturn its prior negative determinations. If such a request is granted, Ryan is notified through a terse email that a client will be released to pursue her asylum claim.  “It’s amazing!” Ryan says. “It feels great, like vindication!”

Many of the women, eventually exhaust every appeal and recourse, setting Ryan up for an excruciating task. “You have to talk to them about what that means — it may be hours before their deportation.” Still, “there is not a lot of time to get too down about any given case because there are always more cases to be prepared.”

Visiting hours at Karnes ends at 8 p.m. and Ryan and his colleagues must exit the facility. Driving back to San Antonio through the Texas twilight, they tie up remaining administrative tasks and reflect on the day’s challenges.

“As people are being afforded fewer rights,” Ryan says, “it’s more important than ever to get legal resources to families, to help people understand the law and to try to get protection for them. Just living safely with their family intact is all that the mothers and their children, really want.” The representation that IJC provides can be a deciding factor in making these wishes a reality.




Immigration in the Media

NBC News: New Trump admin order for separated parents: Leave U.S. with kids or without them
Rights advocates say the new directive prevents immigrant parents who were separated from their kids under the government’s zero tolerance policy from asking for asylum in the U.S.

Vice: The horrible conditions endured by migrants hoping to enter the us legally
The Trump administration has cracked down on asylum seekers who cross the U.S. – Mexico border and ask for asylum.

ABC News : A ‘shocking increase’ in citizenship application backlog, new report finds amid immigration crisis and upcoming midterms
A report from the national partnership for New Americans found an 88 percent increase in citizenship application processing backlog since 2015.