IJC: March 2018 Newsletter

IJC: March 2018 Newsletter


Fellow Game Changer: Kristen Cates

The work of our Community and Justice Fellows change the lives of immigrants and their families every day.  Sometimes their work is a complete game changer. Every month, with our Fellow Game Changer feature, we bring you stories from the front lines—putting the spotlight on our fellows’ fight for justice on behalf of low-income immigrants.

Kristen Cates, IJC Justice Fellow

Migrant women crossing the U.S. southwest border, most of whom are fleeing gang violence and sexual assault, pay a high price in their search for shelter and safety in America.  The trauma they experience, both in their homes and during their journey to freedom and safety, is unimaginable.  The Migration Policy Institute reports that 60 to 80% of women migrating to the U.S. through Mexico are raped along the way.  Unfortunately, upon arrival at the US border, relief is rarely found as new arrivals are immediately arrested and detained in a prison setting. 


Kristen Cates, a third year Immigrant Justice Corps Justice Fellow, represents these vulnerable women and their children, at her host organization Refugee Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) in San Antonio, Texas.  Two times a week, Kristen travels the 60 miles from her office in San Antonio to the Karnes Residential Center, a detention facility in Karnes City, Texas to assist detained mothers and children prepare for their credible fear of persecution or torture interviews before an asylum officer or an immigration judge.  At the detention center, she conducts client interviews, counsel’s women in preparation for their credible and reasonable fear interviews, drafts declarations in support of negative credible fear reviews before immigration judges, files requests for reconsideration with the Asylum Office and works on interior enforcement cases as well.


Of her clients, Kristen says, “Many of the mothers, and even the children, we represent suffer from domestic, sexual, or intra-familial violence in their home countries or are fleeing horrific gang violence.  The trauma they have suffered in their home countries is extreme, and the journey to make it to the US is equally dangerous and traumatizing.  They have suffered so much just to get here, and they are often mistreated and misinformed at the border.  They are also thrown into a confusing immigration process and detained; detention itself is dehumanizing and traumatizing so the Family Detention team is in a very unique position.  We are often the first people the women have felt comfortable disclosing their stories to, and we are generally the first to provide them with information about their rights and the expedited removal/credible fear process.”


 “We try to meet with each mother in the expedited removal or credible fear process, hoping to provide service to the family as close to their arrival at Karnes as possible,” reported Cates.


While at the detention center, IJC Fellows, RAICES’ staff (one full time and one part-time attorney), and volunteers typically see upwards of 100 to 200 mothers a day.  Access to counsel is critical for these women and their children.


According to Kristen, “Without access to counsel, we see that women and children with veritable claims to relief who have credible fear of persecution upon return to their home countries are being denied opportunities to even apply for asylum.  A lot of women are misinformed at the border, and in detention, about their rights and U.S. asylum policy.”


The consequences of losing a case for these women and children are grave; deportation can result in physical harm, persecution, and even death upon return to their home countries.


“In the past couple of months, we’ve had a challenging time convincing some asylum officers that our clients have a credible fear of persecution – or overcoming negative credible fear determinations. However, moments that give me hope are when you can help get a mother and her children released to their families/sponsors living in the US.  I live for those moments,” said Cates.  


Recently, Kristen won a case before an Immigration Judge allowing her client, a mother named Isabel*, to pursue her asylum claim outside of detention.  That day, “I had four cases scheduled before a difficult judge.  Isabel was my first case of the day.  Isabel is a mother who suffered severe domestic and sexual violence in her home country, but did not feel safe disclosing this information during her initial credible fear interview because her son was in the room with her while the interview was being conducted.” 


To spare her son from hearing the gruesome details of the violence she experienced, Isabel did not share the full details of her case, and as a result, was unable to convince the asylum officer conducting her interview that she had a credible fear of returning to her home country.  As a result, the asylum officer issued a negative credible fear findings in her case.  Kristen helped Isabel to file for review of the decision before an immigration judge (IJ).


Prior to the IJ review, Kristen worked diligently with Isabel to understand and document the full scope of the family’s story.  Kristen drafted a declaration on her client’s behalf—detailing Isabel’s claims for relief, and explaining what happened at her initial interview that prevented Isabel from fully disclosing her story.  She also prepared Isabel to tell her story to the immigration judge and to answer the judge’s questions at her hearing.


Because of Kristen’s dedication and hard work, as well as the bravery of Isabel in sharing her story, the immigration judge vacated the asylum officer’s negative credible fear findings for both Isabel and her son.  They were later released from detention. Isabel can now pursue her asylum claim without the added stress of detention.


“To see Isabel’s tears of relief and beaming smile when she realized that she and her son would not be going back to their home country gave me hope,” said Kristen.


*client’s name has been changed to protect her identity


Selection Committee Meets to Discuss Class of 2018 Community Fellow Candidates

Current and former IJC Justice & Community Fellows and staff gathered Tuesday, March 20th to review applications for IJC’s class of 2018 Community Fellows.


Immigrant Justice Corps Fellows, Alumni, and Staff at IJC’s office for the Class of 2018 Community Fellow Selection Committee

Each year, IJC offers 10 Community Fellowships to recent college graduates with the linguistic skills, passion, and cultural competency to work with diverse immigrant communities.  IJC Fellows, and alumni, play a vital role in helping staff read applications and short list Community Fellow applicants for interviews.  


“We like to involve current and former Justice and Community Fellows in the selection process because they bring unique insight and perspective on the applicant pool that we might never have considered.  Their input is highly valuable and necessary, if we are to hire a fellow cohort that is vibrant, diverse and capable,” said  Sam Palmer-Simon, IJC Supervising Attorney.


The reviewers consider factors such as diversity of representation in schools, geography, language ability, gender, immigration background, and experience.


The selection committee, along with IJC Supervising Attorneys, selected 43 excellent applicants to be interviewed by IJC staff.  Ultimately, 10 applicants will be offered 2018 Community Fellowships and will begin their intensive training with IJC on September 4, 2018.


Featured Fellow Series

Immigrant Justice Corps’ monthly “featured fellow” series introduces you to, and profiles the work of, an IJC Fellow each month.


Fellowship: Justice Fellow


Host Organization: Brooklyn Defender Services


Languages Spoken: English, Spanish, Portuguese


Law School: NYU


“My job in any removal defense case, detained or not, is to try to show the judge who my client is as a person and not to let them be defined by what is often the worst moment of their lives.”


A dedicated immigrant rights advocate, Amelia first became interested in immigration issues while working with migrant farm workers in her hometown of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  She subsequently spent five years working as a paralegal in Philadelphia, advocating on behalf of migrant farmworkers, and later working with low-income Philadelphians in subsidized housing. While attending NYU Law School, Amelia interned with Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center, and spent two years working on removal defense cases in the NYU Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic.  Amelia is fluent in Spanish and proficient in Portuguese which she learned during a semester in Brazil as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh.


What motivated you to join IJC?

I’ve always been interested in social justice and in working with immigrant communities. I think a lot of that probably comes from the fact that only one of my grandparents was born in the United States. As I grew older I realized my family, as white immigrants, had benefitted in ways other immigrants frequently do not. IJC is an incredible opportunity because the organization provides entry level positions for immigration practitioners.

After working as a paralegal in the areas of housing and employment, my summer at BDS and my two years in NYU’s Immigrant Rights Clinic got me interested in immigration law generally, and specifically “crim-imm” (the intersection between criminal and immigration law).


What are your main responsibilities at your host organization?

My work primarily centers around removal defense cases. That is, defending individuals facing deportation. Some of my clients come through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), a universal representation project for detained immigrants at the Varick Street immigration court. Detained cases are often really two cases in one, since they often involve significant litigation to try and get an individual released from detention. I also represent clients who suffer from mental illness or cognitive disability and are entitled to counsel under a limited government program.

My clients range from recent asylum seekers fleeing horrific violence, to long-time green card holders. Most of my clients are in removal proceedings because they have had some contact with the criminal justice system. My job, in any removal defense case, detained or not, is to try to show the judge who my client is as a person and to not let them be defined by what is often the worst moment in their lives.

In addition to my removal defense caseload, I also work on affirmative benefit cases where I help individuals apply for citizenship or lawful permanent residence after an interaction with the criminal justice system.


What has been the most challenging part of the Fellowship so far?

Detained cases are extraordinarily challenging. The clients are incarcerated at local county jails in New Jersey and Goshen, Orange County, New York, and separated from their family and community. They appear in court in orange jumpsuits—shackled around the waist—

regardless of their criminal history or lack thereof. Questionable medical care at the detention facilities, clients’ inability to help gather evidence to support their case, and a fast-paced docket compound the extraordinary challenges faced by detained immigrants.

It’s also very challenging working with significant trauma survivors. Our clients are often dealing with layers upon layers of trauma that the criminal justice system has failed to address. As a young lawyer, it is very difficult working within the criminal and immigration systems that do not adequately address trauma survivors need for treatment rather than incarceration and possible deportation.


What has been your greatest success?

We have had a lot of discussions in my office lately about redefining success and victory. We have big wins, but it’s also so important to see the value in fighting with all we’ve got no matter the outcome.  That said, getting individuals out of detention is awesome.  Also, being around so many clients and colleagues, who are so dedicated and resilient makes me feel very lucky.


Can you share a memorable client experience?

One of the things about working with detained clients, which is simultaneously amazing and very difficult, is that you build a very close bond. You may be the only person they see for months at a time who is not another detainee. And so, the highs are very high and the lows feel very low. I have a client who came to the US, at a very young age, as a refugee and has been a green card holder since then. He had been detained for almost six months and was struggling. Because of rapid changes in case law, which actually happens frequently in the immigration field, in the span of about three weeks, I went from telling him we were finally preparing for a bond hearing, to telling him he would no longer have the right to have a bond hearing at all, to telling him the government no longer had a basis to deport or detain him and his case was over! 


To you, what is the most pressing issue in immigration right now?

It’s hard to say, but I think one of the most pressing issues is the expansion, or intended expansion, of detention. The Supreme Court recently issued a decision that would result in the prolonged indefinite detention of a large number of immigrants without holding a hearing before a judge to determine if they should be released on a monetary bond. These are often people who were released on their own recognizance from criminal court, without any kind of bail at all, and whose convictions occurred many years ago.

The other most pressing issue is access to counsel, which programs like IJC and NYIFUP are trying to address. Even though immigration law is notoriously complicated and the stakes are high, individuals in removal proceedings are not entitled to an appointed lawyer as they are in criminal court. The statistics of how much more likely an individual would have a successful outcome if they have an attorney are astonishing.  No one should be deported and separated from their family and community because they don’t have enough money to pay for counsel to help them fight deportation.


How do you envision your future after the Fellowship?

I hope to continue to learn and work at the intersection of criminal and immigration law. The first few years as a lawyer can be really challenging, and the thing about immigration cases is that they take so long to complete that throughout your fellowship you don’t often see the end of a case, so I’m looking forward to continuing to work on these issues.


Why do you think it’s important for IJC to exist?

I think IJC is important because it’s flooding New York City, and now other parts of the country, with smart, well-trained, and dedicated lawyers and advocates. I think the organization, and the Fellows, are making an impact on the quantity and quality of immigrant representation in a meaningful way.


What role do you see IJC playing in the future of immigration law and policy in New York and across the country?

There are currently four IJC classes so there are over a hundred IJC Fellows all around the country. I think that, like other big fellowships that have changed the course of law in other practice areas, having this influx of people who have received ample training, and are dedicated to immigration advocacy, is incredibly impactful. IJC is good at choosing Fellows who want long-term careers as immigration law practitioners, not simply people who are dabbling in the immigration profession, so that has the capacity to make substantial changes to the immigration field over the years.


What are your passions outside of work?

I like to read novels (my recent favorite is Pachinko), listen to podcasts, cook, dance, watch TV, go to the movies, all that kind of pop culture stuff. I also like to go see comedy at places like the Bell House in Brooklyn.


Team IJCorps Raise over $16,000 Through the 2018 United Airlines NYC Half Marathon


On Sunday, March 18th, Team IJCorps – the designated team of Immigrant Justice Corps— an official charity partner for the 2018 United Airlines NYC Half Marathon, completed the NYC Half Marathon.  The team of eight runners, including seven current and former IJC Justice Fellows and one philanthropic supporter, ran on behalf of IJC to raise funds in support of IJC’s critical work assisting immigrants.


Team IJCorps completed the 13.1 mile run that began in Brooklyn and ended in Manhattan at Central Park.  IJC staff and Fellows gathered between miles eight and nine to cheer on the team.


Our runners were tasked with raising a total of $16,000 and, thanks to 220 generous supporters, the team exceeded their fundraising goal by over $300.00!  All funds raised by Team IJCorps will support the important work of IJC Fellows and staff, ensuring that immigrant justice is not simply an ideal but a reality.


IJC Fellows Reflect on the Role of Their Work in Helping to Empower Women

International women’s day, celebrated on March 8th, is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change, and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by women.  This month, we asked our fellows to reflect on the role of their work in helping to empower women.


“Working with survivors of domestic violence is both humbling and empowering. It humbles me to see women rise from what would have destroyed the strongest among us.  It is also empowering to realize that the knowledge I have and the skills I’ve learned along the way are invaluable tools these women rely on to find the strength, justice, and safety that they deserve.”

Christina Elhaddad, Justice Fellow Alumnus


“Transgender women and lesbians face unique challenges in addition to those affecting cis-gender, heterosexual women. The services we provide are critical in ensuring that transgender women and lesbians are well-positioned and emboldened to live their lives genuinely without the fear of being harmed simply for who they fundamentally are.”   

Héctor Ruiz & Matthew Johnson, Justice Fellows


“The immigrant girls and women that I represent are often escaping horrific abuse in their home countries, which can be compounded by the trauma they suffer while traveling to the US.  I am humbled to learn so much from my clients about overcoming adversity in the worst of circumstances.”

Alexander Holtzman, Justice Fellow


“Once you take the burden of immigration problems away, it is amazing to see the change in the lives of women who have survived domestic violence.  Suddenly, they have a path out of darkness and they are out of the shelter system, finding work, and showing their kids a true smile again.  They are incredible, determined women.”

Elizabeth Gibson, Justice Fellow


 “Most, if not all, of the women I work with are from Central America. Many have fled their homes because of either domestic or gang violence. Unfortunately, the machismo culture – which emphasizes strict gender roles and values male dominance – is entrenched in Central America. As a member of the Immigrant Justice Corps, I have the opportunity to represent these women in their immigration matters in hopes of helping them obtain legal status to help them move forward with their lives. In addition, I make an effort to remind them that the mistreatment they suffered in their home countries is unacceptable here in the United States.  Here, they have a voice and should feel they can use it.” 

Jonathan Campozano, Justice Fellow


Immigration in the Media


 This American Life – Episode 636 | I Thought This Would Be Easier | Act One: Send in the Gowns 

Marshall Project Reporter, Julia Preston, and producer Jonathan Menjivar, visit an immigration court in Laredo, Texas to find out how one of Trump’s mandates – to quickly expel immigrants from the US – is going.


 The New Yorker | When ICE Tries to Deport Americans, Who Defends Them? 

Steve Coll on naturalized American citizens and permanent residents who get mistakenly caught up in deportation proceedings by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


 Public Radio International | After 17 Years of ‘Legal Life’ in the US, a Family Considers Its Next Move 

The official announcement landed early on Monday morning.  Vanessa Velasco received a 7 a.m. text from a friend, also from El Salvador.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will end a program that has allowed Velasco and her husband, her friend, and more than 200,000 Salvadorian immigrants to work and live in the US without fear of deportation  This story is part of Public Radio International’s ‘The Walls We Don’t See’ a multi-platform series telling the stories of migrants and would-be migrants to the United States.


 Vox | Trump Wants Immigrants to be Afraid.  Two New Studies Show It’s Working 

Trump’s policies are throwing whole communities in distress – and warping the daily lives of unauthorized immigrants, legal immigrants, and US citizen children alike.


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