This week marks my last at the UNLV Immigration Clinic. For the last two years, my job has been to represent (mostly) children who the United States government is determined to deport. The handful of adults whose cases landed on my desk over the years either are or were in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention at some point, stuck in jail for a significant amount of time for the apparently immoral and irredeemable act of coming to the United States.
When I tell people that I work with children fleeing persecution, I can see the darkness of what that means come across their face as they comment on how hard that must be. And of course, it is. No child should have to live through what most of these children have endured, only to then be treated as undesirables when they finally get to the “land of the free.” But kids are resilient and within the first few months of meeting them, once they’ve started school and started making friends, they bounce back, joking at our meetings, calling me to let me know they have a new boyfriend or girlfriend, and just generally living a normal, teenage life.
The rage against the forces that brought them to this place, the impotence of fighting a system that is set up against them, the worry of whether they will be allowed to stay, that is left to me and to their parents, or to other family members tasked with caring for them. In that sense, it’s not the kids who keep me up at night.
The hardest part of this job, hands down, is working with and meeting the men and women in ICE detention. Even as I attempt to write this, my hands get shaky and it gets hard to see my screen with the tears building up in my eyes. I can’t tell anymore whether these are tears of anger or despair (probably both). I am not a typically weepy person, but the indignity of the fact that we have people sitting in jail simply for wanting to become a part of our communities, for wanting to build a life here amongst us, is too much to bear.
When you hear of these places and the people they incarcerate, you will undoubtedly hear them referred to as detention centers, as detainees, as if there is some distinction between ICE jail and “regular” jail. Make no mistake, that distinction does not exist. ICE detention centers are prisons and those they house are prisoners — the vast, vast majority of whom are being held without ever having committed an actual crime. The only difference perhaps lies in the fact that incarcerated folks who are held on criminal grounds have at least some due process protections. Not so much for ICE detainees.
Without a lawyer to help them navigate the insanely confusing immigration system, many will find themselves in jail indefinitely, or at least until their case makes its way through the maze that is immigration court and its appellate process. Faced with months or even years of incarcerated living, many detained immigrants will choose to forgo their claims and depart, not because their case lacks merit but because the risk of death or harm or disease in their home countries begins to pale in comparison to the nightmare of indefinite incarceration, our version of the welcome wagon.
A few weeks ago, as our Legislature was wrapping up its most recent biennial session, I wrote in support of Assembly Bill 376, the Keep Nevada Working Act. At the time, the proposed bill sought to protect our immigrant communities from unnecessary detention by eliminating the use of state resources to assist ICE with its enforcement operations. What that means in plain English is that the bill aimed to prevent law enforcement officers, a.k.a. the cops, from handing over our community members to ICE.
As it stands right now, many people who find themselves in ICE jail made their way there because of minor infractions for which they were initially picked up by the police. Then, either charges were dismissed or the person was otherwise free to go — but instead of letting them leave, the cops just held on to them a little longer while they called their buddies over at ICE to let them know that they had a fresh one for them. This isn’t just unconstitutional and a lawsuit waiting to happen, it erodes any good will, trust, and respect the immigrant community could ever hope to have for law enforcement. If we are to view the police as an extension of ICE, that makes all of us less safe.
Had it passed in its original form, AB376 would have certainly led to a significant decrease in immigration detention, the ultimate goal for any true immigrant rights advocate. What ended up happening exactly is difficult for me to decipher, as I am not all that well-versed in the dealings of the Legislature, but the bill that will be signed into law this week contains very little of that original intent. Instead, the Immigration Clinic is now set to get funding that will allow us to provide more attorneys for people facing deportation in Nevada. In doing so, Nevada joins a growing number of states that are working towards a universal representation model whereby every immigrant in deportation proceedings would ideally be represented by counsel. To be super-duper clear, this is a good thing, a great thing even. People in removal proceedings, particularly people in detention who are otherwise cut off from the world, have a much greater chance of success if they have an attorney. So yes, there is some reason to celebrate.
I can’t help but feel disappointed. What we were asking for were fewer pathways to detention; what we got instead was money for more lawyers. Again, these are welcomed and needed resources, but while it has been the greatest honor of my life serving this community and serving my clients, what I want more than anything in this world is for you all to make my job obsolete — not to multiply it.
Working at the UNLV Immigration Clinic has truly changed my life. I’m certainly a better lawyer and a better advocate than I was two years ago. I work with the best people and I get to do a job that I am proud of every day. The attorneys, staff, and students who built the clinic have been changing people’s lives for long before I got there. I am happy that AB376 will allow this work to continue and to expand long after I am gone. I just hope we never lose sight of the real fight, because if my work here has taught me anything, it is that we cannot rely on the courts to save us and that (much to my dismay) lawyers are not superheroes.
It turns out that a system built to crush immigrants is also built to crush their advocates. A whole army of us is not enough, will never be enough. What we need is for the system itself to burn. What we need from our elected officials, the only thing we need from our elected officials, is to help us burn it. That means an unequivocal end to polimigra and the complete abolishment of immigration detention. At a minimum. As in, that shouldn’t be the end goal, it should be where the conversation begins. Until then, the extremely slow march towards decency that we like to call progress hardly feels like much of a victory at all.
Martha E. Menendez, Esq. is the Bernstein Senior Fellow at the UNLV Immigration Clinic.