They were immigration raid victims, Mr. Vice President – we were there

Last week, the Huffington Post and other news sources reported on comments made by Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden: US 'preferred a different outcome' on Brexit Abortion is weakness for Clinton VP favorite Overnight Defense: Biden hits Trump on national security | Dems raise pressure over refugees | Graham vows fight over spending caps MORE to a meeting of House Democrats about immigration raids at the beginning of the year which targeted Central American women and their children.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi relayed his message and stated, “They weren’t raids. They were individuals who either had broken the law in other ways other than status or were newcomers to the country.” 

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This simply isn’t true.  We know, because we spent the first week of January with those women and children in the visitation trailer at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas as part of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project.  Our team included five law students and two professors from the University of Minnesota Law School Center for New Americans.

We travelled to Texas to help some of the thousands of women and children fleeing horrendous violence in Central America.  These families are escaping domestic violence and the breakdown of law in the region due to gangs; many have been subjected to brutal violence including beatings, death threats, and sexual assault. In the United States, these families, including children, are detained in prison-like conditions and need the help of attorneys to understand the immigration process, articulate their claims for protection, and get out of detention. 

We arrived in Dilley on January 3, as news of the raids was reported across the country.  We soon learned from CARA staff that the families picked up in the raids were being transported to the detention facility in Dilley before deportation.

One hundred and twenty-one mothers and children were picked up in raids that weekend and many of them brought to Dilley that weekend and immediately we understood the gravity of the situation. We heard shocking stories and the disturbing and tragic circumstances of these raids have been documented in a recent report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  ICE agents gained entry to homes by force and deceit.  They did not display warrants or court orders.  They claimed to be looking for other people.  They woke sleeping mothers and their children.  They demanded to search houses and promised that it was just a routine check-in and mothers and children would be returned to their families in a few hours.  Women were not allowed to contact their attorneys.  Instead women reported that they were loaded into cells filled with crying women and children who were bound for Dilley.

And unlike the vice president’s assertions, none of the women and children we met with had any criminal convictions or charges and they did not report being picked up for that reason.   Many were subject to ankle monitoring and were attending regular immigration check-ins as directed.  Some had work permits.  Many women with final orders of deportation report confusion and disarray within the immigration system and report they never had the opportunity to tell a judge about why they needed protection in the United States, or understood their right to appeal.

We also heard about what awaited them if they returned to their home countries.  Like so many other asylum seekers from Central America, they were fleeing threats against their lives or their children’s lives, retaliation for failing to pay to keep their children out of vicious gangs, lethal domestic violence, and extreme sexual abuse by gang members or intimate partners.  Returning home meant returning to this brutality, helplessness, and pain. 

Our team worked alongside CARA Project staff and volunteers to file appeals and successfully obtained stays from the Board of Immigration Appeals and we were able to prevent thirty-three mothers and children from being instantly deported, working to literally pull families off planes as the Board issued these orders.  During this frantic week, ICE told the women that no one could help them and they had no right to a lawyer.  In spite of the misinformation and coercion, thirteen families found their way to the legal visitation trailer and sought protection. We held twelve-hour vigils with family to keep agents away and we watched families cry and cheer with relief when someone was saved from imminent deportation.  They sang together around a table after breaking down privately when forced to explain to their legal teams what was waiting for them and their children at home.  ICE’s tactics were representative of the government’s overall policy towards these women and children which has been criticized for violating the rights of asylum seekers, jailing and mistreating children, and denying some of the world’s most vulnerable people basic due process. 

The vice president and House Minority Leader may say that what happened in the early hours of the New Year on January 2 and 3 were not raids, but a policy that treats these courageous asylum seekers more like terrorists than refugees and is focused more on deterrence than protection of the vulnerable, denies the rights of asylum seekers.  During our time in Dilley, we were deeply moved by the strength, bravery, and resilience of these mothers.  Their experiences warrant humanitarian protection based on their internationally recognized human rights, not incarceration.  The hardship they have suffered to keep their children alive deserves our support, not our condemnation. 

Anguiano-Wehde, Bruning, Crumrine, De Leon and Georgevich are students at the University of Minnesota Law School who traveled to Dilley, Texas as part of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project. The views expressed here are the authors' and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Minnesota or the Law School.

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