Western Mass. lawyers team up to get transgender asylum seekers freed

  • Atty. William C. Newman, Director of the Western Regional Office of the ACLU of Massachusetts, talks to those gathered for a Law Day talk at the Franklin County Justice Center. May 1, 2017 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

For the Recorder
Published: 6/25/2018 5:23:07 PM

Pioneer Valley lawyers are banding together to demand the release of 20 transgender asylum seekers who have been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico.

Eighteen volunteer lawyers filed petitions with ICE this week via the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, with two outstanding, for each of the asylum seekers, all trans women, as part of an effort organized through the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Immigration Protection Project (IPP). The Santa Fe Dreamers Project provides legal services to the New Mexico immigrant community.

Northampton attorney Megan Kludt of Curran and Berger connected the Immigration Protection Project with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project after having previously worked with immigration protection groups on the southern border. She is one of the founding members of the project, a coordinated regional effort by attorneys to provide immigrants in western Massachusetts with legal assistance.

Kludt said the project sent lawyers to aid immigrants at the border due to a greater need there than locally. This network of attorneys is working with lawyers on the ground in places like New Mexico to assist asylum seekers being detained by ICE.

Each petition the lawyers have filed with ICE provides documentation establishing why these women meet the legal criteria for release. The women will still need legal representation at their parole hearings.

Seeking refuge

The 20 asylum seekers left their native countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and arrived together at the end of May at the California border. They were detained there by ICE agents pending a hearing for their release, according to Bill Newman, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ western Massachusetts office.

Federal immigration law requires ICE to make an individual determination as to why an immigrant seeking asylum should remain in ICE custody, based on flight risk or danger to the public, according to the ACLU, as well as the likely success of their asylum request.

The Department of Homeland Security and ICE, however, have instituted a policy in five field offices across the country, including the one in New Mexico, to detain all asylum seekers, not just those who might fail to appear before an immigration judge, in an attempt to deter other immigrants from seeking refuge in the country, Newman said.

That policy is the focus of a class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington by the ACLU, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, Humans Rights First and Covington & Burling LLP. The case, Damus v. Nielsen, challenges the Trump administration’s “arbitrary detention of asylum seekers fleeing persecution, torture or death in their countries of origin,” according to the ACLU. It names the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice as defendants.

When the asylum seekers arrived at the border, they made their request for asylum known to federal agents, as legally required. Each had an interview with asylum officers, and all 20 were determined to have a credible fear of persecution in their home country “on account of being transgender, an identifiable social group,” Newman said.

Since all were determined to have a credible fear of persecution in their home country following their interviews with asylum officers, it “indicates the strength and merit for their claim of asylum,” Newman said.

It is standard for ICE to determine whether a claim of asylum is credible — based on belonging to an identifiable social group, individual history or whether the seekers fear persecution in their home country — but it is not standard to detain those who meet the legal criteria for release.

“Implementation of this policy and practice is to deny parole for asylum seekers and to deter people from seeking asylum,” Newman said, “notwithstanding the violence and brutal attacks they have suffered and the unwillingness or inability of their home countries to protect them.”

The Trump administration has sought to make it harder for immigrants to obtain asylum. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently ruled that those fleeing domestic violence and gang violence would no longer be entitled to asylum.

ICE officials are expected to render a decision on the filed parole requests for the 20 asylum seekers before the end of the month, according to Newman.

Since they are currently detained, these asylum seekers will have to prepare for their parole hearing in jail. Finding a lawyer to represent them will be a challenge and they will appear in court via remote video, all of this lowering their chances of prevailing in their asylum claim, according to Kludt.

Each lawyer put together a petition package with supporting documents for a “compelling” case for each woman to be released, according to Newman. This included statements by sponsors who have volunteered to house, feed and provide for the asylum seekers, as well as the report by ICE that they have a valid asylum claim based on their interviews.

“This group is unique in that every one of them have U.S. citizen sponsors that rose from aid organizations,” Kludt said. “Sponsors came out of the woodwork … sponsors who did not know them but volunteered.”

Besides Newman, the lawyers who petitioned include Harris Freeman, Laura Fisher and Catherine Malone of Western New England School of Law; Bonnie Allen, Leah Kunkel, Dana Goldblatt and Elaine Pourinski, all of Northampton; Frances South of Amherst and Sam Charron of Easthampton.


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