I write this plea as a Maine resident who has spent almost two years working with an organization that provides legal advice to immigrants, primarily from Central America and Mexico. These are women and families who are being held in a detention center in Texas. I work with them remotely and have visited the facility two separate times.
The detainees are seeking asylum in the United States, fleeing desperate conditions in their home countries including poverty, domestic violence, and horrendous gang violence. What they have experienced and witnessed are often blood curdling stories I do not care to repeat.
These women and children are not criminals. Almost all of them would have been given a chance in previous presidential administrations to leave the center and begin the immigration process at their destination homes, sponsored by family and/or friends. The Trump administration, without building a wall, has effectively cut off most immigration from countries other than Mexico.
The refugees who get through and are brought to detention centers are finding it increasingly difficult to prove they have a credible fear of returning to their countries, based on updated guidance from the administration. In my view, the new guidelines are cruel and unnecessary. It is no longer enough to know that a person has been harmed and/or received threats from gangs or family members; the guidelines now require that very strict criteria are met. In my view, the criteria go far beyond what a reasonable person would consider to be a credible threat.
Credible fear interviews have traditionally been conducted in person by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers, who have received extensive training as part of their jobs. The interviews are now often conducted over the phone by Customs and Border Protection agents who receive a half day of training with regard to the interviews and the law. I witnessed an interview that took four hours, rather than the 45 minutes to an hour that they have typically lasted. The agent on the phone was clearly not prepared and had to pause for one or more minutes after every response, delaying the process time after time.
People who do not pass the credible fear test have a right to appeal to an immigration judge. While some judges understand the need to provide safe refuge for people in distress, others adhere to a strict interpretation of the inhumane and cruel criteria imposed by the current administration.
The two times I visited a detention center, many of the detainees and/or their children had colds and/or a fever. Most recently, these centers have experienced outbreaks of COVID-19, a disease that can spread quickly and devastate already vulnerable families.
My plea to our government is as follows:
Release asylum seekers from detention centers as fast as possible. Loosen the credible fear guidelines so that every person and family who can be reasonably understood by a prudent person to fear violence and/or death at home is granted a positive result; i.e., they are free to go to their sponsors and begin the asylum process. End the cruelty of unnecessary detention and help stop the spread of coronavirus in detention centers.
Cancel the “stay in Mexico” policy. Euphemistically labeled Migrant Protection Protocol , this policy has placed thousands of asylum seekers at risk of unsanitary conditions in makeshift camps on the Mexican border. It has also subjected them to local violence, at a time when they have sought to flee violence.
The immigration policies followed by the current presidential administration are cruel and inhumane. Please show the world that the U.S. is better than this. Do all you can to allow vulnerable people to find a safe refuge in our country.
David Shultz of Kennebunkport has been a remote interpreter for immigrants detained in Texas.