A Mother’s Fight Against Deportation

My client survived a civil war in her home country and years of abuse. Her story is just one example of why we need a more compassionate immigration system.

Mothers everywhere form the backbone of our families and communities. Yet, immigrant mothers across the country are undervalued and under attack. At the southern border, mothers seeking asylum are routinely separated from their young children, leaving thousands of migrant children in government custody, with the administration now planning to confine some of these traumatized children on military bases. And over 500 pregnant women have been locked up in immigration detention without adequate medical care since last December, when the Trump administration ended a policy that would have allowed for their release.

As an immigration attorney, I’ve witnessed the pain and trauma that our nation’s broken immigration system inflicts upon mothers. My client Elena, a proud mother and grandmother, came to the United States from El Salvador in 1997 with her then-five-year-old daughter. El Salvador had been embroiled in a bloody civil war for over a decade, and during the conflict Elena’s family received death threats due to her father’s position in the national government. Shortly after arriving in the United States, Elena met and fell in love with the man who would become the father of her son. But about six months after the birth of their son, Daniel, Elena’s partner started abusing drugs and alcohol, and became physically abusive. For the next 18 years, Elena’s partner beat her several times a week. The abuse was so severe that Elena often missed work, immobilized in bed from the painful bruising that she would hide under pants and long-sleeved shirts. Elena’s partner threatened to kidnap or harm her son if she left him, and so she stayed, trapped, feeling like she would explode from stress. Driven to despair, she attempted suicide several times, but each time she would think of her children and stop. Ultimately, Elena turned to alcohol in an attempt to cope with the relentless abuse, and committed two misdemeanor DUIs. Elena’s response is not rare. Studies show that it is common for domestic violence victims to begin substance abuse behaviors when their abusive domestic partners also abuse drugs or alcohol. In fact, nearly 80 percent of women in substance abuse treatment programs are victims of intimate partner violence.

With the help of her family, Elena finally escaped from the abusive relationship and started down the pathway of healing and recovery. Only now Elena had to cope with a different kind of vulnerability — because of the misdemeanor DUI convictions, Elena lost lawful status under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program. TPS is a humanitarian aid program that provides recipients protection from deportation and work authorization, and it is only available to people from certain countries devastated by war or natural disaster. This year, the Trump administration terminated TPS for El Salvador, placing at risk of deportation nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, many of whom have lived in the U.S. for about two decades. In fact, the administration has slashed TPS protections for 98 percent of all TPS recipients in the country. When Elena lost TPS, her U.S. citizen son Daniel was still too young to petition on her behalf for a green card. (Children must be 21 years or older to petition for their parent’s green card, and Daniel was just 13 years old at the time.)

More than ten years later, Elena was arrested for violating an open container law (for which she later paid a fine). Despite the non-serious nature of the offense, local police notified immigration enforcement authorities, who then detained Elena and placed her in deportation proceedings. Elena was incarcerated in a local jail for nine months while her immigration case was pending. (In addition to contracting with large, private prison companies, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also contracts with dozens of local jails to house immigrant detainees, often in dangerously substandard conditions.) Elena asked to be released from detention on bond, and although the immigration judge determined that Elena did not pose a flight risk or a danger to the community, the judge set Elena’s bond at $20,000 — an impossibly high amount that her family could not afford.

To make matters worse, Elena’s family could not afford to hire an immigration attorney. Unlike in criminal cases, immigrants facing deportation are not guaranteed a lawyer. Across the nation, immigrants struggle with lack of access to counsel and the inability to afford legal services. Detained immigrants like Elena have an even harder time accessing legal help.

Between 2007 and 2012, only 37 percent of all immigrants in deportation proceedings had an attorney; for immigrants in detention the representation rate plummeted to an abysmal 14 percent.

One of the reasons detained immigrants have a hard time finding an attorney is that detention facilities are usually located in rural, remote areas. Indeed, to visit Elena in detention, I had to drive over 300 miles round trip from my office in Washington, D.C. to the jail. And I only learned about Elena’s case through the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition’s pro bono attorney referral program. Direct service providers like CAIR Coalition provide invaluable assistance to detained immigrants through their Legal Orientation Program (LOP) — the very program that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to end.

States and localities are beginning to recognize the desperate need for universal representation in immigration court. New York became the first state to create a public defender system for detained immigrants facing deportation, and over a dozen local governments have funded legal representation programs for community members who can’t afford to hire an immigration attorney. But some of these local initiatives carve out exceptions for those immigrants with criminal convictions. Montgomery County, Maryland, recently excluded many residents with past convictions from its deportation defense fund. Everyone deserves an attorney in immigration court, regardless of their criminal history, or else domestic violence victims with U.S. citizen kids like Elena could be left out in the cold.

Nine months in detention took its toll on Elena. Technically, immigration detention is civil detention, but Elena was locked up in a local jail, wearing a jumpsuit and surrounded by blank white, concrete walls. Elena struggles with depression, and during those nine months in detention, her condition worsened. Like so many incarcerated people across the country, Elena faced countless small indignities that quickly worked to break her down: she couldn’t dye her hair anymore, and the guards wouldn’t approve her face cream. She needed new glasses, and suffered from constant, debilitating headaches. She fell out of communication with her son, unable to text him like she used to, and unable to see him since he lived in California, three time zones away.

While in detention, she missed her son’s birthday. She spent Christmas alone. And when she found out that her daughter was pregnant with her first child, she was unable to celebrate with her loved ones. Instead, Elena talked to me about becoming a grandmother, crying tears of joy and desperation, not knowing if she would be deported before her daughter gave birth.

On my last visit with Elena before the court hearing, there were no attorney-client rooms available, and we met instead in the jail’s regular “no-contact” visitation booth, shouting at each other through thick, yellowed plexiglass. We tried to laugh and joke about it, but it made preparing for her court hearing that much harder.

As her attorney, I shared in Elena’s pain, anxiety, and hope for the future. Effective legal advocacy requires emotional investment in your client’s case, and building trust and rapport takes time — Elena was my first client out of law school, and I spent over 300 hours working on her case. With Elena’s trust, I slowly learned more details about her past trauma, and together we crafted a compelling narrative declaration to present to the immigration judge, one that would fairly show Elena’s successes as well as her mistakes — in short, her humanity. To corroborate Elena’s account, I gathered evidence including medical records and a copy of a domestic violence restraining order against her abusive partner. In addition, I helped her family and friends draft letters of support, and prepared Elena and her son to give testimony in court. Fortunately, by the time Elena was detained, her son Daniel was 23 years old. Elena was eligible to apply for lawful permanent residency (i.e., a green card) through Daniel, who had already filed a petition on her behalf with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Currently, the Trump administration and many Congressional Republicans want to put family-based immigration on the chopping block by slashing green card sponsorship categories, including preventing U.S. citizens like Daniel from sponsoring their parents.

In March, Elena and I appeared in immigration court for her deportation hearing. I was seated in the courtroom before the judge, but Elena appeared via video link from detention, and this worried me. Elena’s face looked so small on the television monitor, and I wondered, would her testimony be as effective as it could be in person? Would the judge hear the emotion in her voice, if she couldn’t see it well enough in her face? I knew my client had a sympathetic case, but so much depends on establishing credibility with the judge, and video cases are significantly more likely to end in deportation. We’d practiced her testimony for hours, but on the day of the hearing, Elena broke into uncontrollable sobbing, unable to voice the story of her traumatic abuse. Thankfully, the judge interrupted, indicating that she would accept the written testimony of the abuse that I had filed with the court ten days earlier, allowing us to move forward with the less painful parts of Elena’s testimony. After Elena’s testimony had concluded, Daniel testified via phone from California. At the sound of her son’s voice filling the courtroom, Elena broke into tears again. Daniel called his mother his best friend, and as he spoke everyone could hear how much he loves his mother. Finally, about two hours after the hearing began, the immigration judge said that she would grant Elena her green card. The sudden good news caught Elena off guard, and it took her a minute or so to realize that her fight against deportation was finally over. At last, she had won her case, and could go home to reunite with her family.

After Elena was released from detention, communicating with her became so much easier. Now Elena has a cellphone and can leave me voicemails and text me important information. A few weeks ago, Elena and I met outside the local USCIS office to file some paperwork. As we waited in the lobby, Elena was beaming. She told me that morning her daughter had given birth to her first child, a girl. Elena was now a grandmother! This Mother’s Day, Elena was free to celebrate with her family, secure in the knowledge that she will not be forcibly separated from her children and granddaughter. But despite the comfort that lawful permanent residency brings, uncertainty still clouds Elena’s future. Since the administration terminated TPS for El Salvador, Elena’s parents, who are both TPS recipients, are now in danger of deportation.

It’s going to take all of us to stand together to resist this administration’s attack on immigrant families and protect immigrant mothers like Elena.

*Names and some identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.

Hannah Woerner is the NAPABA Law Foundation Community Law Fellow at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.