Bernie staffers and DACA recipients Belén Sisa and Luis Alcauter talk about the power of coming out as undocumented. Activist Viridiana Martinez recounts her successful infiltration of an ICE facility, dramatized in the documentary The Infiltrators. Brianna Rennix, a lawyer and Current Affairs senior editor, fills us in on the difference between immigration and political asylum and shares her work on behalf of detained families, including children, in the Dilley Detention Center in South Texas.
The Infiltrators on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6885114
Brianna’s Current Affairs article: https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/05/waiting-for-the-holy-infant-of-atocha
Briahna Joy Gray: Secret secrets are no fun. Secret secrets hurt someone.
Michael Scott: Wow. Thank you.
Briahna Joy Gray: You might recognize this as a line from The Office. A funny scene not intended to be a spark for any real rumination. But it came to mind as I thought about all the stories I heard this week when interviewing people for this special immigration episode. The thing that really struck me about the stories I heard about DACA recipients, asylum-seekers, and the attorneys who work to secure them rights, is the power of the truth.
When the threat of deportation hangs over your head, you live a life full of secrets. You bond with friends throughout high school, but by senior year, you find yourself struggling to make excuses for why you still don’t have a driver’s license. The reason? It’s illegal in your state for undocumented people to have one.
Luis Alcauter: Driving without a driver license, always with the fear then you’re going to get pulled over and lose your car. Maybe even go to prison.
Briahna Joy Gray: Your friends are all applying to college, but you don’t, despite being smart, ambitious, outgoing. You can come up with excuses, but the secret forces you to paint a version of yourself that’s just, well, a shadow of who you truly are.
Belén Sisa: The first person I actually came out to as undocumented was my guidance counselor. And he looked at me, and just said, “You know, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help you.” And so I was left at 17, 18 trying to figure out what to do after high school, when I felt like everyone was doing what I wanted to do, and I felt like I had done everything right, and I was just getting kind of screwed over.
Briahna Joy Gray: Just last week, CNN reported that a private processing center in El Paso designed to hold 125 people was secretly holding 900 people. A cell designed to hold a maximum of 12 people held 76. Another with a maximum capacity of eight, held 41. A cell designed to hold 35 people held 155.
Detainees unable to access showers or clean clothing remained soiled for weeks. People were seen standing on toilets just to get breathing room. This has been going on for nearly a month at least. But as long as no one knew…
We keep secrets to protect ourselves, from deportation, from judgment, but there’s an incredible amount of power in the truth.
Belén Sisa: You come out out of survival. You don’t really have a choice. You start hitting walls, and after a while you have to get the courage to say it to somebody. And for me, I had said it that guidance counselor that I was undocumented, but then I didn’t really tell anybody until after high school, when I started speaking out and feeling that I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines while all of these other undocumented young people were getting arrested in front of the White House, and were protesting at the state capitol, and were making the President of the United States make an executive action. That’s how powerful we were.
And I was powerless because I wasn’t doing anything. So I decided a year after DACA came out, at one of the Democratic state committee meetings that I was going to tell my story in a room of 200 white progressive people that I was scared of because my image of a white older person was that they would hate me. But I got a really positive response. It was like a weight was lifted almost, that I could finally be myself because not telling the truth and hiding for so long makes you feel like you should be ashamed of the person that you are.
Luis Alcauter: My most vivid memory was when I was applying for college, and I realized that I was undocumented, and the many struggles and obstacles that I had to overcome as an undocumented student with my goal to graduate from college. And even after all of that, if you were able to overcome all those obstacles, maybe graduating from college, there wasn’t an opportunity to get a job or anything like that.
So coming up and telling them you were undocumented was almost something that you had to do to be able to overcome these obstacles because if you were going to go and explain to your counselors, to your future employer that you were looking for a job, you have to explain your situation. And even when you got paid, when you receive a paycheck, I didn’t have a bank account because I didn’t have a social security. I couldn’t open a bank account. So, I had this piece of paper that I made money, now how was I going to get the money and being able to spend it on the things that I needed?
Briahna Joy Gray: The voices you just heard were Belén Sisa, Latino press secretary for the Bernie campaign, and Luis Alcauter, Spanish digital coordinator. They are two of at least four DACA recipients working here at HQ.
Not everyone in the media reacted well to the campaign employing DACA recipients. Don’t read the comments under the Breitbart article about Belén for instance. But team Bernie is pretty proud to be working for a candidate whose campaign is an extension of his values.
Bernie Sanders: So, what we are going to do is not only pass comprehensive immigration reform and a path towards citizenship, we are going to provide immediate legal status for the 1.8 million young people in the DACA program. Let us be clear. Bringing undocumented workers out of the shadows, and giving them the basic workplace and labor protections that all workers are entitled to, that helps every worker in America. It makes certain that corporations and unscrupulous employers cannot exploit a subset of the workforce to undercut the entire labor market.
Briahna Joy Gray: That was from Bernie’s big immigration speech last week. And this is a clip from a powerful video elevating the voices of immigrant campaign staffers, including Belén and Luis, and also Eileen, who you might remember as a Type 1 diabetic from episode two, the healthcare episode.
Sam Adaramola: I was immediately put on deportation proceedings. My work permit was canceled. I could not work. I couldn’t provide for my now disabled parents.
Basi Alonso: All we wanted to do was to be reunited with my father who had fled Mexico because he feared for his life. He had been kidnapped, and beaten, and extorted. And they told him if he didn’t pay up, he was going to be killed for his political activities.
Eileen Garcia: I had a realization where, there was real moments throughout my life where my entire family could be deported, and I would be left alone.
Belén Sisa: It was a very real thing to have to hide that you were undocumented, or in some cases even that you were an immigrant.
Briahna Joy Gray: Those stories are just a microcosm of all the immigration stories out there. And on this episode of Hear the Bern, we want to not only to tell them but to help explain some part of what’s going on with this immigration crisis, and to talk to some of the people helping to solve it.
This is Hear the Bern. A podcast about the people, ideas, and politics that are driving the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign, and the movement to secure a dignified life for everyone living in this country. My name is Briahna Joy Gray, coming to you from campaign headquarters in Washington, DC.
This week, in addition to speaking to Luis and Belén, I interview Viridiana Martinez — a DACA recipient and activist, who in 2012 infiltrated a detention center by getting herself detained in order to help those on the inside. I also spoke to immigration attorney and writer Brianna Rennix, who works at Dilley Detention center in South Texas — a facility infamous for housing families with children. She walks us through the flawed asylum process, and possible paths for reform.
Activists have already spent years urging the government to fix this mess. In 2012, President Obama responded to this pressure by implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, known as DACA.
Crucially, this was an executive action, not a new law. And it did not provide a path of citizenship for the Dreamers that it spared temporarily from the threat of deportation. That meant that Dreamers continued living in a sort of halfway state, neither permanent residents, nor undocumented immigrants. And since DACA wasn’t a law, future administrations could change the policy by executive action, just as Obama had enacted it.
Even with all those caveats, DACA was transformative for people like Belén and Luis.
Belén Sisa: So, I actually had just graduated from high school. I was living in San Tan Valley, Arizona, which is right next to Florence, Arizona, where one of the biggest immigrant detention centers and federal prisons is. And I was at home with my mom. And we turned on the news, and I just heard her screaming all of a sudden. And I was like, “What is happening?” And she was like, “Belén, oh my God, the president just made this executive action. It means that you’re going to be safe. You’re going to be finally able to go to college, and get a job, and do all these things that you were so devastated that you weren’t going to be able to do when you graduated high school a month ago.”
Everything happened so quickly, but I just remember the joy that it brought, not even knowing that behind the scenes there were thousands of undocumented youth that actually made the action happen. And it showed how un-politically savvy I was in the beginning because I didn’t know what it meant. We all thought that it was just going to be like citizenship, but it actually really wasn’t.
Briahna Joy Gray: For Belén, DACA was also the beginning of her life as an activist.
Belén Sisa: The DACA announcement by President Obama, I felt like that’s where the political activist Belén was born. It was almost like I started developing into the person I was actually supposed to be. And sometimes I think that that’s what struggle is. Sometimes you have to go through these things to become the person that you’re supposed to be, even though no one should go through injustices, like sometimes I feel like the universe kind of does it for us in that way.
Briahna Joy Gray: It’s a story I heard again and again from DACA recipients. That coming out as a DACA recipient was empowering.
Viridiana Martinez: It was just one of the most empowering experiences of my entire activism work because it was when we saw first-hand what we could do if we faced the system and we called its bluff.
Briahna Joy Gray: That was immigration activist Viridiana Martinez. I met her in March when I sat down next to her at South by Southwest. My intercept colleague Rodrigo had chosen a film for us to watch called The Infiltrators. And I didn’t know much about it, just that it had something to do with detention centers. So, I leaned over to the woman to my left, just making conversation, and was like, “Hey, do you know anything about this film?” Turns out she was in it. Embarrassing for me, but ultimately a mitzvah.
In 2012, Viridiana and a group of other undocumented millennials started the National Immigrant Youth Alliance group to advocate for immigrant rights by confronting immigration authorities. But their advocacy notched up a level when Mohammad, the group’s founder, was contacted by the son of a detained man named Claudio Rojas.
Viridiana Martinez: He had tried to reach out to other organizations, and they were all like, “Oh, well, there’s nothing we can do. We can help speed up the deportation, but we can’t …” and we’re like, “Okay.”
Briahna Joy Gray: Claudio had been taken to Broward Detention Center, a place for low-risk, non-violent detainees. In 2011, President Obama’s ICE director, John Morton, issued a memo calling on ICE attorneys and employees to refrain from pursuing non-citizens with close family, educational, military, or other ties to the US, and to instead focus on people who posed a serious risk to public safety.
Viridiana Martinez: It’s a DHS memo. And that’s what we use basically to say you guys are saying that low-priority cases should be favorably prosecuted, which means like releasing them. So why aren’t you reviewing these cases, so these people are all released? When what was happening is that entire detention centers existed that held those kinds of people.
Briahna Joy Gray: So Vidi and her team hatched a plan. One of their members, a young man named Marco, was going to get himself detained intentionally so that he could help Claudio access resources on the outside that could enable him to draw attention to his case and get free. When the team discovered there was also a women’s side to the detention center, they decided to infiltrate there as well, this time with Viridiana.
Viridiana Martinez: Broward was the perfect facility to try this out. You know, when you look at Broward, versus like some of the other detention centers, some of the other detention centers look straight up like a prison. I don’t know if you’ve been to, but they have the whole wiring. They look like a straight up prison. Whereas Broward literally, I mean you’ve seen the movie, Broward straight up looks like hotel from the outside. Right?
Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah.
Viridiana Martinez: Pink colored.
Briahna Joy Gray: Palm trees.
Viridiana Martinez: You wouldn’t know that it’s a detention center. So, it was the perfect place for us to do our experiment.
Briahna Joy Gray: But ironically, when Viridiana first tried to get detained, well, they didn’t believe her.
Viridiana Martinez: The first attempt, I’m wearing this blue summer dress. And it’s like super cute, and fun, and I was like, “Oh this is going to be a piece of cake.
Briahna Joy Gray: Your hair is like done, and highlighted, all cute. Like she’s a cute girl. How old were you at the time? Like 27ish?
Viridiana Martinez: 26.
Briahna Joy Gray: 26, yeah. So, what happened when you presented yourself looking like you just walked off the pages of Marie Claire?
Viridiana Martinez: So, the agent, the border patrol agent was like, “Who are you? What do you want? And then he was, “I saw you get out of a car.” Just like, “Oh no, dammit. You figured me out.” I was just freaking out. I was just grabbing my passport. And I’m just like, “You know what I’m leaving.” I just walked out of there, and then I ran, and I called my friends who were in the car. And I’m like, you all, they saw us.
Briahna Joy Gray: Okay. So then trial two, how did you dress, and what was different?
Viridiana Martinez: Trial two, I ended up wearing a shirt, like a button shirt over a tee shirt and then just like some tennis shoes, and then my hair was in a ponytail. And I think maybe like no makeup. Speaking only Spanish, that was really important. Once I got to the actual, where I turn myself in to the gate, I was crying because I remember telling myself, “Gosh, what if they keep pushing back on me? They keep pushing back, like ‘No, you should just stay here.’ How am I going to push, like how am I going to be insistent, without it being like, ‘What is this woman doing?’ I’m just going to cry.” I’m just going to play this “this woman is crazy, and just give her what she wants.” And it worked.
Briahna Joy Gray: So, tell me, then what it was like once you were taken in and processed.
Viridiana Martinez: Once I was finally taken in, they took me to a border patrol office. I was processed by an officer with the last name Izquierdo, so I believe he was either Cuban or Dominican, or something. I bring that up, that’s relevant because they think when we get to the border patrol office, he starts asking me questions.
So, I have previous arrests from protests. He’s like, “Wait, so you have an arrest in Charlotte, you have an arrest in Atlanta.” I’m remembering, like, “Oh gosh what happened in that protest, and what would be in the notes?” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, in Charlotte, a woman wouldn’t move and so I got out and I told her to move, and I got charged and arrested with blocking traffic.” He was like, “Okay.” And he was just kind of looking at me. We’re only speaking Spanish.
And so, he goes back and talks to his buddies, to the other border patrol officers, and he speaks to them in English. He’s like, “What do you think, man? Do you think he’s lying?” He’s like, “I think she’s lying. I think she’s lying. I don’t think she’s … I think she’s smarter than all of us.” That’s what his friends were saying, and he was like, “No man.” He was like … Izquierdo was, “No, this is just a submissive Mexican woman. She’s going to go back to Mexico, and her husband’s going to be with another woman, but she’s over here crying about him.”
And he’s like, “Yeah,” he’s like, “Fucking bitch, she’s a submissive Mexican woman.”
Briahna Joy Gray: What?
Viridiana Martinez: I was like, “You know what’s really …” I was like, “Man,” I was like, “Joke’s on you man, if you only knew.” I’ll never forget that because that was a moment when I just looked down and I was like, “Man, these people have no idea.”
Briahna Joy Gray: While inside, Viridiana was able to help female detainees the way Marco had helped the men on the other side. She was able to gather information. Stories, lists of A-numbers, or identification numbers, as well as contact information for the detainees’ family members. On the outside, they had law students using that information to draft legal filings. Others would draft petitions and design local advocacy campaigns. Now you might be wondering what Viridiana and Marco’s exit plan was. It turns out they didn’t really have a choice to stay.
Viridiana Martinez: When we finally got kicked out was … And we knew this was going to happen. We knew that in the same way that under our terms we got in, under our terms we could get out, as soon as we started talking about it. And that’s exactly what happened. Marco interviewed with Univision. I interviewed with Telemundo. And then those interviews aired, I don’t know, a Thursday night, I think it was.
And so, inside the detention facility there’s these flat screen TVs. A lot of times they are playing Univision and Telemundo, and that’s where they’re set to. And so sure enough, our interviews come up, and this report comes up that Dreamers have infiltrated. And the entire, like everyone, all the detainees are like, Oh my God. It’s you. And they’re like, “Oh my God, wow she’s not lying.” And I’m like, “Yeah, so I’m probably going to get kicked out soon, so here’s the number you guys. Call if you change your mind or if you want help, or give the number to your family members and tell them to call us. It’ll be easier to coordinate with them.
Sure enough, the next day, we’re taken downstairs. In the movie, it’s the warden, I think, that gives us all the … That tells us, “Oh, you’re both here illegally, but you qualify for release.” In reality, it was an ICE agent that said, “We’ve reviewed your case and you need to go. Name and number of the person that’s going to come and pick you up.” And we’re like, “What are you talking about? What about everyone else?” And they’re like, “We’re not here to talk to you about anybody else. We’re here to tell you about you. You qualify for release. Are you going to give us your info, or what?”
So, then we go up, we make a phone call, we let our friends on the outside know. And instead we come back with a list of detainees, when we come back to ICE, we come back with a list of detainees and A-numbers of people that we want released. And that kind of made him a little mad. And then we were told to leave again. I think it was lunchtime. So, we got to go and have a final meal with detainees, and stuff. And again, we were telling people like, “Look, they’re going to kick us out. Here’s the number. Here’s all of the info.”
And then they did. After that they went into our rooms, and they were like, “You’re leaving. You’re going out now, you have to go.” And they literally dragged us out. But it was incredibly empowering. You know, again, it’s like “Gosh, if we could do that and do it successfully, then imagine what a large group of people can do. And people with more power. We’re at a moment in which everyone is like, “Trump, Trump, Trump.” Well sure, if Trump is all this, then we all need to get together and get really creative, and really, really go to bat, and risk it all, not just talk like it, but be like that. You know?
Briahna Joy Gray: In Dilley, Texas there’s only one grocery store. And that grocery store is a Lowe’s. It’s not a Lowe’s, like the home improvement center, it’s a totally different and legally-distinct store that also happens to be called Lowe’s. That’s how my friend, and former Current Affairs colleague, Brianna Rennix, started her latest piece for Current Affairs. In her article, Brianna recounts that the Lowe’s grocery store is woefully understocked. It doesn’t carry vegetable broth, for instance.
Though it does carry something called vegetable beef, as well as bacon-flavored pancake syrup, and “quite a lot of animal pheromones in spray cans.” What the store does carry, however, is a votive candle featuring “A picture of a Little Lord Fauntleroy type in a plumed hat and a white ruff, with a pink seashell pinned to his cloak.” It was the Holy Infant of Atocha, a patron child saint, who defends travelers in peril and the unjustly imprisoned.
For Brianna to happen across this particular votive by chance felt like kismet. See, Brianna is an immigration attorney at the Dilley Detention Center. A center made notorious by the poor conditions there, and the fact that it houses families with children. She represents parents and their kids. People who have traveled from afar, fleeing perilous conditions, looking for a better life.
Brianna Rennix: All of the people who are at Dilley, for the most part, are people who are seeking asylum in the United States. Most of them have recently fled from Central America. And when they get to the border, because they don’t have legal permission to enter, they are immediately put in this super-fast, completely extra judicial deportation process, called Expedited Removal, and they have a very short period of time during which to try to convince the asylum office that they have a claim to asylum, or else they will be deported very rapidly.
Dilley is a place where mothers are detained with children. And in some ways, because we, at least for the moment, there are some legal protections for children in detention that don’t exist for adults, in some ways these family units are slightly better off, because if they can succeed at passing an interview at this threshold stage, the family can be released, whereas for most people in detention, they just languish in detention, perhaps for the entire duration of their cases.
With that said, seeing children in the detained setting is very upsetting, and it makes the stakes feel very high when you have people on the verge of deportation. One of the hardest things is that for people whose claims don’t succeed, it’s usually not because they’re not in danger, it’s because they don’t fit into the right legal box. And so, when my clients are deported with their small children, I usually fully believe that they are going back to an environment where I think that they will be hurt and maybe killed.
Working with those families is very intense, and it takes a huge toll on my colleagues and the people who come to volunteer with us to be in proximity to that kind of suffering. And really when you see the scale of the operation, the amount of resources that are poured into locking up these families and locking up immigrants, generally, and then you compare that to just the human reality of being in front of these people and seeing that they are just human beings trying to protect themselves, and keep their family save, and are no danger to anybody, the contrast between this kind of out of control bureaucratic nightmare that is our immigration system, and this sort of very understandable and sympathetic needs of these people is very disturbing. It’s hard to see.
Briahna Joy Gray: The narratives around immigration are multiplicitous and often terrible. And one of them is that there are these illegal people who have broken the law and who have done something untoward for which they deserve to be punished. And that narrative is anti-humanistic, and terrible for myriad reasons. But I do think it’s helpful to also understand that asylum is a separate and apart question in status. Can you help listeners who might not understand, distinguish between the various legal statuses of people, and what it means to seek asylum, in particular?
Brianna Rennix: Yeah, so I certainly think there can be a variety of reasons why people migrate, all of which are completely legitimate. People who are coming to rejoin family members, people who are leaving poverty, people who simply want to relocate. I think these are all legitimate reasons to come. Unfortunately, they are not reasons that are recognized as legitimate by our present legal framework. Coming to seek asylum, on the other hand is recognized as legitimate under our present legal framework, and it’s recognized within our asylum regime that you don’t need to have a visa or any other form of permission to enter a country in order to seek asylum there. All you have to do is present yourself at the border and ask.
And so, there is a lot of discussion about how people are coming here illegally to seek asylum. And that in of itself does not make sense because embedded in the right to ask for asylum is the right to come to a country in order to seek asylum. And so, for whatever this distinction is worth, the people who are coming here to seek asylum are not actually breaking the law and most of them are coming because they have exhausted all their options in their home country to protect themselves. They fear for their lives; they fear for the lives of their families. The authorities in their country are either directly responsible for trying to harm them, or have failed to do anything to protect them in the face of the people who are trying to harm them.
Briahna Joy Gray: So, what kind of claim do they have to make? What is the standard that they have to meet to be approved for asylum in the United States?
Brianna Rennix: Yeah, so our asylum laws are based on the 1951 Refugee Convention, which basically states that if you fear persecution on account of one of five protected grounds that are defined in the law. Those are race, religions, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. If you fear persecution based on one of those reasons, either at the hands of your government, or some group that your government is unwilling or unable to control, then you are supposed to be able to obtain asylum.
Now the Refugee Convention was written in the aftermath of World War II, and so it’s very much informed by the types of persecution, mostly directly at the hands of state actors, that were of concern in the immediate aftermath of World War II. At the moment, we have a lot of people who are fleeing violence by non-state actors, and so the picture is a little bit different.
And also, the important thing I think to understand about people who are trying to qualify for asylum in the United States is that most of the time, the operative question in courts is not whether the person has a true and legitimate fear that they will be harmed or killed if they are deported. That tends to be a matter of dispute at all. The question is, can they fit into one of these legal buckets that were set up in this post World War II framework. In addition to that, they also are now facing barriers to even entering the United States to seek asylum, as is their legal right.
Briahna Joy Gray: Can you help us get a better picture of that by maybe giving us an example of an asylum seeker that you’ve encountered who certainly feared prosecution and for whom that wasn’t an issue, but who wasn’t able to neatly fit into one of those buckets?
Brianna Rennix: Well, to give a very, very common example. So, let’s take the example of a child who has been subjected to attempts at forced recruitment by a gang. So, the gang has come up to them and said, you have to join us or we’re going to kill you and we’re going to kill your whole family. And that child did not want to join the gang, and that child fled the country. Believe it or not, that child is going to have a really hard time proving an asylum claim in the United States.
There are courts in many parts of the country that are going to say that child doesn’t fit under any of the protected grounds. His lawyer might try to argue like, “Well, young men in Honduras are a particular social group.” His lawyer might try to argue that resisting the games is the expression of a political opinion. But in many parts of the country, judges do not accept these arguments. And so, people who are in these situations, even who have been conscientious objectors, in effect, at great risk to their lives, are going to have a hard time fitting into one of those categories under the legal standards that are recognized by courts in many parts of the country.
And it’s important to note, too, that the way asylum laws are interpreted vary wildly across the country. To give a kind of very striking statistic, up until this point, I would say, if I’m recalling correctly, 80% of asylum cases that go before the New York court succeed. In Georgia, about 2% of the cases succeed. And that’s very much just a completely arbitrary difference in the way that the laws are being applied in those two places.
Briahna Joy Gray: That’s really interesting. I am not, and never was an immigration attorney, but I did do one pro bono case when I was working at the firm. The only probably worthwhile thing I ever did while during my career as a lawyer. And it was an LBGT-QIA asylum case where the issue was not whether he fit into a protected group, but establishing that he had been persecuted by the state. That was the hardest part to draw out. And so, we got these kind of … I worked with a group called, Immigration Equality, that specifically works with LBGT-QIA asylum seekers. And so, they gave us these country-conditions statements, where basically there were certain countries that they had already compiled evidence on to show that those countries were hostile to gay and lesbians there.
The part that we had to refine, and I was advised to really work hard on, was to prove, to show that he didn’t have recourse basically to the state if he were to be beaten up, as he had been, for his sexual orientation. Luckily, I mean it’s hard to say this is a lucky thing, but he actually had suffered abuse at the hands of the police, which made us have a very strong claim, and he was ultimately successful.
But it does … Like I say that only to give another example of how arbitrary and kind of fact-specific these harms can be, in that there is the perverse reality where, unless you stayed long enough for the bad thing to happen, at which point it might be too late.
Brianna Rennix: Exactly. Yeah,
Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah, yeah.
Brianna Rennix: Yeah, no, and things are getting even harder, especially for people who are coming to the border. There’s this new Remain in Mexico Program that the government has rolled out at Tijuana, and is planning to expand to other ports of entry, which is basically where, if you are applying for asylum, they force you to wait in Mexico for the duration of your claim in the border area of Mexico, which is incredibly dangerous right now, and where there are no facilities in place for migrants. And so basically what happens is you get paroled into the United States, and bused to your hearings there, and then after your hearings, you get bused right back to Mexico where you have no access to an attorney, where you’re in fear of your life.
So there’s the slog that happens in court, which is really hard, it’s even harder if you’re detained, and now it’s this other really hard thing where sometimes you might not even be allowed to be in the United States at all while your claim is being processed.
Briahna Joy Gray: What does it look like? What are the conditions like inside these facilities?
Brianna Rennix: Inside the family detention centers, I usually say … So adult detention centers are indistinguishable from prisons. People wear jumpsuits, they live in cells that are prison cells. There’s no difference. Family detention centers where there are children are a little bit different. I usually say they’re a little bit more like Japanese internment camps than they are like prisons. Our family detention center is a bunch of trailers surrounded by a fence. So, people have some ability to move freely within certain parts of the facility, but they are monitored at all times. There are guards who watch them.
It’s kind of interesting because some people arrive at the detention center and immediately are like, “This is a prison, I don’t want to be here, how can I get out of here?” And then there are other people who arrive there from a very harrowing journey through Mexico and they say, “This is the best that I’ve slept in a very long time. I actually feel safe here.” So that’s an interesting contrast.
But I have noticed even the people who initially are happy to have a bed to sleep on, after they’ve been there for two weeks, they’re crawling up the walls because it’s very hard to be in a small, confined space like that. And they’re not allowed to have access to their belongings. Their belongings are taken from them. They’re put in uniforms. So, it’s a very kind of depersonalizing experience as well.
Briahna Joy Gray: I want to wrap up by asking you what kind of interventions can politicians make, when we unseat Donald Trump in 2020 … You know, you talk about how-
Brianna Rennix: God willing.
Briahna Joy Gray: We’re going to do the Secret with this. We’re going to manifest because it needs to happen. You mention that state-by-state, you know, just because of the way that various jurisdictions choose to administer or apply the laws, there’s incredibly different outcomes with how many people are granted asylum. A lot of this, it seems, is an issue of political will, even without legal changes. Can you speak to both what can happen, or what you hope to happen from a perspective of political will? And also, what legal interventions you would like to see happen that would significantly change the status of people and improve the access to a humane asylum process for people seeking asylum in this country.
Brianna Rennix: Yeah. There are a lot of things that I think should change. In the first place, from the enforcement perspective, I think that the use of detention against all immigrants, including asylum seekers, is incredibly damaging and out of proportion to any actual need, whether that’s security, or otherwise, that exists. And detention has ballooned incredibly since 9/11. It used to not be the normal practice in this country to detain immigrants, and now it is. And it’s becoming ever more so. So, I think the use of detention should be massively curtailed for all immigrants, including asylum seekers. I think that detention, and that kind of restriction of liberty should only be reserved for the most extreme circumstances, the way it ideally ought to be in all contexts.
I think the in terms of asylum on the legal side, we, I think, need changes in law that recognize that people fleeing violence need certain forms of protection, and that even if you don’t fit into one of those particular legal boxes that’s recognized under asylum law, that you should still be able to obtain some form of protection. So that is certainly a change in law that I would like to see.
I think that our immigration courts are, being currently under the supervision of the department of justice, and being part of the executive branch, presents a huge conflict of interest. It makes our immigration courts inherently politicized, and it allows them to be controlled directly by the attorney general. I think that there’s been some very good arguments made that our immigration courts should be Article I courts, and that they should be separate from the executive branch. So those are changes that I would like to see.
And in terms of changing enforcement priorities, and in terms of shutting down detention centers, these are things that the executive branch can largely do without any need for congressional approval. In terms of larger changes in law that would allow people fleeing violence to obtain status, and that would allow all kinds of immigrants in this country to appear legally without fear of being rounded up by ICE and deported.
Some of that can be accomplished through executive action, but a lot of it is going to also need buy-in from Congress. And so, part of it is going to be about getting a change in president, but it’s also going to be about having a larger change in mindset across the entire political spectrum about treating immigration as what it is, and not as a national threat.
Briahna Joy Gray: Before we ended our conversation, I also asked Belén and Luis what changes they wanted to see going forward.
Belén Sisa: When we look towards the future, what I want to see is a more inclusive and broader view of, first of all, picking up the pieces from the past four years, and trying to help the people that were damaged most. So, we want a lift from this Muslim ban. There are thousands of families that were trying to reunite with their families, trying to escape danger. They were turned away.
I want to see immigration reform, obviously, to help the people that are already here living in the shadows. I want to see an actual asylum, like a humane and inclusive asylum policy that we’re not going to have people under bridges. We’re not going to have children dying in custody when they’re here escaping political and economic violence.
There are so many things that I think a Bernie Sanders presidency is capable of, and I know that it’s going to be in good hands, because I know that the people that he’s going to put in charge of this are going to be immigrants themselves who have gone through this process. He is not going to put a Jared Kushner in charge of writing immigration policy when he hasn’t had a hard day in his life. Like you put people who actually know something about this, because either they’ve been personally affected, which is, I think, the best way to go about it, or actually have the knowledge to put something in place that’s humane, that’s dignified, and that’s fair.
I think that people have this thought in their head that immigration is so easy in this country. Like, “Just get in line. Just do it right.” “Like what line, bro? If I had a line, I would get in it. But there is none.” And so, I think everyone’s cases are very different. We have to have an immigration policy that’s more inclusive than saying you have to be perfect doing X, Y, and Z. Not everyone’s story is that easy. Like some people cross the border, some people came here with a visitor’s visa and overstayed it. Some people came here seeking asylum. Some people came here with visa waivers, like myself, which is like an entire other complicated way of coming here.
And we have to fight for justice for all people. If all people aren’t free, and aren’t able to be in this country without being afraid, then we’re not doing it right.
Luis Alcauter: I support Bernie Sanders because he’s been standing in many of the issues that I care about from income inequality to climate change, including a humane immigration reform, as well as the structure of our immigration system as Belén alluded to that. So, I just want to make sure then I’m a supporter, and I am part of that campaign. So, I want to make sure that my voice, and my message, and what I want to represent is able to be spread around the campaign, and we’re able to have an immigration reform that everybody’s going to be proud of. And we continue to do our work every day, and we’re very proud of the work and the team that we have here.
Briahna Joy Gray: I want to thank you both so much for joining me today. I think it’s really important for people to see you, to hear from you directly, to put a human face on what is often a grossly dehumanized issue, and thank you so much for your advocacy and your personal bravery. Honestly, it’s really inspiring.
Luis Alcauter: Thank you for having us.
Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah.
Belén Sisa: And like Bernie said, people’s lives are counting on us. Like immigrant lives are counting on us being on this campaign and changing things for people. So, that’s what we’re here to do.
Briahna Joy Gray: That’s all for today. Let us know what you think at [email protected] Or send us a tweet with the #HearTheBern. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to rate, review, or like us on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, or wherever you’re listening. As always, transcripts will be up soon. Until next time.
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