In 2014, more than 60,000 children and mothers fled Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, seeking refuge in the United States because of gang threats, domestic violence, and child abuse in their countries. As the New York Times and others have reported, these families have been detained in prison-like conditions for months and denied release on bond, inhibiting their ability to apply for political asylum. A nationwide network of lawyers and activists is organizing to advocate for these woman and children. On April 16, members of the Cornell community convened in Lewis Auditorium for a panel that discussed this work through a transnational feminist lens.
"Precarious Lives: Central American Families and the Limits of U.S. Immigration Policy" marked perhaps the first collaboration between the Law School and the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program (FGSS) of the School of Arts and Sciences, according to Jane Juffer, director of undergraduate studies for the FGSS. Along with Juffer, the panel included Cornell Law students Yujin Chun '15 and Carolyn Wald '16, as well as Virginia Raymond, an immigration lawyer and participant in the Karnes Pro-Bono Project in Austin, Texas, which represents women and children at the Karnes County Residential Center.
The panel was moderated by Sital Kalantry, a clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School, co-director of the Immigration Appellate Law and Advocacy Clinic, and co-founder of the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice. In her introduction, Kalantry provided some context for understanding the recent wave of Central American immigrants.
"When you look at it from a historical perspective, you can see our own complicity in creating this situation," she said, observing that the U.S. immigration reforms of the 1980s resulted in an increase of criminal deportees to Central American countries where gangs were able to flourish in the absence of strong state governments. She added that the U.S. government's War on Drugs pushed drug trafficking further underground, making it more profitable and allowing Latin American drug cartels to establish strongholds. It is the violence of these gangs and cartels that many asylum-seekers are fleeing.
Virginia Raymond told the audience, "I'm the lawyer coming to you from the belly of the beast," referring to her work at Karnes, where ten mothers who had been incarcerated since last summer had begun their second hunger strike of the month. Raymond described the grueling and uncertain process faced by Central American refugees seeking asylum in the United States, where a radical policy change last year has resulted in the current massive, prolonged detentions. "The children and mothers of Karnes, and so many people who are in [Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)] detention, are mere instruments to something else," she said. "They are instruments to politicians' pandering and scapegoating . . . They are instruments of the profiteers, the people who run GEO and Corrections Corporation of America. They are a crop to be milked for $150 to $300 dollars a day, that we are paying as tax-payers, to lock them up."
Her small act of defiance to the dehumanization of the detention system, Raymond said, is referring to her clients by their names instead of their assigned "Alien Numbers" when representing them in court, much to the irritation of immigration judges. "The judges tell me, 'Miss Raymond, it would really be a lot easier if you would just give me the last three digits of the A-number,' and I want to say, 'I know that. I know that it will be much easier for you to deport these human beings if you don't have to look at their faces, if you do not have to understand that they are human beings.'"
Raymond urged the audience to demand change for the "structurally vulnerable but personally courageous and incredibly strong" women fighting to be freed from detention; she specifically asked that attendees call ICE director Sarah Saldaño, who was soon to meet with the hunger strikers. Noting a New York Times headline of the week before, "A Federal Judge and a Hunger Strike Take on the Government's Immigration Detention Facilities," Raymond remarked that the next headline she wants to see is "A Hunger Strike, Federal Judges, and Massive Numbers of Outraged Human Beings in the United States Have Ended Family Immigration Detention."
Wald and Chun, both participants in the Immigration Clinic, shared the story of their client, "Maria Sanchez," a refugee from domestic and gang violence in El Salvador. After crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2013, Sanchez was apprehended and held in a detention center for over a year. Wald and Chun were able to get her released from detention on bond and are currently appealing her case for asylum.
On the panel, Wald addressed asylum law and the difficulties faced by those who don't fit neatly into the legal definition of asylum eligibility, a group that includes persons fleeing from anti-LGBTQ violence, gang violence, and domestic violence. The case for refugees from domestic violence has only recently gained traction, she noted. Advocates were hopeful about last August's "blockbuster" decision on a domestic violence asylum case called ARCG, she said, but the precedent has met with wildly varied, and often quite narrow, interpretations from immigration judges.
Chun spoke of the detention facilities' harsh conditions, which, she said, can detrimentally affect detainee's decision-making processes. She also observed that, since detention centers are private, for-profit enterprises, their operators have an incentive to keep large numbers of detainees locked up and in fact lobby for government policies that allow them to do so. Meanwhile, they make the process of assisting detainees arduous in order to discourage pro-bono attorneys from taking on more cases-a tactic Wald and Chun experienced first-hand as they faced difficulties visiting Sanchez at a detention center in Arizona.
As the first panelist, Joffer elucidated the role of the term "precarious" in the project's title. Her research focuses on how children represent themselves in immigration proceedings, in which "they rarely get a chance to tell their stories." With reference to the oft-cited "Precarious Lives" essays of gender theorist Judith Butler, Joffer noted that, while "vulnerable" and "precarious" are used interchangeably by Butler and others, there are important differences between the terms. The notion of precariousness, she proposed, might point toward a solution to the problematic emphasis on the vulnerability of children in immigrant rights discourse.
"'Vulnerability, as it is often used to describe children, refers to a static, unchanging condition. That-this is where the dangerous part comes in-in turn justifies adult intervention without regard to the particular situation or the complexity of children's lives," she said. "By contrast, 'precarious' speaks to a condition of uncertainty, instability, and risk but also of hope and creativity, imagination, and aspiration. It opens up possibilities that are both dangerous and potentially transformative. It acknowledges that children see things in ways that are instructive and worth listening to and that in fact they may know things about their lives that adults do not understand."
The event ended with a discussion between panelists and attendees. A follow-up workshop to discuss specific actions and organizing strategies was held the next day.