A Voice for Justice

Professor Elora Mukherjee and law students from Columbia’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic are fighting for asylum seekers held in detention — and winning.

by Jan Goodwin Published Fall 2015
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Law professor Elora Mukherjee / Photograph by Jörg Meyer

Through the eyes of the young mother, the scene was both frightening and bewildering. She was sitting in a room at the immigration detention center in Dilley, Texas, holding a fussy baby in her lap and trying not to cry. On the video screen, from a thousand miles away in Denver, the judge was speaking in a language she didn’t understand. The woman knew nothing about the American legal system. She couldn’t afford a lawyer, and no one had told her what she was supposed to say or do. Her voice trembling, she answered a few questions in Spanish and then gently rocked the baby to sleep while everyone else talked. She never realized that she had just failed to present her case or even argue in her own defense in a court of law.

Kafka’s novel The Trial tells the story of a man prosecuted by authorities he cannot challenge, for crimes unknown. His was a work of fiction, but according to Columbia law professor Elora Mukherjee, a similar scene is acted out in the United States every day, where people of all ages who enter the country and apply for political asylum are routinely incarcerated for months or even years and then expected to navigate the complexities of the immigration system without a lawyer.

More than four hundred thousand people cycle through US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) annually, and last year, 41,920 of those immigrants sought asylum. Some of them are fleeing terrorist groups or repressive political regimes; others may be trying to escape societies that punish homosexuality or those that enforce harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation. Since 2012, increasing numbers of women and children, including unaccompanied minors, have crossed our southern borders to avoid gang violence, extortion, and execution in Central America.

“International treaties require that refugees be treated humanely and without penalty, yet many of the asylum seekers who come to the US are immediately detained,” says Mukherjee. They have no right to free, government-appointed counsel, and most of them cannot pay for lawyers. Applicants must file the appropriate paperwork and prove that their lives are in danger, but because they have no knowledge of American immigration law and speak little English, they invariably fail to do this. In fact, a study from Syracuse University shows that women with children who seek asylum without representation rarely prevail. Of 26,342 cases tracked, 98.5 percent of families without representation were deported. The consequences can be grave. There are multiple reports of asylum seekers, including children, who have been returned to their countries of origin only to be murdered by the people they were trying to escape.

Asylum cases, then, can be a matter of life and death. But asylum seekers have a new ally in their camp: over the last eighteen months, a growing number of refugees in US detention centers have won their freedom thanks to the efforts of the small group of Columbia law students who staff the University’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. Founded by Mukherjee, the clinic offers pro bono legal assistance to vulnerable people caught in the legal system. Clients have included women fleeing sexual assault and murder threats, Christians targeted by Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, and unaccompanied children as young as eleven escaping gang violence.

To understand the work of the law clinic and the forces that led to its creation, it’s helpful to get a brief lesson in immigration policy from the professor who has made human rights her life’s work. For nearly all of US history, explains Mukherjee, the federal government released the vast majority of families seeking asylum into the community as they pursued legal status. “But the long American tradition of treating women and children with compassion and respect was interrupted in 2006,” says Mukherjee. That year, the Bush administration decided to detain immigrant families at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center, a converted medium-security prison in Taylor, Texas.

Watch video of students discussing their work at the Dilley detention center.

After an outcry from human-rights activists, this policy was largely discontinued in 2009, but in 2014, the Obama administration reversed course. It chose to expand family detention as a deterrent to what Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson ’82LAW described this June as “an unprecedented spike in illegal migration from Central America.” When existing detention centers could not accommodate the influx, the South Texas Family Residential Center at Dilley was built. The fifty-acre site can hold up to 2,400 women and children.

One of the law clinic’s first clients at Dilley was Maria, then twenty-four and the mother of a four-year-old girl. She was targeted by gangs in Honduras, who demanded she be a neighborhood informant and a sex slave. When she refused, they threatened to dismember her daughter and send her the pieces in a trash bag. “I have two young children, and this little girl was the same age as my daughter,” says Mukherjee. “I couldn’t bear to think of anyone harming her.”

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