An Austin nonprofit will struggle to offer its legal assistance program to immigrant detainees after the Department of Justice announced on Tuesday that it would halt millions in grant funding. Rebecca Lightsey, executive director of American Gateways, the nonprofit that provides these services to three detention centers in Texas, calls the act “almost unconscionable.”
The programs educate detained immigrants about their basic legal rights and about the immigration court process. Unlike with criminal cases, immigrant court cases are civil matters and therefore not entitled to legal defense at the government’s expense. Without these programs, Austin immigration attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch said, “They know nothing about the laws. They know zero. Most have been through a pretty harrowing journey and they have no idea what faces them. Without this service, they are not given any information.”
American Gateways serves approximately 20,000 people a year between the two programs. The Legal Orientation Program led by a highly trained staff member offers basic legal information in a classroom-style setting in detention centers, while the Immigration Court Helpdesk provides non-detained, non-citizens in immigration court information about court procedures, available legal options, and other relevant topics.
“The programs insured that our team of attorneys and legal professionals were on the ground, providing basic services for thousands of the most vulnerable in our community,” said Lightsey in a post on the American Gateways’ Facebook page. “Those affected include asylum seekers and survivors of violence and human trafficking as well as countless Central Texas families who have seen a loved one apprehended and carried away by ICE.”
American Gateways is one of 18 nonprofits that provide these programs across the country. Its annual grant for these programs totaled $750,000, an amount that will be hard to raise through donors once the federal funding is ceased. “It’s going to be a real challenge for every single organization that had this funding,” said Lightsey. “But we’re going to do everything in our power to see that this information gets to those who so desperately need it. It’s not something we’re just going to walk away from, even if we have to scale back dramatically what we’re doing.”
The effective elimination of the legal orientation program further isolates people already living in remote detention centers, a situation that concerns Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. “Further restricting access to these facilities and isolating people in detention does grave harm to the interest of justice and to individuals,” he said. Grassroots Leadership’s regular visits to detainees at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor led to an FBI investigation of sexual assault claims at the center.
Since the Trump administration took office, nonprofits that serve immigrants and refugees have faced an onslaught of challenges, from ICE raids that forced people into hiding to threats to end asylum programs and more.
“It’s been a demoralizing time,” said Lincoln-Goldfinch, “I think one day we’ll look back on this time and remember what a low moment this was. But now more than ever, social justice lawyers need to stay in the fight. ”
Lincoln-Goldfinch said many of the detainees are eligible for asylum and other paths to protection or citizenship, but without an understanding of their legal rights, will likely be sent away, often to their deaths. Here are two examples of people served by American Gateways:
Mr. T is a Honduran man who endured a childhood of abuse and is a suicide survivor on account of his sexual orientation. He also was the victim of extortion and threats for reporting crimes to the police and trying to live an honest life. After fleeing Honduras, Mr. T eventually made his way to the United States but was detained at the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, Texas, where he came in contact with the Legal Orientation Program. With the help of American Gateways, Mr. T was able to prepare an effective asylum application, personal statement, present research to the judge demonstrating the dangerous conditions in Honduras for LGBT individuals, and felt empowered to tell his story to the judge in court. In no small part due to assistance from LOP, Mr. T was granted relief in April 2018.
Mr. N is a man from Cameroon who was wrongfully accused of demonstrating against the government. He was wrongfully imprisoned and tortured because of this false accusation. Had he not fled the country and sought asylum in the United States, Mr. N is sure that he would have been further tortured or possibly killed by the Cameroonian government. Upon arrival in the United States, Mr. N was detained at an immigration detention center in Pearsall, Texas, where American Gateways staff offered pro se assistance through the Legal Orientation Program. Being highly educated and English speaking, Mr. N was better equipped than most to navigate the overly difficult United States immigration court system; however, American Gateways was most helpful to him in reassuring him that he could succeed in conveying his story during his final hearing. With the help of LOP, Mr. N was granted relief in March of 2018.
PHOTO: Photo courtesy Build Hope, Not Walls
NOTE: A version of this story appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on April 15, 2018.