Fighting for Justice on the Border
Equal Justice Works Fellow, Hosted by AIC/AILA, Recalls Two Years Serving Detained Immigrants
By Monica Ashiku I
n the summer of 2006 a massive detention center was constructed in rural Raymondville, Texas, close to the U.S.-Mexico border. Te facility, the
Willacy Detention Center (WDC), is oſten referred to as the “Tent City” because of its large tent-like hous- ing structures. Shortly aſter the facility’s construc- tion, thousands of people were being detained there. Because the WDC is located in a particularly rural area, with a scarcity of legal services, the majority of immigrants were not receiving legal assistance before being removed to their countries of origin.
A year aſter WDC opened, I was a law student intern with the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) in Harlingen, Texas. ProBAR is a joint project of the American Immigration Lawyers As- sociation, American Bar Association, and State Bar of Texas, that provides legal services to detainees in south Texas. For over 20 years ProBAR has served detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center and unaccom- panied minors in the custody of the Office of Refu- gee Resettlement. Although ProBAR was providing services to thousands of individuals, it did not have the resources to also meet all of the needs at the WDC. As a remedy to the problem, ProBAR and I proposed an Equal Justice Works (EJW) Fellowship project focused on providing legal services to the unrepresented popu- lation at the facility. Te project goals were to provide
pro se legal assistance, connect asylum seekers with pro bono counsel, and directly represent individuals.
With the sponsorship of an anonymous EJW funder, and with the American Immigration Council (AIC)/ AILA offering to provide added financial and adminis- trative support as the host organization, I was awarded an EJW Fellowship to work with ProBAR from 2008-2010. Supported by ProBAR and AIC/AILA, and in collaboration with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA) who was eventually funded to provide the “Legal Orientation Program” at WDC, I successfully implemented the EJW Fellowship project and served hundreds of individuals.
Sadiiq came to the U.S. seeking refuge for himself and hope for his family’s future. With the help of pro bono counsel, we success- fully argued Sadiiq’s political asylum case.
Tere are innumerable stories that I collected over my two years in Texas. Although many of these stories began as heartbreaking and troubling, countless ended with success and hope for the future.
One success story is that of “Sadiiq” who I met at the WDC (name has been changed to protect his identity). Sadiiq arrived at the Mexico-Texas border aſter fleeing persecution in his native Somalia. Aſter Sadiiq’s family received threats to stop their pro-government activities, a Somali terrorist group shot and killed his father and
sister. Sadiiq came to the U.S. seeking refuge for himself and hope for his family’s future. With the help of pro bono counsel, we successfully argued Sadiiq’s political asylum case. Sadiiq has now found employment and a loving community in the United States.
Today, the individuals at the WDC receive vital legal information and services primarily from TRLA, and also from ProBAR.
I would like to thank AIC/AILA for hosting my EJW Fellowship at ProBAR. My gratitude is for allowing me to meet the needs of hundreds of unrepresented im- migrants and for the opportunity to do the work I love. I would also like to thank the pro bono attorneys and volunteers with whom I worked; their hours of service infinitely expanded the project’s legal capacity. Lastly, I would like to recognize my clients who endured the legal immigration process with courage and hope, and who taught me so much about justice and humanity.
ProBAR continues to serve the immigration needs of adults and unaccompanied minors detained in south Texas. For more information about how you can volun- teer with ProBAR, contact Director Meredith Linsky.
Monica Ashiku is an immigration staff attorney with the Public Law Center in Santa Ana, California.