Maine Law students travel to Laredo, Texas to assist immigrant women detained by ICE

By Nora Bosworth ’18 and Greta Lozada ’19

Over the summer, we both spent time in Laredo, TX, a border town with a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility. Laredo is one of nearly 200 immigration detention facilities located in the U.S. In coordination with Maine Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, we joined forces with the Laredo Project – a collaboration between the law firm Jones Day and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. The opportunity to see an immigration detention facility up close, to help provide immigrant women with direct legal representation, and to hear firsthand immigrant accounts was an invaluable experience.

The women’s stories varied widely, from harrowing stories of trauma and persecution, to more routine accounts of mothers who had been living and working in the U.S. for years and were apprehended by ICE. Those from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico were frequently escaping gang violence. Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, two international crime syndicates, have enormous influence throughout Central America, while the Los Zetas cartel dominates much of Mexico. These gangs had targeted many of the women we interviewed, and many shared traumatic stories involving rape, the brutalization of loved ones, and forced flight from their homes in the face of credible threats against their lives. Nearly all the women we interviewed had swum across the Rio Grande, the river separating Mexico and the U.S., to arrive in this country. Some women we encountered were additionally scared because they had unwittingly signed orders of voluntary deportation from the U.S., not realizing what they were agreeing to.

Others we interviewed had been holding jobs in the U.S. and paying taxes for years, had no criminal history, and were mothers of U.S. citizen children – these women had been detained during routine traffic stops. Since taking office, President Trump has widely expanded the priorities list for those the U.S. is actively seeking to deport to include people who have committed any acts for which they could be charged, i.e., entering the country illegally. While in the waiting-room of the facility, a young attorney who works for a local immigration firm in Laredo stated that while former President Obama deported more immigrants than any prior president in U.S. history, since the enforcement priorities have changed, immigration arrests have risen sharply under President Trump.

The women we interviewed seemed particularly shocked to be inside a place that for all intents and purposes resembled a jail. Like a jail, the facility consists of barred cells and armed guards, the food resembled prison-food, and immigrant men and women must wear the typical uniforms/jumpsuits of the incarcerated. There are only two rooms in the building for legal visits, and one of the most notable obstacles we encountered in our work at Laredo was access to the immigrant women. Per the detention center’s policy, if lawyers were seeing a male detainee in one room, we could not see a female in the other. Similarly, if a “high-security” inmate was in one of the two rooms, a “low-security” inmate could not be in the other. The outcome was that on one of our days at Laredo, the legal team waited in the lobby of the facility for six hours before we could start interviewing potential clients. The fact that the infrastructure of the facility was obstructing access to counsel was frustrating.  

We both speak Spanish fluently, so when we were inside the facility we spearheaded the interviews. Our job was to assist intakes for asylum and other forms of relief, with the goal of placing cases with pro bono attorneys all over the country. The most common forms of relief for the potential clients we saw were asylum and cancellation-of-removal. A faster, short-term solution was for a woman to seek bond, so that she could reunite with her family while awaiting her removal proceeding. After the interviews we would write memos detailing the women’s stories, explaining whether or not we thought they had any potential claims for relief from deportation, what those were, and how strong we thought their cases were, including credibility assessments, when relevant.

Our time in Laredo was deeply educational, with the vividness that only hands-on work can bring. We are both so grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Laredo Project, which is the only pro bono legal project dedicated to the Laredo Detention Center. Without the help of the Laredo Project and its volunteers, many of the women would face nearly automatic deportation back to the countries they fled.