Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Reflections on the Aurora Detention Center

Yesterday morning I opened to a cartoon in the Denver Post. It had been drawn decades ago but was reprinted to show that things have not changed much with our immigration system. The cartoon portrays a couple dressed in stereotypical Mexican garb standing in the middle of a complex and completely overwhelming maze. And the woman says to the man something approximating: “You’re brother came via the river and you had to go through immigration!”

Perhaps what has changed since the cartoon was written is that today people seeking to come to the U.S. outside of the official immigration system have a much harder time just swimming across the Rio Grande. Operations Toe-the-Line and Gate-keeper which sought to seal off the border in the urban crossing points of El Paso (the Rio Grande) and Tijuana (which borders San Diego) have sent crossers into ever more remote parts of the desert. The new policies mean people today are dying at record numbers as they attempt to come to the U.S.

What has not changed is that our immigration system, that series of laws that our Congress cannot seem to collaborate and change, is a veritable maze to navigate.

Yesterday, I followed my leisurely coffee and newspaper with a day in the Aurora Detention Center. A group of us were hosted by the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN) to tour the facility. I then spent the afternoon at the side of Andrea Gomez, an RMIAN attorney. Andrea did a know-your-rights presentation for those who will see the judge this week, followed by individual intakes with those who needed further help lowering their bond or figuring out if they have a legal case to stay in the country.

Without RMIAN doing this work, those in detention who cannot afford to hire an attorney (the vast majority) would never have a legal orientation before meeting with the judge. At the most basic level, most detainees should know that they have the possibility of having their bond lowered so that they do not have to fight their case from within detention. At a less basic level, immigration law is incredibly complex and not having the opportunity to talk with a lawyer about one’s immigration situation is a travesty of justice.

By the end of the educational presentation and individual meetings with nearly ten individuals (and this is but one of three presentations weekly), I looked at Andrea both amazed by her incredible stamina and wanting to cry at how messed up the system is. I thought of the comic labyrinth from the morning newspaper and did not find it so funny.

Every individual we spoke with had a very good reason to be in this country. Aside from economic necessity, the original motivation to come to the US for everyone we happened to speak with, people had loving communities here- spouses and partners, children, parents, siblings, workmates, friends.

Clearly, there had not been a legal avenue that they knew of to enter the US when they decided to come here, be it fifteen years ago or last month. If there had been, they would have used it. Based on their testimonies, the desperate complexities of trying to navigate an existence of “illegality” and the now grim prospects for anyone fixing their situation, it was obvious that our current immigration system is crushing human beings, along with their families and communities.

The hope of this all is that RMIAN is, despite the odds, doing fantastic work in the heart of what they have come to term “the underbelly of our immigration system”: detention. When people do have a legal defense out of detention and back into their communities, RMIAN ensures they know it and have the tools to fight for it. And we, outside of the underbelly, continue to do our work to change the system, so that the underbelly will not continue to grind away at human life.

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