Supporters of immigrants and refugees are fighting the good fight, and they have a particularly tough battle in the border state of Texas. Today, I’d like to share an interview with Stephanie Kolmar, Staff Attorney at the Austin-headquartered organization American Gateways. LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins conducted the email interview.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): What past experiences drove you to become interested in immigrants and the immigration reform movement?
Stephanie Kolmar (SK): Growing up on the US-Mexican border, the ebb and flow of people across international lines has always seemed a natural part of the human landscape. People came to the United States, documented or undocumented; people went to Mexico. It was part of daily life in my hometown of Brownsville, Texas. As a child, I took migration for granted. I was born in a hospital that was less than two miles from the Rio Grande River. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized that there had always been an invisible line that separated me from some of my friends who were born just a few miles south. Whether or not you had a valid social security number became key as we began to look for jobs and apply for college. That was when the invisible line became a lot more visible. As an undergrad at the University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College, it was normal to see border patrol agents patrolling the campus on bicycles. It wasn’t until I moved away from Brownsville that I realized the uniqueness of border life. I’ve always considered the right to migrate to be a human right. The right to work without fear and the right to be with your family is something that too many of us take for granted in the United States. It was the invisible line that drove me to law school to work on immigration issues.
CP: You have provided legal representation to women at the Hutto Detention Center, an immigration detention center for women in Taylor, Texas. The majority of the detainees are asylum seekers fleeing persecution, torture, or violence. What are the biggest obstacles the women at Hutto face?
SK: The biggest obstacle faced by women at Hutto is lack of representation. Over 80% of the asylum seekers at the facility do not have legal representation. Women who are not represented are typically detained for longer periods of time and are much less likely to win their cases. Without representation, these women, many of whom have received very little formal education, are forced to navigate a complex foreign legal system on their own.
Another major obstacle is the effect of prolonged detention, specifically the separation and lack of communication with immediate family members. Individuals who are seeking asylum or withholding of removal can expect to be detained anywhere from two weeks up to eight months, sometimes longer. This prolonged separation takes an enormous toll on many of the women at Hutto. It is not uncommon for them to suffer from depression and anxiety.
CP: How do you help them overcome these obstacles?
SK: American Gateways, formerly the Political Asylum Project of Austin, provides weekly “Know Your Rights” presentations at the Hutto facility. The presentation covers asylum basics and provides the women with information about bond and parole. After the presentation we provide individual consultations and workshops to help the women become self-advocates. This offers some help in terms of their legal needs; however, it is certainly not a substitute for legal counsel.
With regard to the mental stress that results from prolonged detention, we try to refer individuals to the Hutto Visitation Program. The program connects local community members with women detained at the Hutto facility. It’s a chance for the women to have a connection to the outside world and it lets them know that there are people in the United States who are thinking about them.
CP: What struggles have you faced in your work to represent them?
SK: I struggle with the emotional side of detention work. Many of these women have suffered years of domestic abuse, sexual assault and torture. They’ve given up everything and risked their lives in an effort to find safety, and when they finally reach the United States, they are locked behind bars. I sometimes find it difficult to process their stories and their experiences. However, the greatest struggle for me in my work is confronting the reality of the continued criminalization and detention of immigrants in this country. I hope that someday our country recognizes that migration is a human right that should be afforded to all.
CP: What accomplishments are you most proud of in your work for immigrants?
SK: I feel most proud of my work when we have a positive outcome in a removal case. These cases sometimes take years and during that time the individual and their family members are overwhelmed with stress and anxiety. When the case is finally over and the result it positive, the client and their family experience an enormous sense of relief and optimism about their lives in the United States. That is when I know I have done a good job.