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Q&A: On asylum, detention centers and immigration

UNM’s Latin American and Iberian Institute hosted its fourth Richard E. Greenleaf Conference last week — and the first wince 2014 — focusing on expert witness testimony in Latin American asylum cases.

According to its website, the conference brought together attorneys and academics in an effort to expand the network of trained expert witnesses who can give testimony in Latin American asylum cases.

The Daily Lobo caught up with two of the panelists, Nara Milanich and Natalie Hansen, from the two-day event.

Nara Milanich is a professor of history from Barnard College who spoke on family detention centers.

DL: What did you address in your presentation?

NM: I was asked about what the role of academics is in responding to family detention as one part of the broad ecosystem of problems in immigration practice today.

I think the short answer to that question is that there are a lot of different things. For me, my own thinking has to do with a different kind of witnessing. Not the witnessing of the expert witness, but the witnessing of the person who has contact with detained asylum seekers and sees what’s going on in a detention center and then tries to bring those observations to a broader public. So not the witnessing of the expert affidavit, but the witnessing of public denunciation.

I have done volunteer work in one of the family detention centers in Texas. I went down to be a translator, to help lawyers talk to clients and translate from English to Spanish. I tried to use my observations both from talking to women and hearing their stories, but also seeing what goes on and how the detention center works.

I think those are stories that need to be told outside of the detention center, but also outside of this environment where people have a lot of knowledge and are very sympathetic. I think they need to go still further to an even broader public space.

DL: Do you think that public access to those kinds of stories has shifted recently?

NM: There have been very concerted efforts to begin blocking the access of legal representatives, lawyers in the detention center. I think that’s about representation and blocking access to representation on the part of the detainees, but it also has the effect of limiting the kinds of stories that can get out because the lawyers are the only people in there and the legal assistants, are the only people that are allowed in there. They’re the only witnesses that see what’s going on in these places.

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DL: Do you think that the hunger strikes at some of the detention centers will change public access to these stories?

NM: There was a hunger strike at a facility in Pennsylvania in the fall and it went on for a while and it got considerable media attention. I don’t know how much of an impact it had.

There was absolutely retribution against those women for taking a stand. There are unbelievable stories about how ICE responded to that situation. How successful was it? I guess the question is how do you gauge success? Are they still detained? Yes. Are they in a worse place now than they were before? Yes because of the political situation. Is there a little more public knowledge about what’s going on there? Yes. And if that was the goal then I guess you could say it succeeded.

DL: Do you think this conference is contributing to access of knowledge?

NM: I do. I found it absolutely fascinating because these are different worlds. Advocacy, lawyers, academics who inhabit their own little universes. Probably advocates and lawyers talk to each other a little bit more than academics, so one of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is what kinds of networks do we need to build to share information and reinforce solidarity? That’s only going to happen through networks.

DL: Has the nature of these family detention centers changed recently?

NM: There are subtle but undeniable changes that have been going on, such as the obstruction of legal access. The numbers right now have plummeted, which sounds like a good thing when we hear about people being detained, but it’s not clear why that’s happened.

There’s a lot of performative stuff going on in terms of how ICE performs its power in subtle and arbitrary ways. Like, today after two years working in this trailer you can’t actually inhabit these three rooms. You have to inhabit that one room, and you can only meet your client in that room.

Natalie Hansen is an immigration attorney who spoke about building a network of scholars and attorneys working on asylum.

DL: What did you talk about in your presentation?

NH: The session was about how to engage more academics into asylum work, expert opinion work and also ways that immigration attorneys can think of the challenges that academics have in participating. Thinking collaboratively about how we can support the populations that need help.

DL: Do you think now is an important time to be talking about asylum?

NH: Now is such an important time to be talking about it. The asylum landscape is, not just the asylum landscape, but the immigration landscape in this country is changing so much right now. We’re seeing it in the courts in pushback against asylum seekers. So we really need to focus our efforts to fight back because it’s getting pretty ugly.

DL: Acquiring asylum has become more difficult?

NH: Yeah, and not only because of pushback from the government attorneys, but because of systemic barriers that have been put in place. For example, just getting through the credible fear process or getting out of detention so you can have access to an attorney and all of the resources you need to put together a strong case is becoming more challenging and concretely so with the new administration.

DL: Do you think this conference is helping to build a network of expert witnesses?

NH: Absolutely. And not only to help build a network of expert witnesses, but on the other side educate lawyers. Because sometimes lawyers, we don’t think of it from the perspective of expert witnesses.

DL: What are some of the challenges as an attorney in finding expert witnesses?

NH: A lot of it comes down to resources and time, and asylum seekers tend to not have resources to pay expert witnesses and attorneys. Especially right now, they do not have money to pay thousands of dollars for expert witness testimony. The experts, for the most part, are doing it basically for free. I think the great majority of the cases they’re just doing it out of a sense of moral duty to this population. Asylum attorneys are in a similar situation. So that’s been a barrier.

Honestly one of the biggest challenges is there’s a lot of people who have expert knowledge that don’t know how to get involved and how to get trained. There’s a lot of attorneys that are looking for people but we’re not always good at explaining the process.

It’s a lot about making interpersonal connections and trying to make a system. That’s one thing that’s great about this conference too, is its actually doing that.

Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.

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