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Delayed justice for Guatemalan mother Encarnacion Bail Romero

Guest blogger: Michelle Brané, Director, Detention and Asylum Program, Women’s Refugee Commission

In 2007, Encarnación Bail Romero, a young woman from Guatemala, was arrested and detained during an immigration raid at the Missouri poultry processing plant where she worked. The fact that Encarnación was a mother with a baby at home did not matter. She was detained without the opportunity to make care arrangements for her son, Carlos—a U.S. citizen—who was just six months old. While in detention, Encarnación was not allowed to participate in her custody case and consequently, her parental rights were terminated. Carlos was adopted by a couple soon after.

This week, the Missouri Supreme Court decided to send Encarnación Bail Romero’s case back to the lower court for yet another hearing. When I heard this, I couldn’t help but welcome the news with mixed feelings. The fact that the court acknowledged that proper procedures were not followed is a relief; however, the court’s failure to reunite a mother and son and delay justice is a travesty. Encarnación’s son has been with his adoptive parents for over two years now, and has come to know them as his only parents. The more time that is spent in this limbo with a mother separated from her child the more harm is done.

I first met Encarnación in 2009, several years after she was arrested during an immigration raid at the poultry processing plant where she worked. Carlos—a U.S. citizen—was just six months old at the time of the raid. When I spoke with Encarnación I was struck most by not only her heartache, but also the incredible strength she has carried in her fight to reunite with her son. As a mother of two young children myself, hearing stories like Encarnación’s makes my heart stop. What would it feel like to not know if my children were safe, to have them think that I did not want them because I was locked in detention and unable to care for them?

Encarnación told me that while she was in detention, Carlos had a series of caretakers. He was first at her brother’s home and then with her sister before being cared for by a local couple who offered to babysit. She was approached and asked to allow her son to be adopted but she refused, asking instead that her son be placed in foster care until she could care for him herself.

Encarnación was then swept up in a series of events that ultimately led to the unjust termination of her parental rights. She was given information about her custody case in English—a language she does not understand. Her lawyer was hired by her son’s future adoptive parents, demonstrating a clear conflict of interest. And, despite Encarnación’s clear desire to be reunited with her son, a court found her to have abandoned him. Her parental rights were terminated, and Carlos was adopted. Encarnación’s case is complicated, involving the failures of multiple systems, but had Encarnación’s right to due process been upheld, none of this would have happened. She would have been able to present her case in court, and Carlos would still be with her.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in this story is that many other families are suffering this same fate—a fate that could be avoided. Both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and family courts have the legal obligation to ensure detainees are able to participate in all aspects of their custody and immigration cases. ICE has the authority to release parents from detention so that they can continue to care for their children while undergoing immigration proceedings. And should the outcome of their immigration case order them deported, mothers and fathers have the right—and must be given the opportunity—to either take their children with them or leave them behind in a safe situation.

Releasing parents from detention does not mean weakening immigration enforcement or letting undocumented migrants go free. Parents in immigration custody have an incentive to appear for their hearings and comply with court orders, simply because they do not want to lose their families. And for those who need some sort of supervision, ICE has access to cost-effective alternatives to traditional immigration detention that can be used to ensure parents appear at custody proceedings. It is critical that these alternatives be used in order to protect children from becoming unnecessary collateral damage.

Five million children in the United States have at least one undocumented parent and three million of these children are U.S. citizens. ICE’s failure to utilize these options has the potential to create a generation of lost children who are needlessly denied a relationship with their detained or deported parents. These children are far more likely to live in poverty, struggle in school and face unemployment and homelessness.

The court in Encarnación’s case has recognized the damage done by failing to uphold the 14th amendment, the constitutional right that ensures all persons—including undocumented immigrants—are entitled to due process and equal protection under the law. Encarnación’s case has shown that where due process rights are denied, families suffer. As a nation that prides itself on valuing the sanctity of family unity, we must uphold our commitment to the bond between parent and child, regardless of immigration status.

The 4 million women you can thank for your last meal

They’re the backbone of our food supply. Their hands sliced the chicken breast we had for lunch. Their sweat brought the fresh tomato to our plates. Their backs bent to pick the lettuce in our salads. They are America’s undocumented workers.

Every day, on farms and factories across America, millions of women work to produce billions of dollars worth of fruit and vegetables that fill our stores and kitchens and nourish our children. At least 6 out of every 10 farm workers in this country are undocumented, and almost all of them live on the fringes of society, earning below minimum wage and facing humiliation, exploitation and sexual assault from their employers on a regular basis.

According to a new report, ‘Injustice on Our Plates,’ published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the 4.1 million undocumented women living and working in the U.S. are among the lowest paid and most vulnerable members of our society. These women form the backbone of the agricultural system in this country, looking after their families, often working weeks without getting paid, working in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, with little or no recourse to any protection against the indignities they suffer at the workplace. They live in constant fear of being discovered and sent back to their home countries, with the looming threat of being separated from their children, many of whom are American born. It is grossly unfair that while contributing as much as $1.5 billion a year to the Medicare system and $7 billion a year to the Social Security system, undocumented immigrants will never be able to collect benefits upon retirement.

The report was compiled by SPLC researchers who conducted extensive interviews with 150 women from Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin-American countries who are or have been undocumented, and are working in the food industry, picking tomatoes, apples, green beans, lettuce, etc. in places like Arkansas, California, Florida, Iowa, New York and North Carolina. From a CNN article about the report-

Regardless of what sector of the food industry these women worked in, they all reported feeling like they were seen by their employers as disposable workers with no lasting value, to be squeezed of every last drop of sweat and labor before being cast aside.

Interviewed for the report, a woman called Maria reported being paid as little as 45 cents for each 32-pound bucket that she filled with tomatoes, and said that one employer did not allow his workers to go to the bathroom during their work-shifts. Olivia, a 46-year old meatpacker who came to the U.S. from Mexico to run away from her abusive husband and build a better life for herself, told the SPLC the horrific story of how she was raped by one of her supervisors after working a 12-hour shift. When she tried to report the incident to the senior management, her complaints were met with the retort, “What is so bad about that? He left you in one piece, didn’t he?” Despite extreme medical injuries and severe emotional trauma from the attack, Olivia was too scared to report the rape to the police out of fear that her immigrant status would be found out and she would be deported. Like countless women in similar circumstances, she was bound by the desperate need to work in order to look after her daughter and her parents who depended on her, and she had no option but to continue working for the man that beat her unconscious and raped her. The new report tells us that Olivia’s story is not the anomaly, but the norm-

Undocumented immigrant women are, in most cases, virtually powerless to protect themselves against such attacks…Some feel too much shame to report harassment or sexual violence, leaving them extremely vulnerable to exploitation by male co-workers or supervisors…Their abusers use their lack of legal status against them, knowing they are not likely to report sexual harassment or even violent attacks. Because of the many obstacles arrayed against them — fear, poverty, shame, lack of access to legal resources, language barriers, immigration status and cultural pressures — few immigrant women ever come forward to speak out against the wrongs committed against them. Too often, they are forced to compromise their dignity — to endure sexual harassment and exploitation — to obtain a better life and a measure of economic security for themselves and their families.

These women are economic refugees, running away from lives beneath the poverty line, hunger and desperation in their home countries, with the hope of working hard to provide their children with basic amenities like education, health and stability. The fact that such injustice and degradation is suffered by tens of thousands of hard-working women in this country on a regular basis is horrific and shameful on a number of levels. These women, responsible for putting food on our tables, are part of a systemic malady that is only getting worse. This is indicative of the sad irony of a world where high-level trade and capital move across borders with uncanny speed and ease, lining the pockets of nations and people in power, while the hands that build these “globalized” empires are forced to remain circumscribed within their lot, regardless of how unfair a lot it might be.

Deporting all 10.8 million undocumented immigrants would cost the economy over $2.6 trillion over the next ten years, not to mention the huge human rights violations that would occur as a result. Moreover, legalizing undocumented workers would raise the U.S. gross domestic product by $1.5 trillion over a decade. The report stresses the importance of immigration reform that would address these injustices in a way that is comprehensive, while respecting fundamental American values of dignity and justice.

Photo courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center

ICE Deports Non-Spanish Speaking American Citizen to Mexico

Guest blogger: Sam Ritchie from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

How does a U.S. citizen who has never been to Mexico, speaks no Spanish and shares no Mexican heritage end up being deported there, spending the next four months living on the streets and in the shelters and prisons of Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala? It’s just the latest instance of blatant disregard for the rights and well being of people with mental disabilities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Mark Lyttle’s brush with immigration officials began when he was about to be released from a North Carolina jail where he was serving a short sentence for touching a worker’s backside in a halfway house that serves individuals with mental disabilities. Even though they had plenty of evidence that he was a U.S. citizen — including his Social Security number and the names of his parents — corrections officials turned him over to ICE as an undocumented immigrant whose country of birth was Mexico. (Mark is actually of Puerto Rican descent, but I guess when the government is trying to kick a Latino guy out of the country, the easiest place to send him is Mexico.)

ICE held Mark for six weeks, and though they knew about his history of mental illness and noted that he didn’t understand the investigation into his immigration status, they provided no legal assistance in either his interrogation or court appearance and eventually deported him to Mexico. Penniless and unable to speak the language, he was sent by Mexican officials to Honduras, where he was imprisoned and threatened by prison guards. Honduran officials sent him to Guatemala, where he eventually made his way to the U.S. Embassy.

Within a day, embassy officials were able to contact one of Mark’s brothers on the military base where he was serving and issue Mark a passport. His brother wired him money and Mark was soon on a flight to Atlanta. But adding insult to injury, upon seeing his history of ICE investigations, immigration officials in Atlanta held and questioned him for several hours before letting him go.

On October 13th, the ACLU and our affiliates in Georgia and North Carolina have filed lawsuits on Mark’s behalf, but the question on my mind is “how could this have happened?” The answer, as reported by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch in a report issued this July, is that both ICE and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have failed to implement meaningful safeguards for people with mental disabilities facing possible deportation from the United States. The system fails to even live up to basic standards of the American justice system, such as the right to appointed counsel for people who must defend against deportation even when their mental disabilities make it practically impossible to understand what “deportation” means. As immigration attorney Megan Bremer has noted:

Due process is part of judicial integrity. It’s a basic principle that this country has decided to prioritize. It’s one of our greatest exports — we send people all over the world to talk about rule of law and how to reform judicial systems but we’re not doing it here in our fastest growing judicial system [the immigration courts].

The result is that people like Mark who have a right to remain in the United States can be deported because they never get a fair chance to present their cases.

Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project of the ACLU of Georgia, told the Inter Press Service News Agency-

Mark’s case is a tragedy that serves to underscore the deep systemic injustices that continue to plague our government’s system of detention and deportation…Mark is just one of thousands of people in this country who have been victimised by a single-minded focus on detention and deportation without the kind of individualised determinations that are the essence of due process.

Mark’s story is a wake-up call. We hope that ICE and DOJ will implement reforms designed to protect the rights of people with mental disabilities now, before they accidentally put another citizen through the ordeal they caused for Mark Lyttle.