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Posts Tagged ‘Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center’

By Kelly Vomacka

*Editor’s note: The author is a lawyer who has provided volunteer assistance to the Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center (KIAC) in Bremerton, among other nonprofits. Her story was provided to me by KIAC’s Immigration Legal Services. Her experiences occurred during President Obama’s time in office. He deported over 2.5 million people, more than any president in history, continuing the upward trend in deportations since the 1980’s.  Incoming president Donald Trump has made mass deportation one of his signature issues, promising to deport as many as 11 million people. This article details the process as it is today; if deportations increase, the system’s ability to respond will undoubtedly deteriorate, and the way human beings are treated–including many children— will become inestimably worse.

A couple of years ago, I volunteered at a weekend workshop for immigrant “Dreamers”—those people you’ve heard about in the news who were illegally brought to the US as infants and are now in their 20s. I enjoyed the workshop so much that by the time I left I wanted to practice immigration law. I loved hearing the Spanish, seeing the amazing young people, helping immigrants achieve the American Dream. Most of my legal experience was in criminal law, and seeing a young adult with no convictions and straight A’s did my heart good.

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Detainees inside the women’s wing of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

So off to Immigration Land I went. A friend of a friend helped me get started, throwing me various bits of contract work and showing me the ropes. Suddenly, there I was, going to court, writing appeals, the works. And what I quickly discovered is that one does not dabble in immigration law. It’s fantastically complex, and trying to peer at the hairs they split could make you go blind. Plus, if you lose, your client doesn’t go to prison, they go to a country where they are pretty likely to die. As in: die. Be dead.

So I chickened out and came back to criminal law. But along the way I met enough immigration lawyers that I started doing some post-conviction relief work for their clients, and I volunteered for a couple of pro bono immigration cases.

Even this tiny bit of immigration “experience” sets me apart from the average criminal attorney, for whom immigration law is a mysterious black box and all they know is “talk to Washington Defender Association.” That’s all I know, too, but I’ve visited Immigration Land just enough to have a few postcards to share from my travels. I think of myself as a tourist who went to Europe and saw 9 countries in 10 days. Here’s what I’ve learned.

I love the Constitution

Seriously, love it. Have you ever wondered what criminal law would look like without it? Okay, I know, you see that every single day. So do I. But really, what if it wasn’t there? What if the accused had no right to counsel, no speedy trial, no jury, none of it? Okay, a few shreds of Due Process for decency’s sake, but that’s all.

There’s no Constitution in immigration law. Not much of one anyway. The Constitution does not apply to borders, and, thanks to our old friend the Legal Fiction, much of immigration law is considered to be “at” the border. Clients have no right to a lawyer, since immigration law is “merely” civil. I have sat in court and watched person after person, with no legal training, no English, and no interpreter, try to defend themselves against deportation. I’ve seen a judge prevent an interpreter from interpreting, even though the interpreter was sitting right there. I’ve seen continuances that go years into the future, once because the interpreter didn’t show up, a few times because the judge was out sick. I’ve seen people locked up without bond who have committed no crime at all.

I’ve seen people locked up on obviously unconstitutional searches and seizures. Yes, I wish the criminal courts would follow the Constitution more closely, but boy oh boy am I glad it’s around at all.

The detention center is a hole

The Northwest Detention Center is the worst jail I’ve ever seen, hands down. It sits out on the Tacoma Tideflats, over a Superfund site. It is surrounded by concertina wire. There is no bus service. The only parking is for staff and government lawyers. There are no coffee or sandwich shops nearby. It is privately run by a national prison corporation, and Congress has mandated a quota of inmates. You read that right: The detention center is required, by law, to fill a certain number of beds each night.

The front door greets you with numerous signs telling you what illnesses you may contract if you go inside. The architecture is Late Brutalist, constructed of whitewashed concrete blocks. Despair oozes from the walls. Everything about the place says “Danger. Keep out.”

But you enter anyway, because you need to get to the courtroom inside. You go through security screening, which is similar to jail screening. Then you are buzzed through a heavy locked door into a dismal waiting area that compares unfavorably to the airport. You make pleasant small talk with the guard to charm your way through the next locked door, into a narrow hallway lined with benches. On those benches are potential deportees, color-coded jail garb, at various levels of misery. Finally you are admitted through the third locked door into the courtroom. I should mention, if it’s not obvious, that the courtroom is open to the public.

I should also mention that plenty of people housed there have legal status in the US. Many of them are Legal Permanent Residents, and notice that first word there is “legal.” Not all, not most, but many.

There’s also a court in Seattle. I can’t call it a courthouse. It’s a suite in an office building downtown. No locked doors, but same screening, same dismal waiting area.

All of the courtrooms are beautiful, with churchy pews for the audience, a wooden railing with a proper gate, big gleaming counsel tables, comfortable chairs, and top notch electronics. The courtrooms are painted in a rich teal that exudes both power and calm. The “judges” wear robes (more on the air quotes in a minute), and the staff operates with hushed efficiency.

It’s not a real court

They hate it when you say this, but it’s true. Immigration courts are administrative bodies, not courts. The judges answer to the Attorney General, and ultimately to the president. They are employees of the executive branch of government, and if they stray from government policy, they are punished. They have no judicial independence whatsoever.

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