Acceptance Speech by Karen Siciliano Lucas

August 5, 2019
Karen Siciliano Lucas and Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz

Karen Siciliano Lucas and Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz

Thank you very much to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives and the Puffin Foundation.

I wanted to share the story of one father and daughter whom federal enforcement agents separated from each other at the border during the crisis this past summer.

A father I will call “Hector” and his daughter fled their indigenous farming community in Guatemala after being persecuted on racial, ethnic, and religious grounds and receiving no assistance or protection from governmental authorities. But when they got to the safety of the United States, Border Patrol agents separated Hector from his daughter and detained them separately, sending Hector to a detention center in El Paso Texas, right across the border from Ciudad Juarez. Hector failed his initial asylum interview, because he was so concerned about his daughter he couldn’t focus on the proceeding. At that point, Hector faced the potential of imminent deportation without his daughter. But Justice Campaign volunteer lawyers stepped in to help. These volunteers challenged the negative decision before the El Paso immigration court – the court with the lowest grant rate for detained asylum seekers in the country. Against the odds, the client prevailed. But even with that decision, the government continued to detain Hector. Volunteers then successfully represented Hector during his bond hearing. He was finally released after 7 months of detention and separation, and was reunited with his daughter just in time for the holidays. Hector’s volunteer legal team will continue to pursue his underlying asylum claim in 2019.

The Justice Campaign is a joint initiative of AILA and the American Immigration Council, but key to our success are our partnerships with many legal service providers not only in Texas but also where asylum seekers are transferred from the border and detained in Ohio, Colorado, New Jersey, Washington State, and Georgia. The Campaign is addressing a problem that is much older than the 2016 election, just from new angles. Right now there is no right to legal counsel in immigration court, and of the nearly 500,000 immigrants detained every year, a mere 14 percent have a lawyer by their side.

If we’re truly going to change the way we advocate with and for detained immigrants then we’re going to have to do three things. First, we’re going to have to train immigration lawyers differently, giving them the tools and strategies to meet the new enforcement environment head on, including by going into federal court when needed. We’re doing this right now by piloting new trainings, “Fearless Lawyering” trainings, which focus on trial skills.

Second, not only are we going to have to train immigration lawyers differently but we need to bring in an army of helpers, volunteers from other fields who will become just as angry and moved to act as we are. And not only volunteer lawyers but interpreters, mental health professionals, and social workers who are key to holistic representation. We now have more than 10,000 volunteers in our network ready help, over 1500 were put to work last year – they helped 102 separated parents and children reunite, helped hundreds of other detained individuals get a fair day in court, and through the Dilley Pro Bono Project served more than 15,000 mothers and children detained at the largest immigration facility in the country in Dilley Texas. And these volunteers getting angry at what they see, and they’re writing local op-eds, and they’re meeting with their members of Congress, amplifying the movement for immigration reform.

And finally, third, no matter how many individual cases we fight, we’re not going to be able to win anything without leading litigation and advocacy strategies to tackle the systemic challenges that are at the root of why there is no justice for our clients right now. We’ve exposed reprehensible medical care in detention centers run by private prison companies; documented the continued detention of pregnant women; fought and won against the government’s practice of detaining infants; and held immigration judges accountable for a culture of contempt for asylum seekers and for their counsel in the El Paso immigration court.

All three of those things — that is what we’re trying to do with the Campaign. I’m truly grateful to accept this award and look forward to continuing the fight with you all to hold the government accountable for its violations of due process and basic human dignity.