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International Migrants Day spotlights need for more humane immigration system

As an immigration attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, I have immense respect for anyone who has had to migrate to another country for safety or a better life. My job involves a lot of one-on-one work with people who are or have been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Some of the people I’ve met were fleeing persecution in their home country, some were facing poverty and seeking a better life, others came to the U.S. on visas — living, working, starting families — and overstayed. Others are lawful permanent residents, meaning they have green cards. I’ve represented clients who entered the U.S. this year, those who have lived in the U.S. since before I was born and everything in between.

As we mark this International Migrants Day, a celebration of the contributions of migrants and immigrants and an acknowledgment of the challenges they face, it’s important to recognize the failure and inhumane nature of our immigration system. This is particularly relevant now, as Congress and the White House negotiate drastic immigration measures that would punish migrants, including children, by locking them up in detention centers indefinitely.

Most often, people held in ICE facilities don’t have access to an attorney. Many have limited English proficiency, leaving them more vulnerable to exploitation; and in cases where people are seeking asylum or other forms of relief, they are forced to prove their own case within a legal system that is foreign to them. The SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, where I am a senior direct services attorney, provides pro bono legal representation to asylum seekers and other immigrants who are being held at immigrant detention centers in the Deep South.

Although civil in nature, immigration detention centers feel like and in many ways operate like prisons. People are often detained in remote locations, far from their families and other contacts. More humane solutions exist, such as using a community-based model, as opposed to detention; not requiring a written application for most forms of relief, including asylum; and allowing immigrants, regardless of status, to obtain driver’s licenses to ensure reliable transportation.

The immigration system is complicated. So much so that it can feel like you’re set up for failure because of unnecessary hurdles. And it’s confusing. Different subagencies exist within various agencies in the government. For example, immigration courts operate under the U.S. Department of Justice, while ICE operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This means that someone may submit an application for an immigration benefit or form of relief to the wrong agency or court, further creating delays and confusion. Or they may submit their application to the correct agency but send it to the wrong office within the agency. People may even go to court when they’re supposed to go to an ICE appointment and vice versa.

From an economic standpoint, detention is extremely wasteful. The U.S. spends billions of dollars to detain people when detention is not necessary to ensure high rates of immigration court attendance. From a social standpoint, detention destroys families. Think of a parent who’s been living in the U.S. for many years and has started a family here. Now, a U.S.-born child may have to move to a country they’ve never known or stay in the U.S. without their parent or caregiver. The child’s mental health, education and safety will likely suffer, in either scenario. Who benefits?

On this International Migrants Day, I encourage you to join the fight for a more humane immigration system in this country. Become informed about the current landscape on immigration issues. The proposals currently being discussed would undoubtedly curtail the ability to obtain asylum and are antithetical to the values of International Migrants Day.

Then, talk to friends, family members and others about the issue.

Finally, reach out to Congress and raise your concerns about the inhumane process that results in far too many deportations.

Illustration at top by SPLC