Asylum-seekers released from federal custody after receiving legal help

by Dan Stockman

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Eight more families of asylum-seekers were released from federal detention after they were rounded up in a federal deportation effort last month.

The CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, which provides free attorneys for asylum-seekers from Central America, announced Tuesday that the families, which have been detained since January, were released from federal custody, raising the total to 33 people in 12 families who have been released so far.

On Jan. 2 and 3, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers conducted raids in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, taking 121 people into custody to be processed for deportation. Those arrested are among the more than 100,000 Central Americans, including thousands of unaccompanied minors, who crossed the southern border of the United States seeking asylum in 2014 and 2015 because of violence in their home countries.

Jonathan D. Ryan, executive director for RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), said CARA attorneys have represented 44 of the 121 arrested; each of 33 detainees represented by CARA has won release from the Board of Immigration Appeals, despite official claims that those arrested had no legal options left. RAICES is one of four partners in the CARA project.

"If every single family we represented was successful in their claims, it begs the question about those who were deported," Ryan said. "The only difference between them was their access to legal representation. That was the determining factor in 100 percent of the cases."

Ryan said CARA attorneys are working with the remaining 11 people, but their cases have not yet been heard. The 77 people CARA was not able to work with have been deported.

CARA Project Managing Attorney Katie Shepherd said in a written statement that government officials prevented detainees from getting access to legal help by transferring them from Dilley, Texas, to a detention center in Pennsylvania "with full knowledge that a pro bono attorney from out of town was on the way to Dilley to meet with the detained mother."

Others were kept in detention even after they won stays of deportation, she said.

Ryan said detainees were not allowed to go to religious services in the detention center for fear they would get access to legal help in the process.

"The government wins when it prevents people from accessing counsel," he said.

CARA officials and others are calling on the Obama administration to issue broad humanitarian protections to asylum-seekers, criticizing detention efforts and deportation raids.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]