A contingent of Austin-based nonprofits are on the front lines of the immigration-policy conflict, helping immigrants and asylum seekers know their rights, find their children and reunite their families.
Nonprofits offer the community a means to support this work, they said, and hundreds of volunteers have stepped up to help. But shifting policies and politics have turned a complicated system into a cruel one, and they can’t predict what’s next.
Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, has been working in this field for 15 years. “The fight is harder today,” said Libal. “The idea that the policy of the United States government would be to rip kids from parents’ arms in order to criminally prosecute their parents at the border is in some ways beyond what we’ve seen.”
Grassroots Leadership had a sort of victory this past week, engaging hundreds of activists over the course of months to pressure Williamson County to end its contract with ICE and the for-profit company that operates the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a facility in Taylor that houses detained migrant women. Commissioners cited a desire to end the county’s involvement in a federal issue as the reason to terminate the contract.
While the vote means Williamson County will exit the contract in 2019, ICE can still contract directly with the for-profit company to run the facility. “But it’s a step in the right direction,” said Libal.
About 35 women whose children were taken away from them are still kept at the Hutto detention center, each in the process of seeking asylum to escape violence in their home countries. To prove they are eligible for asylum, each must go through an interview to establish “credible fear,” a process that requires the woman to know the law and the language.
Although asylum is a civil rather than a criminal case, asylum seekers are not guaranteed an attorney in immigrant court. This past week, American Gateways trained almost 400 Austin attorneys in the asylum process so they could assist women at the Hutto facility.
“It’s very powerful for a volunteer to come in and have such a huge impact on a family’s life,” said Rebecca Lightsey, executive director of American Gateways. “We are very grateful.”
Once a person completes the interview, they may be offered the opportunity to post a bond that would allow them to leave the detention facility while their case is being reviewed. To help more women leave the detention centers, Grassroots Leadership recently established a charitable fund so donors could help contribute to paying the bonds, which can be between $1,500 and $10,000.
“It can help get some of these women released so they can be reunited with their kids and fight their case outside the detention center holds,” said Libal.
But not all asylum seekers have a place to stay outside the detention centers.
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The nonprofit Casa Marianella provides housing and support for homeless immigrants and asylum seekers. On Tuesday, it was able to reunite a woman with her 6-year-old daughter, whom she hadn’t seen in two months.
“When she came to us, she was just a wreck,” said Patti McCabe, director of family services.
Casa Marianella staff and attorneys worked to locate the child in Chicago, acquire the papers to prove the client was the child’s mother, and then have the child released. McCabe says staff even took the mother to the Austin airport to reunite her with her daughter.
“On the one hand we’re just crazy giddy with joy that this child is back,” she said, “but on the other hand they suffered for two months, and there are still thousands of families out there.”
Giving City Austin
This article is published through a partnership with Giving City Austin, which reports on the area’s nonprofit community. Read more Giving City stories at GivingCityAustin.com.