Editor’s note: Immigration has been a political boondoggle for at least two decades in the United States. Congress has yet to come up with a system that will successfully address the complexities, and President Trump has taken some decisions into his own hands. This is the first in a series of stories examining how real people are affected.
Mallorie Mecham realized her U.S. citizenship boils down to nothing more than “an accident of birth” as she carefully listened to a woman in stiff, standard issue clothing recount memories of pain and trauma.
“I didn’t do anything to be born an American citizen,” Mecham said. “And the woman sitting across the table from me, from Honduras or Venezuela or Brazil, didn’t do anything to be born in that country.”
With this realization in mind, Mecham listened to countless women, day after day, recount “the most awful things that have happened in their lives” as she helped them begin the long and complex process of immigrating to the U.S.
Mecham is one of many BYU Law students who have participated in the Refugee and Immigration Initiative; an externship program that takes students to a family detention center in Dilley, Texas.
BYU Law professor Carolina Núñez is the co-creator of the program. She decided to create the program because she knew these families in “a jail-like setting” would need legal assistance.
Núñez is an immigrant herself. She emigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela when she was 9 years old and serves as the associate dean of research and academic affairs at BYU Law School.
Twice a year, Núñez or another professor and a group of students help prepare immigrants for a Credible Fear Interview, which is a preliminary step in the process to gain asylum in the U.S.
Núñez said it is a common misconception that an immigrant can obtain an “asylum visa” to come to the U.S., but an immigrant cannot receive asylum until after he or she is in the country.
According to Núñez, when women and children arrive at the border, they have to make some sort of claim of fear in order to proceed.
They are then taken to two processing facilities where they receive standard issue clothing, an alien number and an identification card.
The women call these facilities as “la hielera” and “la perrera,” meaning the icebox and the dog pound — referring to the conditions of the buildings.
Mecham has participated in the Dilley program twice, calling it an “eye-opening experience.”
“Make no mistake, they’re in jail,” Mecham said. “They call them residents; they call it a residential center. They’re in jail, and they can’t come and go as they please.”
Núñez said government employees and the private companies that run these types of detention centers are very careful not to refer to the centers as jails or prisons.
They are strict and careful with this identification because referring to punishment in immigration law can trigger constitutional protections that would not otherwise apply, according to Núñez.
After going through the processing facilities, the women and children are taken to the main detention center, where they meet with BYU Law students to fill out the necessary paper work and prepare for their Credible Fear Interview.
Núñez said immigrants typically spend one to two weeks in the detention center, but there have been rare cases where an immigrant spends a year waiting for their case to be heard; the asylum process itself can take several years.
Núñez and Mecham also said there have been reports of border patrol agents intervening inappropriately and acting outside their designated legal responsibilities by turning women and children away at the border.
“There is no question in my mind our immigration law is a disaster,” Mecham said. “And when it comes to family detention itself, I don’t think it’s necessary. These women are not here to harm us. They are running from harm. They are running from hurt and they want to come here to be safe.”
In the 2016 presidential election, 70 percent of registered voters said immigration is very important to them, according to a Pew Research poll.
A 2016 poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates found 46 percent of Utahns support President Donald Trump’s plan to deport undocumented immigrants with a criminal record.
According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 38 percent of Americans believe immigration should be kept at its present level.
But Núñez said most voters suffer from a severe lack of understanding when it comes to the U.S. immigration system.
“I find that most people don’t really understand what our immigration system looks like right now, and yet everybody has opinions on our immigration system,” Núñez said.
Another major misconception Núñez mentioned was how undocumented immigrants arrive in the U.S. According to Núñez, most undocumented immigrants overstayed a travel visa.
“They came in airplanes and landed in an airport. They had visas, but they overstayed. A wall isn’t going to change any of that,” she said.
Along with a lack of information, Núñez said complexity and the lack of opportunity for authorized immigration are some of the biggest issues with the current immigration system.
The direction of U.S. immigration policy, however, seems to be moving toward restricting opportunity for authorized immigration, as opposed to opening opportunity as Núñez suggests.
According to the Pew Research Center, refugee admissions for the 2018 fiscal year have been capped at 45,000, “the lowest since Congress created the modern refugee program in 1980.”
Sarah Pierce and Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute compiled a 16-page brief of Trump’s immigration policies, including reduced refugee admissions and the cancellation of DACA.
“No administration in modern U.S. history has placed such a high priority on immigration policy,” Pierce and Selee wrote. “This marks a major departure in how immigration is discussed and administered in the United States.”
The low immigration cap and reduction of family-sponsored immigration represent what Núñez calls “a turn for restrictionism,” a move in policy making she said concerns her because these decisions are made out of “overblown fear.”
“We’re trying to shut out a lot of people who aren’t really security issues,” Núñez said.
Utah immigration attorney J.J. Despain works with immigrants every day and shares similar concerns about the current state of U.S. immigration.
Despain said there is a lot of nuance and complexity when it comes to immigration law, and it can be difficult to find an easy fix.
“It’s just a matter of determining what sort of country we want America to be. Do we want to be the kind of country that welcomes families into our country, or do we want to be the kind of country that supports businesses? Do we want something else?” Despain said.
Since Trump announced plans in September to end DACA, Despain said he has seen a steady flow of clients seeking alternative means of legalization or authorization.
In addition to ending DACA, Trump plans to end the U.S. diversity visa program, or visa lottery, and has said he will not renew Temporary Protected Status for people from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti and Sudan.
Despain said he frequently sees clients who think they have no options.
“They live in fear their families will be torn apart. But we talk to them and we work with them and find they qualify for this waiver or this program, and it changes their lives,” Despain said.
Mormon Women for Ethical Government is a nonpartisan group that strives to educate people on current political issues, advocates for immigrants and connects them with other resources, like Despain.
Mormon Women for Ethical Government Immigration Committee member Molly Hogan joined the group after growing frustrations with immigration policy.
“I just decided I couldn’t just sit back and let these things happen,” Hogan said. “In Mormon Women for Ethical Government we always say we will not be complicit. And it’s this idea that I need to reach out to those in my community. I need to stand up for those whose voices are not being heard.”
One of the key resources Mormon Women for Ethical Government uses to advocate for immigrant rights is the Fifteen Declarations on Ethical Immigration Policy.
The document describes the group’s vision for immigration policy, including protections for DREAMers and TPS recipients. Members of the group distribute the declaration to local representatives in an effort to effect change.
“I personally have advocated for a mom who was targeted for deportation, and it was a life changing experience to advocate for her even though what I could do for her was limited,” Hogan said.
Hogan said she encourages everyone to get involved in any way they can. Similarly, Mecham said her experience in Dilley changed her life and her education, and she encourages others to “find their brave.”
“I can’t sit in an airport with a sign that says ‘Immigration attorney. I can help you’ but there are things I can do for the people in front of me,” Mecham said. “There is so much that we can do. I decided to do something and that changed everything for me. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something.”