Testimony for the Budget Oversight Hearing: Committee on Recreation, Libraries & Youth Affairs

In the U.S. immigration system, people are forced to face detention and deportation in civil immigration court with no right to counsel in their immigration hearings. Those without lawyers face enormous odds in fighting their cases as they must present and cross-examine witnesses, file exhibits, translate documents, and much more, and for many, in a language, they do not speak or is not their first language.

Given the complexities of immigration law, coupled with the difficulty of case preparation while in jail, detained immigrants without lawyers will likely lose their cases regardless of their merits. This is where CAIR Coalition comes in. CAIR Coalition is the only non-profit organization in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia with a legal services program focused primarily on assisting detained immigrants. We provide services to DC residents held in adult immigration detention centers along the east coast.

We are grateful to the Mayor’s Office for maintaining IJLS funding in her Fiscal Year 2024 Budget to $3.5M, but the only way in which the immigrant population can be fully served is by allocating a full $5M to the IJLS program. This number is rooted in the needs identified by organizations working on the ground in the DC community to support immigrants, such as legal representation, language access services, housing support, and medical support.1 At CAIR Coalition, for example, we see an average of 90 DC residents detained by ICE each year. In order for CAIR Coalition to provide legal services to all DC residents who are detained, we would need to add three additional attorneys and one paralegal.

At the end of January, the Biden Administration announced they would be ending the pandemic emergency protocols on May 11, 2023. This will allow all detention centers to increase bed space. At the Farmville Detention Center in Virginia, where many DC residents are held, the detained population will now be able to increase from less than 30 people to 850 people by September 2023. Further, the Moshannon Valley Detention Center in Pennsylvania, the largest facility on the east coast, will be allowed to expand to their full capacity of 1900 beds, doubling the current population numbers. Increased bed space means increased ICE activity, tearing more DC residents out of the community, and transferring them to far away detention centers. We are sad to report that we are already starting to see the signs of what is to come. We are observing an increase in ICE arrests at peoples’ homes and in the community.

Furthermore, last year the Maryland legislature ended all ICE Intergovernmental Service Agreements in Maryland, so that local jails can no longer serve as immigration detention centers. As a result, DC residents who used to be detained in Maryland (as there no detention beds in DC) are now being sent as far away as Pennsylvania and Georgia. We are building networks with Pennsylvania and Georgia service providers and developing stakeholder relationships. To conduct detention center visits and meet with our clients, we must travel to these out-of-region facilities.

IJLS-funded legal service providers, including CAIR Coalition, continue to be trusted liaisons to share information with the immigrant community no matter how far away they are from home. We have set up free hotlines in detention centers in Pennsylvania and Georgia so DC residents can connect with our staff and access legal services. This includes DC residents such as Maya who are held in Georgia. CAIR Coalition met Maya2 when we conducted a jail visit at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. Maya is a young mother who is incredibly thoughtful and kind. When she was in her home country, she experienced domestic violence and was forced to leave her partner. Unfortunately, she continued to receive dangerous threats from him and ultimately fled to the United States to seek safety.

When she was detained, she was told she would likely be released after two or three days, but when we met her, she had been there for about two months. She wasn’t able to see her son over video while she was detained and was experiencing extreme detention fatigue. We knew that the most important course of action was to help Maya be free from detention as soon as possible, so we sought parole.

After a successful parole request, Maya was finally released from detention! However, she was still hundreds of miles away from family, so CAIR Coalition coordinated with a local services provider, El Refugio, to make sure she got to the Atlanta airport. Then we purchased her a flight home so she could be reunified with her brother. Maya was overjoyed at being released. Sharing photos with her attorney of her on the National Mall with her family, she said, “nada se compara con la libertad y la felicidad” (“nothing compares with freedom and happiness”). Now Maya is connected with a community group here in DC and is pursuing her case for humanitarian protection.

Gregory was a government employee who was attacked and forced to flee. He traveled for years trying to seek safety until he finally arrived in the US. Despite his family living in Washington, DC, Gregory was detained far away in Pennsylvania. He tried to fight his case on his own without a lawyer, but experienced egregious due process violations from the Immigration Judge – even refusing to give him a bond hearing.

CAIR Coalition attorneys met Gregory and were able to represent him on his appeal. Gregory was so excited to have an attorney and to no longer have to take on this fight alone. Gregory and our staff worked together and clearly demonstrated that the Immigration Judge failed to do their duty in Gregory’s case. After a year in detention, he was finally released! Thanks to volunteers from Abuelas Responden and Casa San Jose, we were able to coordinate Gregory’s safe journey home to his family. His case now goes back to the Immigration Judge, where he will have another chance to defend his right to protection. Thanks to the IJLS funding, CAIR Coalition will continue to walk alongside Gregory in his case.

These are only a couple of numerous examples of the ways in which CAIR Coalition has been able to advocate for our immigrant neighbors through the DC Detained Representation Program. We are proud to uphold due process for each of our clients to ensure that their wishes are honored and that they are humanized before a dehumanizing system. Thank you to the District of Columbia for providing this financial support.

We urge the Council to consider increasing the IJLS fund to $5 million for FY2024, and to continue protecting detained immigrants, as this funding has a profound impact on them and their families.