Photo by Josh Ritchie.
To say that Cheryl Little and her organization have an uphill battle in today’s political environment is an understatement. Still, the executive director and co-founder of Americans for Immigrant Justice holds out hope for the nation’s immigration system, despite feeling outrage at many of the injustices she and her team witness as a matter of depressing routine. AI Justice provides direct services to thousands of immigrants and refugees, advocates for policy changes, educates the public on its core issues and brings impact litigation to spur reform. As a student at the University of Miami School of Law, Little wrote a paper on Haitian refugees – and she has never really looked back. Little worked at the Haitian Refugee Center and then Florida Rural Legal Services before co-founding the group that became AI Justice. She has earned widespread acclaim for her work over the past few decades.
Lawdragon: On the direct services front, are there any trends you are seeing in the matters your organization is spending its time on – whether with the type of hardships or abuses faced by immigrants, or the types of individuals coming your way?
Cheryl Little: In early 2014, staff caseloads increased dramatically as an increasing number of unaccompanied children fleeing Central America ended up in South Florida. El Salvador now rivals Honduras as the murder capital of the world and Guatemala is also among the most dangerous countries on earth. Many of the young boys we’ve seen were ordered to join brutal gangs or pay with their lives. Countless young girls have been raped and threatened with death if they refused to be gang members' “girlfriends.” Children even fear going to school because gang members lurk nearby to recruit them.
On any given day last year our legal staff were seeing upwards of 250 children who woke up in South Florida shelters, facing deportation and with no right to appointed counsel. AI Justice is the only agency authorized by the federal government to provide services to children in shelters awaiting release to sponsors, to inform them of their basic rights and determine whether they have a legitimate claim to residency in the United States. As of July 2015, over 7,300 children were released to sponsors in Florida.
Our agency’s challenges increased in late July 2014, when the Obama Administration expedited the children’s cases and our attorneys scrambled to keep up with the Immigration Court’s “rocket docket.” Immigration judges themselves expressed concern that the fast pace of the children’s docket did not allow them sufficient time to fairly adjudicate cases.
LD: What are kids encountering when they get here?
CL: Children undertake the perilous journey here as a last resort, because they lack protection in their home country. Once here, they encounter a system that is complex, bewildering and frightening and need an attorney to navigate the convoluted worlds of State Juvenile and Family courts, Immigration courts, and the Asylum Office. It is virtually impossible to ensure an unaccompanied child’s “best interest” when the child does not have an attorney. Often hanging in the balance is whether a child will have a shot at the American Dream or be sent home to face violence, abuse, or even death.
Barely half the children whose cases were completed since mid-July 2014 had legal representation and thousands – more than 15,000 – have already received deportation orders. A recent United Nations Refugee Agency expressed concern that countless children who are being removed potentially qualify for refugee status and could face persecution by street gangs and drug cartels upon return.
AI Justice received a one year, $1.12 million government grant in the fall of 2014 to represent hundreds of arriving children in court. This grant expired on September 30th and we don’t know whether we will continue to receive funding for this critical work.
LD: With the next election cycle upon us, can you share an overall assessment of the Obama administration’s record on immigration? I know that you and others were troubled by the number of deportations, but then pleased with some other steps starting with the deferred action program. Where are we now after six-plus years?
CL: On June 15, 2012, President Obama exercised his executive authority to defer the deportation of DREAMers – people brought to the United States as children – allowing them to get a work permit and in states like Florida to obtain a much-coveted driver’s license and pay less expensive in-state college tuition – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Following his re-election, Obama announced a similar initiative to grant deferred action to parents of American citizen and legal resident children (DAPA), but this initiative was put on hold by Texas judges after 26 states, including Florida, challenged Obama’s directive.
Nevertheless, many immigrants feel betrayed by President Obama, recalling his promise when first running for President to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority and failing to do so early on when Democrats had the majority in both the House and Senate. Today, he is widely known in immigrant communities as the Deporter-in-Chief, having the distinction of deporting a record two-million-plus immigrants since taking office.
Obama greatly expanded “Secure Communities,” or S Comm, a federal enforcement program that partnered Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents with local police. The program’s stated goal of targeting serious criminals fell far short of the mark and instead led to the deportation of an unprecedented number of immigrants with no criminal history or minor traffic violations only who would have qualified for relief under the bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate in 2013. The Administration ended the S Comm program in late 2014, acknowledging that it wasn’t working. Miami has been labeled a “Sanctuary City” because for the most part it ended its participation in Secure Communities in 2013.
LD: What has been the fallout of mass deportations?
CL: The fallout has been devastating, especially for vulnerable children, many of whom have ended up in foster care following their parent’s removal. And President Obama’s decision to “fast track” the cases of children fleeing Central America has made it far more difficult for them to find lawyers and fight their deportation. Similarly, last year the Obama Administration began warehousing Central American mothers and children — some toddlers — in detention camps on the Southwest border and forcing them to have their asylum claims heard without adequate due process. The Administration’s claim that this was necessary for purposes of “national security,” to deter mass migration, has been soundly rejected by a federal court judge who has given the Administration two months to begin releasing families seeking refuge and implement a more humane detention policy.
Six years out, immigrants feel beaten down as their hopes for immigration reform have been dashed time and again, including in 2013 when a bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate was not even taken up by House Republicans and again in November 2014 when Obama’s directive granting a temporary reprieve from deportation to parents of American citizen children (DAPA) was put on hold by Texas judges. As one client told me, “it always feels like one step forward, three steps back.”
LD: Do you feel as though comments that tend to demonize or raise the fear factor about immigrants drown out more reasonable commentary?
CL: Those who believe that all we need to do is throw more money at the border and deport all the “illegals” have done a pretty good job of getting their message out. If you hear something over and over again, you tend to believe it’s true. Every time I hear that an immigrant has committed a crime on the news I cringe because these cases generally get a lot of media coverage, even though numerous studies confirm that immigrants have lower crime rates than our native-born population. On the other hand, hate crimes against immigrants, like the brutal killing of 18-year old Onesimo Marcelino Lopez-Ramos in Jupiter, Florida, on his way home from work this past April by three young white men who said they were targeting immigrants — or “Guat-hunting” as one of them told police — tend to be ignored.
Since Donald Trump has surged in the polls, immigrant bashing is on steroids. I’d like to see the media focus more on actual facts regarding immigrants and immigration rather than filling the airwaves with xenophobic soundbites that spawn fear and hatemongering. AI Justice is redoubling efforts to educate the public with facts that make clear our border today is more secure than ever, that more Mexicans are returning home than crossing our border, and that without immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, our economy will suffer a serious blow.
LD: Is there any way to counter the negativity?
CL: I have found that one of the best ways to counter anti-immigrant sentiment is when immigrants tell their own stories. In January 2010, four of our clients who attended Miami Dade College walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, D.C., to call attention to promote the DREAM Act and the need for comprehensive immigration reform. They called the march the “Trail of Dreams.” Along the way they met with local residents and politicians, sharing their personal stories and calling on leaders to fix the system that forces people like them and their families to live in the shadows. Every day during their walk they were on social media, helping to create a movement, and generating significant media attention. Their four-month walk launched a national campaign to pressure politicians to support meaningful immigration reform. Today, their work has taken on a life of its own and gives me hope that positive change on immigration is inevitable.
LD: Can you discuss a type of abuse faced by immigrants here, whether in the detention system or elsewhere, that most Americans probably don’t know about but would be horrified by?
CL: For years ICE detainees have been the fastest-growing prison population in the country. Since Obama took office, this population has skyrocketed, with more than 2.3 million deportations, including 440,000 in 2013 alone. The alarming increase in ICE detention is in large part due to a 2009 Congressional mandate, appropriating funds every year to maintain at least 34,000 immigrant detention beds daily, at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of about $2 billion a year. As a result, ICE has signed contracts with numerous facilities nationwide, including with Miami’s Krome Detention Center and the Broward Transitional Center, which together are guaranteed 950 occupied beds daily. No other law enforcement agency has quotas for the number of people it must jail, with good reason.
The real beneficiaries of the bed mandate are county jails, like Florida’s Glades and Baker County jails, and to a larger extent the private prison industry, whose two largest contractors, the GEO Group and Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), have seen their stocks soar in recent years. Not surprisingly, for-profit businesses have spent millions lobbying Congress to keep the quota.
While the bed mandate is not common knowledge, it has had enormous impact. Misguided detention policies have led to over-incarceration and inhumane conditions of detention at great cost not only to U.S. taxpayers but also to hardworking immigrant families whose only crime is seeking freedom and safety or wanting a better life for their families. We are encouraging people to support Representative Ted Deutch’s (D-FL) bed quota elimination amendment.
LD: Can you discuss one of your impact cases that our readers may not be familiar with that you feel has a good chance of improving an important aspect of the immigration system?
CL: AI Justice’s Lucha Program, “The Struggle,” assists survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. These immigrants often are invisible and too afraid to complain of abuse at home or in the workplace. In 2009 we brought a case on behalf of two domestic workers who were recruited in Peru at different times to work for a prominent executive and his wife who lived in a fashionable area of Miami. Our clients slept in a converted closet next to the garbage chute, were forced to work day and night, and were denied adequate food and urgently needed medical care. Their passports were withheld and their employers threatened them with deportation and arrest if they attempted to escape.
We co-counseled a civil suit on their behalf in federal court, and the judge recognized that our clients had been terrorized, controlled and manipulated by their employers. The jury found violations by defendants on five counts, including for human trafficking, and awarded the women $125,000. The court added liquidated damages for the minimum wage violations. This was the first time a jury awarded damages for civil trafficking based on legal and psychological coercion. The terms of the settlement are confidential. This win not only gave our two former clients their dignity back and a sense of justice for the first time in their lives, but it has empowered other women in similar situations to come out of the shadows and defend their basic rights.
LD: You’ve really devoted your entire career to these issues. How did this interest start?
CL: I entered law school to pursue public interest work. After my first year at the progressive Antioch School of Law in D.C., I transferred to the University of Miami and interned at Miami-Dade County’s Public Defenders office, which was a wonderful experience. In my third year of law school, I signed up for a course which required students to write a paper on a topic of their choice, and I chose: “Haitian Refugees: A People In Search of Hope.” This prompted me to learn more about the plight of Haitian refugees and I applied for a job at the Haitian Refugee Center (HRC), which I thankfully got. I started working there after graduation and was there for seven amazing years. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
When I left HRC I worked for a few years with Florida Rural Legal Services (FRLS). While I enjoyed working there, it appeared that a law would soon pass limiting FRLS’ ability to help immigrants who weren’t already legal, so in 1995 two FRLS attorneys, Sisters Catherine Cassidy and Maureen Kelleher, and I worked to create Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), which became AI Justice.
LD: Given where we are at now, do you have any hope for comprehensive immigration reform? Is that still possible or is it more realistic to hope for piecemeal improvements tied to specific issues?
CL: Since AI Justice opened its doors almost 20 years ago, we’ve seen the criminalization of immigrants who’ve lived here for years, worked hard, paid taxes, have U.S. citizen children and no criminal record. However, rather than a rational debate about how to fix what everyone agrees is our broken immigration system, even the few Republicans running for President who previously supported immigration reform like Florida’s Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are backpedalling. It’s also difficult to see how we achieve sensible immigration reform as long as the Congressional bed mandate exists.
Nevertheless, polls still show a majority of Americans support allowing immigrants already here to come out of the shadows and legalize their status. This includes a May 2015 Pew Research Center survey which found that 72 percent of Americans support legal status for immigrants, including 56 percent of Republicans so long as the immigrants meet certain criteria. So hopefully GOP lawmakers will pay more attention to Republican voters in the days ahead.
Given the trend of current demographics in our country, winning the White House without at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote will be a real challenge to say the least. America Ferrera’s July 2, 2015 op-ed in the Huffington Post, “Thank you, Donald Trump,” does a good job of making the case that the kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric we’re hearing today is only going to further encourage Latinos to get out the vote in November 2016, and that’s not good news for Republicans these days, many of whom I believe would like to do the right thing.
LD: Do you and your colleagues tend to stay in touch with some former clients to see how they are doing? What keeps you going?
CL: We have closed more than 90,000 cases since opening our doors in January 1996, so we aren’t in touch with many former clients. However, I’m happy to say that we continue to hear from a number of them, and are thrilled by their many accomplishments. They frequently tell us that the happiest day of their lives is the day they become American citizens.
While I admit that from time to time I’m motivated by outrage over the injustices immigrants continually face, ultimately our clients are my inspiration. Despite the harsh treatment they too often receive upon arrival here, they love this country and are not bitter. The want nothing more than to become legal so they can give back to the country they now call home. When I see their strength and courage in the face of enormous obstacles, how can I give up?