Defending the Rights of Central American Refugees


Attorneys, activists, and service providers gathered on December 16 at Fordham Law School for a daylong conference on how best to meet the legal and other service needs of Central American refugees, both in New York City and throughout the United States.

Co-sponsored by Fordham’s Feerick Center for Social Justice, Cardozo Law’s Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic, Human Rights First, Immigrant Justice Corps, and the American Psychological Association, the conference took as its title “Adelante,” a Spanish word meaning forward and used to invite visitors into a home. Attendees at the conference discussed the United States government’s response to the influx of Central American refugees (which began in 2014 and continues today), the ways in which lawyers could aid in defending those refugees’ rights, and how others could help provide supports and services.

In the conference’s opening remarks, Robert A. Katzmann, chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, put the struggle for immigrant legal reform in the context of his own work.

“The subject of immigrant justice is not a subject I was in search of; it’s a subject that came to me as a judge,” said Judge Katzmann. “As a judge, what became apparent in the years after 9/11 was that our caseload was severely impacted by the number of cases having to do with immigrants…When you get that number of cases, what you begin to see are patterns—patterns that are very, very distressing.”

What Judge Katzmann saw were immigrants regularly receiving inadequate representation, with lawyers using boilerplate language in legal documents, and sometimes neglecting even to change the names of their clients from one petition to the next. The son of refugees from Nazi Germany, Judge Katzmann felt a personal connection to the issue of immigrant legal justice. He has since pioneered projects to secure adequate representation for immigrants, many of whom face ejection from the United States owing to a simple lack of access to counsel.

The panels and workshops of the Adelante conference focused on the plight of refugees from Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” a trio of countries consisting of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Instability in these countries following the civil wars of the 1980s has caused millions of refugees to flee northwards, creating a crisis that the United States has responded to with the construction of mass detention facilities.

“In 2014, the United States started to use a temporary facility in Artesia, New Mexico to detain women and children,” said Lori Adams, managing attorney for the New York office of Human Rights First, during a panel on the legal needs of detainees. “There was a lawsuit and that detention center was shut down in 2014, shortly after it was put in use,” she said. “In response the U.S. government created two more detention centers, one in Karnes City, Texas, and one in Dilley, Texas.”

Though numbers concerning the centers’ occupants are difficult to obtain, Adams said that the detention center in Dilley, the nation’s largest, has held at least 15,000 families. Suny Rodriguez, a Honduran refugee and activist who brought the nation’s first lawsuit against Immigration & Customs Enforcement seeking monetary damages for her detention, described the conditions inside the centers.

“They put me into an icebox, a cold room, with my family,” said Rodriguez. “My son was already sick when we got here. [ICE officers] didn’t help, and instead they tried to force me to sign my deportation papers.”

Panelists said that many refugees, who risk violent persecution in their home countries, face deportation owing to a lack of understanding of their rights as asylum seekers in the United States. Throughout a series of panels and breakout sessions, attendees at the Adelante conference learned about ways in which they, as legal professionals, could help.

In addition to organizations such as Immigrant Justice Corps and Human Rights First, which offer legal counsel to immigrants once they have been released from detention, advocates described programs such as the CARA Pro Bono Project, which brings lawyers to detention centers for weeklong stints to offer legal counsel to detainees. Fordham Law’s Feerick Center for Social Justice has organized four such trips to the Dilley detention facility, and has another planned for January 1.

Elora Mukherjee, associate clinical professor of law at Columbia University, said that she had spent nearly eight weeks on the ground in Dilley with her students during the past year, helping usher refugees through the asylum-seeking process. She described the work as “grueling, but also incredibly fulfilling.”

“This work with children, with mothers, and with families—it’s transformative work,” she said. “Through this work, you have an opportunity to transform lives, and to save lives.”


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