Within a complex and broken immigration system, survivors of torture and asylum seekers are placed in removal proceedings upon arrival in the United States after fleeing torture and persecution in their home countries. While in removal proceedings, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains these immigrants, including survivors of torture, in immigration detention facilities while they undergo the judicial process determining whether they will be deported back to their country of torture, or granted protection in the United States. Immigration detention creates an unsafe, fearful experience for survivors who face a heightened risk of forced return and re-traumatization, and seriously impedes healing and rehabilitation.
Limited English fluency, lack of available resources and knowledge about legal processes, and inadequate financial resources to hire an immigration attorney are just a few of the many barriers to a fair legal process for detained migrants. Because infractions to immigration laws are treated as civil offenses rather than criminal offenses, asylum seekers and survivors of torture seeking protection in the U.S. are not granted a court-appointed attorney. Can you imagine having to navigate the complexities of another country’s legal system alone, in a language you do not speak, after enduring unspeakable trauma? Unfortunately, this is a reality for many.
Part of LIRS’s Access to Justice program, the Detained Torture Survivors’ Legal Support Network (DTS), a consortium of legal service organizations in hubs across the United States, works to identify torture survivors lost in the immigration detention system and offers critical information, legal representation, and holistic services to protect torture survivors from removal and to promote healing.
At 28 years old, Beza was arrested and imprisoned by the Ethiopian government for her affiliation with the Oromo ethic group. She was taken to jail and confined in a small dark cell alone for several months. Beza was beaten and tortured while in prison. After her release, Beza traveled to the United States with her fiancé, and upon arrival she found out that she was pregnant. She spent time in detention before an ATJ service provider identified Beza through a Know Your Rights presentation, intervened, and then advocated for her release into an alternatives to detention program.
With the help of DTS, Beza moved to a shelter that houses newly-arrived migrants and refugees. To better suit Beza’s needs, her legal service provider subsequently arranged for her to reside at a shelter for women in the same community until she could live on her own. Throughout this process, the DTS service provider represented Beza in immigration court, resulting in a grant of asylum by the Immigration Judge. She later married her fiancé and is now living with her husband and daughter.
How does the DTS Network assist torture survivors?
First, DTS Network attorneys conduct Know Your Rights (KYR) presentations in ICE detention centers. KYR presentations outline the rights an asylum seeker or torture survivor has regarding immigration relief based on his or her circumstances. For example, if a migrant seeking protection is a victim of human trafficking, he or she may be eligible for a T-Visa. During KYR presentations, attorneys also screen for survivors of torture in order to identify those who qualify for legal services through the DTS program, and then connect the survivors with legal services.
Attorneys not only provide essential legal services to identified torture survivors, but also work to provide holistic care for survivors, connecting them with vital non-legal services to promote full rehabilitation and integration, such as housing and mental health services. Many of the organizations to which DTS partners refer clients are a part of another Access to Justice program, the Community Support Network. Furthermore, the DTS Network works to promote best practices in legal services for survivors of torture nationwide.
The Detained Torture Survivors’ Legal Support Network currently includes:
- Arizona: Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP)
- New York/New Jersey: Catholic Charities of Newark, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)
- Texas: Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education & Legal Services (RAICES)
Why advocate for torture survivors in detention?
Like Beza, many detained torture survivors carry remarkable stories of strength and resilience in the face of adversity; however their pasts also make them especially vulnerable to the psychologically harmful and potentially re-traumatizing experience of being detained. With DTS program services, survivors are better able to advocate for their release from detention and for the appropriate legal status that will grant them protection from forced return to their countries of torture or persecution. Without a lawyer, the chances of obtaining legal protection and moving towards full rehabilitation are significantly reduced.
What is LIRS’s role in the DTS Network?
Through funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, LIRS’s Access to Justice program is staffed by experienced immigration attorneys, case managers, and training and evaluation specialists who manage the program and ensure that service providers are well-equipped to meet the particular needs of torture survivors and asylum seekers in detention in various ways:
- Creating space for collaboration and dialogue among legal service providers from within and beyond the Network about important topics such as recruiting pro bono volunteers, screening potential torture survivors in US detention centers, representing torture survivors in Immigration Court, etc.
- Hosting webinars, trainings, and conferences to provide updates on ever-changing legal issues related to immigrants in detention, to promote best practices among legal service providers, and other important topics related to the Network’s work.
- Facilitate and strengthen relationships between partners and government agencies such as U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement through advocacy actions and meetings.
- First Steps: An LIRS Guide for Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants Released from Detention: DTS Staff Attorney Angela Edman, along with other LIRS staff, authored First Steps to assist refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, and those working with these populations in navigating the complex system of laws, agencies, and public and private systems in the United States they must master in order to be successful in the U.S.
For information about resources, trainings, or the DTS Network’s work, contact Staff Attorney Angela Edman at AEdman@lirs.org.