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  • Twice a week,

  • I drive from my home near Tijuana, Mexico,

  • over the US border, to my office in San Diego.

  • The stark contrast between the poverty and desperation on one side of the border

  • and the conspicuous wealth on the other

  • always feels jarring.

  • But what makes this contrast feel even starker

  • is when I pass by the building that those of us who work on the border

  • unaffectionately refer to as the black hole.

  • The black hole is the Customs and Border Protection,

  • or CBP facility,

  • at the San Ysidro port of entry,

  • right next to a luxury outlet mall.

  • It's also where, at any one time,

  • there's likely 800 immigrants

  • locked in freezing, filthy, concrete cells below the building.

  • Up top: shopping bags and frappuccinos.

  • Downstairs: the reality of the US immigration system.

  • And it's where, one day in September of 2018,

  • I found myself trying to reach Anna,

  • a woman who CBP had recently separated from her seven-year-old son.

  • I'm an immigration attorney

  • and the policy and litigation director of Al Otro Lado,

  • a binational nonprofit helping immigrants on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

  • We'd met Anna several weeks earlier at our Tijuana office,

  • where she explained that she feared she and her son would be killed in Mexico.

  • So we prepared her for the process of turning herself over to CBP

  • to ask for asylum.

  • A few days after she'd gone to the port of entry to ask for help,

  • we received a frantic phone call

  • from her family members in the United States,

  • telling us that CBP officials had taken Anna's son from her.

  • Now, not that this should matter,

  • but I knew that Anna's son had special needs.

  • And once again,

  • this news filled me with the sense of panic and foreboding

  • that has unfortunately become a hallmark of my daily work.

  • I had a signed authorization to act as Anna's attorney,

  • so I rushed over to the port of entry

  • to see if I could speak with my client.

  • Not only would CBP officials not let me speak to Anna,

  • but they wouldn't even tell me if she was there.

  • I went from supervisor to supervisor,

  • begging to submit evidence of Anna's son's special needs,

  • but no one would even talk to me about the case.

  • It felt surreal to watch the shoppers strolling idly by

  • what felt like a life-and-death situation.

  • After several hours of being stonewalled by CBP,

  • I left.

  • Several days later,

  • I found Anna's son in the foster-care system.

  • But I didn't know what happened to Anna

  • until over a week later,

  • when she turned up at a detention camp a few miles east.

  • Now, Anna didn't have a criminal record,

  • and she followed the law when asking for asylum.

  • Still, immigration officials held her for three more months,

  • until we could win her release

  • and help her reunify with her son.

  • Anna's story is not the only story I could tell you.

  • There's Mateo, an 18-month-old boy,

  • who was ripped from his father's arms

  • and sent to a government shelter thousands of miles away,

  • where they failed to properly bathe him for months.

  • There's Amadou,

  • an unaccompanied African child,

  • who was held with adults for 28 days in CBP's horrific facilities.

  • Most disturbingly, there's Maria,

  • a pregnant refugee who begged for medical attention for eight hours

  • before she miscarried in CBP custody.

  • CBP officials held her for three more weeks

  • before they sent her back to Mexico,

  • where she is being forced to wait months

  • for an asylum hearing in the United States.

  • Seeing these horrors day in and day out has changed me.

  • I used to be fun at parties,

  • but now, I inevitably find myself telling people

  • about how our government tortures refugees at the border

  • and in the detention camps.

  • Now, people try to change the subject

  • and congratulate me for the great work I'm doing in helping people like Anna.

  • But I don't know how to make them understand

  • that unless they start fighting, harder than they ever thought possible,

  • we don't know which of us will be the next to suffer Anna's fate.

  • Trump's mass separations of refugee families

  • at the southern border

  • shocked the conscience of the world

  • and woke many to the cruelties of the US immigration system.

  • It seems like today,

  • more people than ever are involved in the fight for immigrant rights.

  • But unfortunately, the situation is just not getting better.

  • Thousands protested to end family separations,

  • but the government is still separating families.

  • More than 900 children have been taken from their parents

  • since June of 2018.

  • Thousands more refugee children have been taken from their grandparents,

  • siblings and other family members at the border.

  • Since 2017,

  • at least two dozen people have died in immigration custody.

  • And more will die, including children.

  • Now, we lawyers can and will keep filing lawsuits

  • to stop the government from brutalizing our clients,

  • but we can't keep tinkering around the edges of the law

  • if we want migrants to be treated humanely.

  • This administration would have you believe that we have to separate families

  • and we have to detain children,

  • because it will stop more refugees from coming to our borders.

  • But we know that this isn't true.

  • In fact, in 2019,

  • the number of apprehensions at our southern border

  • has actually gone up.

  • And we tell people every day at the border,

  • "If you seek asylum in the United States,

  • you risk family separation,

  • and you risk being detained indefinitely."

  • But for many of them, the alternative is even worse.

  • People seek refuge in the United States for a lot of different reasons.

  • In Tijuana, we've met refugees from over 50 countries,

  • speaking 14 different languages.

  • We meet LGBT migrants from all over the world

  • who have never been in a country in which they feel safe.

  • We meet women from all over the world

  • whose own governments refuse to protect them

  • from brutal domestic violence or repressive social norms.

  • Of course, we meet Central American families

  • who are fleeing gang violence.

  • But we also meet Russian dissidents,

  • Venezuelan activists,

  • Christians from China, Muslims from China,

  • and thousands and thousands of other refugees

  • fleeing all types of persecution and torture.

  • Now, a lot of these people would qualify as refugees

  • under the international legal definition.

  • The Refugee Convention was created after World War II

  • to give protection to people fleeing persecution

  • based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion

  • or membership in a particular social group.

  • But even those who would be refugees under the international definition

  • are not going to win asylum in the United States.

  • And that's because since 2017,

  • the US Attorneys General have made sweeping changes to asylum law,

  • to make sure that less people qualify for protection in the United States.

  • Now these laws are mostly aimed at Central Americans

  • and keeping them out of the country,

  • but they affect other types of refugees as well.

  • The result is that the US frequently deports refugees

  • to their persecution and death.

  • The US is also using detention to try to deter refugees

  • and make it harder for them to win their cases.

  • Today, there are over 55,000 immigrants detained in the United States,

  • many in remote detention facilities,

  • far from any type of legal help.

  • And this is very important.

  • Because it's civil and not criminal detention,

  • there is no public defender system,

  • so most detained immigrants are not going to have an attorney

  • to help them with their cases.

  • An immigrant who has an attorney

  • is up to 10 times more likely to win their case

  • than one who doesn't.

  • And as you've seen, I hate to be the bearer of bad news,

  • but the situation is even worse for refugee families today

  • than it was during family separation.

  • Since January of 2019,

  • the US has implemented a policy

  • that's forced over 40,000 refugees to wait in Mexico

  • for asylum hearings in the United States.

  • These refugees, many of whom are families,

  • are trapped in some of the most dangerous cities in the world,

  • where they're being raped, kidnapped

  • and extorted by criminal groups.

  • And if they survive for long enough to make it to their asylum hearing,

  • less than one percent of them are able to find an attorney