Jennifer Smith has been practicing immigration law in the Roaring Fork Valley for the last seven years. She recently returned from a trip to the immigrant detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, where she represented Central American mothers and their children.
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of each month.
Smith: My mother’s and my father’s families came to this country from Western Europe. My mother’s mother was adopted from Poland when she was a little girl. My father’s family came from all over Western Europe — Scotland, Germany. I don’t even know the whole family tree.
Gallacher: Tell me about your parents.
Smith: My parents divorced when I was a little girl, and I ended up living with my dad. He was in corporate marketing, so we moved around a lot, but my mom lived in Colorado, so I came to visit a couple of times a year. That’s why I chose to go to Colorado University for law school.
Gallacher: When did you realize you wanted to pursue immigration law?
Smith: I had done some work with the Harvard Negotiation Project in undergrad, and I was really interested in international mediation. I interned at the United Nations and was really pursuing a career in mediation, but I felt like I needed a law degree as well.
While I was at law school, I took an immigration course from Hiroshi Motomura. He’s internationally known as an expert on immigration. It was really eye-opening for me to see how we have treated migrants in this country. Reading the case studies and seeing how judges and lawyers treated immigrants was really disappointing.
I came away from that class thinking, “Gosh, somebody should do something about this.” When I got out of law school, I volunteered at the immigration detention center in Aurora, and that was what started me on the path to full-time immigration work.
Gallacher: Growing up was there something in your life that moved you in this direction?
Smith: I have had a few personal experiences in my life where I felt like someone was victimized unnecessarily and needed to find their voice or have someone help them find their voice.
Gallacher: Can you share a personal story?
Smith: My aunt had an aneurysm when she was very young and was in a nursing home. My grandparents would trade off days so that someone was always with her. Over time, the nursing home began to mistreat her and my family, and some very bad things ensued from that. My grandfather ended up committing suicide.
It became my father’s mission to clear our family’s name and make sure that everyone understood that it was the nursing home that was at fault. Watching him struggle and feel powerless was a big motivator for me.
Gallacher: You recently returned from Artesia, New Mexico, where you were representing recent immigrant mothers and their children who are being detained. What motivated you to do that?
Smith: We provide pro bono services for the Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocacy Network, which is based in Denver. It is very rare for them to have unaccompanied minors in their program who are living on the Western Slope, but over the last three years we have been getting more and more case referrals from them.
I am also the secretary for the Colorado chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. It was through that organization that I began to hear about the immigrant detention center that was starting to detain Central American mothers and their children.
Gallacher: What did you find there?
Smith: Artesia is a big oil and gas town with a large refinery. It’s similar to west Garfield County in some ways. It was hot, really hot, 106 for the first three days I was there.
The detention center is part of a larger campus that was originally designed as a federal law enforcement training center in the 1980s. It’s mostly dirt, concrete, chain-link fences and brown buildings. It’s pretty bleak.
A lot of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers don’t want to be there. They’re not happy to be there and they aren’t happy when their time is extended. Most of the agents are treating the clients pretty badly — calling them names, making rude comments, general overall negative treatment. They acted as if they were herding cattle, yelling and bossing people around. These are children, for Pete’s sake.
Gallacher: So if you weren’t representing these women and children who would?
Smith: Other lawyers who are willing to do pro bono work. People have a right to counsel but not government-provided counsel, so it’s different than criminal proceedings. Much of our time is just trying to help the client understand the process and what they are about to go through.
Gallacher: What reasons did your clients give for leaving their country. Is there a story that stands out for you?
Smith: Yes. There was a young indigenous woman from Guatemala. She had decided that she wanted to go to an evangelical church instead of the Catholic Church, so her family disowned her and moved her out of the house.
She went to live with her boyfriend, and he eventually started treating her badly because she was indigenous. She endured the treatment and they had a child together, and the child witnessed this as well.
Eventually she obtained a restraining order but he continued to harass and abuse her. One day, she was walking down the street and he came by on a motorbike and grabbed her and dragged her down the street in front of her child. This attack left her with scars up and down her arm.
She never reported the incident because she was convinced that the police would tell her boyfriend and the guys he hung out with and they would come and kill her. So in her mind, the only option she has was to leave because she had no other place to go.
Her story stood out for me because even after all she had been through she still had the strength to have hope for something better for her and her child. I heard a lot of stories like that.
Gallacher: So you believe that going back for some of these folks is a death sentence?
Smith: I do because we do have clients who have had family members returned and they’ve been killed. We hear those stories and we see the death certificates and the police reports.
Some of these deaths are the gang violence. If the gang feels like you were running from them, they want to seek revenge when you come back. Some folks figure that if you went to the United States you came back with money and they do violence to you to get money. So people who make it here and then go back face an even greater risk when they return.
Gallacher: Our government’s answer to the problem, at this point, is to speed up deportation to deter others from coming. Do you think that approach will be effective?
Smith: I don’t think so. I think if you are leaving something that horrible you would still risk whatever you had on the chance of some kind of safety.
I think it’s an incorrect response because due process and case law indicate that people have a right to counsel, they have a right to establish a “credible fear.” And all those things need to be done in a fair way. And it can’t be done in a 24-hour period in a remote detention facility that nobody can access.
Gallacher: The United Nations is pressing the United States to treat these folks as refugees. From what you saw would you support that?
Smith: Absolutely, and the government is, in a sense, trying to do that by detaining some of them long enough to have a “credible fear” interview with an asylum officer. But those detainees should also have an opportunity to assert their right to counsel or a representative who can help them present their case in the best possible way once they have that interview.
Gallacher: Some people say that this isn’t our problem. They say we have our own poor and underrepresented and we shouldn’t take this on. How would you respond?
Smith: I think we have the capacity to take on all of it. We will be judged by how we respond to these children and to our own children. I don’t see it as a limiting factor. I think we have the power and the capability to do both.
Gallacher: People are trying to understand the circumstances that would motivate a mother to take her child and travel across countries at great risk. I have heard people say that they would never do that to their child. They can’t see themselves in that situation.
Smith: I can’t imagine myself in that situation, either, but I’m glad I don’t have to. But when I hear their stories I begin to understand. When you have everybody around you threatening to harm you or harming you. And you see no way out because there is no one to turn to, your only option is to flee.