Immigration judges have deemed refugees as young as three years old capable of representing themselves in court, according to Elise Griesmyer, a managing immigrant attorney at Catholic Charities. Griesmyer spoke at an immigration forum hosted by University of St. Thomas’ campus ministry last month.
The forum was held Sept. 25 in Jones Hall and attended by more than 50 people. Four panelists spoke, including Griesmyer; Jennifer Carr-Allmon, a UST alumni and executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops; Aisha Koroma, a former refugee and mental health and social service professional; and Maria Trevino-Rodriguez, a student under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals at the University of Houston, and a political activist.
The event was sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and UST’s Center for International Studies’ Latin American Studies Program.
Many of the panelists illustrated what they say are flaws in current immigration laws based on their own experiences with the immigration system. They also discussed approaches to solving the immigration issue.
Allmon said the TCCB believes national forces such as violence and drug wars in refugees’ home countries are the root cause of immigration to the U.S. She said there should be a stronger focus on these issues in the countries the immigrants are fleeing.
“We also have to ask for investment from countries where these problems are happening,” Allmon said.
The TCCB helped lobby for the border checkpoints that exist between the U.S. and Mexico that check for drugs, guns and money, she explained, because it believes these items are directly related to the violence that causes Mexicans to flee to the U.S.
Allmon also said the TCCB opposed Texas Senate Bill 4, which bans sanctuary cities in Texas, in the last legislative session because the bill failed to consider the effect such a law would have on immigrant families.
“[The policy] is addressing an immigrant as a problem to be solved instead of a human being with a story and a family and a connection,” Allmon said.
Griesmyer said U.S. immigration laws are “unusable” and need to be adapted to the current immigration crisis, because they do not allow refugees to come into the country legally.
“We are living in the biggest refugee crisis since World War II,” Griesmyer said.
She said when refugees journey to the U.S., there is a 60 percent chance that the women will be sexually assaulted, a 5 percent chance they will die and a 70 percent chance they will be detained for up to four years when they arrive at their destination.
She said refugees as young as 10 years old make this journey alone, and that many of them end up in child immigration camps and prisons. One child immigration camp, located in Torneo, Texas, is currently holding more than 3,000 children, according to Griesmyer.
She said more children are being held in prison now than in 2014, when there was a highly publicized influx of Central American minors fleeing gang violence in their home countries.
Rodriguez, the DACA student, said current immigration laws make it almost impossible for her to apply for residency, even though she has lived in Texas since she was one year old.
She said her parents have been applying for residency for more than 20 years, and that she is unable to apply herself until they are accepted.
She also spoke about her work with other activists to protest Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, through which state and local police officers collaborate with the federal government to enforce federal immigration laws. She said the program turned Harris County into “the deportation capital of the U.S.” because so many immigrants were being deported out of Harris County Jail at enormous cost to Texas.
Koroma spoke about her experience as a refugee from Sierra Leone.
She said one area of the current immigration system that would shock many people is the grueling thoroughness of the vetting process by which refugees enter the U.S.
“The vetting process, yeah…I don’t think anyone in this room would want to go through that,” Koroma said.
Her family started the process when she was 13, she said, and it began with a background check that is called “police clearance” in other countries. Officials conducted multiple interviews with “practically anyone you come in contact with.”
Candidates also undergo multiple medical exams, she said, and if refugees have certain diseases or disorders they are not allowed into the U.S.
She said she is currently working with a refugee who was in a refugee camp for 20 years waiting to be vetted, and that she knows others who have waited even longer.
Rodriguez said she often hears false statements to the effect that undocumented immigrants do not pay taxes, and that they take advantage of federal programs and social services.
She said she pays taxes along with her parents, who are undocumented and own an art business, and that they never receive money back from their tax returns.
Rodriguez also said federal programs require applicants to provide a social security number, and that undocumented immigrants can’t take advantage these programs as a result.
Allmon also emphasized the importance of understanding both refugees and people who oppose immigration when discussing immigration policies.
Allmon told the story of a state representative who advocated building a bigger wall along the U.S. border. She later learned that every year for the past 30 years, the same man had spent an entire month pulling dead immigrants out of the border’s rivers and giving them “a proper Christian burial.”
He explained he opposed immigration because he wanted to discourage refugees from making a journey that would lead to death, Allmon said.
She said that by understanding the representative’s perspective, she is able to continue a civil dialogue with him that allows them to discuss other ways to help refugees in a more compassionate manner.
“We have a connectedness we did not have before,” she said. “We still don’t always agree…but I can have a conversation with him about push-and-pull factors of migration, and might get his vote on that issue at some point.”
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