The American Dream: Carrying Humanity Forward

Below is the final post from De’Jonnae Boyd, our Marketing & Special Events Coordinator, who left HRI today. She has written about her personal journey in this position and what she has learned during her time at HRI and in Dallas. De’Jonnae’s post is deeply personal and she does not speak for Human Rights Initiative as a whole in this post. 


I interviewed for the Marketing and Special Events Coordinator position from my breezy living room in Almeria, Spain. I had a feeling that Texas was all the heat an east coast girl needed. I read the job description and parsed the website, still I had no clue what I was walking into. For the past year I’ve combed through hundreds of headlines like “An Undocumented Teen Gains Asylum With The Help Of His Undocumented Lawyer”, “Sessions Makes His Case for Why Illegal Immigrants Must Be Held Accountable”, “There’s Something Great About the Muslim Ban” and “Illegals  Flood the U.S. Border Amid Immigration Crackdown”. But no headline can fully blueprint what it means to be an undocumented immigrant or asylum-seeker who has been tortured and abused, having landed in the United States of America in search of the American Dream and protection.

 

Elisabeth, Kavita, and De’Jonnae pictured with our HRI client (who is also a nurse) who bandaged a race participant after a nasty fall!

As Desmond Tutu once put it, “my humanity is yours, for we can only be human together”; this quote resonates with me as a core ideal. It’s hard to imagine what the denial of humanity looks like until you’ve come face to face with it. During one of my first intakes I sat across from a man, Byron*. His  skin was the color of midnight, his eyes a pale yellow. I didn’t quite know what to expect. He started, “I just wanted to advocate for the LGBTQ community in my country, I’m not gay, but they shouldn’t be denied rights because of who they love.” Byron went on to explain in gruesome detail the abuse he had suffered because of his advocacy, being beaten with a pole, raped by several officers, having his jaw broken, hiding in the countryside for years before finding a way out of the country safely (because visas to the U.S., and the E.U. are hard to come by, especially when you’re an average working class citizen). As Byron told his story his eyes glossed over, and he silently stared off into the distance, two women staring at him waiting for what courts call ‘proof of credible fear’. I’ll never forget the look in Byron’s eyes as he struggled to tell us in detail how he’d been raped by the very men who preached their hatred of homosexuality. I struggled to understand why Byron would advocate so fiercely for a group of people whose plight was not his own.

De’Jonnae with baby Rose at the lavender gardens.

During another intake I met Sybil* who had fled her home country in order to protect her baby girl Rose from female genital mutilation. Again, I was left wondering, ‘why?’.

This past year has taught me what it means to carry the burden of humanity, even when the fight to been seen as human is not my own. Coupled with the deteriorating ideal of  the American Dream, the ability to live one’s life hinges upon privilege  During this year, I have learned that it is our duty as freedom fighters to advocate for those who lack privilege; those whose melanin and whose bank accounts reflect the generations of disenfranchised communities and corrupt political systems.

I’m baffled at the times we’re living through. Times where an executive order and the stroke of a pen denies humanity – access – to others who bleed just as red as the citizens of the United States of America do. I am baffled at those who sit with arms folded scanning headlines that read “At least 10 Dead, Dozens More Found in Back of Tractor-Trailer’ thinking to themselves, “they shouldn’t have come here illegally, that’s what those illegals get”. Really, it’s astounding that the same people who cry “they should have gotten a visa” are those whose ancestors migrated visa-less to the Americas in search of  the American Dream.

Within weeks of moving to Texas, I was moved from a place of sympathy to a place of action. I learned quickly that action is what holds humanity together and that it looks differently for each of us. For some, action is praying the rosary in a dimly lit closet. For others it is advocating for the LGBTQ community even when you’re as straight as the Nullarbor Plain; it’s protesting when a Black mother’s son is gunned down in the street, even if your own child hasn’t a care in the world because he doesn’t fit the description.

De’Jonnae’s mentee with HRI Ambassador, Jin-Ya Huang at the Chinese New Year installation.

 

Action for me has been mentoring a young girl from Fair Park; 

Two of our HRI Ambassadors and De’Jonnae having dinner with Iraqi refugee, Inam

it has been a guessing game over dinner with Iraqi refugees, Inam and Ferrell, because Google Translate clearly has no interest in translating Arabic into comprehensible English. Action for me has been countless protests and vigils, mourning for the young boys who perished at the hands of those entrusted to protect them. Action has been navigating racial reconciliation as a black woman in predominantly white spaces. Action is not always easy, it’s not always comfortable but it is how we carry humanity forward, it is how we carve a path for all to equally access the American Dream.

 

Working here at HRI has taught me that together we must carry this sense of duty and the burden of humanity which requires us all to fight like hell until even “the least of these” have access to the dream, The American Dream, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. I will carry with me the question ‘who are we to deny access to the immigrant or the darker brother?’.

De’Jonnae and Elisandra share a cup of Ethiopian coffee with an HRI Asylum-seeker!

Because the truth is that our silence and inaction makes us complicit in that denial. We have an obligation to see the humanity in our brethren, to empathize -knowing that only together can we be human and that the American dream tastes best when we’re each equally given an opportunity to live it.

-De’Jonnae Boyd, Marketing & Special Events Coordinator

*Names have been changed to protect our client’s identity.

Carolina Wins Asylum! 

HRI recently won the cases of a 23-year-old Salvadoran woman and her 4-year-old daughter who sought asylum from severe domestic violence.  Carolina began living with her partner when she was only 15, and the abuse started shortly thereafter.  He abused her physically, emotionally, financially, and sexually, including when she was pregnant.  She attempted to leave him on many occasions.  She even moved in with her grandfather in another city, but eventually her partner used his gang connections to track her down and threaten her and her grandfather if she did not return to him.  She called the police once when her partner took their daughter from her, but the police told her that they don’t get involved in “marital problems.”

On July 5, 2017, two years after Carolina entered the U.S. and after extensive written advocacy by HRI’s pro bono team, the government attorney agreed that Carolina merited withholding of removal and agreed to asylum for her daughter, so the judge granted those legal remedies without a trial!

-Mary Durbin, Asylum Program Attorney

Josie Settles In

 

Josie* is currently seeking asylum in the US with her two children. Like most asylum seekers, she is unable ti legally work while waiting for her asylum application to be processed. The financial hardship our clients face are the norm amongst asylum seekers throughout the U.S. Josie can barely afford to buy groceries for her two young boys. After arriving to the U.S. alone with her children she was let to figure out how to navigate the public transportation system on her own.

After much advocacy and coordination from our staff, Josie she was finally accepted into a program for homeless mothers. Our team seamlessly facilitated her move to her new home.  Josie now lives in a safer place where she and her boys share their own room. Thanks to this program and others like DASH Network, Josie and her children were able to enroll in day camps for the summer. These summer camps have allowed Josie to begin to connect to the community and to rebuilding their lives. Our client has also benefited immensely by being paired with an HRI Ambassador/Mentor who has proved to be essential in helping Josie acclimate to her new surroundings. This month our Social Services intern volunteered to showed Josie how her how to use the public transportation system here in Dallas and how to access free food pantries.

Josie is now more confident. She’ll start counseling,enroll in ESL classes, and complete a financial and job readiness course hosted by our Angel of Freedom Award winners, InterNations of Dallas! Our Ambassadors and faithful volunteers are a crucial component to our client’s ability to thrive here in the U.S. We are so thankful to all who have played a role in helping Josie overcome the many obstacles set before her. Seeing our clients succeed and become independent is a small victory for us here at HRI!

-Elisandra De La Cruz, Children’s Program Assistant

Ten Years After

Ten Years After

For almost 10 years I have had the privilege of calling HRI my second home.  This job has seen me through a lot personally- becoming a mother (times 3), the loss of a parent, my own health issues, and multiple scary career changes by my spouse. This job has made me thankful for my life every day. When you hear firsthand from someone about their spouse beating the crap out of them for speaking their mind it makes it much easier to not snap when your husband leaves his shoes in the middle of the living room for the umpteenth time. When you meet with a parent whose child was raped you can’t help but silently thank God for not having to experience that pain.  This job has delivered daily gratitude for the things I have, we all have taken for granted- the ability to feed myself and my family, drive to work with a functioning vehicle and valid driver’s license and insurance, and see law enforcement and not register justifiable fear.

HRI has also allowed me to grow professionally.  Not many careers continue to challenge you ten years in.  Although the Immigration Law part of it has become much easier (and I have become one of the few people who can rattle off sections of the INA on demand, which I am hoping will become a fun bar trick) the counseling portion continues to challenge me.  With the new administration I attempt to calm people daily- sometimes unsuccessfully, but often with laughter.  Early in my career at HRI there was a woman I confronted for not disclosing to me that she had been raped.  I thought I was going to catch her in a lie like on an episode of Law & Order.  She hadn’t told her husband and when I pressed too hard she broke down and told him in my office in front of me.  It was one of the rawest human reactions you can imagine. They will both always have a special place in my heart. That experience taught me to give people space to tell their story at their own pace, when they are ready -not when I’m ready to hear it.  Looking at my clients and telling them that I will advocate for them, knowing that the world has often turned its back to them is one of the best feelings in the world.

What I take away from ten years on the job, aren’t the victories, the wins, the ego strokes. Instead it’s each client who has suffered through tragic events, the ones I could not help. Perhaps it was because there was no legal remedy available to help or because I doubted my own ability to win. In hindsight, I wish I had taken on some of those cases that seemed pointless, like we were guaranteed to lose. But it’s those same cases that drive me forward now. I am leaving the 9-5 life, but I will continue to volunteer. I will continue to take those uphill battles on. Being part of someone’s life in crisis, helping them  rebuilding is an amazing phenomenon I’ve witnessed countless times. The human spirit is implacable. The will to live and laugh when in crisis is what I carry with me.

I am nervous about leaving the HRI family as a staff member.  I know I will never find another boss like the great Bill Holston. I get asked frequently if he really is as cool as he comes off.  He’s actually cooler.  He is a leader, mentor, advocate, and sounding board for me and countless others.  Our staff is all really great- no drama, no fights, and no tension.  The agency has twice the staff as when I joined. Each year we are able to help more people than the year before. To the staff of HRI, I hope you remember you are amazing and to trust your instincts.  To quote Maya Angelou, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” These past ten years have been more than I could have ever hoped for. Cheers to this next season and all of the pro bono cases I’ll take on.

-Melissa Weaver, Women’s & Children Program Attorney

Lucia Get’s A Green Card

Our teenage client from El Salvador recently obtained her green card! Lucia* fled El Salvador in 2013 when she was 13. Lucia’s father was violent and neglectful, physically abusing her when she was as young as 5. She would often have to intervene to stop him from attacking her mother. Later he abandoned the family, providing Lucia with no financial or emotional support.

Lucia arrived in the United States along with a “surge” of other children from Central America, and her case is emblematic of the problems that were caused when Immigration Judges tried to rush these cases through the courts. Lucia appeared at her first hearing without a lawyer, and was given a three month continuance to find an attorney. Lucia struggled to find a lawyer and did not come to Human Rights Initiative until the afternoon before her second hearing.  At that hearing, the Immigration Judge tried to bully our lawyer into accepting something called Voluntary Departure for Lucia, which would have sent her back to a dangerous situation in El Salvador. The judge refused to listen when HRI’s attorney argued that Lucia was eligible for something called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and just needed a continuance of a few weeks to file the appropriate paperwork.  Instead, the judge ordered Lucia deported that day, saying she should have filed the papers before coming to court, even though he had not instructed her that she needed to do that prior to the second hearing (and despite the fact that she did not have a lawyer and was 15 years old at the time).  He only told her that she needed to find a lawyer, which she did.

HRI appealed the Immigration Judge’s deportation order to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). We argued that the Immigration Judge did not follow the proper legal standard for issuing a continuance, and should have granted Lucia that continuance because she had relief available. At the same time we applied for SIJS for Lucia, which she qualified for because she had been abused and abandoned by her father. The BIA agreed and terminated removal proceedings against Lucia, dismissing her case and overturning the removal order against her. The government later granted Lucia SIJS which made her eligible to apply for a green card. This month the green card was granted!

-Chris Mansour

* Our client’s name has been changed.

Hope for the Innocent Child Victim

Hope for the Innocent Child Victims

No one talks about the confusion. The brief moments between the realization that this is, in fact, happening, that the person who was once safe is safe no longer. The seconds stretch into hours, sometimes years, as familiar hands that once went about their daily business of working, comforting, eating, suddenly become weapons designed to wound, inflict, beat, and molest, and they’re aimed at you. It is a magic trick of the worst kind, and one that grievously harms children who will, over time and repetition, come to expect nothing but terror and harm from not only their abusers, but the entire world.

When Kendrea and Antonio’s bonds of trust were broken, they were in a position of perfect vulnerability. After the Honduran President was ousted from office in 2009 by a military coup, Honduras’ civic and economic life collapsed, leaving its citizens to welter in poverty and chaos while the government scrambled to reassemble itself and retain power. In the wake of this structural catastrophe, Honduras became the country with the highest murder rate in the world, and its population began to flee for countries with more stability. Kendrea and Antonio’s parents followed the outgoing tide and left for the U.S. so that they could send money back to Honduras to financially support their children. Kendrea and Antonio were left with their grandmother, and, for a while, all seemed well.

The shift in their grandmother began a few months after the children came to stay, and at first they couldn’t understand why she had become so volatile and moody, why she had begun hitting them without cause. Kendrea and her brother believed that if they could be more obedient, perhaps less seen and heard, that their grandmother would stop hitting them, but their dedication to acquiescence made no impact as their grandmother began striking them with any object that was available; shoes, belts, and books all became part of her arsenal. When their parents would call, their grandmother would hold the phone so that they couldn’t speak out against her or tell what their lives had become. She stifled them, and reinforced their newly made prison.

When their grandmother began dating Cesar, he was already a fugitive; known to be dangerous and activitely pursued by the police, he moved in with them quickly and began raping Kendrea almost immediately. After the first time, Kendrea hoped that it would be the last, but this wasn’t the case. Despite her attempts to avoid the home and stay out of his way, Cesar began to reinforce his violence with threats, telling her that he would kill her if she told anyone about the abuse. He threatened Antonio with the same fate. The death threats became their tipping point, and the children, aged thirteen and eleven, fled the home and made their way to the United States where they, with the help of pro bono legal agency Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, were reunited with their parents and baby sister.

They arrived in Texas at a time of great increase in unaccompanied child refugees, when the number of apprehensions between 2015 and 2016 had shot up by 78%. In 2016 alone, 27,754 unaccompanied minors were detained at the Texas border. The majority of these children are from what is known as Central America’s Northern Triangle, which consists of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, all nations that have in recent years been ground down by unrest, high crimes rates, and poverty. The inrush of these children has precipitated expansion programs by the United States Customs and Border Protection agencies, which have widened the categories of asylum seekers eligible for refugee status in the U.S., focusing on children and families which contain qualified children.

Even with this new flexibility, former Homeland Security Secretary Johnson stated, “Border security alone cannot overcome the powerful push factors of poverty and violence that exist in Central America. Walls alone cannot prevent illegal migration.” This has played out in recent years with sharp, continual increases in refugee seekers, particularly children traveling alone. This is where Texas agencies like Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, or HRI, step in. When Kendrea and Antonio arrived in the U.S., they were placed in removal proceedings before the Dallas Immigration Court with one opportunity to apply for asylum status with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services before their hearings. As children without legal representation or financial means, HRI walked them through the legal hearings, filings, and processes, and ensured that they had a legal team working for their benefit each step of the way. Though they didn’t receive decisions on their cases until April of 2017, both children won their cases due in large part to the dedicated and pro bono work of this legal team.

Without the non-profit assistance of lawyers and legal advocates, children like Kendrea and Antonio would have escaped horrendous personal and environmental circumstances only to face a closed door, condemning them to a life without family, home, provision, or safety. Hemmed in on all sides, they would have been returned to their violent, unstable origins to await whatever outcome fate had set aside for them, and all of this would occurred behind closed doors in the complex and shuttered settings of the U.S. immigration systems. Now that Kendrea and Antonio have been granted asylum by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, HRI has filed for joint motions for their removal proceedings to be terminated.

With the national political tide turning against immigration and the numbers of asylum seekers continuing to increase, stories like Kendrea and Antonio’s have become more and more common. Despite these challenges, advocates like HRI are working throughout the country to give shelter to the most vulnerable global citizens. As Bill Holston, Executive Director of HRI, has stated, “There are so few things that people seem to agree on now. But surely one of those is that no child should suffer acts of abuse and violence. We are proud to be a part of obtaining safety, refuge, and security for children here at HRI.” In the coming months and years of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration reforms, the hope for vulnerable and courageous children like Kendrea and Antonio rests in the hands of organizations which believe just that.

-Kelsey Capps, Contributor, HRI Committee Member

Mylène Wins Asylum!

Mylène Wins Asylum!

After many years of enduring the oppressive and corrupt Burundian government, Mylène decided to join the opposition party, Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (“MSD”).  MSD fought for unity and an end to division based on ethnicity. While attending a peaceful protest one day, Mylène and many other protesters were attacked by the local police force. She managed to flee the protest safely.

The following day, upon arriving to her business, she found many police officers rummaging through her office. Mylène was targeted by the ruling party because she was a member of the opposition party and because she owned a travel agency which served various clients, including opposition leaders. The officers demanded a list of names of the clients that Mylène served. When she refused she was detained, interrogated and sexually assaulted. After waking up in the hospital the next day, Mylène fled with her three children to Rwanda and later to the U.S. Many of her friends and family members have been tortured and killed due to their affiliation with the opposition party.

Mylène and her three children are now safely living here in the U.S. Thanks to our dedicated pro bono attorneys and staff, less than two years after entering the U.S., Mylène and her children have won asylum!

Finding Freedom: A VAWA Story

May 31, 2017

 

 

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” ― Toni Morrison

 

My story is more common than we’d like to think. I, like many other women, consider myself to be intelligent, strong, and independent. I saw myself as the princess in the fairytale, having finally found my happily ever after. However, when your self-esteem is at it’s lowest, happily ever after isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. For me, happiness was having found someone -anyone -who would “love” and accept me.

For many years I thought that my abuser’s actions were my fault. I couldn’t see myself living without him and so his controlling and dangerous behavior was something I had learned to accept. In retrospect, I know that I did not choose that abusive relationship, but at the time I believed it was all my fault. Everything was great between my ex and I. We were in love. We were happy. But then suddenly we weren’t. I cannot pinpoint the exact moment that my fairytale turned into a horror movie; that holding hands turned into sprained and bruised wrist; that going out as a couple turned into me being isolated and home alone for days at a time; that laughing turned into crying. Everything was always my fault and because my self esteem was so low, I believed it.

One day he pointed a gun at me after I’d found his hidden stash of rifles. My ex had convinced me that if I hadn’t been snooping around in my own house, he wouldn’t have had to aim a gun at me. Every time I mustard up the strength to leave, my ex would convince we that immigration would be on my heels. He made me believe that there was no help for people like me -abused and undocumented -and I believed him. When I first met my ex, I considered myself to be a smart, strong, and independent woman. It seemed as if he had taken those things from me. Many years passed before I self-identified as a victim of domestic violence. But one day I did and I found the courage to leave.

My ex stole everything that belonged to me, leaving me with just the clothes on my back. There was a period after leaving him that I still had my doubts. “What if I was making the wrong decision?” I thought. “Maybe he didn’t actually mean to hurt me and it really was just my fault”. I invented excuses to justify his behavior. Victims of domestic violence often remain in abusive relationships out of shame. I recently learned that the number one driving force for those leaving abusive relationships is knowing that there is legal help. I found a friend who I could confide in. I ended up sleeping on her couch and having to quit my job. My ex would continue to threaten me for quite some time. He would call, text, and even email me. I thought about going back, but I refused to become a victim once again.

I found Human Rights Initiative, an organization that not only helped to guide me on what to do with my legal case, but also one that listened to my story without judgment. I was so embarrassed to share my story, but they reminded me that I was no longer a victim -instead I was now a victor! I received legal relief through the Violence Against Women Act. HRI helped me to find my voice. It’s been nearly a decade since I left my abusive relationship. It was so hard to let go of the fear, depression, and hatred I held on to. I am not perfect and some days it is still a struggle. But I’ve decided that both myself and the world deserve the best version of Adriana that I can give.

Today I am a successful small business owner and I am married to my best friend. This is true freedom. This is my happily ever after. I know for a fact that every time I share my story there is a chance that maybe some voiceless woman will be encouraged to speak up for herself and to find her happy ending too.

-Adriana E., Former HRI VAWA Client

Kenia & Antonio

Kenia & Antonio

HRI won the asylum cases of two Honduran siblings, Kenia and Antonio.  After their parents left for the U.S. in order to provide for the children financially, the children lived with their paternal grandmother in Honduras, who frequently physically and emotionally abused them.  Their grandmother kept such a close watch on the children when they spoke with their parents that Kenia and Antonio were unable to tell their parents about the despite regular communication. In addition to abusing the children herself, Kenia and Antonio’s grandmother began dating man named Carlos. Carlos eventually moved in with the children’s grandmother. He was known to be dangerous and actively pursued and raped Kenia twice. Carlos threatened to rape Kenia a third time despite Kenia’s attempts to distance herself from the dangerous domestic situation. Carlos told Kenia he would kill her if she told anyone about the abuse and he made the same threat to her brother, Antonio, after he learned what Carlos had done to his sister.  In 2015, the children fled to the United States alone at the 13 and 11. They have since reunited with their parents and baby sister.

As unaccompanied minors who were designated as unaccompanied alien children (“UAC”), the children were placed in removal proceedings before the Dallas Immigration Court, but they had an opportunity to have their claims heard by U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (“USCIS”) first.  The children were interviewed by the same asylum officer in October 2016 within a few months of filing their asylum applications.  However, they did not receive decisions on their cases until April 2017.  Ultimately, both children won their cases, thanks in large part to extremely dedicated and thorough pro bono representation. Now that they have been granted asylum by USCIS, we are waiting on the immigration judge to grant our joint motions to terminate removal proceedings.

-Mary Durbin

* We have changed our client’s name to protect her privacy

HRI Wins Asylum for Adeleh*

March 2017

HRI won an asylum case for an Iranian woman, Adeleh,* who has been our client for over 7 years.  Adeleh converted to Christianity and when she told her husband, he beat her, locked her in the house and threatened to report her to the government. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is a crime in Iran and she could have faced arrest or torture. Eventually Adeleh escaped and came to the United States on a visa, looking for protection. We helped her apply for asylum in 2010 but the Houston Asylum Office sent her case to an Immigration Judge.

Adeleh’s trial took place in Dallas Immigration Court in February and April of 2011. The judge did not issue a ruling until May 2012, when he denied her claim, stating that he did not find her credible. HRI and her pro bono lawyer, David Staber from Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, immediately appealed the case to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). The BIA agreed with us that the judge failed to use the proper credibility standard, and in July 2014 remanded her case back to the judge for him to reconsider his decision.

The judge did not set Adeleh’s case for another hearing until March 2016. Prior to that hearing, we asked lawyers from the Department of Homeland Security to review the case. They agreed that Adeleh qualified for asylum so we filed a joint motion asking the court to grant asylum.  Even though both parties concurred that Adeleh qualified for asylum, the judge denied the motion. We filed an interlocutory appeal, which is an appeal that is not from a final judgment, with the BIA. In December 2016, the BIA ordered the Dallas Immigration judge to grant Adeleh asylum. Finally, in March of 2017, the judge followed the BIA’s instructions and signed her asylum order. Adeleh is thrilled that this odyssey is behind her and hopes to petition to bring her children to the United States. She and HRI are extremely grateful to David Staber and Akin Gump for their perseverance and dedication in this difficult case.

-Christine Mansour

* We have changed our client’s name to protect her privacy