Inside and outside the system

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

Gloria Ortiz speaks with Rebecca Zorach for AREA about her work on immigration issues. Ortiz works both inside and outside the “nonprofit industrial complex,” as a staff member of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago and as a member of Chicago Otra. She explains problems posed by the peripheral geography of immigration detention facilities, along with related difficulties faced by immigrants trying to navigate the U.S. legal system.

Could you talk about the work you do on immigration detention cases?

I work for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. It’s a legal aid organization that focuses on civil cases within various areas of the law. I work on the immigration project as a paralegal. I work most closely on detention, but I also work with people who are trying to get immigration status as survivors of abuse. Mostly I work with people who are either detained or in removal proceedings. People who are detained call on our hotline or write. If it looks like something that we could do, I do an intake interview, and then take it to the attorneys and see what they think. We do cases for people who are legal residents, but have criminal convictions. Depending on the criminal conviction, even just one or two, immigration might try to deport legal residents. It doesn’t matter if it was in 1970 or 2008. If they find the person, they can try to deport him or her. Many of these immigrants have lived in the U.S. most of their lives and have U.S. citizen kids. We also handle people who are refugees or asylum seekers but have had some kind of problem with the law. Finally, we do cases for survivors of violence who are detained and cases where someone has been here for ten years and they have family members, and we can establish that the family member would have extreme and unusual hardship if that person were deported. All our work is free.

What are detention centers like, and where are they?

Detention centers are not particularly noticeable. You could drive by them and not suspect what they are. Many of them are privately run. They tend to be cold and most don’t have outdoor facilities for detainees. A lot of the people who have immigration court in Chicago are sent to McHenry County Jail, others to Tri-County Detention Center in southern Illinois or Kenosha or Dodge County, Wisconsin. More recently, people have been sent to Jefferson County, Illinois, or Boone CountyKentucky. People get sent to Kentucky because their cases are going to be pending for a while (like a pending appeal).

They send them further away if they’re going to be there longer? So that’s even harder on family members.

And also on the attorney contact! Boone County has had a lot of complaints. The medical conditions there—I had someone calling me for a while every week saying, “I don’t get my medication.” This particular person had a chronic ulcer and severe depression and was not getting necessary medications. And there I think it’s ten to a cell, and they have only one toilet, and it only flushes three times an hour.

Are these facilities that are also used for the non-immigration legal system?

Some of them. Some people call us when they get sent to places like Boone, and they say, “they beat us up because they don’t like immigration detainees.” There are racial and ethnic tensions.

Can they get visits? Does anyone organize family members to go there?

Well, there’s an issue because you have to have an ID to go there. A lot of them are not about to take the risk. Sometimes the detainee will say “no, don’t come.” But for the family members who can go, it is still difficult. Transportation is a challenge. And sometimes ICE moves detainees and the family doesn’t even find out until a week later, when the detainee is able to reach the family. Phone calls are expensive and families need a land line to be able to accept the detainee’s call.

People are being held for years on end waiting for their case to come up. What happened to “innocent until proven guilty”?

Some cases do last years and some people have to stay in detention during that time. Immigration has a policy of mandatory detention. Some people will be offered a bond or an ankle bracelet, but many have to wait in detention.

What other kinds of responses to the detention crisis have there been?

There has been response from the faith community, and there are nonprofits like Detention Watch Network, a national organization that does reports on detention conditions and tries to exert political pressure on the issue. The ACLU did a report on detention conditions in Massachusetts. And Amnesty International has a report on detention conditions with recommendations. Sometimes I don’t know how well the nonprofit approach works as opposed to a more grassroots approach. I was present in a meeting where Amnesty was talking about this report and talking about alternatives to detention, and one of the radical activists in the room from the Immigrant Solidarity Network stood up and said, “What are we saying talking about improving detention conditions? Why do we even want people to be detained?” And I think there was recognition in the room because a lawyer who was there said, “That’s right, we fought for better detention conditions in other places and what we got was more high-tech detention and more people detained.”

If you’re pushing for better detention conditions it might feel like you’re collaborating with detention.

I think that’s what some of my compañeros would say. There’s another nonprofit, the Southwest Organizing Project, that does support for people in deportation proceedings. They support the families with daycare, food, talking with them and explaining the process and helping with visitation and they’re contributing that way. It’s not fully addressing the problem, but it’s saying, “Here’s support for the family.” I’m not saying those projects shouldn’t exist—there are different aspects of the problem to work on. When I do my outside activist work I’m not going to say, “I want better detention” or whatever. I would probably oppose detention altogether.

What kind of related work do you outside of your job?

I work with a group called Chicago Otra. We do a thousand things. It’s a real collective of different positions. We did support and organizing for the immigration marches, presented a different voice at the marches, talking about the problems with some of the proposals for amnesty or the Dream Act—which is a proposal for getting undocumented immigrant youth green cards. But there is a strong military component in the proposal, so we raised a voice up, saying, “This is not the way we want this to happen!” We presented at a national counter-recruitment conference this year in Chicago on the Dream Act and militarization. We wanted to offer a more critical analysis of what was being proposed. The activist youth who were working for the Dream Act had their jaws wide open because they didn’t realize there was a military component.

How do you handle your identity as an activist when you’re at work in your legal job?

Before I took the position, I thought a lot about what it meant to be in a nonprofit. I had read some articles about the nonprofit industrial complex, so I was critical. I talked about it with friends. I remember a friend I respect a lot told me, “You just have to make sure you don’t let your work be reduced to the work you do at the office.” I try to keep that in mind and not let my work with the agency be the sole center of my social justice work. I continue to participate in organizing events and actions. At work, during break times, I talk to people about the stuff I do outside work and express my political position, even though it sometimes feels like an isolated one. It’s hard to communicate my concerns about the Dream Act to colleagues who are working in a field where they see young people getting deported all the time. We all want some type of immigration reform to happen so badly. So I am afraid that a critical position about immigration reform proposals gets seen as bickering within the Left. But overall I have to say that working in the agency is a really interesting experience. I learn a lot from the work I do and I am challenged to apply the abstract principles I believe in my everyday work. Like in treating anybody who inquires about our services with respect and dignity, no matter what type of criminal conviction that person might have. Finally, I believe that simply the fact of providing free legal defense in such an unjust system is an important contribution. ◊


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