Ep. 26 Ruby Powers - A Houston Immigration Lawyer's Perspective on Current Immigration Issues
Ruby Powers 0:00
***radio effect on voice*** I liken it to being an ER doctor on the battlefield at war, sort of like, M*A*S*H*. And we're like a small percentage of people who know the law and know how it worked before he beforehand, and so we can't walk away, because people need us more than ever.
Rob Icsezen 0:30
What's up Houston! Welcome to H-Town Progressive, Houston's impenetrable fortress of progressive thought! I'm your host Rob Icsezen!
Immigration is one of those issues that always needs attention. So earlier this year, we covered the status of Houston's immigration population by talking with Kate Vickery of the Houston Immigration Legal Services collaborative (https://www.houstonimmigration.org/). Check out that episode now, if you haven't already (https://www.htownprogressive.com/main/episode/c660c241/ep-17-kate-vickery-the-challenges-facing-houstons-immigrant-community).
But today, we're going to dive into some of the details of the system itself. It's not very controversial to say that the apparatus of the US immigration system is broken, and has been so for years. In fact, I can't remember the last presidential election cycle where at least one if not both of the major political parties did not at least speak to some kind of comprehensive immigration reform. We've heard this a lot, "comprehensive immigration reform," which is to imply, what we all know, that the current system is comprehensively broken! But what is it that's broken? We say that word a lot in this context, "broken." But unless you're in it, you probably don't have a great sense of what that really means on a day to day basis. Well, any immigration system is supposed to facilitate a number of crucial things: from making new citizens or "naturalizing" people, as they call it, to issuing visas for people to live, work, or visit the country, to granting asylum to those who aren't safe in their home countries. The immigration system has a high calling. It's not easy stuff! And in order to make it work, at least in my opinion, you first got to have at least some kind of political consensus around your policy goals. And well, we obviously haven't had that for a long time, if ever. The political battle has raged for a generation and currently sits at a historically reprehensible low with the present, virulently anti-immigrant administration. All the while, the processing and administration of one of our most important bureaucracies, has floundered. Most importantly, people suffer. And it's important that we all understand that while these debates rage, when the already antiquated immigration system grinds to a halt, when politicians intentionally sabotage the proper workings of government, actual people, families, children, all suffer. So it's incumbent upon us to understand what's going on! The details matter. And our guest today has spent her career on the front lines of this outrage wading through the muck of those details, and she's going to help us understand what it means that our system is broken.
Ruby Powers is the founder and managing attorney of the immigration law firm, the Powers Law Group (https://www.rubypowerslaw.com/). As an experienced immigration attorney who has spent her career committed to immigration advocacy and community involvement, she's dedicated substantial time to pro bono work for families separated by the current administration's recent family separation policy. She's also been a legislative advocate in both Austin and in Washington D.C., where she makes frequent trips to lobby lawmakers and politicians on issues affecting immigrant rights. It's my honor to welcome to the show today, Ruby Powers!
Ruby, welcome to H-Town Progressive.
Ruby Powers 3:49
Oh, thanks for having me.
Rob Icsezen 3:50
All right. Well, today we are covering immigration. We've done one show on immigration before. But it's such a big topic and so important to our area, we are going to probably cover it a lot of times. And you are an immigration lawyer. So a practitioner who's in the weeds. Getting your perspective, I think, is going to be really helpful for people. So thank you so much for coming on the show.
Ruby Powers 4:14
Thanks for having me.
Rob Icsezen 4:15
So, getting right into it. The first thing we kind of talked in advance, that I think we'll cover today is something that I don't see a lot in the news, and that is the voting rights of naturalized immigrants. Let us know about what's going on with that.
Ruby Powers 4:32
Well, one like public service announcement I'd like to make is that in the Houston area, USCIS, who adjudicates naturalization applications, is taking upwards from 16 months to almost two years for naturalization applications. And those are the applications that are legal permanent resident applies to, to become a citizen.
Rob Icsezen 4:52
So this is a person who's here legally, has all the papers and all that stuff and...
Ruby Powers 4:57
What we call, a quote unquote, "green card." They have their green card and they're wanting to apply to become a citizen.
Rob Icsezen 5:02
Okay. And that process is now taking how long?
Ruby Powers 5:05
About 16 months to 24 months.
Rob Icsezen 5:09
Ruby Powers 5:09
So the reason why I want people to know that is because if they want to vote in the 2020, November 2020 election, and they're on the fence about, or maybe they're not or haven't been eligible until now, they should seek legal counsel review whether they're eligible or not, and try to get that in if they want to vote in 2020, November 2020.
Rob Icsezen 5:29
Yeah, so so people who are looking to vote in the big election...
Ruby Powers 5:34
Rob Icsezen 5:34
...the next presidential, the congressional, so many different seats are going to be up on the ballot, if you're interested in doing that, and you are a legal permanent resident who is interested in in becoming a citizen, get that started yesterday, because of the backlog!
Ruby Powers 5:34
Right! And, and also you have to give time to register to vote. So even though you become a citizen, you know, let's say by September of 2020, you still need to be able to register.
Rob Icsezen 6:00
And how does that work? I mean, you're, you you got your green card, and you go into a USCIS office and say, "Oh, I want to naturalize?" and then you start the process? [laughing]
Ruby Powers 6:11
[laughing] No, it doesn't work like that! You submit an application, naturalizations, the N-400 form (https://www.uscis.gov/n-400), you can submit it online, you can hire an attorney or a nonprofit. A lot of times they do, like BakerRipley (https://www.bakerripley.org/citizenship-and-immigration-services) and some other groups do these assistantship workshops. And they'll help guide a person through, especially if they have like a relatively clean case. If they have crimes or other blemishes or some questionable things, then they usually send them to an attorney, a private attorney.
Rob Icsezen 6:11
So when you say "clean case" that, yeah, so when you apply for citizenship, the government will take into account your criminal record, what other stuff do they take into account?
Ruby Powers 6:51
Well, you need to have "good moral character." And depending on whether you you got your green card, or you're playing under being married to US citizen, you have three years of good moral character or otherwise you have five years of good moral character.
Rob Icsezen 7:04
"Good moral character" so, [laughing] so now considering the current occupant of the White House as the idea of...
Ruby Powers 7:13
Just don't be that! [laughing]
Rob Icsezen 7:14
[laughing' Right! Right, if you can demonstrate that you...
Ruby Powers 7:18
[laughing] I mean, honestly, some of these interviews are really sort of ridiculous...
Rob Icsezen 7:21
Ruby Powers 7:21
Because we have such a high standard. And I mean, a lot of US citizens wouldn't even be able to pass the civics exam.
Rob Icsezen 7:27
Ruby Powers 7:28
Yeah so it reminds me of like, Jay Leno, when he'd ask, like people, find people on the street. You know, like, and ask questions we expect people to know the answer to! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJlY9C7YWzI)
Rob Icsezen 7:36
Right! I've seen memes of like college campuses, where they do that sort of thing, where they ask people like, civics questions may have no idea. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ya6XNDgVG2M) [laughing]
Ruby Powers 7:37
Rob Icsezen 7:44
My parents are both naturalized citizens. And they were naturalized after I was born. And they do tell me about sort of, they had to go learn all these things about American history. And so yeah, anyway, okay. I guess they had to demonstrate good moral character!
Ruby Powers 7:58
My husband is naturalized as well, so, I, but he knows his American history really well, so it wasn't hard for him.
Rob Icsezen 8:05
Ruby Powers 8:05
Yeah. But basically, the point is, if you want to exercise a civic duty, in the voting realm, and you're not allowed to vote, if you're not a citizen, in the federal election, in most elections - there's some exceptions, but just in general, don't vote unless you're a US citizen!
Rob Icsezen 8:21
Ruby Powers 8:21
Because you can get in a lot of problems and generally be barred. But you would want to review your eligibility, and ideally go to an experienced immigration attorney, because the other thing that's happening is there's a lot more scrutiny over applications. And some people have had a green card for 20, 30 years, and they're going back and USCIS is going back and reviewing everything with a fine tooth comb,
Rob Icsezen 8:44
And and "green card," that just means your legal permanent resident, right?
Ruby Powers 8:48
Right. We use that interchangeably, but that means, right. [laughing]
Rob Icsezen 8:51
Okay, that's the techincal term. [laughing] I am a lawyer, I'm not an immigration lawyer! But sometimes I get those technical terms right! So, okay, so so really the, there, there are nonprofits like BakerRipley, you mentioned, there are immigration attorneys out there who you should, you could work with to get this done. But the real kind of public service message to get out is that if you or anyone you know, is, are a legal permanent resident interested in voting in 2020, you get that process started right away.
Ruby Powers 8:56
Rob Icsezen 8:57
Okay, so you mentioned backlog. So, again, you're an immigration attorney, you're in the weeds every day working with the USCIS, immigration courts, all that stuff. And one of the other things you mentioned, and we hear about this a lot in the news these days is that there is a backlog in the regular legal immigration process.
Ruby Powers 9:45
Yeah, we've got backlogs like everywhere, I don't think of anything where it's fast. Yeah.
Rob Icsezen 9:51
Is that normal? That or is it a lot worse right now?
Ruby Powers 9:54
I think there's a combination of it's not a priority of the administration for legal immigration. Even on the employment side, a USCIS website says "Buy American, Hire American" (https://www.uscis.gov/legal-resources/buy-american-hire-american-putting-american-workers-first), which it seems really counterintuitive to the message of USCIS, which is to help bring foreign investment, and it's a little dystopian, 1984 type of stuff...
Rob Icsezen 9:55
so so the the, let's just stop for a second here. The government administration in charge of facilitating legal immigration, is encouraging employers to hire American... and buy American?
Ruby Powers 10:21
Yeah. I mean, of course, I mean, that's, that's important to our economy, but...
Rob Icsezen 10:38
Ruby Powers 10:38
...if USCIS's function is to help process visas for foreign workers and businesses, and they're basically saying, "We don't want to do that"...
Rob Icsezen 10:50
Ruby Powers 10:51
But so there's backlogs in marriage based adjustments, naturalization, employment visas, in court, asylum, everywhere. And we're calling it like "the invisible wall." It's it's more difficult for legal immigration, than than before. The backlogs were starting to increase in some aspects in Houston before the, President Trump was elected. The I think it was a bit of a, I don't know, some, maybe some administration and some issues there. And also, a lot of people wanted to vote. And so there was a lot more people applying for naturalization, and then to be able to vote in 2016. And then when they, the results came out, a lot more people wanted to vote too because they are, they were afraid of losing their legal permanent residency. So you've just got a lot of demand. And I think they're not running it as efficiently as it could, because it's not a top priority. In the administration.
Rob Icsezen 11:48
Well, and and obviously, this administration has done a whole lot of harm to the system. I mean, there was the so-called "Muslim ban" that went into effect immediately (https://www.aclu-wa.org/pages/timeline-muslim-ban)...
Ruby Powers 12:00
Yeah, January 2017. I mean, that's, was like the huge like, "Oh, my goodness! Being an immigration attorney is going, we're going to, we're going to a whole nother level."
Rob Icsezen 12:08
So walk us through that. I mean, I'm interested in hearing and I think our audience would like to hear about what it was like and what it has been like to be an immigration attorney, in the Trump presidency, where, in Houston in particular, where we have, we're a big hub, a big port of entry for immigration. When you have these pernicious, and intentionally anti-immigrant, anti-minority policies being levied, without, with reckless abandon.
Ruby Powers 12:41
I liken it to being an ER doctor, on on a battlefield at war, sort of like M*A*S*H*. And we're like a small percentage of people who know the law, and know how it worked beforehand. And so we can't walk away because people need us more than ever. That's the way I look at my job. But imagine that someone tells you, these are the rules for today, and as a lawyer, you know, we give people advice based on the rules that we know. But the rules are going to change tomorrow and the next day with very little notice. So by the time it takes, for 16 months, or two mo- two years, for some of these applications to be adjudicated, they might not be eligible anymore, because we were using outdated - the day of when we submitted the packet - law, and policy and procedure. So we're basically constantly thinking about all of our cases all the time, and having to adapt our policies and our strategy. It's exhausting. And and it's not like, it's not like in one area, it's in... Attorney General Sessions, at the time, he was in vo- he was involving himself directly in BIA cases , and just doing whatever he wanted...
Rob Icsezen 13:59
What kind of cases?
Ruby Powers 14:00
Board of Immigration Appeals cases (https://www.justice.gov/eoir/board-of-immigration-appeals). And he was eating at the heart of asylum law with gang based cases and domestic violence (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/5/14/17311314/immigration-jeff-sessions-court-judge-ruling). So we got that over there. Then we've got H-1B's, no premium processing, like that first year that Trump won. There was, you know, asylum, family based adjustments, naturalization, there's changes everywhere, the definition- "public charge," I mean, everything. And the thing is that they're not isolated. They're all interconnected. And so basically, it's exhausting. It's, it's like you're we're immigrant rights lawyer, a human rights lawyer, constantly on the go. And the one thing that it has done is it's made us all connected more than ever as a bar, because- and connect with other community people, from like doctors and schools. I think, because we're looking at more holistically, how can we help our clients. So that's my answer to that! [laughing]
Rob Icsezen 14:58
Yeah. Well, and I can... I mean, I have just a small anecdote along those lines. I mean, just as a lawyer, who saw what was happening and really cared about it, I took a short CLE, continuing legal education, on immigration stuff. And I don't remember any of it, because wow! what you guys do is, it's hard to remember! I mean, there's so many things to remember, there's so so much to navigate within the immigration world. And I volunteered a little bit at the airport, because they just needed, you know, warm bodies and lawyers who, who were there. But just that short experience for me was eye opening, that what immigration attorneys do, particularly immigration attorneys who are experienced and leading the defense right now, is, is I can see how that's overwhelming.
Ruby Powers 15:50
And that's a good point. Because we ideally want to be on the the offensive and be talking about bills we want and for comprehensive immigration reform. But this completely has turned us on the defensive because it's like the pop-a-mole or whatever that thing is where it's like, whack-a-mole, where it's like, "over there, okay, over there!". And and actually, that reminds me of that, the ban in January. I created an immigration attorney listserv, via email after that weekend, because we couldn't reach each other fast enough. And we we really needed to be able to communicate faster, because we were working on the weekend. It was a Saturday, I mean, didn't it drop on a Friday, which is when he likes to do it on Friday night? And then I mean, seriously, it was Friday night! [laughing]
Rob Icsezen 16:36
No, I remember, because I went down to the airport, and I didn't know what the hell I was doing. And they just gave us some phone numbers to call, "here, call an immigration lawyer."
Ruby Powers 16:44
Rob Icsezen 16:45
I didn't, luckily, have to do any lawyering. We were just, just, our presence actually was important there, I think. But some folks did have to at the airport. And that kind of organizing that that community of practitioners and then people who want to help, was a massive undertaking.
Ruby Powers 17:05
Right. And and I think that was the start of us realizing we had to build a tighter network, to be able to reach media, each other, around the country, be able, regardless, we need to have each other's cell phones, we needed to be on, connected on Facebook or whatever, to be able to reach each other 24/7.
Rob Icsezen 17:19
Yup. And in fact, we've done a show with the Houston immigr- Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (https://www.htownprogressive.com/main/episode/c660c241/ep-17-kate-vickery-the-challenges-facing-houstons-immigrant-community), Kate Vickery came on and talked a lot about, this, this the state of immigrants in Houston and some of the serious challenges confronting our immigrant community. But today's show, really, it's, I think, it's really valuable for people to hear what a practitioner, a legal practitioner has to say about what's happening in the weeds every single day. So, asylum backlog is something you've talked about...
Ruby Powers 17:56
Can I mentioned one more thing?
Rob Icsezen 17:58
Ruby Powers 17:58
I think the other PSA and want to tell people is, you know, maybe they did their own green card application, their naturalization application, and it seemed easy back then 10, 20 years ago, or even five years ago. But be, please be more careful about things, because there's all these changes, they're reviewing things a lot more closely. They have stronger databases. And, and it's just more on the err on the side of your- I feel like most things, it's like you're denied until you have to prove me to get you to approval. And so I think if people go in with the mindset that they've seen before, especially for legal current residents who want to apply for naturalization, they're going to be surprised, because what's happening now is that people who apply for naturalization, who are not eligible, are getting sent to immigration court. And we've been seeing that more.
Rob Icsezen 18:47
To challenge their legal permanent residency?
Ruby Powers 18:49
Rob Icsezen 18:50
Wow. So you are a legal permanent resident, everything's been fine, you've been here for years, and you say hey I want to be a citizen...
Ruby Powers 18:57
Oh yeah, you have a spouse, children, a business, whatever...
Rob Icsezen 18:59
Right, you're a functioning member of the community, you say, I want to be a citizen. They can say not only...
Ruby Powers 19:05
You shouldn't have gotten in in the first place, we're going to send you to court, and make you fight for the principal underlying reason that you even think you're allowed to stay here.
Rob Icsezen 19:14
Wow! Have you had cases like that?
Ruby Powers 19:14
Yeah, I have. And it was, I think it was last year, there there is a provision in some cases, and that's what we use, it's 237(a)(1)(H), and it basically was, there was a mistake somewhere along the way. And we we went in with all the equities with, and we try to speed it up with the judge, to get, because the, my client was just really freaked out, I mean, basically, it's like everything taken from underneath you, challenging your whole legal basis in America. We were able to win. But we've seen a lot more of these types of cases. And also situations where people who've been here a long time think they're citizen, but then they find out they're not.
Rob Icsezen 19:56
Yeah, like Dreamers. Yeah?
Ruby Powers 19:58
Rob Icsezen 19:59
Folks who are born here, they some of them find out that they're not actually...
Ruby Powers 20:02
Right their parents didn't tell them.
Rob Icsezen 20:04
Yeah. Yeah. Or folks that weren't born here, that's right. Yeah.
Ruby Powers 20:08
But I just wanted to mention that because that's the other thing I see, is that people sort of go in with thinking it's like it used to be and it's not.
Rob Icsezen 20:16
Where does this come from? I mean, this is this is I mean, this is now going to the, to a 30,000 foot perspective for just a moment here, because all this shit, it just it, it is, it seems to be coming from a real, just hatred of "the other."
Ruby Powers 20:34
It's like a xenophobia, I think. It's really unfortunate. I mean, Trump himself has had three, and how many how many international wives, relationships? I don't know. But you know, like, I mean, my, my husband's originally from from Turkey. I've lived in six countries. I speak three languages, more or less, maybe four sometimes [laughing], but you know, Houston is an international city, and everyone says, that we are what the future of the US is going to look like.
Rob Icsezen 21:05
Ruby Powers 21:05
You know, so we're the test case. And I think we're doing pretty well, but but except for the the, you know, the war on immigrants.
Rob Icsezen 21:12
And it really is that! I mean, you you, I don't watch Fox News or listen to you know, Right Wing radio or any of that. But, you know, you see clips, you you see those conservative friends you might have on social, social media. And I don't know conservative is honestly the wrong word, but but people who have just a real hatred for "the other" and they've been stirred up to believe that... I mean, my children, for example, my my daughter came home from school the other day, some kid had told her well, you know, immigrants are dangerous. They're, you know, they're violent!
Ruby Powers 21:49
They have the least amount of crime, they have less crime than American citizens. They're scared! ...of a police officer even just checking in. They're scared of Boy Scouts, because they have a uniform, you know, like...
Rob Icsezen 21:53
So this kid says to my daughter that "oh, well, it's it's well known that immigrants are dangerous." My daughter was like that, that doesn't sound right. So she comes back to me that evening, and we talked about it and I said, no, that's that's just factually untrue. It's, you know, she's, this person who's been telling you this, is getting their information wrong. But they're, they're getting it from sources, like the Right Wing media that's out there peddling this kind of stuff. They're using, they think that everybody's a gang member (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/1/17054546/immigration-crime-dreamers-daca-gangs). They think that, that that the one anecdote that they can drag up as an example, is what everybody is, and and, and it perpetuates this kind of justification for the the inhumane treatment of people coming into this country.
Ruby Powers 22:43
I think if you live in a bubble, then you, and you, if you're sort of perpetuate that concept, then you might justify your thoughts in in your mind. But the thing is, in Houston, it's really hard to live in a bubble where you don't interact with somebody who doesn't, wasn't born where you were born, speaks the same language, looks different than you. And honestly, I live in that, I live in a very multicultural international world every day. Like it's almost like I live abroad in the heart of Houston, Texas! [laughing]
Rob Icsezen 23:12
Welcome to Houston, that's what we are!
Ruby Powers 23:12
Yeah, well because I'm an immigration attorney, you know, like, every day, I'm learning something about another country, and a culture. But I think what happens is sometimes people who are, live in a bubble, don't really think about immigrants as normal people like themselves until they maybe, their house cleaner, the nanny, the yard guy, or sometimes the ranch hand or something. And like, they've been with them forever. And then, and then that's when they were like, "wait, immigration does matter." Because I can't, you can't just throw a few thousand dollars and it's fixed.
Rob Icsezen 23:13
Ruby Powers 23:18
And, and so I think it might just be they don't have the exposure. And it's fear, you know. I don't know, I have a hard time seeing the world from that point of view.
Rob Icsezen 23:59
It's tough, yeah, I struggle with that. It's, it's hard to, to not just lose your shit and get really angry [laughing] all the time! You know, I don't know how you do it every day. Okay, so so that that's, that's my 30,000 feet. Okay, we can, we can come back down. [laughing] But there's a really heartbreaking side of of this. I mean, all of it, it's, it's awful. But some of the particularly egregious parts of the immigration world have to do with asylum.
Ruby Powers 24:29
Rob Icsezen 24:30
And children. So what's what's been your experience here in Houston with that thus far?
Ruby Powers 24:36
Well, I've been practicing asylum law, since I was a, I was I was visiting U of H Law, and I took a case for a Honduran chil- actually they were children, actually... in court. And so that really opened up the world to me. Asylum is hard. People- I'm grateful to America that we have asylum to open, legal venue for people who are fleeing horrible situations. And it's not just horrible. It's like a math equation past persecution [inaudible] future persecution, on account of [inaudible] protected grounds, you have to prove you have nowhere else to relocate, no other citizenships or valid visas. And you have to apply within one year with a very few exceptions. So it's always been hard. And we live in Texas, we live in the Fifth Circuit, which is is pretty difficult on, immigration wise as well. So I grew up practicing law in in Texas in the Fifth Circuit, and knowing it's hard...
Rob Icsezen 25:33
For the non lawyers listening, the Fifth Circuit is the appeals court that oversees this region of the country right below the Supreme Court.
Ruby Powers 25:40
And And so anyway, I already, baseline it's hard, right? Then it gets harder. And and some of those protections for domestic violence victims, gangs... You know, most people it's not like they're in gangs, they're getting forced to do something for the gangs, or else they're going to be killed. And so basically, I think we also, asylum law is getting harder, but more people are fleeing from these, these things happening in the world, from dictators to climate change, creating people fleeing countries, because it's affecting the economy. And so so basically, you've got this perfect, horrible storm, I guess, between asylum is harder, more people are applying for it, and we are, the asylum, the immigration attorneys who know asylum are already exhausted from the last two and a half years of being constantly on 24/7 on on guard.
Rob Icsezen 26:38
And is is it, I mean, I'm aware that asylum has always been a challenge here. It's just gotten a whole lot worse with the Trump administration, correct?
Ruby Powers 26:47
Right. And one of the things was the Attorney General Sessions at the time last year was making changes to the domestic violence and gang violence type of cases that affected that. But there's other changes to immigration court, and "credible fear interviews." For example, they they don't want to allow you to have a continuance in court or [inaudible]. Or if they want any case that was administratively closed, to try to like, get it off the docket to preserve energy...
Rob Icsezen 27:19
So wait, back up for just second, because there's a lot of technical stuff there! [laughing]
Ruby Powers 27:20
Rob Icsezen 27:23
So, when you go to immigration court for an asylum seeker, there are these "credible fear interviews," and a couple other things that you mentioned...
Ruby Powers 27:31
Generally the "critical fear interview" happens when you entered closer to the border, and they're screening you to see, "critical fear" is almost like "asylum light." I don't know. So an interview to see if you have something there.
Rob Icsezen 27:45
So it's like the smell test for, is this really a good faith asylum seeker?
Ruby Powers 27:50
Right. And then in the past,
Rob Icsezen 27:52
Hold on one second though...
Ruby Powers 27:53
Rob Icsezen 27:53
Is that being done differently today?
Ruby Powers 27:56
Yes, because there's more scrutiny than before, the case law that impacts whether the person's eligible to meet the "credible fear interview" has been tinkered with, and is constantly in litigation.
Rob Icsezen 28:11
And it seems to me that there's a lot of discretion.
Ruby Powers 28:13
There is a lot of discretion.
Rob Icsezen 28:14
Because you're near the border, you probably don't have an attorney...
Ruby Powers 28:17
Rob Icsezen 28:17
...in those interviews.
Ruby Powers 28:18
Because a lot of times you're having this interview within three to six days, potentially, and you haven't talked to an attorney. And, you know, right. And this is another recent thing is that now they're wanting to use whatever was in your "credible fear interview" against you in your asylum case, if there was discrepancies. And there's easily discrepancies because these people walked, walked by foot, or in fear the whole time through countries, and, you know, they were just wanting to cross over to avail themselves to Border Patrol, to apply for asylum.
Rob Icsezen 28:54
That seems stunning to me. So these are asylum seekers, who by definition, have been through incredible hardship. And they enter these interviews a couple days from within the time that they enter the country, and after going through this incredible hardship, and whatever they say in that interview, without an attorney present, under these conditions, can be used against them.
Ruby Powers 29:19
Rob Icsezen 29:20
And is often used against them!
Ruby Powers 29:22
And often they are not in an emotional state. Like if we can talk about family separation for a second, I went down to the border, and I, in June and July of 2018, and I was at Port Isabel Detention Facility (https://www.ice.gov/detention-facility/port-isabel-service-processing-center) talking to like 12 parents, and a lot of them had been separated and hadn't even talked to their children. They were not in a mental state to have a "credible fear interview" because they were wondering where their children were.
Rob Icsezen 29:48
Yeah, just, can you imagine that? I mean, you're a parent, I'm a parent.
Ruby Powers 29:52
That's why I went. I just couldn't believe we did this.
Rob Icsezen 29:54
These people have been separated from their children, and they're being put under the gun for, you know, this, this intense questioning. How can you even concentrate?
Ruby Powers 30:07
There's a couple other things to consider: first of all language, some of them speak indigenous languages that are not readily available for translators.
Rob Icsezen 30:15
That's a great point.
Ruby Powers 30:16
Another point is that in many of these countries they're fleeing from, the triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, they don't trust their own government. So they're supposed to tell their whole story over the phone to an asylum officer!?! And they don't know what's going to be used, who's going to get that information.
Rob Icsezen 30:34
Wait, it's over the phone?
Ruby Powers 30:35
Rob Icsezen 30:36
So they come in, they're at the border detained, their children are separated from them, and they go into a room and talk on the phone to somebody.
Ruby Powers 30:44
And it's all supposed to be within like, generally, an hour. And that includes translation, which is, that's that's like 30 minutes of real time.
Rob Icsezen 30:52
Ruby Powers 30:52
So I mean, there's still separation happening but not on the same scale as last summer.
Rob Icsezen 30:58
That, this whole separation, family separation, can you walk us through real quickly what, how that happened, and how we got to what is out there now?
Ruby Powers 31:06
Well, the short version is that, I think the Trump Administration was trying to prevent people from wanting to come to the United States. And so in around May of 2018, on a full scale, they started separating anybody who entered not at a port of entry. So let's say "illegal" entry. And they would send, they would come in for like, half a day, a day, put them together, then they would take the parent off to criminal court, a federal criminal court, and charge them for illegal entry. They would tell the parent who's being separated from the child at the moment, the parent would say, "Wait, wait, where's my kid? What, what, why can't I take my kid?" "Oh, your kid will be here when you come back." Your kid... They would come back from co- federal court, and the kid was not there. Countless stories of that. They told them, they, all different stories. I mean, it's like Holocaust type of mindset. You're getting separated, your telling them something else is going to happen to them.
Rob Icsezen 31:06
Ruby Powers 31:06
And, and in, and so they did not - so fast forward - they did not keep track of where people were being sent. Kids were being shipped off to like New York and Miami or wherever, and not, like you, you go to a valet, you go to the dry cleaners, you get a ticket for whatever is of value. They had no system for connecting them. And and so it wasn't...
Rob Icsezen 32:23
Right! even the very, yeah, no, I like that example. You get a ticket at a valet. I mean, there are ways to do this.
Ruby Powers 32:31
So June 20th, because of enough outcry from the population, America, thank you, America! The, Trump made an executive order to end what he had previously created, by saying we won't separate parents (https://www.npr.org/2018/06/20/622095441/trump-executive-order-on-family-separation-what-it-does-and-doesnt-do). And so I was at Port Isabel on the border on June 26th, and I was helping them, just because I just I had to do something. I just volunteered, drove down, flew down there to help talk to as many people and I was talking to, half of them had spoken to their kids, and half hadn't, and the ones who hadn't and didn't even know where their kids were, were just so broken hearted. I mean, men were basically crying. You could see tears and red eyes. And, you know, it just broke them as a person. And so the, the ACLU, "Ms. L" case (https://www.aclu.org/cases/ms-l-v-ice), basically said, you have to get all your under five kids connected in two weeks, all you're under 18, everyone else under four weeks, you have to get them all together. And so I sent my associate down to the border to volunteer, I went down a second time and helped reunite parents. I even had to advocate... I got the mom out, but the kid wasn't given to her. And I was on the phone with New York with them, telling them you're going to miss your deadline. You know, whatever I could tell them, you know. And so they they delivered her son to us at like midnight on the deadline.
Rob Icsezen 33:49
Wow. That's amazing.
Ruby Powers 33:50
And anyway, I've got stories. But but basically, it's still happening on a smaller scale. And I mean, it's appalling, but Trump has tweets about how he's upset, we can't separate families anymore.
Rob Icsezen 34:05
You can't make sense of those things.
Ruby Powers 34:07
The one thing that is a piece of the picture is that before it was single males, generally from Mexico coming in, they had detention facilities for that.
Rob Icsezen 34:16
You mean, before Trump, before this whole fiasco?
Ruby Powers 34:18
Yeah, and now it's more families coming. And so that's what the administration was trying to do was, find an excuse to separate the families. Because there's all these protections. There's not a lot of family detention facilities. In California, they don't have any. That's why a lot of the family units, caravans, went there, they could pretty much get released as a family unit. In Texas, we have two Karnes (https://www.ice.gov/detention-facility/karnes-county-residential-center) and Dilley (https://www.ice.gov/detention-facility/south-texas-family-residential-center) Detention, Family Detention Facilities. And so, when you went - oh, that was the backstory to the separation - if you treated the parent as a criminal, then they were able to reclassify the child as an "unaccompanied minor" and justify them being sent to those ORR (https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr) detention facilities by themselves, even though they technically really shouldn't have been classified as that.
Rob Icsezen 35:01
They were accompanied, yeah, absolutely.
Ruby Powers 35:01
Yeah, so there was these loopholes. So So basically, big picture, it's trying to keep people from being able to apply for asylum or have, even a fighting chance.
Rob Icsezen 35:12
Wow. That, those stories are just horrible. I mean, I've read them, I've seen, but to hear you talk through it is is tough. So right now what's happening in Houston? For, I mean, we've we've gone over a lot of this stuff, but what what's going on in our backyard?
Ruby Powers 35:29
Well, we have, you know, what, why Houston, what happens at the border affects Houston is because the Houston asylum office does the interviews for most of, all of Texas and the people that are detained at the border. So backlogs there affect Houston's asylum. People come through Houston, courts get backlogged. In terms of detention, we already have, I think six or so, ORR detention facilities for children, more, you know, potentially coming. (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/politics/houston/article/See-a-map-of-the-immigrant-kids-already-housed-in-13008667.php) There was a request by OOR to...
Rob Icsezen 35:29
Ruby Powers 36:07
Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Rob Icsezen 36:10
Ruby Powers 36:10
...to find more places to have children detention facilities. At the border in Harlin- Rio Grande, they're inundated with detention facilities, they just don't have the facilities, the manpower for that. So I think if they keep going on the trend of separating or children coming by themselves, they, and we can't keep them from being detained... or get out of detention faster, because that's another thing. That's a whole other story, but... then the, I think there's, they're looking to build more children detention facilities.
Rob Icsezen 36:46
And so to kind of button this up, I know this, this is an ongoing issue, it will continue to be an issue. Question: If if the administration changes - god willing! - in 2020, if Congress changes? Are we going to see a change? Can we see a change to this? Or do the gears of government work slowly?
Ruby Powers 37:08
No, I think we can. I mean, we've seen how fast things have been changing, in just two and a half years. So we don't have to do it at, you know, a snail's pace. I think we could, we could let families be released. I mean, we could put ankle monitors instead of having to separate them or family detention altogether. You could put some other type of status checks with court or safeguards to making sure. But a lot of statistics show that they do go to court and check in. I think there's a lot of ways that we can improve what we're seeing. I mean, just even just try to reset it back to before the Trump administration, honestly.
Rob Icsezen 37:47
And maybe we can get a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which would affect your life in this world, dramatically, I imagine.
Ruby Powers 37:53
You know, so I've been doing this long enough that, you know, the dream is comprehensive immigration reform. But at this point, we're ok with piecemeal, because I've been going up to DC for I don't know how many years, and every year, and trying to get at least DACA (https://www.ilrc.org/daca), why can't we be okay with Dreamers, and DACA? Why!?! And one person said, it's because that if they become a citizen, one day, they could petition for their parents, and then people don't want that, and they can't put a restriction on citizenship. So I think that we could get a Dream Act, or encompassed DACA, at some point in the future. That'll help a lot. We've got about 10 to 11 million people undocumented, that's what we really need to take care of. And because most of the numbers of people coming here are lower than historically, and we've basically been sort of turning away businesses in some respect with our recent policies. So I think there's hope, we just have to stay engaged, involved, know what's going on, call our reps and senators, hold them, you know, in 2020. And you know, in even on the state legislature side, there are, there were several bills that were introduced this year, that touched immigration in some way, shape, or form. And one of them that I would highlight is HB 35 (https://capitol.texas.gov/BillLookup/Text.aspx?LegSess=85R&Bill=HB35), which is to provide conditional legal, driver licenses, conditional driver licenses for people who are undocumented who've been here one year, and believes, don't have a felony. Because what a lot of people don't realize is that if you don't have status for six months or more like a visa, green card or something like that, you're not eligible for a driver license in Texas. And so imagine what we have...
Rob Icsezen 39:39
Yeah. I mean, how do you live in Texas without the ability...
Ruby Powers 39:42
Right, we don't have the public transportation...
Rob Icsezen 39:44
Ruby Powers 39:44
...like the East Coast or something.
Rob Icsezen 39:46
Ruby Powers 39:46
So you know, what's happening? A lot of people are driving without driver licenses.
Rob Icsezen 39:50
Yes, of course.
Ruby Powers 39:50
...or an expired, you know, expired driver license, without insurance. And this is really a safety issue. That's, that's really what it is. It's that, that's why there's more hit and runs. Because, you know, if there's some type of a situation, even if they're not at fault, they're going to, they're not going to want to be there because it can lead to a deportation, potentially, depending on how things are being interpreted.
Rob Icsezen 40:13
Okay, well, that, that's, that's a really good perspective, I think. Thank you so much for walking us through that Ruby. We could, we could continue this, for a very long time!
Ruby Powers 40:21
Oh yeah, but I think, we did some deep dives on several issues. So I'm glad.
Rob Icsezen 40:25
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Thank you so much for this discussion. It's been really great. Thanks Ruby.
Ruby Powers 40:29
Well, thank you for having me. And thank you for having this platform.
Rob Icsezen 40:32
Next week, we're going to be talking about another vulnerable group in our community. Join us as we discuss Houston's terrible human trafficking problem with longtime advocate and attorney Ann Johnson.
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