The Asylum System and Asylum Seekers. An Interview with Prof. Stephanie Mitchell.

[This is Part 2 of an interview with Prof. Stephanie Mitchell. Part 1, on economic migrants, is the previous blog post. This post focuses on the asylum system and asylum seekers]

I hear the same story over and over again. Somebody killed this member of my family and this member of my family and their trying to kill me. I can’t go back. What kind of other options do you have? I am sure that many of these people are clinically diagnosed with PTSD. Getting here from Central America is extremely dangerous. The trauma they left in their country is one thing. Then you have the trauma of the journey here. The Mexican border agents are after you when you are in Mexico. [Then] You have the trauma of the crossing itself, being captured, put in what is called the icebox, and not having any idea what is going on. It is very bewildering. It is terrifying.


[Above: Migrants near the border]

And then there’s additional trauma of detainment in the United States. People have been in detention for a long time. Calling it detention makes it sound like it’s not prison but it is prison. These people are treated like criminals. They are shackled for prison transport from here to Chicago with shackles around their hands and feet, and a chain around their middle; as if they were somebody who is dangerous. The controls inside our detention center [Kenosha County Detention Center] are really tight. You’re only allowed to speak at certain times and you have to obey orders that are given to you in English and punishment can be pretty shocking. If you go and talk to people who are detained here, it is like a mantra, “I think I’d rather die than stay here. You have to get me out of here.” One after another tells you the same thing. It is really really hard to be in detention.


[In addition] They take your phone away from you when you go into detention so you don’t have the data that you keep in your phone. You don’t have those phone numbers or those addresses. Let’s say somebody lets you borrow their phone account; if you had the presence of mind to commit some of those numbers to memory, OK, but most people didn’t [because they didn’t know their phone would be confiscated].

The crises in Central America, crises plural, and what is happening to Mexican families in the United States have nothing to do with each other. They [detainees] do end up in the same detention center which is the only way I know about it. The Mexican families have infrastructure. They have families on the outside of the detention center so they can get somebody to put that [phone] account in their name. They can make calls out. If you are a migrant from Honduras and you don’t have family in the United States you are in isolation. You have no way to contact anybody on the outside. Many people have one request of me and that is “Can you call my wife and tell her I am alive? I’ve been here for months and have not been able to contact anybody.” Sure, I’ll call.


So let’s imagine that I can get you out of detention, how many layers of trauma have you experienced? How do you not have PTSD from that? You’re talking about layers upon layers of trauma victims here. Oh, and by the way, you have no access to medical care. If you get out, you don’t have a work permit and you don’t have access to medical care. The whole system is nuts. It is just nuts. Who designed the system for dealing with the refugee population?

[BRENT MITCHELL, sitting in on the interview, interjected] It is at no point designed to help people. It is punitive from top to bottom.

[PROF. MITCHELL again] That is the aim.

[If a detainee is released pending an asylum claim] Legally, the expectation is that they have a sponsor that is supposed to pay all of their bills for 180 days after you have submitted your application for Asylum. A lot of people do have family here that makes it less problematic. That is how you get out. A judge grants you bond and they pay that bond. The lowest you can get is $1,500. I’ve  heard of $80,000. Most of them are $5,000 or $7,000. Money bonds is a huge issue. It is not a profit-making business as far as I can tell because you are assured of the money back as long as the person complies with the court dates and you are entitled to interest. Most people do comply with their court dates. That is also a lie [that most asylum seekers don’t show up for court dates]. We didn’t use to lock people up and they complied. The best way to get people to comply is to ensure them a fair trial. What they want is legal status. That is what everybody wants. So, you say, okay, I’m going to come and show my evidence to the judge. If you make that really transparent and really fair you’ll get people to comply.

[After release] . . . you may apply for a work permit, but that bureaucracy is not fast. It takes time. Sometimes it is months after your release that you receive a work permit. The system is so backlogged that you are not likely to receive a swift immigration proceeding. A lot of people think these are courts of law but they’re not in the Judiciary, they are in the Executive Branch. You don’t have the same rights you have in a court of law. None of it makes any sense. Why would you tell a young man you have to sit on your butt for 180 days? Why would you do that? Who is that good for? Why aren’t you giving a work permit upon release? And then some way to get in on a health insurance policy.

BRENT:  You are actually creating a whole group of people who are very vulnerable to somebody who might invite them into something nefarious because they have no way to do honest work. There is not a single part of the system that is remotely rational.

PROF. MITCHELL:  The Racine Journal Times and the Kenosha News “are great” but people will read it and say that it is biased. And there are all kinds of “facts” that are pushed around by the political right in the United States that are highly misleading, but they sound reasonable. So you read these articles and if you did not know quite a bit about immigration you would be persuaded that the current policies are not only just but rational. It would seem logical and you would not be crazy for holding those views. Everybody who knows about it [the immigration system] knows they’re not true.

And nobody knows that we have a detention center right here in town. There’s probably five hundred migrants and thousands more detainees in the one on Hwy. H.  I had no idea until I got this email from Voces De La Frontera with this story of this kid who had no family in the United States and was about to be deported. And he was going to be killed! He’s in Kenosha? What? So I called up the Milwaukee people at Voces De La Frontera and said I’m in Kenosha do you want me to visit this guy? Does he have family here that is going to lose their visit if I go? No, he’s got nobody in the United States, you should go visit him.


So I went and visited him and was horrified at my own ignorance. I was shocked. How could I not know about this Gulag Archipelago throughout the United States? The people who are part of that system know about it and the people who are not have no idea that it exists.

There are fantastic people who work in the [Kenosha County] Detention Center and I always beg them not to leave their jobs. There are some really good people in the system and we need to recognize that. This is not about those individuals.

A lot of what is called human trafficking and smuggling is actually people just trying to get across the border because they’re fleeing for their lives. The safest way to get across the border is to pay a “coyote.” Yeah, technically that is human smuggling and it is against the law but there are ones who are helping people and there are ones who are trafficking people. And yes, I would like law enforcement to get some of those people. It’s not like there’s no need for law enforcement. It’s just that what is happening right now is a nightmare.

The level of violence in Central America is real. People are fleeing because it is bad there. Something needs to be done. We have a addressed crises of this magnitude before. Columbia, when Pastor Betty Rendon came here, was not a place you wanted to go to on vacation. You can today. It is fine. We can fix the problems that can be seen today in Nicaragua and El Salvador. We’re doing the opposite.


[Above: Violence in Central America]

It is hostile environment all the way here [from Central America]. You are threading the needle through all kinds of drug gangs, and criminals, and border agents; all the way from home to detention in United States it is dangerous. People die all the time. Why do people say I will leave my family and everything I know? Why did the Irish leave Ireland? It’s called starvation. Was it because Ireland wasn’t pretty enough? The Irish would not have moved en masse to the United States if they could have made a living for themselves in Ireland. Everybody assumes that to be the case, so why is it different when you’re talking about Nicaragua. It’s because that is the group that is being otherized today.


[Above. One on President Trump’s “Bad hombres.”]

[A Post Script: A June 10, 2019 Kenosha News article by Deneen Smith stated that as of June 19 at KCDC and June 20 at the downtown jail, in-person visits will be eliminated and replaced with video visitation. Visitors to the KCDC or the jail will come for pre-scheduled visits at which time they will be connected with an inmate connecting from video kiosks inside the jail or KCDC. There is no charge for these visits. Off-site visits from home, using something similar to Skype, will be available for a charge of $4 for a 10-minute visit, $10 for a 25-minute visit.]

Video talk

While some see benefits in terms of less waiting time, the 2015 Prison Policy Initiative paper “Screening Out Family Time. The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails” at:    

Click to access ScreeningOutFamilyTime_January2015.pdf

stated that video visitation can be beneficial for family members who live far away and for people who are unable to visit during scheduled visiting hours. But it also found that:

• Video visitation can be expensive and the families of incarcerated people are some of the poorest families in the country.

• The people most likely to use prison and jail video visitation services are also the least likely to have access to a computer with a webcam and the necessary bandwidth.

• The technology is poorly designed and implemented. It is clear that video visitation industry leaders have not . . . responded to consistent complaints about camera placement, the way that seating is bolted into the ground, the placement of video visitation terminals in pods of cells, etc.

“As with the prison and jail telephone market, charging for visitation is, at best, a regressive tax where the government charges the most to the taxpayers who can afford it the least.”]

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