“Do you want to spend the weekend at Albany Jail with me?”
When Adjunct Professor Claire R. Thomas ’11 sent the text message to Barbie Melendez 4L Evening on a late July afternoon, she knew the answer would be yes, even if the details came later.
The two had collaborated on previous immigration work. (Professor Thomas is Director of NYLS’s Asylum Law Clinic, and Melendez plans to practice immigration law.) This request, however, was new. The southern border had, in effect, come to the Albany County Correctional Facility. The county jail, one of about 50 in New York State, was accustomed to holding around 20 immigrants a year through an agreement with the federal government. By July 2018, that number had soared to 300 asylum seekers—and counting.
Most of the detainees had legally sought asylum at an official port of entry along the U.S. southern border, some 3,000 miles away. Many did not speak English. Providing them with counsel would be no small task.
But as Professor Thomas predicted, Melendez was enthusiastic about joining other volunteer lawyers flocking to Albany from across the state, thanks to coordination by the nearby Albany Law School Immigration Law Clinic and the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC). Of note, Camille Mackler ’06, Director of Immigration Legal Policy at NYIC, and Priyanka Gandhi ’12 were instrumental in organizing the volunteer effort.
Arriving in Albany
At 6:30 a.m. on a Friday, Melendez and Professor Thomas, joined by Ernie Collette, Professor Thomas’s writing partner and a staff attorney at the nonprofit Mobilization for Justice, met in the south Bronx and drove north from New York City. Their goal for the weekend was to help as many people as possible begin a formal asylum claim.
When the trio arrived, their work was cut out for them. Some 160 refugees at the jail, from over 36 different countries, were awaiting intake, the first chance to speak with a lawyer about their reasons for fleeing to the United States. The next step in the legal process would be a credible fear interview with a Department of Homeland Security officer, the vetting process required to advance an asylum claim. The stakes were high: Passing the interview could mean release from detention and a possible path to life in the United States. The alternative was likely deportation.
“We described intake as, here’s the mountain, and you’re starting to climb the mountain,” Professor Thomas said. “Once you hopefully leave here, there will still be a long way before you reach the summit.”
They called one detainee at a time from a long list of names coded only by country. Identifying language was a guessing game, and Melendez and Professor Thomas relied heavily on their Spanish and French language skills. Ultimately they directly interviewed 16 asylum seekers from 11 countries: Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Ghana, Mauritania, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Venezuela.
“The only thing they knew going in was that they were going to have a counsel visit,” Melendez said. “We’d explain to them who we were, which was big because they didn’t know if we were with the government, if we were an asylum officer, if we were working with ICE [U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement]. So we made it very clear from the beginning that we were volunteers.”
Many of the men and women had questions: “Why am I wearing orange now, when I wore blue in another facility?” “When will I know the outcome of my case?” “Where am I?”
Working together, Melendez and Professor Thomas answered as many questions as they could. Then they asked questions of their own: Did the detainees have certain religious articles they needed to properly practice their religion? Did they have enough food? Clean clothes? Fresh water? Had they been able to call their home countries from the jail?
Melendez and Professor Thomas heard stories of the fear and trauma that had incentivized many to travel across entire continents. One man had escaped slavery in Mauritania, where he belonged to a persecuted ethnic group. Another man, who was gay, had fled Ghana, where being gay is illegal. A man from Central America, a member of the military, had been tortured after refusing to transport weapons that would be sold to a local gang.
An 18-year-old high school senior from Cameroon had been forcefully dragged out of his grandmother’s home after being accused of participating in a political protest. He had been at home that day because the French-speaking Cameroon police had burned part of his school a week prior. He was tortured for hours before being dropped off on a dirt road miles from home.
Another man from Cameroon recalled reaching the U.S. border from Mexico, where a small number of refugees are permitted to cross each day. He told Melendez and Professor Thomas that he would never forget his number in the makeshift queue recorded in a hand-written notebook: 197.
Melendez and Professor Thomas also identified people with medical and mental health needs, learned that phone calls to Africa weren’t going through, and created directional signs in Spanish for the facility staff.
Fortunately, the sheriff running the facility was highly receptive to updates and feedback—and he welcomed the throng of volunteer lawyers occupying the jail’s visitation room, Melendez recalled.
“We were ready to expect the unexpected,” she said. “But the staff were extremely friendly. If we wanted to use an interview room, we could. If we wanted to speak with them at an officer’s desk, it was perfectly fine.”
A recent news report contrasted conditions at the Albany County Correctional Facility and a nearby facility that did not provide immigrant detainees with access to volunteer lawyers, only contact information for the local public defender’s office.
“The average public defender won’t be well-versed in immigration matters,” Professor Thomas noted. “That could be extremely problematic for someone who has no information. That person is pretty much stuck there, and that’s not fair.”
She added that the weekend underscored the importance of access to legal counsel.
“We were able to provide legal counsel to about 35 people,” she said. “That’s 35 people who hopefully have a better chance of understanding which questions the asylum officer is going to ask them, how to respond to those questions, and their right to do the interview in the language of their choice.”
Melendez said, “Being able to see how the process worked firsthand and not just from a textbook is humbling. It’s a life experience that I will never forget.”
The Path Ahead
The cases initiated by NYLS will be tracked in a database, maintained by the NYIC. If a detainee who passes his or her credible fear interview seeks to come to New York City, NYLS’s Asylum Clinic might be able to take up the case. In the coming months, NYLS plans to take clinic students on more trips to upstate or out-of-state detention facilities so that students may help provide legal services to detainees who would otherwise be unaware of their rights.
- Learn more about NYLS’s leadership in immigration law and how you can support it.
- Read Professor Thomas’s recent op-ed on the Albany visit.
Thanks to Judith Lee ’81, who lives near Albany and generously hosted Professor Thomas during the visit.