Some so-called advocates are anything but

So, a funny thing happened under the Trump administration. Not funny ha-ha of course (nothing under that man’s run of things was comical in the big scheme), but funny as in odd, funny as in unexpected. The thing that happened is that immigration attorneys were suddenly rockstars, launched into stardom almost immediately after 45’s inauguration when the initial travel bans were first announced. 

We descended upon airports, armed with our laptops in all our nerdy glory. Ready to take down “the man” in defense of due process and basic decency, we were all human rights defenders, called to act on behalf of our immigrant brothers and sisters. The following four years were both intoxicating and exhausting but within the immigration legal community, or at least in my small section of it, there was a real sense of solidarity. Whether private or non-profit, we were all in this fight together and we all (or so I thought) were fighting towards the same goal: dignity, respect, and meaningful changes to the abhorrent system with which we greet migrants in this country. 

Turns out that was a little bit of a dream. Turns out many of these “advocates” have bigger priorities, and putting themselves out of business… well, that isn’t one of them. 

Almost nine months into the Biden presidency, we can all see that very little has changed as far as immigration enforcement. The southern border (the Brown one, as I’ve taken to calling it) remains a humanitarian crisis of our own perpetuation; there have been no significant changes in the number of people in ICE custody, nor has there been any significant change in what their enforcement priorities even are. The enforcement guidelines that were finally released last week are so vague that our next tyrant wannabe dictator will have no problem releasing the ICE dogs on the immigrant community in full force once again. And you can trust that that tyrant is sure to come; they’re already lining up to prove who’s the most terrible, and thus the most deserving of the Republican nomination. 

So where are all my immigration lawyer-heroes now? Silently waiting in the wings, scheming on a next plan of attack? Maybe recovering from pretty understandable burn-out after the last few years? Quietly lobbying behind the scenes to bring those changes that they promised they would always fight for? Ha! If only…

No, no. You see, the glory years are gone. In spite of Biden’s disappointing (abysmal, really) lack of action on the pressing human rights crisis that is our immigration system, most people, lay people, have moved on from the issue; assuming, I am sure, that a Democrat would never allow, let alone mandate, the same brutalities we became accustomed to under that other guy. And with that lack of interest from the public, the spotlight some of y’all so gloriously basked in is no longer there. So, what you all up to lately?

Well, if you are a member of the New Jersey State Bar Association, you urge the governor to veto a bill that would prevent ICE from expanding immigration detention in the state. Why is that a bad thing? Well, according to them, preventing ICE from detaining immigrants in New Jersey just means that they will be transferred out of state, away from their families and attorneys. True, there’s no getting around that. You didn’t think they’d just release people, did you? But, um, the transferring of detainees… well, they do that anyway at their whim, with little to no say from the advocate, the family, or the detainee. So what is the solution according to the New Jersey lawyers, then? No surprise there either: “imposing standards that would improve immigration detention and protect due process rights of the detainees.” 

Le sigh. This makes my head explode. To be absolutely clear, detaining immigrants for no other reason than that they arrived without proper documentation is a massive human rights violation. Migrating, moving across borders (here, there, or anywhere), is not a privilege as so many of you like to claim. It is a human right. That isn’t an opinion; I’m not making it up. It’s right there in Articles 13 and 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Of course, as with most of our rights, human or otherwise, it isn’t absolute and countries are free to set reasonable parameters for regulating migration within their borders. However, putting people in jail, indefinitely in many cases, simply for wanting to enter our country is the opposite of reasonable. It is cruelty. Full stop. There is no standard that will “improve” detention because detention is inherently violent. It is inherently abusive. It is inherently and indefensibly wrong. 

Unfortunately, the New Jersey Bar isn’t alone in its defense of the status quo. We got some grumblers of our own right here, it seems. Rumor has it (this town is small y’all) that a handful of private immigration attorneys are big mad that the UNLV Immigration Clinic will be expanding in the coming months, providing free legal services to more people in detention. I’m not entirely clear what the beef is — why they are so upset that people in jail will have a couple more advocates to fight for them. Are they afraid that inviting more non-profit attorneys to town will undercut their revenue stream? That would be really odd. As far as I know from my own friends in the private bar, they aren’t hurting for business. The need for legal services will always outpace the resources available, and I promise you that two or three more attorneys providing support isn’t going to send anyone to the poor house. I really hope that’s not the problem, but I am having a very hard time thinking of any immigrant-rights-centered reasons why increasing free legal services to the most vulnerable would be a bad thing. 

This is not an attempt to in any way pit non-profit attorneys against the private bar. Some of my favorite immigration attorneys, some of the best that I know, are members of the private bar. And come on, we all know, or have at least heard of, bad public interest attorneys, too. Depravity is not exclusive to any one side. My problem isn’t even with those immigration attorneys who do their job, advocate for their clients, and stay out of the political conversation altogether. This ain’t for everyone. 

No, my issue is with those attorneys who hold themselves out to be immigrant rights heroes, selfless human rights advocates, relentlessly posting selfies from court and jail, humble-bragging about all that they do for their clients and their communities – and all the while lobbying behind closed doors for the machine to keep churning them out new clients. To put it simply, you all are THE WORST. And you are most definitely NOT advocates. 

If you are not an abolitionist, if you do not stand for the complete elimination of immigration detention in all its forms – you are NOT an advocate.

If you believe immigrants can and should be labeled “good” or “bad” and that only the “good” ones deserve your empathy or your support – you are NOT an advocate. 

If you believe migrating is a privilege and not a human right – you are NOT an advocate (and probably a little racist). 

And finally, if you aren’t working every day to end the need for detained deportation defense, basically to make your job obsolete – you are NOT an advocate. 

Just own it, man. Pick a lane and stick to it. Love thyself and to thine own self be true, yada, yada. We all see through it anyway, and you must be exhausted pretending so hard. Of course, I could be entirely wrong here. These complaints may indeed be coming from a legitimate place of concern for the well-being of those detained, but what could that be...? I’m not trying to be snarky (what can I say, it comes naturally) but I really do want to understand what the issue is here. Please, tell me. Tell all of us. Openly and publicly. Seriously, what is your problem? 

The floor is yours.

Martha E. Menendez lives in Nevada and is the legal manager for Justice in Motion, a NY-based organization.