“I think I will go mad here”: Putting a Face on Immigration Detention

The first week of March was eerily calm for me.  

As the person at The Advocates for Human Rights in charge of our client intake, one of my primary responsibilities is monitoring our client line, a phone line open from 9AM – 5PM Monday through Friday where we get calls from people seeking help.  

Normally we get somewhere between 20 and 30 calls on a given work day, which might be a 5-minute referral or a 40+ minute intake interview – certainly enough to keep me and our crew of undergraduate interns busy. And yet, the first week of March, the calls seemed inexplicably less frequent and less pressing. 

The twist? We received a letter from an inmate informing us that the phone system at Sherburne County Jail had not been working properly for several days, and dozens of people detained by immigration had been unable to reach us. Once we contacted the jail and got the problem resolved, our call volume immediately jumped back up again – and kept rising. 

You see, over the past year, The Advocates’ client line has been getting an increasing number of calls of all types, but especially from detainees. In July 2017, we received 41 calls from detainees. In March 2018, received 274. The months in between show a near-linear upward progression. 

 client line graph

 Our increase in calls is really no surprise when you look at current trends in ICE detention. The Trump administration has made concerted efforts to expand its arrest and detention capacity. The bottom line? More people are getting detained, and those who are detained are staying in detention longer. It’s to the point where facilities are rapidly running out of beds. As NPR reported last fall, “ICE reports the average daily population in its detention facilities was a little more than 38,000 for the 2017 fiscal year. The president’s 2018 budget plan requests an increase of $1.2 billion in funding for detention beds, to support an average population of over 48,000 adults.”  

The demographic of detainees is also changing. According to ICE data recently obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center, more than half of the daily population in the first month of FY 2018 were marked as “non-criminal,” seen as posing “no threat,” while a mere 15% were classified as high threats, with violent criminal histories. Further, a recent report from the American Immigration Lawyers Association finds that from FY 2016 to 2017, arrests of immigrants with criminal convictions has increased a notable 12%, while arrests of people with no criminal convictions has increased a whopping 146% 

At The Advocates for Human Rights, these statistical trends are translated into conversations with individuals. People in ICE detention call for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they will ask for country conditions research needed to apply for asylum, or pro se (legalese for “DIY”) information for a particular application. Still others need contact information for miscellaneous institutions as they try to collect documentation from detention to support their case.  

Sometimes you can tell they just want to talk to someone about what they’re going through. One inmate asked for help to request a new copy of his documents: he’d lent a copy of a motion he filed to a fellow inmate to use as a model – then that friend was woken and deported at 3AM, taking the man’s papers with him. Some report medical issues, threats from fellow inmates, or being sent to solitary after raising a complaint.  

There’s a feeling of desolation such that even people with viable claims for legal relief consider giving up. One detainee, who had been denied ibuprofen for recurring headaches, commented, “I won’t even resist deportation if I’m ordered – I just want to be able to live a decent life, you know?”  

In another conversation, a man commented, “I feel like I’m losing my mind […] I think I will go mad here.”  

Of course, the most frequent request from detainees on the client line is legal representation. Detention’s most devastating consequence is that it limits vulnerable immigrants’ already limited access to legal counsel. This makes the work of The Advocates, especially through The Minnesota Detention Project, more valuable day by day.  

Not an attorney? Not a problem. Here are three concrete ways you too can make an impact: 

1) Help us monitor Immigration Proceedings through The Court Observer Project. 

2) Sign up as an interpreter to facilitate attorney meetings with detained immigrants.

3) Donate to The Advocates for Human Rights, so that when calls pour in on Client Line, we cannot not only answer, but respond.  

For my fellow research enthusiasts, here are links to more numbers and analysis of trends in immigration detention: 

 By: Rosie La Puma, Program Assistant in the Refugee & Immigrant program at The Advocates for Human Rights



Jenna goes to the United Nations


Thanks to The Advocates for Human Rights, I just had the opportunity to take my interest in human rights work— and particularly my longstanding advocacy work on gender violence issues— to the United Nations in Geneva. Along with 11 others, including representatives from NGOs in Cameroon and Azerbaijan, I participated in The Advocates’ annual UN Study Advocacy trip, where we spent five days in Geneva at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council lobbying Human Rights Council members on gender violence, LGBTQ and death penalty issues. Even though I am just 17, during the week The Advocates ensured that I was not just a passive observer to their work – rather, they allowed me the opportunity to play an active role providing me with an opportunity to be an advocate at the international level.

On my first full day in Geneva, I got the opportunity to participate in a side event panel on Violence Against Women. I was honored to speak alongside experts in the field in women’s rights and gender violence, who addressed the issue of gender violence in Azerbaijan, Columbia and Russia. My presentation focused on gender violence at the high school level, an often overlooked issue. I spoke about, among other things, the need to change the dynamic and educate children at a young age about the meaning of consent. My hope is that by early education we might be able to dissipate the prevalence of gender violence in the community at large.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement, the next day I actually got to make an oral statement to the Human Rights Council — on the floor of the United Nations — on the implementation of the Vienna Declaration. The Vienna Declaration emphasizes the importance of eliminating “gender bias in the administration of justice.” In my statement, I spoke about the importance of criminal laws in combating violence against women and the need for UN member states to adopt laws in line with international standards to protect victim safety and promote offender accountability. I am glad I can speak quickly – as, during this particular session, each NGO had 90 seconds to speak. They actually cut you off if you go over your time. I think the man sitting next to me was a bit surprised to see someone so young sitting in the NGO speaker seat.

On days following, I got the opportunity to participate in small meetings with staff members of the Special Rapporteur on human trafficking in persons, especially in women and children and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women. We got to learn about their priorities for the coming year and some of the amazing work they have been doing. The representatives of the Special Rapporteurs truly seemed interested in the work of The Advocates and solicited examples of best practices as well as assistance in their ongoing work.

I also got to lobby. One of the primary reasons The Advocates attends the Human Rights Council sessions is to encourage delegates to comment during the Universal Periodic Review process – which involves a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States. It is done in cycles so every country is not up for review at once. During the UPR process there is an opportunity for any government to raise questions and make recommendations about any other government’s human rights compliance. Before the trip, The Advocates did extensive research regarding the human rights record of several countries up for their UPR — Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, and Russia – and prepared recommendations on ways those countries could make improvement on issues including women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and the death penalty. With those recommendations in hand, along with other members of our team, I got to approach delegates encouraging them to meet with us to discuss The Advocates’ recommendations – and, if they didn’t want to meet, giving them prepared fact sheets on the various issues. While at first I was afraid to approach some of the delegates (you literally go into the Human Rights Council chamber and tap people on the shoulder and ask them to speak with you), I was excited to see how receptive people were to speak with us. I understand that in the past, many delegates have not only adopted The Advocates suggested recommendations but also that the recommendations were ultimately accepted by the countries under review.

I also had the opportunity to watch the Human Rights Council debates. I got to hear a representative from Hungary declare that migration was not a fundamental human right and hear a delegate from Cuba call out US hypocrisy on issues of civil and human rights. More importantly, I got to watch in action a body of international players trying to hold countries accountable for human rights violations – asking questions and making proposals. It was amazing to see individual countries human rights records being held up to public scrutiny. I loved the fact that UNTV televises the debates, so that the discussions are readily accessible throughout the world.

Finally, I got to watch The Advocates staff in action – creating a team out of a group with disparate skill sets and expertise. Robin, Jennifer, Rose and Amy willingly shared their expertise, helping us all to become better advocates. I have a new found understanding of the importance of their work – and the influence they have at the international level. I will be forever grateful for this experience from which I learned so much not only from watching the UN in action but also from the members of the team who were incredibly kind and supportive. And, in case any of the team members are interested, I did get my AP American History paper on the Chinese Exclusion Act done in time (although the last night of our trip was a very long night).

By The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger Jenna Schulman.  Jenna is a high school  student in Washington, D.C.