Attorney Alicia Kinsman has been busy in recent months.
At first glance, the Bridgeport lawyer’s day-to-day operations might seem far removed from President Donald Trump’s detention and family separation policy, but that’s not the case.
Instead, as director of immigration and legal services for the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, Kinsman’s work puts her near the front lines of a raging national debate on border security and human rights.
As the president’s controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy continues to draw ire and make a splash across the front pages of the country’s newspapers, Kinsman and other Connecticut attorneys find themselves viewing the issue from a unique perspective, largely built on their clients’ harrowing stories.
“It’s all really difficult to deal with,” Kinsman said. “My emotional bandwidth has been exhausted.”
While Connecticut has not been a center of controversy for immigration enforcement, local lawyers say there’s nevertheless a sense of urgency among the state’s asylum seekers.
In one case, Kinsman represents a Guatemalan woman and her 7- and 11-year-old daughters, who were all kidnapped at the border and forced into prostitution. The trio became victims of human trafficking, held against their will in Texas, until they were able to escape captivity and seek refuge.
It’s a story Kinsman has heard way too many times: The mother paid traffickers for help to smuggle her and her young children into the country, but the traffickers demanded more once they got over the border. Money, Kinsman said, the woman did not have.
“They told them they paid a fee, but now they owed another fee,” she said. “They told her that if they did not have the money, they’d need to work off the debt. There was forced sex and labor until they escaped.”
The woman and the children are now with family in Connecticut and are in “removal proceedings.” Her nonprofit, Kinsman said, secured a T visa for the family. That visa is specifically earmarked for victims of human trafficking.
“Now we are working [on] getting the case closed in immigration court, and are beginning the process for requesting a green card,” Kinsman said. “We will be with the family from beginning to end to get them here legally.”
Connecticut attorney and professor Jon Bauer has also seen his share of heartache in dealing with those individuals, primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, who come to the United States for a better life. Bauer, director of the Asylum & Human Rights Clinic at the University of Connecticut School of Law, oversees law students who handle cases of people applying for asylum in the United States.
The work has become more crucial in recent months as the immigration debate heats up, Bauer said Tuesday. While Kinsman talked of abuse in Texas from human traffickers, Bauer said many are also fleeing abuse from within their homeland. For instance, Bauer’s group recently represented a woman from Honduras who repeatedly suffered sexual abuse from a male relative in her home country. The woman had hoped marriage to another individual would end the abuse, but soon found her new husband was emotionally and physically abusive, Bauer said.
“She was held in detention [in Texas] with her young daughter, but was eventually released to live with a relative in Connecticut,” he said.
Immigration officials eventually granted the woman asylum.
“To prove her case … the students presented her testimony, which was emotionally gripping,” Bauer said. “She detailed what she went through and expert witnesses told of the prevalence of domestic violence in Honduras and the utter ineffectiveness of the government there to protect women in that country. She’d be in grave danger if she went back.”
But attorneys, like Meghann LaFountain, contemplate what might happen to women with similar stories. They say these migrants face growing uncertainty, now that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced that domestic violence is no longer grounds for seeking asylum in the United States.
“It’s devastating,” said LaFountain, vice chair of the Connecticut chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Attorneys who spoke to the Connecticut Law Tribune argued the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy hurt the most vulnerable.
“More than 2,300 minors have been separated from their parents since the administration imposed its zero-tolerance policy last month that called for the jailing of undocumented migrants,” according to the Connecticut Mirror.
Last week, Trump signed an executive order to end the separations, but it did not spell out, according to news reports, what to do with the children who had already been detained.
“This zero-tolerance policy is creating a crisis. It is exacerbating an existing humanitarian crisis,” Bauer said. “There are people who are fleeing unbelievable atrocities in their home countries. We have enacted a zero policy as a deterrent, but when you are running for your lives, it will not stop you. It’s better for them to come here and seek protection than to be dead. Being separated from your family is better than being killed.”
LaFountain, who also heads LaFountain Immigration Law LLC, does a lot of legal work for former detainees working toward becoming U.S. citizens.
“For us, as attorneys, you have to feel some level of emotion,” she said. “The day you stop feeling emotions in these types of cases, it becomes much harder to advocate for your client. You need to understand what they are going through. They might call you at odd hours and they might be crying. They might want to vent and you need to be there for them.”
LaFountain, who has worked with women who were victims of domestic and other kinds of violence, said some people do not understand the gravity of the circumstances that force others to flee their homeland.
“This is a matter of life and death for most of them,” she said.
Joanne Lewis, head of the immigration unit of New Britain-based Connecticut Legal Services Inc., works with the most vulnerable of these asylum seekers: children hoping for a new life in a new land. Her assignment involves working with a shelter in Noank, where unaccompanied minors who come to the southern border are housed.
“We give them representation on what their rights are,” said Lewis, who stated that most of the stories have one thing in common: trauma. ”These children, many teens, left a traumatic home situation and came here. They came across the border by themselves in most cases. Many left because of instances of either sexual abuse, gang violence or even family members being murdered. They did not leave for kicks. There was a reason for each of them to make the trip.”
But the Trump administration policy is not without its defenders, who call for swift penalties for those who violate the country’s immigration laws.
Among its supporters is Sessions, who this month reversed an immigration appeal on behalf of a Salvadoran woman who said she sought refuge from a spouse who abused her physically, emotionally and sexually. In his decision, Sessions ruled “the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”
But speaking to school resource officers in Nevada on Monday, the attorney general appeared to temper his rhetoric.
“We’re going to continue to prosecute those adults who enter here illegally,” Sessions said. “We’re going to do everything in our power, however, to avoid separating families. All federal agencies are working hard to accomplish this goal.”
According to CNN, Sessions also used some of his time in front of school officials to list examples of violence by MS-13 and, at one point, tied the gang directly to the population of immigrant children.
“MS-13 is recruiting children who were sent here as unaccompanied minors,” CNN quoted Sessions as saying. “They come here … and they seek to recruit. And, some come here, and are brought here, and sent here by the gangs in Central America to strengthen and replenish the MS-13 gangs.”