In a podcast interview, Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project co-founder and co-director Dorothy Tegeler ('17) discusses her work with immigrants at the Mexico border and the online community she’s created through the project.
Robin Davidson: Welcome to Skadcast. I'm Robin Davidson, and today we are speaking to Skadden Fellow Dorothy Tegeler. Dorothy created the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, or ASAP, which served as her fellowship project and was hosted by the Urban Justice Center in New York.
Now, Dorothy, I understand the idea for your fellowship project grew out of a trip you and others took to a large immigration detention center at the U.S.-Mexico border a couple of years ago. What did you encounter there and how did the experience ultimately shape your project?
Dorothy Tegeler: The government has been detaining women and children, including breast-feeding babies and toddlers. It’s a very horrible place, and it’s where we met our very first client, whose name was Suni. We represented her at her trial in this immigration detention center. We were only there for a week. And at the end of the week we won her case. And we were just incredibly excited, but she kind of turned to us and said, “you know I’m excited too, but what are you going to do about the family who has their trial next week? And the week after that? And the week after that?”
She was really an organizer, and she pushed us to think about how we could continue representing families like hers even if we had to do so from a distance. And that’s how ASAP was born. Since then we’ve represented families in over 30 states. We’ve prevented over 400 deportations, and we’ve connected over 2,500 women through our private online community.
Robin Davidson: Wow, that’s an incredible story!
Dorothy Tegeler: Thanks!
Robin Davidson: So tell us a little more about the project itself and the legal work that you guys are doing.
Dorothy Tegeler: Sure. So, we have kind of three areas of our work.
One is that we provide emergency legal services for families who are at imminent risk of deportation, and we represent families remotely regardless of where they’re located in the United States. We’re trying to fill gaps where people otherwise can’t access legal services. So, that’s often rural areas and places like that. Thousands of families don’t have access to lawyers, and without a lawyer, less than 3% are able to win their cases. It’s just a very hard system to navigate on your own. That’s one big area of our work.
The second is this online community center that I mentioned, where we connect formerly detained asylum seeking moms to one another for mutual support and also to legal assistance.
The online community is kind of a combination between an online legal help desk and a community center. So, we’re trying to both bring people together and provide them access to legal information and pro se assistance.
And then the third area is our impact and advocacy work. We’re currently representing Suni, our first client, in a lawsuit against the federal government challenging the mistreatment that she and her young son faced: the separation of the two of them from his father — her partner — and the threatened separation of her son from her. So, you know, it’s a case about family separation and the mistreatment of families at the border, which is becoming an ever more important issue in the news right now.
Robin Davidson: Sure. You mentioned the online community center, and I know part of what you do with the project that’s interesting is how you’re leveraging social media and technology. How do people, your clients, find out about that resource? And how is technology, and especially social media and tools like that, helping you do your work?
Dorothy Tegeler: Our clients find out about our online community through the legal services providers that exist in the detention centers and also from one another. So, actually we haven’t been doing any advertising for the group, and it’s been growing by over 100 new members a month just by word of mouth. Mostly people adding friends they were detained with.
Robin Davidson: Wow.
Dorothy Tegeler: And I think, to me, the online community really represents the organizing principle of meeting people where they are, which is on their cell phones, on social media. This is a way to get kind of critical legal resources and information to people using the technology that they’re already using. So it’s been huge for us in terms of a way to reach thousands of people at once, which we couldn’t do otherwise.
Robin Davidson: Sure. That’s phenomenal. And you also mentioned your advocacy work. You guys recently issued a report with another group called CLINIC focusing on in absentia orders in asylum cases. I’m sure that’s probably just one example of some of the impact work that you’re doing. Can you talk to us a little more about that area of focus?
Dorothy Tegeler: Sure. So, this new report we issued on in absentia orders is about people who receive deportation orders because they didn’t go to court. That’s what an in absentia order is. They never have a chance to present their case.
And we developed the report with CLINIC after our experience representing over 40 asylum seekers who were in this situation, who got deportation orders for not going to court. And we were hearing a lot of narratives in the media and from the government saying, "you know, the fact that people aren’t going to their hearings shows that they’re lying about being asylum seekers. They were just trying to get kind of an easy ticket to entry."
And, based on our experience and the data, that’s just really not the case. Most of why people miss hearings is things that are out of their control like the government not sending them notice to the right address or getting misinformation from government officials or fraudulent actors in the system or having medical issues or transportation issues. These are really people trying to fight their case, trying to get their day in court who are being prevented from doing so. So, we wanted to publish this report to kind of shift that narrative about asylum seekers with these types of deportation orders.
Robin Davidson: How important is it to sort of fight against a tendency, I think, to dehumanize, or to have detachment from the actual struggles these clients are facing?
Dorothy Tegeler: Yeah, I mean it’s so important I think. Right now we’re just seeing language and policies that dehumanizes asylum-seeking families. I mean you read the news now, and we’re seeing increasing numbers of kids being taken from their parents at the border, detained separately, the parents being criminally prosecuted for trying to bring their kids to safety. And it’s not an easy journey. These families have travelled … escaped severe violence and travelled hundreds of miles across deserts to get to safety. And it’s just heartbreaking what’s happening.
And I feel outraged and upset to be part of a country that would treat any human beings the way that we’re treating asylum seekers at the border. So I do think it’s so important. I think when I talk to people about this issue, parents especially, they’re just like “how could this possibly be what the government is doing? How can this be okay?” And I think we need to see that kind of outrage. I hope we see a lot of outrage about that issue and about other things that have come out.
The ACLU recently published a report on the widespread abuse of kids in immigration detention centers by immigration and customs enforcement officials. Earlier this month there was a young woman from Guatemala murdered at the border, Claudia Gomez. And, that’s just … it’s just awful the way that asylum seekers are being treated and I … I hope that we can change it. I hope the people get upset and that we can change it.
Robin Davidson: What do you think needs to happen for real changes to the current state of affairs?
Dorothy Tegeler: Well I think there need to be political changes. I think there needs to be, you know, more awareness and action around border issues. And I think there’s a lot of groups pursuing really powerful lawsuits against the government right now. So, I hope that those continue. But some of these policies are longer term than the current administration. The militarization of the border. The detention of families. Immigration raids on families. These are all policies that I think should end and that have been going on for a long time.
Robin Davidson: I know you haven’t necessarily been doing this for a lot of years, but you’ve certainly helped a lot of clients in a very short amount of time. Can you tell me about a moment or a client aside from the first one …
Dorothy Tegeler: [LAUGHTER]
Robin Davidson: … that’s been especially meaningful during this work?
Dorothy Tegeler: Yeah, so … one of the clients, actually, who was part of this in absentia report that we were talking about earlier. She is really inspiring to me because, you know, she came here, her brothers were murdered in her country … she came here with her 3-year-old daughter after she got death threats. She was detained. She got out of detention, and then she was trying to find a lawyer. She found this man who said he was an attorney, but he wasn’t. And he took thousands of dollars from her, told her she didn’t have to go her court hearing and so she lost her case and got a deportation order.
At that point a friend of hers told her about ASAP’s online community. She joined; she met us. Kind of, got together on a very short timeline to try to reopen her case. And we were able to do that. We were able to reopen her case and give her another chance to seek asylum. And she … I think what really inspires me about her is that then she kind of came back to the online group, and she posted and told everyone what had happened and said “if you’re in this group and you’ve been the victim of fraud, don’t be scared. Seek help.” And she sort of continued to support newer members of the group — people who’ve recently arrived and are trying to navigate this system. So, she’s someone I’m really glad we were able to connect with and help, and it’s really great to see her kind of moving forward and helping other people in the group.
Robin Davidson: It sounds like the work that you’re doing to connect these people to each other so that they can continue to influence each other’s lives, and sort of empower themselves a little bit, sounds as meaningful as the legal work itself.
Dorothy Tegeler: Yeah, absolutely! I think these are people who are often pretty isolated in the communities they’re living in. And to be able to connect to this network of people around the country who are going through similar experiences is pretty powerful. We created the group to be more of the legal help desk, but it’s really become this real community. And I do think that that is just as if not more powerful than the legal part of it.
Robin Davidson: Thank you so much for joining us and telling us all about ASAP and the work that you’re doing.