By Billy Huntsman
The Las Cruces-based nonprofit Southwest Asylum & Migration Institute (SAMI) will host a benefit dance on October 29 at the Community Enterprise Center, 125 N. Main St., from 6 p.m. to midnight.
The event is a fundraiser to support low-cost and pro-bono immigration law services, provided by SAMI, for those seeking asylum or refuge in the United States from violence in their home countries, and those who have been detained and face deportation.
“If you just think about the reality that causes someone to seek asylum, they’re not the kind of person who will be able to hire a private attorney,” says Denali Wilson, a human rights activist and recent NMSU graduate.
Wilson has been working unpaid 20 hours a week at the institute since graduating in May 2015.
“People’s ability to find relief in this country and to navigate the justice system is dependent on nonprofits who are able to provide this work and often pro-bono,” she says.
The legal difference between asylum-seekers and refugees is significant, Wilson says.
“‘Refugee’ can be like generalized violence, which is what we see is caused by a civil war,” she says. “Asylum is like direct persecution, that you are being persecuted because of your race, religion, your nationality, your political opinion, your membership to a particular social group.”
Nancy Oretskin, J.D., an NMSU professor of business law, interim department head of the Marketing Department, and cofounder of SAMI, for which she serves as an attorney, says it’s very difficult to win an asylum case, particularly for Mexican migrants.
“Because in order to win an asylum case, you have to prove that the persecutor is the government, not a criminal organization,” Oretskin says. “And in Mexico a lot of the issues are related to cartels. And connecting the government to cartels is a very difficult issue.”
Despite such difficulties, Oretskin is relishing a recent victorious asylum case for a nine-year-old Mexican boy whose father had his legs severed with a hacksaw by the Chihuahua State Police. The son is now on a course leading to American citizenship, while the father, whose case was administratively closed, is not, though he can lawfully remain in the U.S.
Currently, SAMI has only two people on payroll. Additionally, the organization has interns from the Criminal Justice and Government Departments at NMSU, and volunteers such as Wilson, who says the organization does a lot despite its limited resources.
Other than asylum, SAMI also provides assistance for Deferred Action in Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
“So if you arrive undocumented as a child and you meet very, very specific qualifications for the length of time you’ve been here, if you haven’t returned to your country of origin, you can apply for authorization,” Wilson says.
Authorized persons are no longer at risk of being deported and can receive work authorization, but “are in no path” to becoming citizens, Oretskin says.
Wilson says many people in southern New Mexico, as well as students at NMSU, benefit from the DACA program.
Overall, since opening in 2013, SAMI has: won six asylum cases and two administrative closures, gotten work authorizations for 23 migrants, helped 10 migrants enter the country under Deferred Action in Childhood Arrivals (DACA), helped prevent the deportations of three migrants, and helped more than 30 migrants receive humanitarian parole.
Though the majority of their cases come from Mexico, Oretskin says SAMI has also represented individuals from Somalia, Ghana, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Jamaica, and Macedonia.
“Anyone who needs the relief is helped by SAMI,” Wilson says.
SAMI recently won two asylum cases for individuals from Somalia and Ghana, whose harrowing journeys to and through Central America to the El Paso detention center are available to read here.
SAMI is one of the few law firms that will accept asylum cases, Oretskin says. The scarcity of such firms is due to the six immigration judges in the El Paso district.
“They have one of the highest denial rates of asylum and one of the highest deportation rates in the country,” Oretskin says. “And there’s a lot of reasons for that. They also have a very high population that is undocumented.”
Oretskin has been at NMSU for 25 years. In 2009, at “the height of the violence in Juárez,” she was asked to sponsor a fundraiser for an asylum-seeker from Mexico.
“Prior to that I really never studied immigration at law school or had really been involved in immigration,” Oretskin says.
This experience piqued her interest in immigration law, Oretskin says, before which her expertise had been in contracts and conflict resolution.
Oretskin’s work with an El Paso immigration lawyer led her to meet Crystal Massey, a human rights activist, with whom she founded SAMI.
Though not similar in terms of media coverage, Oretskin says, the refugee flood from Central America is and has been similar to the current ongoing Syrian exodus.
“Crystal and I recognized the need kept coming, there were just clients coming and coming,” Oretskin says. “And they couldn’t afford to pay and they needed help.”
The United Nations Higher Commission on Refugees estimates the United States received more than 120,000 asylum applications in 2015, with the majority of these coming from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, Oretskin says.
Wilson says violence in these countries, which forced the refugees to flee, is the result of U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
“If we look at the war on drugs, for instance, what that has done to Mexico and Central America and the lives that it has destroyed is directly visible in the people that we’re receiving at our borders now,” Wilson says.
Oretskin says the change from contracts law to immigration law was “a total change.”
“To learn immigration, between 2009 and 2011, I maybe attended 50, 60 hours of continuing legal education,” Oretskin says.
As a licensed New Mexico lawyer, Oretskin was able to make the change from contracts to immigration law.
Most of the cases Oretskin, SAMI’s attorney, takes on are for migrants currently held in the detention centers in Chaparral, New Mexico, and El Paso.
Most of the work she does for SAMI is pro bono, or “low bono,” a term Oretskin coined for low-cost work.
“We have some people that pay $10 a month and will pay $10 a month for 10 years,” Oretskin says.
Obviously, Oretskin is not doing this work for the money. So why does she do it?
“Because we just have a crisis in this country of a large number of undocumented people that need legal assistance,” she says. “Especially asylum-seekers. They’re fleeing persecution in a country where they were going to be killed and they’re entitled, through a (United Nations) convention, to have legal representation here, (but) they’re not entitled to get it for free.”
Unlike U.S. citizens, who can receive free legal aid when arrested, migrants can have, but must themselves pay for, attorneys.
“And research shows that if you have legal representation, your chances of winning the case are substantially better,” she says. “So we’re filling a need, especially here.”
By gaining asylum for migrants, Oretskin says, SAMI is able to save lives, keep families safe and together, and turn migrants into tax-paying U.S. citizens.
“It’s the most fulfilling area of law I’ve ever practiced,” she says.
The October 29 benefit dance is meant to raise funds for SAMI to provide legal services, as well as acquire documents such as work permits, which cost $375 apiece, for migrants. A $5 suggested donation is asked before entering the dance, or attendees can donate Spanish-language pleasure-reading material.
These books will be delivered by SAMI and its partner, the El Paso-based Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, to the migrant detention centers in Chaparral and in El Paso.
“There’s a bunch of migrants who have been detained for a long time and could really use something to do,” Wilson says.
Visit the dance’s Facebook page to learn more.
Wilson encourages students who are looking for an internship to contact their advisers to see if academic credit can be arranged. Further, Wilson says, anyone interested in volunteering at SAMI or doing more for the migrants should get into contact with the organization.
“We need a lot of people who are bilingual, who can translate government documents that’ll be used in court,” Wilson says.
Other services community members can provide lie outside the legal realm.
“There’s 900 people in (the Chaparral detention center), there’s upwards of a thousand people detained in the processing center in El Paso, who just need someone to talk to,” Wilson says.
The detention centers have visiting hours, and volunteers can be helped through the visiting process by SAMI. Additionally, not speaking Spanish should not prevent people from volunteering, as SAMI can help in this area, as well, Wilson says.
Visit SAMI’s website here.