Weekly Q&A: Arlene Rivera’s Immigrant Justice Initiative helps—and humanizes—the undocumented

Justice for all: Poor conditions at U.S. detainment camps prompted Rivera to offer free representation to refugees.
Photo: L.E. Baskow

Immigration is a tricky branch of law because it’s shrouded in mistrust. Scam notarios and unethical attorneys have cast the profession in a suspicious light among clients. “That’s what makes this job really challenging,” lawyer Arlene Rivera says. “You’re coming into a field where everyone expects there will be some kind of fraud.” But that didn’t dissuade the native Las Vegan from pursuing the job and founding the Immigrant Justice Initiative, which provides free and low-cost counsel to immigrants.

We caught up with Rivera to talk about the state of detainment camps, the message the U.S. sends to undocumented immigrants and why you should care.

Why did you start the Immigrant Justice Initiative? It started when I did a volunteer round at the detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. They had been detaining women and children who had recently arrived from Central America. As a Spanish-speaking attorney, there was a really high demand for those with my skills. ... I went with another attorney in town and some interpreters. What we saw kind of changed us because it was on American soil. They’re being dubbed “internment camps.” We have refugees seeking asylum who are being denied reasonable bond and not given due process. They’re in inhumane conditions. The children are sick, they’re hungry, they’re cold. It’s not a situation you want to see a child in—no matter where they’re from. That was what was most shocking. You have these guards treating children and women like cattle and just completely dehumanizing them. When I came back I just felt like we needed to do more to address that population.

What are the best- and worst-case scenarios for refugees in detainment camps? What should be happening is they pass a credible fear interview, where you’re able to convince an officer that you do have fear of returning to your country. Then you should be released so you can gather evidence and hire an attorney for your hearing. What was happening is that even after passing the interviews, they were remaining in detention and had to post bond, and oftentimes it was an unreasonable bond—we saw some women that had bonds of $25,000. If you can’t pay that, you remain in detention.

Why is that happening? On the political side, one side says, “This can’t be happening.” On the other side they say, “This is a threat to national security and we need to send a message.” ... If they release them there’s a fear they’ll send a message to Central America that the doors are open. On the other side, the media, when the detention centers first came to light around July of last year, it was on the news. You would see pictures, you would hear stories. A year later, they’re still there, you just don’t hear about it as much.

The frustrations in this line of work must be pretty constant. I tried to be an ambassador for change and mobilize the community. There was a very positive response, but it died off because the first question is, “What can I do?” There was really nothing that could be done, aside from, “Give me money and I’ll go back.” Most people don’t want to operate that way with their pocket books. You want to say, “Here’s a blanket, go give that cold child this blanket.” The [centers] were confiscating toys, they were confiscating food, they were not letting us bring blankets. There was nothing tangible that we could take, which makes it harder for the community to feel they could have an impact.

What’s the biggest immigration issue Vegas faces? Aside from notario fraud, there’s a lot of misinformation. People don’t understand what the procedures are or that they even have a viable legal remedy. They wait so long that oftentimes they lose out. Sometimes you have a certain period of time to apply for asylum, for instance; you have to apply within one year of your entry to the United States. If you don’t know that, you don’t apply and then you’re not eligible later. ... Generally speaking, if you’re unaware of the limitations then you lose out.

What’s the bigger picture? Why should people who don’t have a direct connection to this cause care? Human rights abuses come to mind. You should care about what’s happening to your neighbor, even if your neighbor doesn’t look like you. To take it back to the children, you should care that they’re underfed and they’re not having access to adequate medical care. It might be easy to care when you’re talking about children because no one wants to see a child in pain, but our humanity should lend itself so we should care about what’s happening to adults as well—men and women.

We also address the labor market. You have so many undocumented workers who are working in terrible conditions, working really long hours and getting paid nothing. They’re under the constant threat of deportation and loss of wages if they don’t comply. That’s affecting the job market, which should concern everybody. Now you’re reducing wages across the board because there’s somebody willing to do it for less. If you were to offer them some kind of way to legalize, I feel like those problems would not exist as much. You’d have workers paying into social security who previously weren’t, and it keeps the economy going.

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