In March of 2016 I was given the opportunity to attend an on-site training hosted by the Vera Institute of Justice in Washington D.C. It was an incredible opportunity to come together with other representatives from legal service providers, to discuss our struggles, our triumphs, and construct new ways to help our clients. We met with various stakeholders including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Ombudsman Office and representatives from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). I returned to Phoenix feeling encouraged, knowing that there are people all over the country fighting with us to advocate for representation of vulnerable populations, including children.
Shortly after returning from D.C., I met Andrés, a 17 year old boy who was detained at a shelter in Phoenix. Andrés passionately shared his story with me, the story of how he made the difficult decision to flee insecurity in Guatemala, in search of a better life. When Andrés was little, his father was in an accident that left half of his body in pain and paralyzed one of his arms, leaving him unable to work. His mother was not able to find work because she only speaks the dialect K’iche’, and experienced discrimination in the area where they lived. Andres was forced to drop out of school in the second grade, and started working full time to support his family.
My time in D.C. and the opportunities to network with programs similar to the Florence Project ended up being an opportunity for Andrés. We started fighting his case while he was still a minor. He turned 18 while in ORR custody, and on his 18th birthday the government sent him to adult immigration detention, despite our best efforts to get him released to sponsors in the community. We thought our staff in Florence and Eloy team would be able to advocate for his release, but he was transferred to a detention center in Seattle. We were panicked to think our client would lose legal representation because he had been sent outside of Arizona.
Serendipitously, I was able to reach out to Erin, an attorney from KIND in Seattle who I had met in D.C. only a few months earlier. She was able to connect him with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, one of our partner organizations. They were able to step in and continue the work we began when Andrés was a minor, detained in Phoenix.
An important part of our work is connecting with advocates in our networks, to advocate on behalf of our clients and share resources. The Florence Project not only provides direct services to detained children, women, and men in Arizona, but we also are national leaders in our field. We strive to participate in national and legal trainings, and we are always thinking creatively about legal strategies. Thank you for allowing us to make an impact on the lives of detained immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers at home and across the nation.