An Austin-based attorney and paralegal team claims that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has banned the paralegal from entering the Karnes County Residential Center after The Texas Observer published an article she wrote that was critical of the family detention center.
Paralegal and former Observer intern Victoria Rossi told the Observer that she thinks the timing of her banishment from working as a paralegal at the Karnes family detention center is suspicious because it comes after she published an article that detailed what she saw inside Karnes.
“I’m hoping it’s just a technical error, but the timing of it, I worry that it’s reactive to the article,” Rossi said.
Attorney Virginia Raymond, who employs Rossi as a paralegal, agrees. “It’s straight-up interference with access to counsel. It’s an intimidation tactic.”
The story begins in October 2014, when, Raymond submitted a security clearance application for Rossi which was approved by ICE. From then on, Rossi says she faxed the required intent-to-visit notices to Karnes, 24 hours in advance to any future visit to the facility.
Then, on January 15, Rossi arrived at the Karnes facility where officers stopped her from entering and questioned her about the purpose of her visit.
ICE officials told Raymond that there had been a clerical error on Rossi’s initial application and that Rossi only had permission to work in the facility as an interpreter, not as a paralegal.
Rossi and Raymond decided to reapply for paralegal access.
After completing a lengthy re-application for clearance process, Rossi and Raymond were denied once again on March 23. This time, the letter received from ICE gave no reason except that Rossi could not enter, “in the capacity of a paralegal.”
Rossi’s article for The Observer was published in February and, described her experience working at the Karnes family detention center:
We’d driven to Karnes because a family we represent—Reza and her daughters, Julie and Dalia (not their real names)—was scheduled to be released that night. Though a judge had set their bond impossibly high—impossible, that is, for an impoverished Honduran woman—we’d cobbled together the funds from individual donations and the San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. An $8,000 money order had been deposited at an ICE office in San Antonio that morning. Now it was 3 p.m.; if everything went smoothly, Reza, Julie and Dalia would be free by nightfall.
Growing up, I always heard that immigrants came to this country “in search of better lives,” for “more opportunities.” They wanted to make money and to educate their kids, I was told. But the people in Karnes are scared. They’re running from something. And they’re not running just to the United States. According to the U.N., asylum applications to countries surrounding violence-torn El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala increased by 712 percent between 2008 and 2013. What happened on the U.S. border last summer was not, as some have said, an immigration crisis. It was a refugee crisis.
I could understand Virginia’s urge to see Reza. Karnes seemed like the sort of place where things could go wrong. Phones weren’t allowed past the metal detectors. There is no Internet access inside, and all the walkways and buzzers and antechambers separating the receptionist’s desk from the visiting area meant that communication with the outside world was difficult.
The Karnes detention center was at the center of two hunger strikes this month. In the first, 78 women refused to eat or use any services in the facility from March 31 to April 4. Ten days later, 10 women restarted the fast to protest their detention.
This isn’t the first time that ICE has been accused to retaliating against legal service providers. Raymond also told truth-out.org that another paralegal, RAICES' Johana De Leon, was banned from working inside Karnes after ICE accused her of organizing the hunger strike.
The Karnes facility holds 532 beds and cribs for refugee women and children and is operated by GEO Group.