In Recognition of Outstanding Efforts in Providing Pro Bono Representation in the Immigration Field, the AILA North California Mesa Verde Pro Bono Project receives the Michael Maggio Pro Bono Service Award.
On hand to receive the award, and in recognition of their tremendous efforts, were Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, Ilyce Shugall, Tala Hartsough, and Mary Beth Kaufman.
In March of 2015, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a contract with GEO Group, a private prison company, to re-open the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield, California, and began to detain hundreds of asylum seekers in the Central Valley of California without access to lawyers or legal services organizations. No legal service provider in California has funding to assist these individuals. Although ICE contracts with three other jails throughout Northern California for bed space to house a limited number of immigrant detainees, Mesa Verde is an immigrant-only detention center whose opening has signified the detention of an additional 400 individuals at any given time, the majority of them asylum seekers. Since the opening of Mesa Verde, the detained immigration court docket in San Francisco has tripled.
Located in the heart of California’s most rural area and five hours away from the San Francisco Immigration Court, which has jurisdiction over the cases at Mesa Verde, Mesa Verde is most akin to the immigration detention centers that litter U.S. border states and have historically made headlines because of their remoteness and egregious detention conditions. Individuals detained at Mesa Verde appear for their court hearings via video feed, so there is no opportunity to meet with counsel at their court hearings or receive know your rights information. As the asylum seekers at Mesa Verde are from countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America and speak dozens of languages, including many minority or indigenous languages, language access is one of the many barriers to due process for detained asylum seekers at Mesa Verde.
ICE’s decision to open an additional rural detention center of Mesa Verde’s size has created a crisis of representation. Prior to the opening of Mesa Verde, Bay Area legal service providers were already overwhelmed by the needs of detained immigrants housed in the three other jails with ICE contracts. There are no legal services organizations located near Bakersfield or elsewhere in the Central Valley that provide pro bono removal defense representation, and the local private immigration bar is small and already overburdened.
In response to the crisis for representation at the Mesa Verde facility, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto (CLSEPA) and Oakland’s Centro Legal de la Raza (Centro Legal), led by Ilyce Shugall and Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, began an unfunded project to conduct know your rights presentations and legal intakes for those detained at Mesa Verde. In July 2015, AILA NorCal members, led by Mary Beth Kaufman and Tala Hartsough, in partnership with Centro Legal and CLSEPA, launched the Mesa Verde Pro Bono Project to begin to address the dire need for legal representation.