On the Tuesday edition of Working, Slate’s Jacob Brogan talks to Nithya Nathan-Pineau, who is the director of the Detained Children’s Program for the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, a nonprofit that provides legal services and other resources for those facing deportation.
In this episode, Nathan-Pineau talks about what it’s like to provide pro-bono counsel to unaccompanied immigrant kids. What are the most challenging parts of her job, and which are the most rewarding? How does her team help young people understand what’s going on and what options they might have?
Also, what advice does Nathan-Pineau have for those feeling fear and uncertainty about the new Trump administration?
And in this episode’s Slate Plus bonus segment, she talks about CAIR Coalition’s relationship with the Office of Refugee Resettlement and describes the condition in its facilities.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on Working, we’re talking to people employed in fields potentially imperiled by the results of the recent U.S. presidential election. These are the stories of passionate people doing difficult, hugely important jobs. Jobs that may get a lot harder and a lot more important in the years ahead.
For this episode, we spoke with Nithya Nathan-Pineau, director of the Detained Children’s Program at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, a nonprofit that works with people facing deportation. Nathan-Pineau’s program focuses specifically on unaccompanied children currently in custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. She and her staff help these young people, many of whom have fled awful conditions to get here, understand their legal options, find representation, and otherwise guide them through a process that can be deeply alienating and hugely frightening. Nathan-Pineau talked to us about what it’s like to work with those kids, from meeting them in the first place, to the emotional ups and downs of bringing their cases to a conclusion. She also discussed her own background and, of course, explored the uncertain future of immigration law under a Trump administration.
Then, in a Slate Plus extra, Nathan-Pineau talks about CAIR Coalition’s relationship with the Office of Refugee Resettlement and describes the conditions in that organization’s facilities.
What is your name and what do you do?
Nithya Nathan-Pineau: My name is Nithya Nathan-Pineau and I am the Director of the Children’s Program at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition or CAIR Coalition for short.
Brogan: So, you work with the Office of Refugee Resettlement as well, is that correct?
Nathan-Pineau: That’s correct. Yeah. My program focuses on working with unaccompanied immigrant children who are in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Brogan: So what is that office and how do children from other countries end up in its care or in its custody?
Nathan-Pineau: So, the Office of Refugee Resettlement is given the responsibility to provide for the care and custodies and unaccompanied immigrant children. And that includes people who are under the age of 18 who don’t have legal status in the United States, and who aren’t with their parent or legal guardian who is able to provide care or custody at the moment that they interact with some kind of immigration law enforcement. So that could be border patrol at the Southwest border. It could be ICE in some interior part of the country.
Most of the kids that we work with are arrivals at the Southwest border and they have either been apprehended or turned themselves in to border patrol or ICE.
Brogan: Is there a reason that these children end up in the Maryland or Virginia area?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. Increasingly we’re seeing kids come to our area who hope to reunite with a family member that lives in this area. And so part of the process is while they’re in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the staff there are working to match them with a family member and work on a secure release to that family member who takes on the responsibility of the care of the child. And also making sure that they appear for their immigration court proceedings. And also that they have sort of have any other social services supports that they need.
Brogan: So is your organization’s role and your role in this process primarily advisory?
Nathan-Pineau: That’s the way that we come into contact with kids is we provide presentations on their rights. Most of the kids that we meet with have been apprehended within the last week. They have been transported across the country. They have no idea where they are. So we meet with them, try to orient them to where they are and what’s going on. We try to explain that the vast majority of them are in deportation proceedings, which means the government is actually trying to deport them. That is really surprising and confusing and distressing to a lot of kids that we work with.
Brogan: And this is even though they’re in something called refugee resettlement?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s kind of a misnomer in that sense, in that while we believe what’s happening on the Southwest border is a humanitarian crisis and it’s a refugee crisis, these kids are not entering with refugee status. So, they’re coming here alone and then facing deportation proceedings. And our role is to give them access to good information. We meet with them individually to screen them to see if they may be eligible for some kind of humanitarian protection against deportation.
And then we try to match them with attorneys.
Brogan: When you’re first meeting with kids, do you have to do anything to obtain their trust, to convince them that you have their best interests at heart?
Nathan-Pineau: Absolutely. During our presentation, one of the things that we explain is how we’re a separate office apart from the detention center, apart from the immigration court, apart from border patrol. And we will often use visuals to express that. And so draw a picture of our office. And one landmark that the kids know, oftentimes they’ve heard of the White House. So, we say our office is like two blocks from the White House. And that’s our office. And it’s separate. And right now you’re here in Virginia and this is the detention center. And we draw it for them. And we say these are two separate things, so giving them visual representations. And then also explaining the concept of confidentiality and that during a meeting with us any information that they share, even if we haven’t formed that attorney-client relationship, is protected by confidentiality because we make that explicit promise to them.
We don’t release their information to the detention center. And we explain the exceptions to that. If they disclose information that they want to harm themselves, or harm others, we are obligated to report that. But absent those exceptions, we really don’t share information without their permission. So that means even communicating with family members, communicating with the sponsor who may be helping them out of detention. We don’t do that unless the child-client authorizes us to do those kinds of things.
Brogan: What’s it like to sit down with one of these kids for the first time? What are those initial conversations or interactions?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. Most of the kids that we work with are teenagers, so they’re usually between the age of 13 and 17. Most of the kids that we work with are boys and they’ve traveled over land from Central America to the United States. We ask them really personal questions about their families and their lives and why they came and what that journey was like.
Brogan: What are you trying to find out there?
Nathan-Pineau: Well, the purpose of those questions is to understand whether they may be eligible for some kind of protection under US law. Whether they may be eligible for asylum, or one of the other visas that are focused on humanitarian protections for kids.
Brogan: So here it’s about trying to bring those deportation processes to a halt?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. That’s exactly right. So it’s about explaining the reality to the kids of you’re in the deportation proceedings and our goal here today is to give you good information, make sure you understand what the heck is going on, and also make sure you understand that there are certain forms of immigration relief that might apply to you.
And so to talk to me about it. You know, tell me your story and we’ll have a conversation about it. Another big part of our work often is following up with family members of kids. Often kids haven’t been exposed to the true reality of what’s happening in their home country. And maybe another adult in the family made the decision that the child was going to migrate to the US. And the child doesn’t actually have all of the facts of what was going on. And maybe the family was being targeted or attacked. And the child knew some of the facts, but not all.
So, a lot of the work that we’re doing is putting together the pieces of the puzzle to try to—for kids who have good claims for legal relief—help them sort of get those together and then get them matched with an attorney.
Brogan: You must hear a lot of devastating stories in that process.
Nathan-Pineau: Yes. It’s one of the hardest things about our job is interviewing kids about the worst moments of their lives. The most vulnerable, scariest, most horrible things that have happened to them. And I think that’s something that never gets easier.
Brogan: What are some of the hardest things to talk about with them?
Nathan-Pineau: Well, a lot of the kids that we’ve worked with have experienced violence in their homes. So we always ask kids about who they were living with, what their relationships were like with those individuals. And a really large number of kids that we work with have experienced violence from one of their parents, or other adult caretakers. And then a large number of kids also have experienced violence in their communities.
We’re primarily working with kids from the northern triangle of Central America and Mexico, so violence in their communities, violence in their schools, violence in their churches is part of their everyday life. And so something that always reminds me that their reality is so different from ours is the way that they talk about things that are really violent and horrible and they normalize it. Like, you know, “I was being beat up every day on my way to school,” but that’s just the way it is because when you’re a teenage boy in Honduras and you’re trying to go to school, there are gang members everywhere and they’re going to physically assault you. You know, things like that.
Or, if you’re a teenage girl and you’re walking down the street, you’re constantly afraid that a gang member might come over and try to force you into a relationship or sexually assault you. And so these are the things that kids are talking to us about, about what their realities are, and what drove them to make this incredibly dangerous journey across land to come to the US.
Brogan: Once you’ve heard their stories, what’s your next step? Where do you go from there with them?
Nathan-Pineau: So, after we do our initial screenings with kids, kids who are remaining in this local area, we work internally to match them with attorneys here in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia, depending on where they are.
Brogan: Who are the lawyers that you’re connecting them with?
Nathan-Pineau: Lots of the attorneys that we work with are actually private pro-bonos who do not practice immigration law, and they volunteer to take our cases, you know, sort of out of the goodness of their heart, and because they’re interested in contributing and making a difference in a child’s life.
We provide mentorship to fill in sort of the immigration piece that they need a little bit of help with, navigating the immigration court—
Brogan: You provide mentorship to the attorneys?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. Absolutely. So, we assign cases to pro-bono attorneys who express interest. And then they’re always matched with an attorney on our staff who is there every step of the way for the legal strategy.
Brogan: You’re also trained as an attorney, yeah?
Nathan-Pineau: Yes, that’s right.
Brogan: Do you ever take these cases on yourself? Or is that just not within the scope of what you’re able to do?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. All of our staff who are attorneys have caseloads. So I myself have a smaller caseload since I’m a manager and a lot of my work is in supervising and maintaining and sort of making sure the administration of the program goes well. But I myself do have a small caseload of my own in-house clients. And that I also mentor lots of pro-bono attorneys as well. I like having that balance between the administrative work and actually meeting with clients and doing client work because it keeps your skills sharp. The law is always changing and without continuing to work on cases I’m not really sure how I would keep myself up to date. Yeah.
Brogan: When you are working on a case, or even when you’re just following up on one that another attorney is on, what’s the process? How long does that take?
Nathan-Pineau: So, when we identify that a child is going to have a viable case, and that they’re sticking around in this area, and we want to match them with an attorney, I keep a list of those cases and so we send out newsletters to our sort of pro-bono volunteer community and we place cases primarily through that newsletter, and also sometimes firms will reach out to us and say, you know, we’re looking for an asylum case, or something like that. And so we try to also do targeted matching like that.
But children typically wait a couple of months. We have way more kids who need representation than we have volunteers. So, we prioritize kids who are nearing the age of 18 because their ability to access some of these protections changes once they turn 18. And we also prioritize kids who are facing prolonged detention. So, when I say prolonged detention, I’m talking about kids who don’t have a way to leave our custody. They don’t have a parent or a family member who is willing to sponsor them out and care for them. And so they become a priority for us because detention for a prolonged period of time while you’re a teenager, no matter what the environment is like, can have really negative effects.
And so at least having the ability to work on their case during that time and make some progress I think is the least we can do to try to make that experience feel a little bit more productive for them. But those are the two sort of priority categories. And then we’ve got lots of kids who are on our wait list who we’re always working to match with attorneys. And this month we’ve actually been highlighting on our website our kids’ cases and making a big push for placing kids’ cases before the end of the year.
And, you know, the response from the pro-bono community has been really wonderful.
Brogan: You’ve been listening to immigration rights advocate, Nithya Nathan-Pineau. In a minute, she tells us about working on kids’ cases and bringing those cases to court.
What is a typical day like for you? Is there such a thing as a typical day?
Nathan-Pineau: Well, one of the things I like about my job is that there isn’t really a typical day. I mean, I can be representing kids in court in the morning and then in the afternoon be like unjamming the copy machine. You know, so there’s a big range in what I do.
Brogan: Do you dress differently when you get started, depending on what you expect you’ll be doing that day?
Nathan-Pineau: If I’m in court, or attending a meeting with a government stakeholder, typically I’m in business formal where, you know, I’ve got a couple of suits. If I’m in the office, we’re a pretty casual office. That’ll be less formal.
Brogan: What if you’re going out to visit another facility?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah, if we’re out in a detention center, we’re usually in business casual with lots of layers, because the detention centers are freezing. And so we always have to be able to adjust to whatever temperature of the room that we’re working in, yeah.
We also have to be careful about what we bring with us, because some of the detention centers we work with are higher security levels, and we can’t bring anything that’s metal. We have a stapler that’s a nonmetal stapler. And so we have to make sure that we have all of our little special secure detention items and we also have to make sure that we don’t wear things like scarves or women or anyone who has pierced ears can’t wear dangly jewelry or big necklaces.
Brogan: Is it because you could be grabbed? Is it a security risk?
Nathan-Pineau: It’s a security risk, yeah. So we do have to be aware of the way that we dress, whether we’re wearing jewelry, or scarves, or things like that. Yeah.
Brogan: How often are you actually in court?
Nathan-Pineau: Pretty frequently. So, our team staffs the detained juvenile docket in Arlington court, which happens twice each month. And I also will often second chair the cases for my younger staff attorneys and go in with them and sort of assist them in court. So, a couple times a month. Not every day, but a couple times a month.
Brogan: And what is an actual court session like for this kind of law?
Nathan-Pineau: So it depends on the kind of hearing you have. A lot of what we do is helping kids through master calendar hearings, which are basically status hearings. So we’re essentially providing the court with updates about what’s happening. But we also do provide representation sort of in full trials. And so preparation for that is going to look a little different. Those are two or three hour trials where we put on evidence and make oral arguments. And it’s a little different than what you might see on TV.
But has a lot of those same elements. Questioning of your client. Cross-examination. All those kinds of things.
Brogan: What’s the ideal end point of one of those sessions?
Nathan-Pineau: The ideal end point is that the judge will grant our client asylum. That’s what we’re hoping for after putting on that oral argument and that presentation of evidence is that the judge is going to hear our argument, be compelled, believe that we’ve met the legal standard, and then also believe that our client sort of merits their favorable exercise of discretion. Because a lot of these humanitarian protections really require that the adjudicator believe that your client is a good person and merits, you know, that favorable exercise of discretion.
Brogan: As you’re figuring out how to paint a really ideal picture of one of your clients for the court, what kind of questions do you have to ask them to elicit the information that you’ll go on to present to a judge as you’re trying to make a case on their behalf?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. We’ll interview our clients extensively over a period of months to get an idea of what their life like was in home country, their relationships with the people that they lived with. Their relationships with people in the community. What their life was like in school. And to get a picture of what their everyday reality was.
Often just getting those facts out is enough to make your client seem very, very compelling…
Brogan: You’re humanizing them.
Nathan-Pineau: Exactly. It’s putting together all of those parts of the story that create a narrative that make a whole person. And that’s important because when a judge just looks at an application, they don’t see the whole person. And so bringing your client to life in their testimony and in their written statement as well is really important.
And that’s why we spend a lot of time with kids, asking them questions about every part of their life. And we ask those questions multiple times in different ways because in my experience you can ask a question the same way five times and maybe not get an answer, but if you change your wording a little bit, or approach it from a different angle, you’re going to get this whole narrative about something that’s really important, or you’re going to get a new angle on their experience.
And, yeah, that’s how you make your client human in the eyes of the adjudicator, which is a huge part of our job. When the judges and adjudicators are dealing with such high volumes, you know, the system is under a lot of stress, making your client stand out is really important.
Brogan: To the account that your job is at least partially to show that your client is a good person, since that is part of the standard, are there any particular factors that help convey not just the humanity of the client, of the young person, or the kid, but also the goodness.
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. That is something that we’re always working on to develop. And we always try to interview family members or community members who may be able to sort of speak to the person’s sort of general temperament, their role in the family, their role in the community. If the child is involved in a church, we’ll try to get a letter from perhaps their pastor talking about what their interaction was like with that young person in the church.
If they’re enrolled in school, we’ll present their grades, hopefully they’re good, or they’re getting better. You know, things like that that make the kid seem like perhaps they don’t have everything all together, but they’re really working hard and they’re doing their best to integrate into their new family, their new community. When working with kids who are released and living in Maryland, or D.C., or Virginia, a lot of times also they’re involved in other activities, after school programs. So we may get a letter from their teacher from the after school program to see how they’re doing and having a letter saying that this child has learned English incredibly quickly, or has improved her grades over the past year and a half. And now she’s getting a mix of As and Bs, where she started off getting Cs and Ds.
Those kinds of things just I think for adjudicators are important in understanding that this is a person who is actively trying to make their life better.
Brogan: I imagine that some kids who’ve experienced the most extreme forms of trauma though may be the ones who have the hardest time being good in these kind of easily sanctioned ways. Because they’re dealing with other issues. How do you work with that if you have someone who is really suffering, or has really suffered?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. That’s exactly the case with a large number of our clients. We work with a lot of kids who have severe mental health issues, who have competency issues, who have cognitive delays. And so with those kids, their behavior or their performance in school may not be true indicators of that child and what their potential is.
And a lot of times in those cases what we do is rely on experts to provide medical evaluations, psychiatric evaluations. If the child is in public school and they have an IEP, we will use that to show the ways in which—
Brogan: What’s an IEP?
Nathan-Pineau: It’s an individualized education plan. So for a child with special needs who is in a public school system, they’re going to have a plan that includes accommodations to make the public education accessible and appropriate for them. And so in the instance where we have a child who has documentation like that, that’s going to be important to include. Again, as we talked a little bit about, humanizing and painting the picture of the whole client, when your client does have a particularly traumatic background or has really complicated behavioral issues, it’s important to sort of give the details around that, too.
And where that may have led your client into interaction with the juvenile delinquency system. I see it as the attorney’s job to paint that in as favorable of a light as possible. So, to put those facts out there in a way that, you know, make your client seem like a whole person and you can understand the context of what led the child there.
I’m always, you know, talking to my team and talking to pro-bono attorneys about how we can’t judge people based on one incident or something that’s happened. There’s context. It takes a whole lifetime or it takes a traumatic experience or several traumatic experience in the cases of a lot of the kids that we work with to bring the child to where they are now.
Brogan: It sounds like your job then is to present that context as efficiently as possible.
Brogan: And that’s mostly through supporting documentation?
Brogan: In court cases?
Nathan-Pineau: Yes. We rely a lot on experts to provide us with information, you know, evaluations, and also information about conditions in the child’s home country that will corroborate parts of their story.
Brogan: How often does it work out?
Nathan-Pineau: More often than unrepresented folks, but not as often as we would like. You know, I think having an attorney really increases the chance that a child will have a successful outcome in court, but we don’t win all of our cases. And we take on cases that we believe have novel legal theories and will push the law forward. And we don’t always win those, but we go into that talking to the client and being really transparent about that because we don’t do anything that our clients don’t want us to do.
We take direction from them. And if they want to fight, we’re there to fight with them.
Brogan: What’s it like losing one of these cases?
Nathan-Pineau: It’s devastating. Yeah. That’s the hardest thing to deal with. And that never gets easier. I think we know—we know that we will not win every case, but knowing that on an intellectual level doesn’t make it easier to process on an emotional level. Yeah.
Every time we lose a case, you know, I take that very personally. And not personally that I think maybe we failed, or we didn’t do our jobs, but I think about the consequences for that individual, for that client, and that for me is the hardest part of this work. Yeah.
Brogan: Yeah. Do you have much interaction with a client after a case?
Nathan-Pineau: It depends on the outcome of the case. If they’ve had a positive outcome and they’re perhaps released from detention, we also do post-release social services support for our clients to make sure that they’ve got resources and make sure that they’re going to be able to sort of live and take care of themselves once they’re out of detention. So in those cases we do maintain contact with clients.
For clients who perhaps aren’t successful in their cases and are going to be repatriated to their home country, we don’t maintain contact with them. So we don’t actually know what happens after they go back.
Brogan: And there’s no support that you can really provide after that point?
Nathan-Pineau: There are some programs that exist. Kids in Need of Defense has a repatriation and reintegration program for some kids in Central America that we’ve been able to refer kids to. And, you know, they have the really admirable goal of helping kids get reintegrated and then connected with job programs and other sort of supportive resources to help them reintegrate. Because even the experience of migrating here, being detained for an amount of time, perhaps fighting a case and losing and then going back, that might be a period of a year or a year and a half. And then the kid returns and their town or their village might be very different. The opportunities that are available to them might be very different. So, having access to those programs does make a difference.
But the truth is that most of the kids are going back to pretty rough—rough circumstances. And we often see a lot of kids who migrate again. Particularly in my programs that have higher security, one of the reasons that kids might be stepped up into a higher security program is that if they’ve crossed the border many times, then we do see kids who we work with, they leave, and they come back. Yeah.
Brogan: You’ve been listening to Nithya Nathan-Pineau. After this brief break, she discusses some of the fears spawned by the recent election.
How did you get started with immigration law? What inspired you to enter this area?
Nathan-Pineau: So, my parents are immigrants from India. I grew up in a big extended family in an immigrant community in New Jersey. And that to me I think created this interest in why people migrate. My parents chose this country as their home, so I think a lot about why they did that.
And then in terms of my professional interests, I was always interested in child advocacy and juvenile justice issues. And when I went to law school I got engaged in immigrant and refugee issues as well. And I had the opportunity to work with child migrants who were facing deportation issues and it just really combined all of my interests into one job.
I think it’s a fascinating area of the law to work with children, because we really don’t treat children that differently than we treat adults in immigration law. And to me that’s a glaring hole in the law. But, you know, immigration law is vast and complex and nuanced and it’s always changing. So, for the law nerd in me it’s really appealing. And working with children is compelling because I like that kids just tell you how it is. They’re often exceedingly honest and remind us that we were all that age at one point.
And I think it’s really, really rewarding to be able to work with a young person and sort of develop a relationship of trust and competence.
Brogan: Prior to starting with the CAIR Coalition, I know that you worked on asylum issues in Texas?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. So my first staff attorney position was in the Rio Grande Valley.
Brogan: Was that different than what you do here? Did that inform your current work in any way?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. It’s actually very similar to what I do here. I worked for the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, or Pro-BAR, which was a fantastic place to be a staff attorney. That was my first real job in immigration law and I moved down to Texas, never having been in the state of Texas. And took on this job which involved working with kids who were in detention in the Rio Grande Valley.
I worked with kids who are tender age, so they’re 12 and under. I worked with pregnant and parenting teen moms. I worked with lots of teenage boys between the ages of 13 and 17. I worked with kids with juvenile delinquency histories and criminal histories. So I was just able to learn a lot and I was exposed to what life on the border is really like.
And it gave me sort of a different lens on immigration in the U.S.
Brogan: I imagine fluency or at least high competency in Spanish must be really important to your work?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. That’s very true. For the population of unaccompanied kids, I would say 99.9 percent of our kids come from Central America and Mexico. So, Spanish fluency is really important, both spoken and written. But we also work with a lot of kids who speak Mayan languages, so K’iche’, Mam, Q’anjob’al, Kaqchickel, you know, I’m always learning new languages from our kids.
So we also rely a lot on interpreters when we’re working with a kid who doesn’t speak Spanish or English as their principal language.
Brogan: Is helping them develop English language skills an important part of the process at any point? I assume that would help them master their own relationship to the legal system a little bit more.
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. While kids are in our custody they are studying English. And then when they leave custody and they’re out in the community, you know, one of the things that we work on is helping them get enrolled in public schools and making sure that they’re accessing those services that are available to them.
I do think that learning English is a really valuable skill for kids, but I also want them to do it at their pace. So, we’ll always practice with kids during meetings if they want to, but I’ll never push them if they’re not ready to go there.
Brogan: Have you learned much of those Mayan languages along the way?
Nathan-Pineau: I have not learned very many words. I had a client when I was back in Texas who would teach me a couple of words during every meeting, but I’ve forgotten most of them unfortunately. So, I look forward to having another client who speaks the Mayan language so I can learn again.
Brogan: What do you think most people don’t know about immigration and refugee issues in the United States? Are there things that would surprise them? Are there things that you wish people understood better?
Nathan-Pineau: Absolutely. One of the things that I think it’s really important for people to know is that while immigrants have the right to counsel, there’s no appointed counsel. And the number of people who are detained and the way that detention interacts with people’s ability to actually get counsel is also something that’s really important.
These detention centers where people are usually in more rural or remote parts of the country where there aren’t large urban centers filled with lawyers like D.C., and so the ways in which people are detained and isolated effect their ability to find counsel even if they have the resources to do so. And for those who are indigent, the way our detention system works, it makes it basically impossible for them to find counsel. You know, deportation proceedings are cases where people’s safety is at risk. It’s the core of the case. People who are applying for humanitarian protections in this country are doing so because they fled horrible circumstances.
And so I think it’s important for people to think about that and think about the fact that we don’t have the ability as a nonprofit community or private bar who practiced immigration law to meet the needs of the people who are out there.
Brogan: How do your respond to people that think we should take care of people within the United States before we help refugees?
Nathan-Pineau: I do hear that sometimes out in the world. And one of the things that I like to remind people of is that we’re a nation of immigrants. Some of us are more recent immigrants than others, but the people who are migrating here as part of this refugee crisis on our Southwest border are people who are in dire need.
And that’s not to say that we don’t have American citizens who are also in dire need, but rather than serving one without serving the other, I think we should try to serve both groups of people. And that children who are particularly vulnerable and are migrating alone should be a group of people that we feel some compassion for.
Brogan: So, we’re recording this just a few weeks after the election of Donald Trump. And, of course, he spent a lot of the campaign fostering fears about immigrants and claiming that he was going to deport people and so on. What does that have you, people in your organization, people in your line of work thinking about right now?
Nathan-Pineau: I think the election threw a lot of members of our community—I wouldn’t say into a panic, but we’re experiencing a lot of fear I think as a community. And our clients are experiencing a lot of fear because they don’t—there’s so much uncertainty about what’s to come.
Brogan: Do you feel that awareness when you’re interacting directly with clients right now? I mean, are they processing these anxieties as well?
Nathan-Pineau: Absolutely. The day after the election, I had staff go into a detention center and meet with kids. And the kids were aware of what had happened and were asking questions about how it was going to impact them. Some of them, because of the rhetoric they’ve heard, believed that they would no longer have the ability to fight a case. And so they’re experiencing a lot of anxiety and stress on top of the anxiety and stress of being in detention.
So, it’s definitely affecting the people we serve in detention, and then we’ve also just received an increase in the number of calls from the community members who are worried about their safety, worried about the safety of their family members. And with good reason, because the rhetoric has been so hateful that people are really afraid of what that means practically.
You know, our advice to people is don’t panic. Get a consultation with a good immigration attorney. And know your rights. We’re working in collaboration with a lot of other nonprofits in the area to set up presentations in schools and churches so that people have access to that good information. They can make decisions for their families and for themselves. They can set up safety plans if that’s needed, if it’s a mixed immigration status family and they’re worried about perhaps one member facing potential detention or deportation.
And we’re trying to setup consultation days as well. So, members of the community can actually sit down with a lawyer, tell their story, and figure out whether there may be something that they can do to secure their immigration status here in the US.
It’s a scary time to be an immigration lawyer, but we’re ready. I think in our office we’ve been feeling sad but energized. This is sort of for us a reminder of how many people are out there. How many people need help. And it has just become sort of more acute and we’re more aware every day of how many people are going to need our services.
Brogan: If people are listening to this and they are not attorneys, are there other ways that they can help in one way or another with these kinds of proceedings and processes?
Nathan-Pineau: Absolutely. We depend on lots and lots of non-lawyer volunteers to make all of the different parts of our office work, to make our services work. If you speak a different language, particularly Spanish or French, or Arabic, we’re always looking for people to translate documents or interpret for our clients. If you have another skill that you would be willing to volunteer to help clients, you know, perhaps transporting them around, or helping a client learn how to use the Metro. We’re always looking for people who are kind-hearted and willing to support our clients and help them sort of reintegrate after they leave detention.
So, there’s lots of ways that people can get involved. You know, if you’re interested in doing a one-day detention center visit, you are interested in just going and seeing what it’s like and interviewing folks, that’s a way that people can get involved, too. And it’s going to be more and more necessary because we expect that the detention numbers will increase. We don’t know how fast they’ll increase. We don’t know what they’ll increase to, but we expect that there will be more people facing detention and deportation. And we’re a small office of 23 people. And it’s the army of volunteers and pro-bono attorneys that really help us serve the thousands of people we’re able to serve every year.
Brogan: What’s the best part of the work that you do?
Nathan-Pineau: Being able to meet with a client and let them know that they’ve won their case, that they’ve had a positive outcome. That they’re going to get out of detention. Those are the best moments.
And there’s enough of a balance between the bad and the good that you’re able to keep going.
Brogan: Do you win more than you lose?
Nathan-Pineau: We do. We win more cases for kids than we lose.
Brogan: Do you have any particularly uplifting memories/experiences that stick with you?
Nathan-Pineau: Yeah. One of my favorite things about my time in Texas was when I would pick my clients up after they were released from detention. It was usually on their 18th birthday. And so as a birthday celebration I would take them to IHOP. And that was always so fun for them, because after months, maybe years of being in detention, they would go and order so many pancakes and bacon and eggs and just go crazy. And eat this really decadent meal and that was the way I would celebrate with them.
So, to me, that was always a really fun thing to do with my clients.
Brogan: That moment it is truly an International House of Pancakes.
Nathan-Pineau: Exactly. Yeah. So that’s something that I always—in tough moments I can reflect back on those IHOP breakfasts that were always so much fun.
Brogan: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.
Nathan-Pineau: Thank you. I appreciate you guys inviting me here.
Brogan: It was a pleasure.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. I’m Jacob Brogan. We’d love to hear your thoughts about the podcast. Our email address is Working@Slate.com. If you have thoughts about other things you’d like to hear in this series, or about the episodes we’ve done so far, please do write to us.
You can also listen to past episodes at Slate.com/Working.
Working is produced and edited by Mickey Capper. Thanks in this episode to AC Valdez and Efim Shapiro. Our executive producer is Steve Lickteig. And the chief content officer of the Panoply Network is Andy Bowers.
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In this Slate Plus extra, Nithya Nathan-Pineau talks about the CAIR Coalition’s relationship with the Office of Refugee Resettlement and describes the conditions in that organization’s facilities.
Brogan: What are the conditions like in detention centers that you visit?
Nathan-Pineau: So, they vary widely. We work with kids who are in different levels of security. And so the lowest level of security, the facility looks a lot like a boarding school. The children live in rooms where there’s like bunk beds and two or three kids to a room. Long hallways of these rooms. And a big common area. And the kids go to school in a separate building where their classrooms look very much like classroom for kids in public schools all around the US.
In the higher levels of security, those facilities are facilities that also do juvenile detention for kids that are domestic and are involved in juvenile delinquency proceedings. So it looks like a juvenile detention center in the traditional sort of American like penal system. So even though it’s civil detention, the actual space looks much more like jail. So those are the places where I was talking about we have restrictions on what we can wear and what we can bring in. And the kids are wearing jumpsuits and they are not—they don’t have access to their personal items. And they have a lot of restrictions on what they have access to in the detention centers.
You know, they’re not allowed to have things like paint brushes. So, it’s a really limiting environment.
Brogan: How do you get in touch with the young people that you’re working with in the first place? Does ORR reach out to you, or is there another process there?
Nathan-Pineau: So, we actually on a weekly basis go out to the detention centers in the local area in teams of two or three people and we meet with kids individually. We have an agreement with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide this service for kids. And so we have access to meet with them. We have private spaces to work with them. And we’re also able to sort of from our office talk to them by phone. Or we provide consultations and that’s sort of a service that ORR provides for kids.
Brogan: Is there a reason that they don’t provide it themselves?
Nathan-Pineau: You know, I’m not sure. I think it would be really hard for ORR within their sort of existing infrastructure, which is really focused on care and custody, to also have lawyers be a part of that. Our role is zealous advocacy for each client. And that doesn’t necessarily mean being in ORR custody. So I think sometimes maybe there is a potential conflict there, so it’s better to have sort of independent agency come in and do legal assessments and advocacy and representation for kids.
Brogan: But you are fully nongovernmental?
Nathan-Pineau: Yes. We are a nongovernmental organization.
Brogan: Sounds like your work is reliant on a lot of cooperation and transparency relatively speaking at least from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But is that demand for that kind of cooperation legally enshrined for that institution? I mean, is there any concern that that access that you have might go away?
Nathan-Pineau: I think there are some concerns about how certain protections will change under the new administration, whether there will be changes to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which gives unaccompanied children in detention some procedural protections.
But in terms of the institutional relationships with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, that’s enshrined in law out of a settlement agreement with the US government that was called Flores. And the Flores Settlement sort of lays out basic detention standards for unaccompanied children. So any time that we’re looking at basic conditions or what children are entitled to in the custody of Office of Refugee Resettlement, we go back to the Flores Settlement.
So, to change the Flores Settlement would be a huge deal. And that would, yeah, potentially affect our access to kids. But as it stands now, I don’t really see that changing. Children are still entitled to have access to these Know Your Rights presentations and legal screenings and matching with pro bono attorneys. But, you know, I think we could see things like funding cuts which would impact our ability to adequately staff and provide the services in our program. I think we could face issues like restrictions on how often we’re able to go or one thing that we saw after the Summer of 2014 when there were a large number of unaccompanied children who entered the United States and families with children who entered the United States was that there were special Lock It dockets that were created that made these cases go much, much faster. So even the nonprofit service providers and other members of the immigration bar who are trying to respond to that crisis just couldn’t keep up with how fast the courts were going. So, I mean, there have been a lot of lessons learned and how much and how quickly we have to mobilize because if that’s what happened under this administration, I think what’s to come is a little bit scarier for us.
Brogan: Sounds like a lot scarier.