A small team works to aid immigrants in Louisiana: ‘Do the best you can with the time you have’
The Kisatchie National Forest is a blanket of dark green spread over central Louisiana. It wraps around the long-winding state road between Alexandria and Winnfield — where Nora Ahmed, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, and I are headed.
I watch as the forest gives way to a sprawling complex — Winn Correctional Center — a former private prison turned immigration detention center. It’s a cool November morning, and Ahmed and a little more than half a dozen immigration attorneys and advocates from New Orleans and other parts of the country are gathered in the prison’s parking lot. I watch them unload boxes and boxes of documents onto dollies, leave their laptops and cell phones in the car and shuffle past some barbed wire fences and into the brown-gray building.
The boxes are filled with pro se materials — information about how detainees, mostly people who came to the U.S. to seek asylum and are now stuck behind bars, can seek release through a federal, legal challenge to ICE’s ability to keep someone in detention called habeas corpus. The team will spend the next nine hours speaking with the hundreds of detainees held at Winn — sharing a presentation on how to file habeas petitions and also offering one-on-one counseling.
Visits like the one being made this day have been ongoing since April when a coalition of legal and human rights organizations — the ACLU of Louisiana, Southern Poverty Law Center, National Immigration Project and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights — began sending teams of attorneys and advocates on week-long trips to the most out-of-reach detention centers in Louisiana in roughly 2-month intervals. Louisiana consistently has the second-largest detained immigrant population in the country, according to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Today, the state has eight detention centers — down from its peak of 12 in July 2019. Seven of them, including Winn, are privately operated. Almost all are in rural areas.
These visits also serve as a way for the coalition to get eyes inside the facilities that often seem shrouded in mystery. Louisiana is far from the U.S.-Mexico border and from many immigrant communities, and visitations from loved ones are not allowed in many of these detention centers.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Catholic Charities Diocese of Baton Rouge provided in-person legal rights presentations at some of Louisiana’s immigration detention centers through Vera Institute’s Legal Orientation Program. According to a legal orientation program coordinator at Catholic Charities, those presentations are still ongoing virtually — detainees watch a video and can be connected online to a presenter and an interpreter. But the information provided through the program is different from the presentations on habeas corpus that the coalition provides. Furthermore, Ahmed said Catholic Charities’ move to virtual legal education meant that nobody was systematically and frequently going to the facilities.
Journalists are not allowed to visit these facilities, meaning my time shadowing Ahmed and the other advocates was limited to before and after the visit to Winn, and to a woman’s facility in Basile, Louisiana. Before and afterward, I spoke with them to get a sense of what they see and hear on the inside, and why they do this work.
Nora Ahmed: ‘Do the best you can in the time that you have’
On the morning of the trip to Winn, Ahmed and a paralegal from the ACLU of Louisiana that’s assisting her load her 11-year-old, 65-pound dog, Orion, into her mother’s Tesla in the dark. She and the team assembled for this trip stayed in Alexandria for a week, using it as a place to parachute to different detention centers, as it’s generally no more than two to three hours away from most of the detention centers.
Even though Ahmed’s days consist of long hours inside a prison listening to immigrants talk about their experiences getting to the U.S. and inside detention, she tries to maintain a sense of normalcy. Taking Orion with her is part of that.
“I feel as though I cannot be separated from him in his autumn years,” she said.
So, she’s commandeered her mother’s car until she can get one suitable for the old pooch.
At a McDonald’s on the way to doggy daycare, Ahmed orders the only meal she will have for several hours — coffee and a breakfast sandwich. Once inside Winn, she won’t eat or drink anything — not even a sip of water — until it’s time to leave.
“When you drink water, you have to go to the restroom,” she said. “And when you go to the restroom, you lose time.”
Ahmed has to maximize the time she’s allotted to speak to as many immigrants as possible and answer the myriad of questions they have: “Why am I here? Why am I in prison? I thought I did what I was supposed to do?”
She said there’s a misconception that all people in detention are illegal immigrants. But asylum seekers — which make up the majority of detained immigrants in the U.S. — are actually engaged in a legal process to try and get protection here. Because they entered the U.S. at the Mexico border without a visa, they are defensive asylum seekers, using their application for protection as a defense against deportation.
As one of the architects of this legal rights initiative, Ahmed often serves as the point person for many of the team’s visits, and damage control for when things don’t go as planned. The day before this particular trip to Winn, she noticed far too few attendees for their habeas corpus presentation.
It turned out that the facility only provided one sign-up sheet with 38 slots for each dorm, which could hold up to hundreds of people. Ahmed pointed the mistake out to Winn administrators and said she got an apology and proper cooperation for this visit, but that hiccup meant that dozens of people potentially missed out on vital information.
“We knew just based on prior experiences at other facilities that, on average, between 50 and 70% of those detained are interested in hearing a presentation,” Ahmed said.
When things don’t go as planned it’s frustrating, but Ahmed has some sayings she repeats to herself.
“A big one is you can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” she said. “You do the best you can in the time that you have.”
Ahmed spent a lot of time as a corporate attorney in New York, representing clients like Exxon, but she said she’s wanted to work for the ACLU since childhood for one big reason — she’s the child of immigrants herself.
She said her Arabic last name made her a target of anti-Muslim hate after 9/11 and identifies with the feeling of not fully belonging here just because of who you are. Now, as she talks to people who’ve escaped turmoil in their home counties only to be locked in prison-like facilities and possibly deported, she reflects on how fragile the American dream can be.
“We have exported the lore of what this country is. … across the world” she said. “But then there is also frustration, right, when people say they want to come to this great country and then we’re effectively telling them, well, it’s not for you.”
Tania Wolf: ‘It’s my life. It’s my community. It’s my family.’
In the mornings during the week-long trips to the detention centers, Tania Wolf tries to ground herself in routine. From her hotel room, she makes Quaker Oats instant oatmeal the way she likes it — half bottled water, half oat milk, a sprinkle of pecans and dried nuts. She also brings along her own pour-over coffee maker.
This is how she resets for another day of listening to immigrants in detention tell her how they want to get out of the prison-like facilities where they’re housed, about the lack of sufficient food inside them, about the medical care they’re not receiving. It gets to her.
“I think in the moment, you’re just kind of go, go, go. And just trying to get them the information, listen to their stories — because nobody’s listening to them,” Wolf said. “And then — once there’s quiet, once everything settles — in the hotel room is, when I start just feeling it and remembering the things they told me.”
Wolf is a bilingual administrative assistant for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, or SIFI. A child of immigrants from Ecuador and Colombia, she speaks Spanish fluently. Her co-worker, Hannah Lopez, describes her as someone people want to open up to. Inside the detention centers, she becomes a vessel for immigrants’ stories.
“For me, the stories sometimes resonate with my own family history,” Wolf said. “So, my cousin was a police officer in a small town in Colombia, and he was killed by the guerilla. But these are the stories that I’m hearing from people. These are my people”
Inside the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, a women’s facility in Basile, two older women with the same name befriend her.
“They were like, ‘We steal food sometimes,’” Wolf said. “I was like, ‘I don’t think it’s stealing at this point.’”
Wolf is young but she feels she’s been doing this work her whole life. She even worked for an immigration attorney in New York City when she was in university.
“Even as a young kid just helping my dad study for his citizenship test,” she said. “I have family members who are undocumented, and when I was doing that job, my mom asked if I could ask the attorney to help my family members with some cases, and I did. And to this day, I haven’t been able to help them. So, I think I continue to do this work just because … it’s my life. It’s my community. It’s my family.”
Hannah Lopez: ‘This is a way for me to break cycles and give back.’
In the parking lot of the women’s detention center in Basile, Hannah Lopez, senior project coordinator for the Southern Poverty Law Center, sits in the driver’s seat of a silver, rented minivan. She wipes tears from her cheeks and stares at the sprawling plain of swampy grass at the crawfish farm directly next to the prison lot. It’s dusk and sheets of purple, red and orange hover over the idyllic scene.
Lopez is from Southeast Louisiana, where the lineage of her white, non-immigrant family has been for generations. This landscape used to be a comfort to her, but today, it’s not.
“I can’t really appreciate or really feel how beautiful it is knowing what’s happening behind these doors,” she said.
Moments earlier, behind the doors of the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, she spoke with a group of Latin American women who asked her how they could get their children, who were still in their home countries, to the U.S. Lopez had to tell them that it’s not a good idea.
“Just having to break that news to a lot of people was hard,” she said. “When we give the presentations to the men’s dorms, they don’t openly cry. [But] the women openly cry. So that, paired with the questions … worried about the care of their children — it’s just a lot.
“That was the first time I couldn’t really hold it together in front of clients.”
Lopez said Wolf tapped her on the shoulder and suggested that she head out of the building a little early.
Lopez got her last name from her paternal grandfather, an immigrant from Panama. She learned Spanish to communicate with his side of the family, which led her to interpretation and, eventually, her job with the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative.
On days like today, when she needs extra motivation to keep going, she thinks of the history of injustice in Louisiana carried out by generations of white people.
“I’m not ashamed to be white, but it’s something that I’m cognizant of when I step into this work,” Lopez said. ”This is, for me, a way to work against that, to kind of break those cycles and give back.”