The first time I visited the Atlanta Immigration Court, I had the opportunity to observe an asylum petition hearing. The respondent had no attorney. He was brought from a nearby immigrant detention facility where apparently he had been held for almost a full year.
“Your honor, I’m a good man. All I do is go to church, go to work, and take my children to and from school. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I’ve never been in trouble with the law. I just spend time with my family.” The judge: “So, what you are saying is that you are driving without a license and working without authorization.” From where I was sitting, I could see the government’s attorney absentmindedly scrolling through vacation sites, with his chin resting comfortably in the palm of his hand, while the judge did all the talking. The respondent: “Sir, I can’t go back to my country. I will be killed.” The judge: “It is not the responsibility of the United Sates to make you safe or comfortable.”
The decision was swift. The respondent’s asylum petition was denied, and he had sixty days to return to his home country. When the judge announced his decision, the two little boys that I happened to be sitting next to grabbed each other’s small hands and started to cry. Their mother, holding her infant girl in her arms, begged them in a whisper to explain to her in Spanish what had happened. They were not able to answer her through their tears. In a hushed voice, I interpreted the judge’s decision for her. As her own tears started to fall, I saw this woman try to quickly bury her disillusionment and grief somehow and start to gently comfort her children. The judge kicked me out of the courtroom for speaking without permission.
One in 10 residents of Georgia identifies as an immigrant. One in 13 residents in Georgia born in the U.S. have at least one parent that identifies as an immigrant. Approximately 30% of immigrants in Georgia have reported being undocumented. Over 90% of asylum cases heard in Atlanta’s Immigration Court are denied (which is why our Appellate Project remains so important). As I saw firsthand that day in court and have been continuously reminded over the past five years, our immigration system is not designed to be person-centered. It is ever-changing and increasingly challenging.
The laws of Georgia are also not responsive to the realities of people experiencing gender-based violence and trying to gain freedom and independence from abuse. In 2018, 68% of survivors of family violence incidents reported to law enforcement were female. Georgia has one of the highest reports of human trafficking in the country. Only recently was Georgia’s legal age of marriage raised to prevent child marriages in our state. These challenges are exponentially more difficult to navigate when someone does not have the appropriate professional legal and social services support to help them manage the ongoing revictimization from our flawed systems.
As a first-generation American from an immigrant matriarchal family, I grew up witnessing firsthand the power of immigrant woman and girls, how that power can grow exponentially when they have access to appropriate information and resources, and how much they pour back into the community as they establish a safe and stable life. I joined the Tahirih Justice Center five years ago, a few months after our Atlanta office opened its doors. At the time, our client services team consisted of me and our attorney. We shared a desk in a coworking space until we could find a permanent office location. Together, we ventured across the Georgia community. Our goal was two-fold: to learn more about the work that immigration rights advocates and gender-based violence survivor advocates have been doing in and outside of Atlanta for a very long time, and to understand where Tahirih could most appropriately offer our unique services. Since then, I’ve seen Tahirih Atlanta grow. We’ve increased our staff and skillset. established authentic partnerships that have been vital to our growth and success, and gained a positive reputation offering a trauma-informed, culturally competent, holistic model of care to serve the immigrant survivor community of Georgia.
We understand that our clients are whole people, and being both client and community centered remains front and center in what we do at Tahirih.
There are immigrant survivors that we started working with five years ago in Atlanta who are still waiting for a decision on their case, or even for their cases to be heard in court. While they wait, they face ongoing financial, technological, transportation, and language barriers to access resources such as medical and mental health services, safe housing, continuing education, employment, financial assistance, and other basic needs. Supporting immigrant survivors of gender-based violence strengthens generations of families and supports the growth of our diverse community.
Georgians know that the heart of our state is the civil rights and human rights movement. That is why we have continuously counted on our community’s support to assist the families that we serve in being able to sustainably live an independent life outside of an abusive or violent situation. Becoming a monthly donor or donating your time as a pro bono or volunteer are just two of the ways that you can support our work in Atlanta. Join us and together we can uplift the rights of immigrants and survivors of gender-based violence in Atlanta for the next five years and beyond.
Senior Social Services Program Manager
Tahirih Justice Center, Atlanta
- Georgia Commission on Family Violence (GCFV) Fact Sheet: https://gcfv.georgia.gov/document/document/2021-gcfv-fact-sheet/download
- National Human Trafficking Hotline, Georgia Statistics: https://humantraffickinghotline.org/en/statistics/georgia