Community Power and Devotion Win Yazmin’s Freedom
By Mimi Elias
Although mass incarceration is a major issue in the Land of the Free, the criminal justice system has a unique impact on Latina immigrant women who have experienced gender-based violence. Yazmin Liliana Elias, my sister, is an undocumented woman who is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. She was recently released on bond despite staunch opposition by immigration courts in San Francisco and amidst the extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric disseminated by our current presidential administration. Her story shows that community organizing can be one of the most effective ways to mobilize around the unjust policies that result in the detention of undocumented people.
To be an unauthorized immigrant is to be a criminal in the eyes of the media, a human without any right to due process—despite the fact that residing within the confines of the United States without proper documentation is not an issue of criminal law, but one of civil law. In Arizona v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that, “Removal is a civil, not criminal, matter.”1 Nonetheless, undocumented immigrants in the United States can be deported if they commit a crime for which a legal citizen would be penalized with only a fine or brief detention.
Female survivors of intimate partner violence often see their hardships ignored by the courts and find themselves reduced to nothing but their rap sheets. Little compassion is shown to incarcerated women who stray from the roles they are expected to embody.
The American and Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) have noted that, “Many incarcerated women—nearly 60 percent of female state prisoners nationwide and as many as 94 percent of certain female prison populations—have a history of physical or sexual abuse.”
All of these factors come together in Yazmin’s story. She was born in Mexico in 1982, and brought to the United States without documents four years later. She grew up witnessing domestic violence perpetrated by her father on her mother, and embarked upon volatile relationships with men beginning at the tender age of 14.. Out of her first relationship, Yazmin became the mother to three boys, all of whom were born in the United States. For 20 years, Yazmin endured severe gender-based violence at the hands of aggressive partners who trafficked her, caused her to have a miscarriage, and left her bedridden for over a week due to a brutal beating. She self-medicated to cope with her harsh reality, and was caught driving under the influence of alcohol three times. One of Yazmin’s convictions was possession of a controlled substance. She had been forced to take methamphetamine by her partner in order to go into early labor and have a miscarriage.
Being a mother in prison is also an identity that is not given adequate weight by the criminal justice system. The 2007 report released by BJS also found, “52 percent of state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates—reported having minor children, an estimated total of 1,706,600 children with parents in prison, accounting for 2.3 percent of the U.S. resident population under age 18.”2 One could deduce that incarcerated mothers are highly likely to have experienced violence and the emotional trauma that accompanies it.3 Several studies have pointed out that being the child of an incarcerated parent often leads to severe mental health issues stemming from the inability to connect with a stable caregiver who is not locked away.
“Since my mom got detained, I have been feeling sad and it’s hard for me to focus on school. I really need for my mom to come back,” said Yazmin’s youngest son, age 12. “Adults think I need medicine, counselors, social workers, but all I need right now is my mom,” he said.
Tie in being undocumented in a country that denies health care to those who are not in the US legally, and the result is someone like Yazmin: a survivor of intimate partner violence who had no means of accessing adequate and appropriate help because she was subject to legal and political maneuverings based on her place of birth.
Yazmin Considers Self-Deporting
In early August, I paid Yazmin a visit at West County Detention Facility in Richmond, California, where she informed me that she was veering toward self-deporting if her first bond hearing did not go according to plan. At this point Yazmin had been detained for six months and she was having a difficult time adjusting to being locked inside a room 22 – 23 hours a day. During our 30-minute interaction, she disclosed to me that immigration officials harassed her and other women on her block on a daily basis. If a detainee did not speak English, she would face being ridiculed or have toilet paper rolls thrown at her in an attempt to humiliate her.
“I hate being here, it’s dirty as hell in here. They’re very rude,” Yazmin said. “They throw the toilet paper rolls at us. Sometimes we can’t brush our teeth because they don’t give us a chance. A guard asked why we’re fighting our case, says we should go back to Mexico and not all of us are from Mexico. The food looks like they have maggots in there,” she said.
Yazmin’s testimonial highlights the blatant power disparities between the detainee and the law enforcers, and immigration officials’ insistence on presenting as legal actors. But they are not lawyers with sound legal advice to give. Yazmin, as a potential asylee, should not return to Mexico, due to an imminent threat against her life by the father of her children, who blames her for his deportation.
On November 10, 2016, just two days after Donald J. Trump had been elected president, and 257 days since Yazmin had been detained by ICE, several community members and I attended Yazmin’s second hearing in two months. At the first hearing her previous attorney had poorly represented her and this resulted in a deportation order. That attorney said in front of an immigration judge, “She should just deport herself and come back illegally—it’ll be easier that way.”
At this second hearing, the Department of Homeland Security attorney said to the judge, “Yazmin needs to stop blaming other people for her problems,” and the judge decided that Yazmin was a danger to society and a flight risk. He informed Yazmin’s attorney that whether he continued her hearing on the same day or several weeks in the future, he would rule for continued detention.
On April 3, 2017, federal district Judge William Orrick III heard a habeas petition for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) in the case (Yazmin Liliana Elias vs. Jefferson Sessions, et al.) to relieve Yazmin of her continued detention because the immigration judge, Scott Simpson, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attorney, Erin Lopez, failed to prove she was a continued threat to the community. Although the motion to grant a TRO was denied, Judge Orrick ordered Yazmin’s next hearing to be continued from her previous hearing and take place before May 15, 2017. This push to have Yazmin’s last hearing continued at her next proceeding was a direct result of the community’s rallying behind the resilient mother of three.4
Community Support Turns the Tide
For roughly over a year various members of the community had been packing every court hearing, including the one that occurred at the San Francisco Courthouse. In Judge Orrick’s order released on April 20, 2017, he wrote, “Case law demonstrates that establishing dangerousness by ‘clear and convincing evidence’ is a high burden and must be demonstrated in fact, not ‘in theory.’” This was a direct response to the immigration judge’s refusal to let Yazmin go because she posed an immediate danger based on her past, despite the fact that she had been on the road to recovery by participating in a rehabilitation program tailored for survivors of domestic violence and breaking the cycle of abuse by remaining with a partner that did not exploit her.
Judge Orrick also stated that “it is extremely doubtful that any Magistrate Judge on this court would have remanded her to custody based on this record.” Toward the end of the hearing, prior to his decision, while gazing at the nearly 60 people seated in court to stand by Yazmin, Judge Orrick emphatically told the courtroom, “I can see all the support that is here for the respondent. Community presence will certainly be taken into consideration for my decision.”
Between May 1 and May 11, East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition (EBIYC) began to wrap up a nearly eight-month campaign in hopes that Yazmin Elias would be liberated from immigration detention. Every day for an entire week organizers held actions that included testifying in front of thousands on May Day, being interviewed extensively by media, selling #FreeYaz shirts to raise money for possible bond, and an intensive online photo campaign to build up for Yazmin’s final hearing on Thursday, May 11.
May 11 turned out to be an incredibly powerful day, as more than 60 supporters of Yazmin came to pack the courtroom and chant outside the ICE building in San Francisco for more than four hours. At first Judge Simpson, the immigration judge, seemed skeptical at the idea of releasing Yazmin; at one point he compared her to “pressing a red button and releasing a missile that could land on the sidewalk and hurt a small child or in the middle of the ocean and cause no harm,” because of her past DUI convictions. But four hours of non-stop chanting and a court that never saw an empty seat, as well as Yazmin’s determination to show him that she was not a beast unworthy of rehabilitation, convinced the judge to grant her bond. Still, he showed his reluctance to release her by the exorbitant cost he set for her freedom: $25,000. According to the ICE officials that take bonds and the bank at which we retrieved an anonymous donor’s $25,000 check, this was the highest amount of bond that a judge had ever ordered under his name.
Family and community reunited outside of West County Detention Facility that afternoon after a long day of chanting and riding an emotional roller coaster, only to be taken for another ride. At around 6 p.m., more than 20 supporters found out that Yazmin would not be released after all, since she had a few warrants out for her arrest directly related to her inability to attend because she had been detained by ICE since February 2016. Her family and community rallied outside for an additional two hours, chanting “Free Yazmin!” and “Not one more deportation!” Unfortunately, Yazmin was not released that night, but the media managed to capture the incredible resilience strangers and family alike embodied for the incarcerated mother.
An Emotional Roller Coaster to the End
The next day, on Friday at around 2 p.m., organizers and family members received the news that Yazmin would be liberated, as she was transferred to Sonoma County Main Adult Jail in Santa Rosa and cleared of all warrants because her “failure to appears” were a direct result of miscommunication between DHS and the Sonoma County courts. Around 15 of Yazmin’s friends and family drove for two hours to reunite with her, only to be let down once again after two hours of deliberation by the Sonoma County night clerk. Media was present to be the courier of the government’s deeds, and more chanting ensued as the pressure mounted.
Mother’s Day passed on Sunday, May 14, as well as my own graduation from UC Berkeley on Saturday, May 13, Yazmin was still not scheduled to be released until Tuesday after she appeared to her criminal court hearing for missing her probation while she was detained. But on Monday her family received a call stating that she was on her way out and needed a ride home. A few hours later, Yazmin and her family were reunited. A few news outlets were present to broadcast the event nationwide in order to highlight the difficulties that are encountered by detained mothers all around the United States. As of May 15, 2017, Yazmin Liliana Elias is with her family in Santa Rosa, California.
Without community devotion, it is certain that Yazmin would not have been released into the loving arms of her family and I would have not been able to see my sister triumph in the face of adversity. This is evident by the court’s sudden flip on Yazmin’s and a judge who did not fully see her as a person capable of change; as someone not worthy of mercy. Courts are often impervious to trauma with an average of 75% of asylum seekers being rendered deportable in the city of San Francisco alone.5
It took three hearings, 15 months, a competent attorney and thousands of community members to free Yazmin. She still has a pending deportation order that was stopped by an intervention from her attorney, but the remarkable amount of community power and her own decision to not self-deport have kept her here. Increased community support and organizing tactics proved to be significant legal actors up against one of the toughest immigration judges in San Francisco. My sister Yazmin’s case is just one example that can be replicated throughout the country to fight the deportation apparatus that dismantles families everywhere. n
Mimi Elias is the sister of Yazmin Elias.
3 Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/mhppji.pdf
4 Numerous nightly news programs featured Yasmin’s case. Jhttps://archive.org/details/KSTS_20170404_003000_Noticiero_Telemundo_48/start/300/end/360
‘Our Communities are Our Own Sanctuaries’
By Blanca Vazquez
What does sanctuary mean for those of us who have fallen into the criminal legal system and been labeled as “criminals”? Do we not deserve sanctuary?
I ask this as an undocumented woman with a DUI conviction that denied me the opportunity to benefit from DACA. Being the “bad” politicized brown woman that I am, I already know the answer. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past five years as an organizer joining local efforts to stop deportations, it’s that we are our own saviors. Our communities are our own sanctuaries. This could not be more true after the victorious campaign we at the East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition (EBIYC) led to reunite Yazmin Elias with her family after 15 months in ICE custody at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, California.
Yazmin’s story is very common among the immigrants we see who are incarcerated facing deportation: a community member facing systematic oppression is explicitly criminalized instead of being provided with community-based transformative resources. Yazmin is a single mother who endured two decades of physical abuse and trauma from an early age and fell into the criminal and immigration legal systems while desperately trying to survive with her children. While she is a resilient woman who survived abuse and addiction and deserved a chance at happiness, she was further traumatized when she was incarcerated and faced possible deportation. As advocates against deportation, we knew that Yazmin’s case was not an easy one due to her extensive criminal record: three DUIs and drug convictions that had tagged her a threat to public safety. Nonetheless, our team at EBIYC did not shy away from this case. This time around, one of our own fellow organizers was being impacted, and we knew very well this case would set a strong precedent.
In the world of deportation defense, you come across a wide range of detention stories, from people who were arrested for minute insignificant offenses, such as driving with a busted headlight, to people with DUIs or other criminal convictions. In our experience it’s those difficult cases that truly push the national narrative on immigration to the far radical left.
From a restorative justice standpoint we believe that systematic oppression and white supremacy are the true factors to blame for the criminalization of immigrant people in the U.S., and not the “crime” for which they are being wrongfully disposed of. At the core of deportation defense campaigns is a direct challenge to the social and legal arguments validating someone’s crimes as rightful reasons for their expulsion from the country. When we challenge these arguments two things are happening simultaneously: 1) We are exposing the community to the harsh reality of the immigration court system while starting to humanize the defendant in the orange jumpsuit facing a judge via a screen monitor. (Yes, defendants are almost never physically present for their own court hearings!) 2) We are pushing a detainees family out of victimization and uplifting them into their own power and integrity as they spearhead our campaign activities.
These two components were imperative for challenging the immigration legal system in the courtroom and in the street to secure Yazmin’s freedom—especially when faced with an immigration judge notorious for deporting immigrants, Judge Scott Simpson. The court procedures exist to isolate, dehumanize and demoralize defendants forced to endure the bureaucratic cynicism that decides not only their fate but the fate of their families. Throughout the course of our campaign, Yazmin did not once go before Judge Simpson without a courtroom filled with members of her family and her community diligently observing. The judge forced Yazmin to relive traumatic abusive experiences that served as evidence, used derogatory language and multiple times denied Yazmin her freedom. Having community presence, and yes, specifically white people, in the courtroom dramatically shifted the power dynamic of those court hearings by shifting power from the judge to our base.
After we arduously advocated for Yazmin’s freedom for eight months, she was finally released on bond and reunited with her three US citizen children on May 15, 2017. Achieving Yazmin’s freedom in the era of Trump is a notable achievement for our movement, but more important is the transformation of Yazmin and her family.
Yazmin’s mother, who numerous times confronted her fear of entering the ICE field office to support her daughter during her court hearing. Having never been so close to la migra, she was skeptical of our strategies, but by the time Yazmin was released she was ready for the next campaign to get the next person released. That relinquishing of fear is our vision for our community; that is the reality we’re striving for. n
Blanca Vasquez is the co founder and lead organizer of the East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition (EBIYC).