So You Want to Change the World

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Episode 3: Representing Child Immigrants Seeking Asylum

“Ever since then I trust nothing. I expect nothing. Because it does often feel pretty random.” Becca Title is a lawyer representing immigrant children from Latin America seeking asylum. Most of her clients have fled threats and violence in their home countries. The outcomes of their cases will determine whether they will grow up safely in the United States or be sent back to the danger they were trying to escape. Becca shares how she copes with the stress, the hope she finds in her child clients, and how the skills she learned in theater play in her work. She also reflects on the importance of recognizing one’s limits and finding career opportunities that are sustainable in the long term.

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Interview Transcript

Robin: 00:44 I first came to know Becca Title in 2008 when she joined our very first Global Gap Year class. Since that time she's graduated from Brown University with a degree in Theater and then got a Law Degree at Georgetown Law. Since then she's passed the bar in Texas and is now joining us here on the podcast. Becca thanks for joining us today.

Becca: 00:53 Thanks for having me.

Robin: 00:53 So what do you do?

Becca: 00:57 I am a lawyer. I represent the unaccompanied immigrant kids in their immigration proceedings. Those are the kids that come in without parents, or they are for one reason or another separated from the family they came with. They end up in detention centers designed for kids, and then they meet them there, and we represent them either in immigration court, or if they are filing an application with a different government organization, we represent them there also.

Robin: 01:23 So where have you done this work so far?

Becca: 01:25 Right after law school, you mentioned that I am barred in Texas, I am barred in Texas because I went after law school to work on the Texas-Mexico border doing the same work. There are a lot of shelters down there for these kiddos. They say cross, and they just sweep them right up and put them in one of the, there's now 18 shelters along the border area. And then I recently moved back to D.C. where I went to law school working for a different organization doing very similar work.

Robin: 01:51 So when you say detention centers tell me what that looks like. What does it look like when you enter a detention center to meet with the youth that you're working with?

Becca: 02:00 So there's a couple different kinds of detention centers. The basic, most common one is just a shelter level detention center that they're called "shelters." They're usually not purpose built for this. They're retrofitted from being something else. So a lot of times they used to be a hospital, they used to be a nursing home, they used to be church schools, something like that. And they're run by independent contracting organizations that contract with the U.S. government. They kind of look like a boarding school for like elementary school students. There's some sort of dorm area. There's a school section where they have classrooms. They try to make them look friendly, but they're also still detained there. So, you know, like being in jail is only ever going to be so friendly. But, they sort of make an effort. So that's the basic level. And then there's other kinds. They have some that have like a little bit higher security, and then there's two in the country right now that are the highest security. And one of those is here outside of D.C., and I serve that one now and that one looks like jail. The rest of the building is a juvenile detention center, and then they reserve some beds for immigrant kids who get stepped up to that level of security. So they run the gamut on what they look like.

Robin: 03:13 What does it take for a child to be elevated to high security? What are the factors that lead to that?

Becca: 03:21 So obviously, you know like my view of the system comes from the perspective of working with the kids, but they get stepped up if they -- you know sometimes it's kids with behavioral struggles not dealing well with being alone in a new country detained, you know, and maybe they acted out in some way so that you stepped up. But also right now any indication, any whiff of involvement with a gang will get you immediately put into a secure center, which sometimes isn't even like you admitted to being a gang member. It's like the gang was recruiting you can get you into a secure facility. And so they often have a real hair trigger on how you got there, and it's very hard to get stepped down and once you get stepped up.

Robin: 04:05 And these were children who came to the U.S. seeking refugee status. Is that correct?

Becca: 04:12 Mostly -- this is a statistic based on my experience -- is like it's 90 percent kids who just entered seeking asylum. But, sometimes, especially in Texas you would end up with kids who were basically they would have been "Dreamers," they would have been DACA eligible. You know they've been here a long time. They were brought when they were young by their parents. And so, in a secure facility some of them are you know like same situation but they had some sort of involvement with law enforcement, and then they got sent over. You know they had like a shoplifting charge or something. But mostly they're recent entrants, I would say.

Robin: 04:42 Is it possible that some of these kids who are now facing high security are facing high security because they were actually fleeing gang violence in Central America?

Becca: 04:54 Oh yeah. Definitely. For sure. So here's one thing that I've seen happen. When you're in a shelter level facility you have a case manager, and you have a clinician. And the clinician, it's like not super clear to me exactly what their background is. They are supposed to act sort of like a therapist, and they had been telling kids -- they've sort of stopped doing this in the last couple of weeks, but I think in certain shelters they're still doing this -- they've been telling the kids that what they said to their clinician was confidential like it would be if you were talking to a therapist. But it's not. The clinician writes up a report,, and it goes into their file. So kids were telling connections what had been happening to them why they were fleeing their country. And a lot of times they were being recruited or sometimes kids you know like there's a street kid who got involved with a gang and then was trying to get out when they were trying to step him from doing like small petty errands to something more and that kid has now explained to their clinician that this is what they're fleeing, and that goes in their file, and they get stepped up to a secure facility and they're basically in juvie.

Robin: 05:54 So we hear a lot about immigration and refugees right now in the media, and it sounds like we're hearing about it from two fronts. We're hearing about it as a result of the war in Syria, and then we're also hearing about it for folks coming from Latin America, as well. And you're primarily working with immigrants from Latin America. Is that correct?

Becca: 06:13 Almost exclusively. Yeah. So because I work with unaccompanied immigrant kids, the kids who are coming unaccompanied almost exclusively come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. Occasionally, there will be kids from other countries, but for obvious reasons it's much harder to get here unaccompanied across oceans. So  that's much less common.

Robin: 06:36 And what's driving people to come? I mean particularly kids as unaccompanied minors, what's driving them to take the risk to come to the United States?

Becca: 06:44 You know every kid is different. Every story is different. But I think it's not surprising to anyone that there's a lot of gang violence in all four of those countries. Cartel violence in Mexico in various parts of the country. You know in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala kids come fleeing being recruited to be a member of the gang, being recruited to be the girlfriend of a gang member. Maybe their family has been extorted, maybe killed because they weren't paying the extortion. There's also kids who come fleeing certain kinds of domestic violence and family violence unrelated to gang violence. And you know, some kids are coming because the levels of poverty in certain parts of those countries especially parts of rural Guatemala people don't have access to schools. People don't have access to any kind of jobs. And some of the kids are coming because they just really want to help their families. And they made a really dangerous journey because they're just trying to be a good son.

Robin: 07:39 How do they end up in these detention centers? How do they end up coming to the United States as unaccompanied minors?

Becca: 07:45 There's a couple ways that they end up being categorized as an unaccompanied minor. You have to be under 18. I mean we get toddlers,, we get babies we get 8 9 10 and then a lot, a lot of teenagers.

Robin: 07:59 So they can come, I'm assuming that if they're coming as a toddler who's unaccompanied, they're coming with a sibling who's not yet 18. Is that right?

Becca: 08:07 Yeah. That's one way. So they may be coming with a sibling who's not yet 18, they're coming with a cousin, they came with their aunt or uncle, with their grandma. Because what happens is that we also we have family detention centers. Those have been getting some press, and the family detention centers are actually that's a misnomer a little bit because they're for women and children. And specifically they are for mothers and children. So you maybe weren't even unaccompanied, maybe you came with your dad, or you came with your grandma. But at the border that person was not your mother, and so you are separated from them. And you're an unaccompanied child. And there are parents and aunts and uncles and cousins in detention centers across the country wondering what happened to the kid that they brought with them. And there's kids wondering what happened to the relative they were traveling with. And there's not great communication about that. And it's really scary for a lot of families. So that's one way you end up as an unaccompanied minor. Or maybe you did travel by yourself, or you traveled with a group of people you weren't related to. Your family maybe paid a guide to take you. Sometimes those guides are not super nice, and sometimes you luck out and they are like cool honorable people. But yeah, unaccompanied kids end up being unaccompanied in a lot of ways. And as a result they can be, there's a huge age range and a huge difference in expectations. Some kids thought that this is what might happen to them, and some kids did not expect to end up in this shelter situation with a bunch of other strangers from Central America.

Robin: 09:38 For those kids that came having a sense that this might be where they ended up, do you think their families were aware of that and decided to do it anyway?

Becca: 09:47 Yeah it's not always totally clear exactly what kids thought they were getting themselves into. But there are a number of kids that turn themselves in when they crossed the border. You know they didn't intend to try subsequently to cross the desert by themselves. They crossed the border, and then they turn themselves in to Border Patrol, and ask for asylum. Which is, to be clear, what you are supposed to do when you're asking for asylum. You are supposed to present yourself at the border and claim asylum. And so I think there are kids who thought that they would get released from the shelters a lot faster because some kids do get released within about a month. A lot of kids do. And then there's ones that for a bunch of complicated reasons are not being reunited with the family that they have here. And I think that's not something that really anybody comes expecting to be in these shelter situations for years, which happens in some cases, literally years. So that I think is is never expected.  

Robin: 10:38 Do you think the extended detention is becoming more common, and that's why families don't know? Or is it that the communication home simply isn't clear enough between family members who are here in the United States already and have had experience and know others who've had the experience, and the picture that's going back to the families that are sending unaccompanied minors are just too rosy about what the chances are?

Becca: 11:06 I think both. So one thing that happens is that kids came to reunite with certain family and then somebody in that household doesn't want to get fingerprinted, cannot pass a background check, for some reason or another. Or one reason kids get delayed is that there are certain rules about post-release services basically like some social services organization has to come check on them once or twice. And there is a huge wait list for that. And so everything might be fine but they are on the wait list for post-release services, and so they stay in their shelter for months and months. But I think under the current administration there's a lot of fear in the immigrant community, and it's reasonable fear. I mean there are ICE raids. When kids get picked up at the border before they're sent to the shelters, Border Patrol agents are asking them for the contact information of the family that they came to reunite with. And then sometimes those family members are getting picked up. And so I think people are going to become a lot more wary about coming forward as the sponsor for these kids. And if you don't have a sponsor, you can't get out of the shelter. The sponsor's the family they are trying to reunite, with the family or family friend. And so I think we're all anticipating a dramatic increase in the number of kids who have extended stays in these detention centers because their family is too scared to come get them.

Robin: 12:19 When we first met in 2008 you were looking at Thinking Beyond Borders in part because you were really interested in international relations and international development. Why are you doing this work now? What drives you into into this particular role?

Becca: 12:36 I think what I realized when I was on TBB when I was traveling with you and with everybody else on my year on Thinking Beyond Borders was that it was important to me to really feel that I was a part of the community that I was working in, that I wasn't swooping in somewhere, but that I really belonged there and understood it, and was doing the work in my own backyard. And I realized that there is a lot of work to do here in the United States. I didn't have to necessarily commit to moving to a different country to do the kind of work that I wanted to be doing, because there is a lot that needs doing here. My interest in immigration is directly related I think to my experience abroad because I would be working with a very similar population if I was doing some sort of development work and the Northern Triangle Countries in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. But because of the various global forces way beyond their control, those kids are coming here in my backyard, and I can work with them and help them with the system they're encountering, And so I ended up doing this.

Robin: 13:38 So you're from L.A. You did your undergrad in the Northeast. You did your graduate work in Washington D.C., and then you went to South Texas to start this part of your career. I'm curious, did South Texas feel like it was part of your community?

Becca: 13:53 I think it depends on how you're defining community, or how I'm defining it. Because yes and no. I'm not from Texas. I didn't really know anyone in Texas. I had worked for one summer in Texas prior to moving there, and not in South Texas, I was in Austin. But in a larger sense, this is my country. These laws are my country's laws. The detention centers they're putting together in are paid for by my tax dollars. And so yeah, this is my community, and this is my problem, and it's my problem to fix. But in terms of like, did I move there and feel as though I had lived there forever. No. That's a very different place than I had moved from.

Robin: 14:31 Did it feel like the right place for you to be?

Becca: 14:35 I think ultimately in the long term it wasn't, and I didn't really expect that it would be when I moved there. It was even more difficult to integrate into the community than I thought, because it turns out, I mean look, when you tell people you're moving to South Texas they think you mean San Antonio. And I was four and a half hours south of San Antonio. It is on the border with Mexico, and there is a huge number of people who have never left the Rio Grande Valley because they can't, because they are undocumented, and there are checkpoints to get out. And so especially recently, my understanding was in the last five or ten years it's gotten to the point where people they just never leave. And there's a lot of people that have had their families in the Rio Grande Valley since the Rio Grande Valley was part of Mexico. There are communities that go back generations, and it can be a little hard to break into a community that's that tightly knit. I was an outsider. I didn't have any sort of "in" to the community other than my job, and I mostly I'm working with kids who are detained not really living in the community. So it was not a place that I was going to stay for lengthy amount of time.

Robin: 15:47 There's a strong technical aspect to what you do when representing someone. Right? In terms of understanding their story well enough to be able to put it together into representing them well. But I'm wondering if you ever find it challenging to connect in ways that are humanizing so that you feel like you're actually connecting with the person and not just with their case.

Becca: 16:11 Yeah I think I would have more of the opposite problem. I think you know like we spend a lot of time with our clients. It's part of being good at my job to find a way to earn the kids' trust, make sure they understand what's happening, make sure they feel comfortable, telling me what is happening to them, what has happened to them, and also what they want to happen. It requires patience and time to be able to do that because for obvious reasons they're plopped down in a new country where they don't really know anybody. They don't speak the language. There's a broke legal system that people who are actual lawyers have a lot of trouble understanding, and there's like some random stranger asking them to talk about the worst things that ever happened to them. So it's pretty hard to avoid connecting with them. And like really growing to like them. And actually the problem is that things that are good for the person are not always the same as things that are good for the case. The best way to deal with their trauma may or may not be to like repeatedly rehash the details of it with your attorney and then in court. But regardless of whether that's the best thing for your mental health that is the thing that you have to do to be able to stay in the United States. So it can be really hard to try to find a way to ask kids questions knowing that like they probably don't want to answer them, and it maybe isn't the best thing for them in a mental health sense to be answering those questions right now. But it is my job to ask those questions and get their kids to a place where they can repeat the answers to them in front of a judge.

Robin: 17:44 You didn't grow up as an immigrant in the United States. And you, to my knowledge, probably didn't experience the same types of trauma that a lot of these kids have. What are some of the things that happen inside of you when you are trying to connect with these kids? What are some of the things that you use as tools to relate to them?

Becca: 18:05 That's interesting. I've never thought about it that way. I think, as you mentioned, I majored in theater basically producing a play working on characters, you've trying to get inside somebody else's experience, the experience of someone who's just a completely different person from you, came from a different place, different time. Maybe it's the muscle I used a lot. You know I've been doing theater since forever. I've also been interested in international relations since forever. I did model UN before I went on TBB. And so this idea of trying to understand where kids are coming from is sort of my natural way of interacting with people. But I will say I find it really helpful just in terms of you know kids don't know what information is important. They don't know what details of their story are legally relevant. It's not always the details you would think. And so it's really important to be able to ask good questions, and to ask good questions you have to have an understanding of the context, which you know also is a hard thing for a kid. Like it's hard to be like "What is your village like?" if their experience is their village and that the detention center they're in. Like there's not a lot you know they can't be like here the differences between like Washington D.C. and my village because they don't know. And so it's helpful to me to have spent time with TBB, living in a bunch of different living situations and different parts of the world. It just gives me like a helpful frame of reference for reminding myself when I'm asking questions to be like oh "What did your house look like? What was it made of? Did you have electricity or running water? When you say that you live far from something, what was your mode of transportation? Was it on foot? Was it by donkey? How long did it take you to get there?" Questions like that. And so for me it's helpful the context of having lived in a variety of situations in various countries has made that hurdle a lot easier. I think.

Robin: 19:48 The way you describe your relationships with these kids it sounds as though there's probably a lot of emotional weight that you carry in these relationships too, hearing these traumatic stories and really taking on this role of trying to champion their efforts to attain asylum which often times as you described a few moments ago is really a life or death question for them. What do you do to cope with that inside yourself as you go home each night at the end of the day?

Becca: 20:22 You know, they asked me that question in all of my interviews. Fortunately the field I'm in generally is at least aware -- you could not not be aware if you've ever actually tried to work in this field -- but is aware that it's pretty easy to get involved and carry a lot of weight. It's a lot of pressure to be like the one attorney's standing between this kid and like being sent back to a country they're like scared to have to live in. And everybody tries basically to just take a deep breath, get some distance. I'm pretty new to this. It's my second year. And so I'm still trying to figure out what the things are that really help me with that. You know like I like I go to the gym and that is helpful but it's not the only thing. That can't be the only thing I do. One of the reasons I wanted to move from Texas even though I really loved the kids I was working with was because we kept having these trainings about this issue basically that the words they use I don't know if this is like an actual like official psych term but that the term in the legal community is vicarious trauma or secondary trauma. And so we kept having these trainings on like vicarious trauma, how not to like take on the trauma of other kids. They kept recommending that you like spend time with your friends and your family, and try to like go out do other things, and it's really hard. It was really hard for me to do that in the Rio Grande Valley because I didn't have any support system outside of the people I worked with. And just logistically speaking it's like a very isolated place. It was hard to get around. And so I'm excited to be back in D.C. and try like that is another tactic. Just spending time with friends who don't do this work, going to like a concert or a bar or something. Just have a pretty clean break and not think about it for a while. That's another popular method of dealing with psychological weight of the work. But yeah. That's a real question. And I'm still definitely, if you have any thoughts or suggestions I'm taking.

Robin: 22:11 No I mean I can't imagine. You know I think like a lot of people who've been interested in issues of international relations or international development there was a period of time when I thought that I'd be working abroad for a big chunk of my career, and in the early years when I did spend a lot of time abroad I came up against this very similar thing. And and I wasn't necessarily working with people that were experiencing day to day trauma. Nor was I playing this key role in this important moment in their lives that you're playing. And so I just think about the role that you're playing and the weight that that would bring, and I would imagine that it's a very serious thing to consider when you think about this as a career path.

Becca: 22:51 Yeah. You know it is. I mean and I think careers are long, and there are some amazing attorneys who have been doing this kind of work or similar work public defense, other kinds of direct services work for a very long time. And when I come into contact with those people I try to learn from them as much as I can because they have figured something out that I have not figured out. And then there's a lot of attorneys who do this work for three years or five years and then they move on and do something related. But that's less direct and that's not a failure. You know they spent three or five years helping the people that they helped. It's like the cases they worked on don't disappear because they don't continue this work indefinitely. And so I also try to remember like careers are long. You know I want to be able to find a way to like deal with its effects on me because I want to be able to stay doing this work for a long time because I like it because I love working with these kids. But it's not a failure to bow out.

Robin: 23:46 I think that's really important to recognize for anyone heading out to their career particularly if they want to do social impact work is that idea that there isn't just one path and doing something that is emotionally intensive or in terms of real life commitment can be really intensive for a period of time and then doing the next thing, that that's OK, that we go through stages in our life. I also think about the fact that you're at a great moment to step into this type of work in your life in the sense that you know you're in your mid-20s and it's a time when you have lots of physical energy and you don't have the same types of life commitments that we get as we move forward in our lives and have houses and mortgages and families and all of that. This is a good time to be able to do this work and be as committed to it as the job deserves.

Becca: 24:33 Yeah. I mean and you know the other thing is that like the benefit of doing public interest law, which is what this is, as opposed to working in a private firm or something like that, they pay you a lot less, but you know they want to retain attorneys. They would rather not have to train new people, and they want you to be healthy and happy. And because of emotional weight of the work, you know, my office basically forces you to take your vacation days. They will expire after a certain amount of time, so like you must take them. And I've had attorneys tell me that their supervisor sat them down after they did this long, arduous case, and they'd be like I think a good time for you to take your vacation would be now. You should take some time off. And they're very conscious and conscientious about that, and it has some workplace flexibility and so there are -- you know we have some attorneys who have little kids, and they're finding a way to make that work for them.

Robin: 25:21 That self-care can be hard though, particularly when you're working so closely with individuals or a community where you can play that pivotal role in a key moment with your technical skills and knowledge, and with your engagement with them in a really meaningful way. It can be hard to step out of it.

Becca: 25:39 Yes it can. I mean I think a couple of things. One I try to be very clear about the boundaries of my role. And it's a gift to be able to work in an office with resources. Some offices have more than others because of location and funding. But you know like, I'm not a social worker. I'm not a therapist. I can't do those things for all of my clients. I would love to but I can't because then I won't be able to do my actual job, and to have the ability to connect them with someone who can help them with those other things whose job it is to help with those things is incredibly helpful. And it's not always the case you don't always have that but when you do. It's helpful to be able to draw your own boundaries and do a handoff because you get really -- I get really attached. You know I care a lot. I don't stop caring if my kid gets asylum. I'm not like "oh cool! Wash my hands of that kid. Good luck to you!" Like I have to close out their case, but I would like to know that somebody is helping to figure out how to get into school or get the mental health care that they need to deal with the trauma that they suffered.

Robin: 26:44 And they're still at the very beginning of a long process for them.

Becca: 26:47 Yeah. And so the more that the net gets filled in of all the different things that the kids I'm working with need. Or that you know like in a different area of law the clients that are public defenders, some public defenders offices have social workers in house, and it's such a gift to have that because it helps you as a public defender not have to also try as best you can to be a social worker because those things are so interconnected. So the more that net gets filled out and the more people are filling all these different roles the easier this will become.

Robin: 27:16 So you stepped into this work two years ago at a time when the national conversation about immigration not just pertaining to refugees but in general is at a fever pitch. And we often talk about it as though the left and the right treat this issue very differently. Have you found that to be true in your work on the ground, on the front lines of this issue?

Becca: 27:39 There is a broad range of ways that people react to the population I work with, and it can be really disheartening to run into people who are derisive and belittling and cruel to a bunch of kids because they look different, and they speak a different language. I think it's gotten a lot worse honestly since since November I think it's gotten a lot worse since the election. I think everybody I've talked to in my line of work feels that way, and that it's made it harder for me because you talk to any immigration attorney. They're not going to tell you that the system was working great under President Obama. One of the things that people really criticized President Obama for from the left was the way that he dealt with immigration issues, with deportations. But it didn't feel malicious, and it felt even like we were maybe moving in a direction that I would consider the right direction.

Robin: 28:34 What did that progress look like to you? Like what were the specific things that look like they were moving in the right direction? Was it just the discourse or was there actual changes in process and procedure?

Becca: 28:46 We haven't had any sort of comprehensive immigration law reform really the last major reform was in 1996, and I don't think anybody will argue that the like immigration system as it stands is doing great. It doesn't need to be changed at all. Everything's peachy. We just need to enforce the laws. Nobody thinks that. People think that the laws need to be different in a lot of different ways, but basically no one's happy with how they currently are. And there was an effort under the Bush administration to make some major changes that did not end up going through. And I sort of felt like -- and this is me, this is not everybody -- but I sort of felt like if Hillary Clinton had won, there was a chance that comprehensive immigration reform might be on the table. Because even in the Republican Party there were certain things that the mainstream, the majority of Congress people and Senators were sort of beginning to move around. I mean something as small as the Dreamers, the kids who currently have something called DACA, Deferred Action, like that is a non stable, nonpermanent form of relief that they have. Their lives are basically still in limbo and creating some sort of path to citizenship for those kids seemed like a reasonably lowest common denominator idea that might have happened.

Robin: 30:01 Those were kids who were brought by their families when they were young. Their lives are established here and the DACA kids were kids who were getting protection from the federal government so that they didn't have to fear immediate deportation in any moment. Is that right?

Becca: 30:15 Yes that's correct. That is an excellent description. Some of them got DACA and that that allowed them to go to college. It allowed them to have some amount of stability but it's not permanent. You have to renew it. And it as a program could disappear at any time. But it didn't feel like it was going to, and now it does. People are really scared. People  ask me and other immigration attorneys all the time, and like you know no one knows because we are attorneys. We are not legislators. I'm not even a policy wonk. That's not how I spend my days, which is to say take everything and I'm saying about policy with a grain of salt, but it really did feel like there was a chance that some of the system was going to get reformed, and now it does not feel like that.

Robin: 30:55 Do you worry that it might not only not get reformed in the progressive ways that you're mentioning, but that it might actually have regressive reforms?

Becca: 31:06 Yeah. I mean I don't want to freak everybody out. We as immigration attorneys try to be, like we don't know. You know I am not a legislative expert. I don't know really if there are votes for any number of things that could happen. But there are some things that are just under the power of the Executive Branch, and I worry about those things disappearing on a whim, and the ramifications of those things would be enormous. I try not to worry about it too much because there's nothing I can do about it. That's not quite my field. I mean I will go to a protest or support an organization, but on a daily basis and not you know advocating on the Hill for you know the maintenance of DACA as a program.

Robin: 31:46 You're focused on the individual cases that you're working on.

Becca: 31:50 Yeah I've got a lot on my plate with just the kids the kids I'm working with. But you know it affects their families. Like, it affects the people they're living with their siblings, their parents, their aunts and uncles. So I still get asked that question a lot.

Robin: 32:03 What was the hardest case that you've had so far? You know a story that kind of reflects the reality of what it means to be doing your work.

Becca: 32:17 I have two answers. Every case is different. The strength of every case is different. But I think for me the two sort of hardest scenarios are when a kid has a really strong case, but I only have so much control over the outcome of a case. You know and when a kid doesn't have a very strong case under the law but I've spent a lot of time working with them, I think they would be a great addition to the United States. I think there's room for them here. But under the law as it stands the case is not that strong and there's only so much I can do. So those are both really hard. The first one is hard because the danger for that kid getting sent back, the danger of losing that case is so tangible. It's really scary. I've seen a lot of these cases the people who are determining the outcome of them, it's the judge in an immigration court, if it's in front of the asylum office it's an asylum officer or it can feel pretty capricious. It can feel like a little bit arbitrary. I've seen cases that I thought were super solid get denied. And I've seen cases that I thought were like you know if a case is going to get denied, like maybe it's just one. And they don't, you know they get granted. And so it's very hard to have a case where I'm pretty sure that if if I lose this case, that kid is going to get seriously hurt. Because you can only do so much. So those are really scary, and I find it very disheartening. And this goes back I think to the discourse about immigration. It's very hard to watch. The ones who are like nice and smart, and have done everything in their power to avoid joining a gang that has done everything in its power to make them join. Those are the kids you want. But a lot of times those are not kids with strong cases, and it's it's hard to explain it to them and it's hard to keep fighting. And then it's hard to lose.

Robin: 34:04 What percentage of those cases where you think the kid should stay in the United States, what percentage of them are actually granted asylum?

Becca: 34:12 That question has a lot of questions in it.

Robin: 34:15 Tell me. Tell me about that. Why is that a complicated question?

Becca: 34:21 Well, so first of all, the legal definition of the danger you should be facing in order to be granted asylum is that there is a 1 in 10 chance that if you are returned to your country you will face persecution. Which is like one in 10. A lot of cases should be granted on a 1 to 10 standard, and it doesn't feel like that's the bar that's really being used. Also it differs dramatically between courts, and between asylum offices, and even between judges to an extent that is like kind of terrifying if you're a person who believes in justice under the law. And like some sort of consistency and rule of law. And that's true in the legal system generally. I think it's just that the stakes are very high and in asylum case and it's kind of crazy to think about how much it can matter who you draw at random as your judge. So the percentage getting denied isn't, it depends on like nationally or in San Francisco or in Charlotte which are notoriously very low grant rate. So a lot I think a lot.

Robin: 35:18 I mean that that really speaks to the degree to which even in something that's supposed to be fairly well defined as a legal standard there is a degree to which there's a lottery happening.

Becca: 35:28 Yeah. It really feels like a lottery. When I did, let's see, in law school my third year I did a clinic which means basically they like take a couple of professors and a group of students as a group form sort of a mini little law firm, and they take on cases. And so there were 12 students. We took six cases. We worked in pairs. Over the course of the semester we all talked to each other extensively about our cases. I knew all the ins and outs of all of the cases that were happening that semester in my clinic, and we sort of all had our opinions about legally which ones were the strongest, or which ones we thought were most likely to get granted. The way it ended up playing out was so different than even the professors expected who had seen hundreds of cases. You know, I was new, but they were not new. And with judges that they were reasonably familiar with because they practice in those courts all the time. And it was just so unpredictably different than everybody thought it was going to be. And ever since then I trust nothing. I expect nothing. Because It does often feel pretty random.

Robin: 36:26 Is the system working this way, when it's denying kids asylum, do you think it's working this way because of an overabundance of caution? Is it about racism? Is there another factor that, or another set of factors, that are going into this?

Becca: 36:43 I mean some judges get very very nervous when they hear that there is a gang related claim because they get very nervous about gangs, especially in this political climate. President Trump has been talking a lot about the violence perpetrated by MS 13, which is a gang that started in L.A. but it is based basically right now in Central America. So I think there are some judges who are super cautious about that. There's also you know the cases I'm not dealing with because I have mostly Central American kids, but there is there's a lot of caution about refugees from parts of the world where there are a lot of militant groups or terrorist organizations. Because one of the problems with refugee law is if you fled your country you don't have a ton of documentation about who you are and what you've spent your life doing. You cannot possibly have that documentation. So the rules of evidence are relaxed, but it also just makes it really hard to prove anything you say. Like if you fled your home in the dead of night with what you could carry on your back, maybe you didn't remember to bring your like employment records from last 30 years. So I have sympathy for the judges. It can be, I imagine, very difficult. The other thing I will say is that the legal standards for asylum basically derive from a United Nations Convention from like the '50s. And so the way the law was drafted doesn't map neatly onto the reasons that people are migrating today. And so there's a lot of people fleeing a lot of things that don't count. Which is another reason that we need comprehensive immigration reform.

Robin: 38:15 Where do you find hope in this work?

Becca: 38:21 With my clients. They have a lot of hope. You know some of them. Some of them don't. They're dealing with detention fatigue, and depression, anxiety, and a lot of PTSD and trauma. But some of them do. And also I think immigration cases take a really long time. Like, it's crazy. Years and years. I've only been working in this field for a couple of years. You know I can't be like 10 years ago I did this case and now this kid is grown and doing X Y and Z. But I can see that happening in the cases that my colleagues are working on, or in cases that I'm inheriting that have seen several attorneys over five or ten years, and there's a lot of hope in that. You know like I inherited a case in my last office of a kid who came to that office when she was 12, and now she is 18. She's doing great. You know it's like sort of the tail end of that case. And there's a lot of hope to be found in that.

Robin: 39:08 At the end of each of the interviews we ask the same question, and it's now your turn. What's the most important question you're asking right now?

Becca: 39:18 Oh boy. I don't know if it's the most important question, and it's a little bit broad, but like how do we get away from me here? I think we are, I don't want to say at a low point, because I think that a lot of things that have existed for a long time in this country are just coming to the surface, I don't know that the point we're at is actually that much lower than what we were at before. But it also feels like we're moving in the wrong direction. And I think that maybe is the major change. And I would like to figure out how to start moving in the other direction. But that is a big question.

Robin: 39:55 That is a big question. Becca Title thank you for joining us on the podcast.

Becca: 39:59 Thank you for having me. as always. Be sure to check out other episodes of the. So you want to change the world podcast to hear more about the incredible social impact of our thinking beyond borders alumni. Be sure to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting and. You can also find more information and links to resources mentioned in this episode on our Web site. At. Thinking beyond borders dot org slash podcast. Special thanks to Julie Jones who produced this episode. Thanks for listening.

Robin Pendoley - Host

Robin is Founder & President of Thinking Beyond Borders, an educational institution helping young people develop the capacities to be exceptional social impact leaders. With a BA in International Development at UCLA and an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Robin’s work is focused on understanding how meaningful impact is created and replicated. He is humbled and inspired every day by the learning and work of the students, educators, and alumni of the Thinking Beyond Borders community.

Julia Jones - Editor & Producer

Julia is an alumt of TBB’s Global Gap Year class of 2012. She received her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Entrepreneurship & Emerging Enterprises from Syracuse University. Having studied and worked around the world, she has now joined the Thinking Beyond Borders staff, supporting our US operations and serving as a Program Leader for our Gap Year Programs. She is thrilled to continue her exploration of social justice, global issues, and deeper cultural understanding alongside students.

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