Migration Justice

Marissa Ornelas: Walking with the Women and Children of the South Texas Family Residential Center

At IFCLA’s Dinner Dialogo on Friday, Oct. 5th, SLU junior and dedicated friend of IFCLA Marissa Ornelas spoke about her ten-week experience at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, over the summer of 2018. Marissa shared informative facts and figures about the immigration system and the way that the Dilley detention center functions, but she also shared poignant and powerful first-person testimonies of the hardship and injustices she witnessed during her time there.

Marissa spoke with clarity about the current state of the US immigration system, detailing immigrants’ journeys from hieleras (freezers) to perreras (dog cages) in detention centers like the one in Dilley. She worked with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a team of legal professionals and volunteers who help detained mothers and children prepare for their credible fear interviews, which, if deemed “positive,” allow their asylum case to begin and sometimes allows her and her children’s release from jail. Marissa frequently worked 12-hour days, prepping client after client for interviews that were sure to be traumatic, as they necessitate an immigrant recounting all the personal trauma that led them to flee their country of origin - often stories of intense gang violence, sexual violence, political corruption or police violence, or unsafe domestic situations.

Marissa explained that the atmosphere at the detention center was strict and unjust. She cited instances when ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents confiscated or threw away important documents, causing families to redo integral steps of their immigration processes. She mentioned the lack of record-keeping that led to dangerous oversights such as re-vaccinating children with the same vaccinations multiple times. She told us that the water supply in Dilley was contaminated and children were often very sick, but there were so few doctors on site that families often tried to handle medical emergencies alone. In specific relation to her work preparing women for their credible fear interviews, she told her audience that in Dilley, there are no mental health resources for women and children who have experienced incredible amounts of trauma, both in their home countries and in the US.

But Marissa spoke of more than just the traumatic and unjust parts of her time in Dilley. She offered powerful anecdotes of the resilience and strength of the women she met and worked with, and of the innocent playfulness of children she encountered. She shared with the audience her vision for the future: a nationwide organization that helps families recently released from detention centers integrate into American life.

Marissa’s contribution to immigration justice has been powerful and whole-hearted, and IFCLA is proud to call her part of our family. But even if you can’t spend ten weeks working full-time without pay at an immigration detention center, you can do your part to demand just immigration policies. On September 7, 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) proposed regulation changes that would terminate the Flores Settlement, discontinuing the precedent that limits children’s detention to twenty days.

The period for public comment on this regulation is open NOW. Click here for a public comment template from the Immigration Justice Campaign, which you can use to submit a formal public comment on the Federal Register here.

It is up to all of us to demand an end to immigrant detention; as Marissa so aptly told us, whether children are separated from their parents or not, all immigrant detention is dehumanizing and unjust. Help us fight back!

Mass Incarceration is Not the Solution to Family Separation

Mass Incarceration is Not the Solution to Family Separation

We stand firmly in opposition to the latest prevention-through-deterrence tactics used along the U.S.-Mexico border. It is wrong to separate and detain families. It is wrong to put children in cages, jails, tents, or "tender age" shelters. These recent policy changes are shocking, appalling, and morally reprehensible — but if we are surprised, it is only because we have not been paying attention.

Marissa: Reflection on a trip to the border

 Pictured left to right: Jessie Chappel, Yareli Urbina, Marissa Ornelas, Katie Meola

Pictured left to right: Jessie Chappel, Yareli Urbina, Marissa Ornelas, Katie Meola

For a long time I was naive to the destruction that the United States had been a part of in Central America. To this day Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have some of the highest murder rates. At the South Texas Family Residential Center, I saw the consequences of this destruction first hand. The women and children that are imprisoned in the detention center are fleeing poverty, gang threats, and domestic violence. During my time in the detention center I was responsible for translating and prepping women for their credible fear hearings. From 8:00am till 6:00pm I heard the stories of women who had made the courageous decision to leave their home countries with their small children with the hope of a better life.  

Unfortunately United States asylum law is not that welcoming, I learned that a person has to have suffered personal persecution in order to be given protection from the United States. This means that a person that has left their home country because of a war, general violence, or poverty does not get protection. I quickly realized that even if a person had been personally victimized they could still be denied asylum. It seemed so unfair to have to explain to the women that the law does not protect everyone. The treatment of the women and children once they made it to the United States was horrific. The women told stories of their experiences in the hieleras and perreras and of the treatment they received from ICE officials. In one of my interviews a women tried to grapple with this treatment. She said, “ Why do they treat us so bad? We are human beings.” I could not explain the hatred that fuels the ICE officers actions and the United States immigration policies.

I am here because my grandparents made the decision to leave Mexico to give their children a better life. I am the product of my grandparents dreams, sacrifice, and hard work.  In the women and children I met in the detention center, I saw my grandma, mom, aunts, and cousins. In an odd way, I found hope and strength in the women, since they had endured so much and in the face of it all were strong enough to make the trip to the United States. To imprison people who are fleeing poverty and violence that the United States has played a role in, reeks of injustice.

For so long people have decided to look the other way and to act is if what is happening in Dilley is fair. It’s time to stop turning the other way and to see the injustice that is happening here. It is time to work to close detention centers like these that exist across the United States. Family detention must come to an end because no human being is illegal and every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

16th Annual Cambio de Colores Conference at UMSL

June 2017


The work of two of IFCLA’s interns, Mary Louise Pabello and Yareli Urbina, was presented as part of the poster session and a verbal presentation at the Xth Annual Cambio de Colores conference held at UMSL June 14-17. The conference theme this year was , “Todos Juntos: Collaboration and Unity in Uncertain Times.” 

Mary Louise and Ellie shared preliminary findings of their immigrant oral history project and community survey regarding immigrant detention in the St. Louis area. As both interns finish up their time at IFLCA, they will prepare to transfer the study and oral history project onto the next leaders of the Migration Justice Committee. Congratulations on a job well done, ladies! 

Mobilizing Coherent Community Responses to Changing Immigration Policies—Conference in Houston, TX

June 2017

On June 7-9, St. Louis was represented by 5 women from three organizations (IFCLA, the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action (MICA) Project, and St. Francis Community Services Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry—CLAM) at a conference in Houston, Texas, sponsored by the Center for Migration Studies of New York, the Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance of Catholic Charities of Galveston-Houston, the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, and South Texas College of Law Houston. IFCLA, MICA Project and CLAM are also active participants in St. Louis’s Immigrant Service Providers Network (ISPN), a group that seeks to support the foreign born and their families in the St. Louis region by increasing community resources, advocating for inclusive policies and services, and educating residents and providers. 

This conference presented a unique opportunity to understand the models, systems and processes used by the hosting organizations that have been effective strategies for mobilizing communities in their cities, focusing on the idea of “whole of community” as central to any substantial and effective response. We sought to understand the models and best practices that have seen positive results in Houston and across the country, so that we could more deeply analyze our own efforts in St. Louis, and adapt and implement successful strategies from other case studies to our own context. 

While there, the team participated in site visits, valuable networking opportunities, and attended more than a dozen seminars, panels and small group discussions on topics ranging from the current administration, recent Executive orders, state-level actions like Texas’s SB4, immigration law practice concerns, faith activism and more. 

Immigration attorneys Nicole Cortes and Kris Walentik, along with Sara John, will give a brief presentation about their experiences at the conference and implications for our work and collaborative efforts. The morning presentation will be in mid-August; IFCLA will share the event via email and social media. 

Trump's Wall, Detention, & Deportation Regime: Perspectives from Southern Mexico

April 2017

IFCLA was thrilled to welcome Juan Carlos Morales Penetro and Gabriel Torreblanca Flores to St. Louis in April, who shared their expertise and experience as attorneys, Mexican governmental employees, and non-profit migration justice advocates from Puebla, Mexico. 

Juan Carlos recently left his position with the Secretary of Exterior Relations and is now serving as Manager of Migrant Protection and Documentation Services in the Department for Migrant Services for the City of Puebla. Gabriel is an advisor on migration issues to the federal House of Representatives in Mexico City. Both have extensive resumes working for justice for immigrants - not just for mexicanos en el exterior (Mexicans outside of Mexico), but also for the foreign-born who find themselves in Mexican territory (often on a journey from Central America to the United States). Since the inauguration of President Trump, both have seen dramatic shifts in their work to protect Mexicans in the US and in the work of protecting migrants in Mexico. 

Our guests spoke at the Dinner Diálogos event at Fritanga on April 19, and also spoke to students at Saint Louis University, hosted by the student-led Hispanic American Leadership Organization (HALO). While they were here, they had a chance to meet some of our colleagues who advocate for and serve the Mexican immigrant community in St. Louis. We are excited to build a bi-national partnership and look forward to continuing our collaboration. 

IFCLA & MORE Issue Joint Statement in Wake of Administration’s Announcement on DACA


As we have at times in the past, our organizations and the people we represent joined together again in early September, seeing and feeling the commonality of our oppression and the oneness of our oppressors and issued the following joint statement: 

The recent wave of attacks on our civil rights, including the discriminatory rhetoric repeatedly used by our highest elected officials, undermines black and brown people, immigrant communities, indigenous populations and low income people alike...Part of both of our efforts have been to consistently fight against the caging of our bodies for profit. People of color are overwhelmingly criminalized more for less in this country. The prevailing reason for this devastation and ever-expanding criminalization of our communities is that in doing so, the mass incarceration industry and the individuals that benefit from its growth enjoy extravagant profits. Every opportunity to take advantage of marginalized people are capitalized upon for profit. Policies that continue to do so are directly aligned with the white nationalist agenda that has become more prevalent at local, state and federal levels. 

Earlier this week, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the US government will discontinue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. While there are some legislative options to repair this in the next six months, it was an unnecessary move to begin with and one that quite plainly, is morally reprehensible. This act will send the lives of 800,000 individuals, many who live, raise families, go to school, and work in this country into a tailspin, shattering the families and communities to which they belong. People who trusted the US government with sensitive personal information and the lives they have lived in the only country many of them have ever known, are now being told that they will have to leave and make their lives elsewhere; the US government is telling these folks that they are not valued in this country. We must also be clear that the impacts of DACA will be felt among Latinx communities as well as in other immigrant communities. Terminating DACA will make them more vulnerable to a legal system that shows a proven bias towards people of color, a system that is designed to make money from our criminalization… Legislation that keeps dignity first, demonstrates an understanding of the root causes and intricacies of migration as a global phenomenon, and ending the criminalization of communities of color, should be our first priority. 

MORE and IFCLA will continue to align our strategies and efforts over the coming months, in order to more profoundly call out and work against this oppression in all forms. 

To read the full statement, click here

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Launch of the St. Louis Immigration Enforcement Accompaniment Program


In the wake of rapidly shifting rhetoric and policies that further criminalize immigrants and communities of color, several organizations across the country have developed new tools for response and support for the directly impacted individuals and their families, There have been numerous cases of migrants being detained after going to a routine check-in at the offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or BI Incorporated (the private company that ICE contracts with to manage the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program). Family members literally disappear, often without being allowed to inform their friends or relatives, creating panic among their loved ones, destroying families and devastating our communities. 

In some cities, a successful tool to protect against this threat to due process and violation of our shared values, has been to accompany individuals to these check-ins. By volunteering to accompany migrants to ICE check-ins, we are able to show solidarity and perhaps, in a small way, help to ease the anxiety of interacting with the legal system, reducing the likelihood of detention with our presence, and keeping relatives and/or lawyers informed in case the individual is detained. This is a huge help to efforts to end detention and deportation. 

After attending a training session for a similar program run by Missouri Faith Voices of Columbia, MO, IFCLA prepared and hosted a training session to begin this type of program locally. Now, similar programs are operating across the state! The first session, held on July 17, trained roughly 25 individuals. The St. Louis Accompaniment Teams have supported community members at 4 check-ins since then. There will be additional training opportunities in November, and we are always looking for new locations/groups to which we can offer this training. Please contact the office for details. 

We are also working to ensure that our community members know this service exists, and would welcome your support! 


Vigil for Immigration Justice

September 1st, 2017


On September 1st, Latinos en Axión and IFCLA organized a vigil for immigration justice on the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Supported by the Archdiocese of St. Louis and several local clergy, about fifty people chanted, prayed, and listened to stories of two Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program recipients. The timing of this rally was incredibly important, as three major issues were at stake with regard to immigration justice: first, Texas’ SB4 was expected to go into effect on that same day, and would have outlawed so-called sanctuary cities and prohibited local law enforcement agencies from preventing officers from demanding to see proof of citizenship. Thankfully, some of the harshest pieces of this legislation were challenged in court, and were not upheld. Second, the DACA “ultimatum” deadline was set for September 5th. This the date when Texas’ attorney general, who, joined by 10 other state attorney generals, threatened legal action if steps were not underway to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. In an unjust attack on young immigrants, just a few days later, we heard from US Attorney General Jeff Sessions that President Trump decided to end the program. Third, Congress returned to DC after their August recess, and are now negotiating a budget for 2018. Most expect very large increases in Department of Homeland Security funding as the President has requested more than $4.5 billion additional dollars for unnecessary immigration enforcement expansion. This is a 23% increase over immigration enforcement spending in 2016. 

We joined together on the courthouse steps to bring awareness to the confluence of these issues, all happening within two weeks of each other. We are called to bring awareness and attention to these issues in order to demonstrate our solidarity and inspire greater growth within the community. 

To find out more about IFCLA’s response to the termination of the DACA program, please see page # for our statement with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), as well as page #, where you can read about the DACA Fundraiser and Renewal Clinic. 

National FOIA Actions in Response to ICE’s Operation Mega and Widespread Enforcement Activities

September 2017

In mid-September, several national advocates released insider information regarding "Operation Mega," wherein Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) aimed to rapidly detain nearly 10,000 individuals in a near-nationwide wave of increased enforcement. This move was strategic and timely: ICE intends to use up the remaining resources and available detention bed space rapidly, in an effort to convince Congress to give their agency billions of dollars of funding for continued enforcement activity during the next fiscal year. 

On Tuesday, Sept. 12, at every single field office in the country, immigrant communities filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests demanding details regarding the planning and execution of upcoming ICE enforcement activities as well as the procedures for targeting and capturing individuals agents encounter. Through this effort and other local initiatives, we will continue to monitor the agency’s activity and force its corruption into public view. The deportation force under the Trump Administration has become increasingly unchained and acting with impunity. Leadership like the appointment of Tom Homan as ICE director and the racist rhetoric of Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice confirm this systematic persecution of communities of color, and stand in flagrant violation of our shared values. 

IFCLA partnered with the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates (MIRA), the Council on American-Islam Relations, Missouri (CAIR-MO), the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action (MICA) Project, and faith leaders from Central Reform Congregation and Christ Church United Church of Christ to bring this initiative to St. Louis. While the FOIA request was filed nationally and with our field office in Chicago, on Sept. 14, we gathered at ICE in St. Louis and attempted to submit a copy of the FOIA along with our community letter of support. After a brief press conference outside of ICE, a group of clergy and community leaders entered the Enforcement and Removal Operations office, where they refused to accept our information. Finally, we convinced them to receive the letter of support and community statement—with nearly 160 signatures! Click here to view a copy of the letter we submitted. 

On the national level, ICE rejected the FOIA request on the grounds that it was to “broad and burdensome.” Our national partners at the Detention Watch Network, Mijente, and the National Lawyers Guild, revised and re-filed the request. We are currently awaiting their response. 

Local Efforts to Support DACAmented Neighbors


As you probably know, the Trump Administration announced the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on September 5, 2017. The Administration announced this information with the caveat that it will allow any current DACA recipient whose permit expires before March 5, 2018, the opportunity to apply for renewal by October 5, 2017. This announcement has unjustly stripped away a legal pathway to access education and work for thousands of young DREAMers—immigrant youth who call the United States home. It places thousands of families in a precarious situation, unsure of what will become of their future. Additionally, for a select group of DREAMers, it placed them under tremendous stress to collect the $495 renewal fee in less than a month. 

Upon the announcement of the termination of the DACA program, IFCLA and other area organizations knew we could not sit idly by while young people were under attack. We collectively organized a week-long emergency fundraiser to provide scholarships to cover the renewal fees, as well as host a DACA Renewal Clinic on September 21st. 

Over thirty generous donors contributed over $6,000, which made it possible for us to fully fund every request our collective organizations received. What a success! We were thrilled to see the tremendous amount of support for DACA individuals and their families. To all of our generous donors: thank you! We also want to highlight that many donations came in modest amounts—$50 dollars or less. While none of us alone can do everything, this effort was a perfect example of many individuals contributing in small ways to benefit the whole in a tremendous way. This is what collective power looks like! 

Pray-in at Senator McCaskill’s Office


Senator Claire McCaskill often makes statements about the importance of our immigrant neighbors, and she has spoken in support of DACA, DREAMers and against senseless enforcement spending. Now is the time for the Senator to become a champion for these causes that so directly impact her community. In order to both support her and encourage her leadership, IFCLA organized a pray-in at her office on Delmar. At this action, clergy, community members, and DACA recipients came together to share their stories, name our values, and ask for the Senator’s leadership. Those present offered petitions, songs, and prayers, while DACA individuals led us in chanting and shared their testimonies. At the culmination of this action, the DACAmented leaders delivered an artistic creation that resembled a candle, which held many smaller representations of candles bearing words of community members encouraging Sen. McCaskill to deepen her support of immigrant justice. These included such messages as: “We are counting on you to support DACA and the people it protects!” “Stop deportation” “Keep families together” “Fight for the dignity of all—including all immigrants regardless of status! 

We are counting on Sen. McCaskill to make our voices and our values heard in DC. As the top-ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, we need her voice to #DefundHate by rejecting President Trump’s proposed increases to Department of Homeland Security budget for more deportations, arrests, and separation of families. 

We will continue to work with all elected officials to ensure our values are their priority. 

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Community Meeting with Senator McCaskill’s St. Louis Office

August 2017

In August, IFCLA organized a coalition meeting with Joeana Middleton, the Regional Director at Senator Claire McCaskill's office in St. Louis. While we are aware that Senator McCaskill supports immigrant rights and has voted to uphold them in the past, we also know that in times when immigrant families are under attack, we need her to not only be a voter but a champion of immigrant rights. In order to encourage her to do so, twelve individuals from more than six of the leading immigrant service provider organizations in our area showed up in a clear demonstration of our collective power. This included representatives from the DACA community, as well as representatives from local legal firms the Migrant Immigrant Community Action Project and St. Francis Community Services Southside. 

Our messaging included four asks for the Senator: We asked her vote against the increases in the budget for immigrant detention and expanded deportations; we asked for her to co-sponsor the Dream Act, and to continue to fight for DACA. While the response was underwhelming, as we were told that the senator is in agreement with these issues but is not prepared to be more vocal, we are nonetheless committed to continuing our collaboration and working together for justice