Representing the Voiceless

Many times she doesn’t speak their language, but Karen Winston is often the lone legal voice for hundreds of immigrants in the Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny.
When immigrants arrive at this rural location about 30 miles west of Jacksonville, they are cast into a murky neverland, often without access to legal aid or knowledge about what options they have. Many times, they are placed on the “rocket docket,” and quickly deported.
Winston, 34, founded and operates the Jacksonville Area Legal Aid Inc. Baker County Defense Project, which provides free legal services and direct representation for low-income immigrants detained at the Baker County Jail in Macclenny. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, contracts with the Baker County Jail as an immigrant detention center. Sheriff Joey Dobson said ICE pays $84.72 per day for each inmate. The national average is $122 per day.
The project is the only organization providing free legal representation to immigrants detained at Baker, and it might go away soon if Winston can’t raise the $60,000 needed to keep it afloat for the next year. The money goes for her salary and costs, including gas for frequent trips to Baker County and Orlando, where the federal immigration court is located, plus other office expenses.
“This is a bargain or steal when you think about the cost of hiring a private attorney to do intensive litigation,” Winston said. “I work an average of 70 hours a week; often it’s much more.”
Crime victims, asylum-seekers and survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking will lose their only hope for justice if the program ends, she said.
Consider the case of a woman from Central America who fears torture and death if she is deported.
“She has been a great, great help for me,” said the woman, identified only as L.P. from Central America, about Winston’s legal work. The woman won her case to stay in the United States, but she remains behind the fences at the Baker County Detention Center because the U.S. government has appealed the decision.
“My main concern is protecting my client and because of the nature of the case, I am unable to provide very much background information,” Winston said.
The woman’s name, her country of origin and details of her case are being withheld to protect her from deportation.
She endured another holiday without seeing her sons, ages 18 and 19, saying they live far from Baker County. If they were able to see their mother, they could not hug or touch her. Visitations at the jail are by videoconference. Her sons are both U.S. citizens, Winston said.
All the detainees with court cases appear before an Orlando immigration judge, also with a video hookup.
“Miss Karen has been wonderful to me. Thanks to her, we won our case. She was able to fight my case,” said the woman, who has been in the United States for more than a decade.
Winston, a graduate of Florida Coastal School of Law in 2010, founded the Baker Defense Project through an Equal Justice Works Fellowship; The Florida Bar Foundation funded it through September 2012. Jacksonville Area Legal Aid foot the bill through the end of last year and early this year, but time and money are running out for the successful program, which could end in March.
The Baker County Detention Center holds as many as 300 immigrants at any given time, both men and women, facing deportation from the United States.
Immigrants do not have the right to an attorney to challenge their deportations at government expense because removal hearings are considered administrative and not criminal in nature.
About 80 percent of those who pass through the detention facility don’t have an attorney, and most are forced to navigate complicated removal procedures without benefit of counsel.
Most cannot afford to hire an attorney and must represent themselves, even if they are longtime residents of this country, have children who are U.S. citizens or face dangerous and/or extreme conditions in the country of deportation.
“In many situations, they could be eligible for some type of relief, which would prevent their deportation,” Winston said.
The project’s services provided onsite at BCDC to immigrants include “Know Your Rights” presentations, advocacy for improved living conditions and medical treatment, full and limited representation before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Immigration Court and the Board of Immigration Appeals.
While inside the walls of BCDC, Winston found immigrants living in conditions “worse than a prison,” even though some of them have not been convicted of any crime. According to Detention Watch Network, being in violation of immigration laws is not a crime, merely a civil violation.
About half of the immigrants detained nationwide have no criminal record at all, though Sheriff Dobson said a large percentage of those in his facility are convicted criminals, who have already served time in jails and prisons and are awaiting deportation.
Winston recently co-authored a report, “Expose and Close,” about the conditions at BCDC. The report, which named the Baker County Jail as one of the 10 worst immigration detention facilities in the United States, was part of a series of reports detailing chronic human rights violations occurring in immigration detention centers (
The major complaints about BCDC are that immigrants are confined 24 hours a day without being allowed outside, food is heavily peppered, and there’s a lack of hygiene products, especially for women.
“It makes you kind of depressed. You can hear the rain, but you can’t see it. I have gone a long time without seeing the light from the sun or moon,” the Central American woman L.P. said.
“The conditions for me, we are like a maximum security prison,” she said, adding that detainees are required to wear handcuffs when they go to the clinic.
The sheriff defended his facility.
“We’ve got 450 inmates and 450 different opinions,” Dobson said. “We don’t run a Holiday Inn. We house them, feed them and take care of their medical needs.”
“There are always going to be complaints,” he added. “They don’t want to be there anyway, so they are going to complain.”
Winston cited another case about a man she identified as E.M., who was transported to the United States with the promise of work at a luxury hotel. Instead, he was forced to work at a meatpacking plant. Threats from the traffickers prevented his escape.
“The factory was, like, horrible,” said E.M., who now works in sales and was salesman of the year where he works. Details on his name, case and country of origin were also being withheld because of threats to his family from traffickers in his home country. Winston said traffickers seized the man’s family home.
He has nothing good to say about the detention center. “It was really, really bad. We didn’t see sunlight. The food was really horrible,” E.M. said.
After a “Know Your Rights” session at Baker County Detention Center, Winston determined E.M. was the victim of labor trafficking.
After hundreds of hours of work representing him before the Immigration Court, Board of Immigration Appeals and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, she was able to get him a T-Visa, which is a special visa for human trafficking victims. Only 557 were granted to trafficking survivors in 2011. He was released in 2011 after 10 months in detention. Winston is working to obtain a T-Visa for his young daughter, who plans to move to the U.S. soon.
“Karen did a great job. Without her, I would not be in the United States,” E.M. said.
In a Nov. 28 letter to President Barack Obama recommending the facility be shut down, Winston and people from about 300 other civil and human rights organizations wrote, “There is an ongoing crisis in the U.S. immigration detention system: Immigrants detained under the custody of the U.S. government are languishing in a system so massive and mismanaged that it led to rampant due process and human rights abuses. The system exacts a grim emotional, physical and financial toll on immigrant communities, at the taxpayers’ expense.”
While acknowledging that there have been some efforts by ICE to improve the system, the problems continued. “Immigration and Customs Enforcement continues to detain more than 400,000 immigrants a year in prisons and jails across the country where they are subject to punitive treatment, inadequate medical care, vulnerable to rape and assault, and isolated from any access to legal assistance,” the groups wrote.
Winston said she had not heard back from the president and she has serious doubts the Baker County center will be closed.
The Baker Defense Project also provides some limited representation of detainees, especially in cases such as Haitian men and women facing abysmal conditions if they are returned to post-earthquake Haiti. Winston has secured the release of Haitian mothers and fathers with long-term U.S. residencies whose children, who were born in the United States, depend on them for support.
She partnered with University of Miami’s School of Law and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which issued “precautionary measures” on behalf of Winston’s Haitian clients, who would be jailed indefinitely under horrifying conditions if deported to Haiti. Haiti has a policy of jailing returned immigrants, Winston said.
The Baker Defense Project provides full representation in select cases, prioritized when the detainee is a survivor of domestic violence or human trafficking, is seeking asylum in the United States because of the harm they experienced in their home country or will likely experience if they are deported, or when the individual is a torture survivor and likely to be tortured if he or she is deported.
In other cases, Winston tries to locate pro bono counsel to help some clients, or turns to the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the local Florida Coastal School of Law.
Law students assist in the “Know Your Rights” programs at BCDC, and Winston and another attorney, Vanessa Bernadotte, supervise those students on a variety of cases.
BCDC is one of six main detention centers in Florida that house a total of as many as 2,000 immigrants on a single day.
In December, ICE announced it had adopted policies to ensure immigration laws are enforced in a way that best enhances public safety, border security and the integrity of the immigration system.
As part of that system, ICE said its enforcement resources are to be “focused on the identification and removal of those who have broken criminal laws, recently crossed borders, repeatedly violated immigration law or are fugitives from immigration courts.”
In fiscal year 2012, ICE deported 409,849 people. About 96 percent of them fell into one of ICE’s enforcement priorities, a record high. Of those, 55 percent were convicted criminals.
Duval County Sheriff John Rutherford said since 2009, 228 of the 1,514 people processed in Duval County for removal have been deported. Of those, 965 were arrested for misdemeanors, 549 for felonies.
“If you have been arrested for a violent crime or a crime that poses a threat to the community, like DUI, then we’re going to process you, [and] we’re going to get you out of here,” he told The Florida Times-Union.
Multiple calls and emails to public affairs officials at ICE in Miami, Tampa and Washington, D.C. about conditions at the Baker County Detention Center were not returned.
Winston said time is running out for continued funding of the project. If enough money isn’t raised by March 31, the project will end. She is hoping a legal firm or foundation will agree to pay for its continuation.
“JALA [Jacksonville Area Legal Aid] is currently employing me part-time, to afford the opportunity to raise the funds,” Winston said. “I see this as my baby.”