Ev Meade, PhD, of the USD Trans-Border Institute welcomed community members to the 18th Annual Sister Sally Furay Lecture this May with these powerful words. Featuring keynote speaker Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), the lecture explored the current state of U.S. immigration policy. Throughout the lecture, McCarthy constantly returned to the main question at hand: “What Does Justice Mean for Migrants and Refugees?” For many immigrants and refugees, McCarthy answered, “Justice has become a moving target, and far too often one that is moving in the wrong direction.”
In her years as an immigrant and human rights advocate, McCarthy has witnessed grievous injustices under the current immigration system. As a member of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration, McCarthy works with the most vulnerable immigrants in the nation: unaccompanied children, victims of torture, mentally ill immigrants, and refugees seeking asylum are among her clientele. “Every day, hundreds of immigrants are arrested, detained, and deported without probable cause, without seeing the evidence the government has against them, and without legal representation,” McCarthy said. In her work with the NIJC, McCarthy seeks to represent individual victims of injustice in the immigration system. “We use what we learn from clients to advocate for systemic change,” she explained.
Unfortunately, not all of the stories of her clients have happy endings. In an effort to “expose a highly opaque and secretive system,” McCarthy shared the personal stories of a few of her clients. She discussed clients that were arrested because of minor traffic or drug violations, then retained in immigration detention and even deported without counsel or the chance to speak in front of a judge. In fact, McCarthy said, “More than 70 percent of the people deported do not see a judge.” Shockingly, McCarthy continued, “84 percent of immigrants in detention do not have legal representation.” There is even a “detention bed quota” that requires facilities to maintain 34,000 detention beds nationwide. “This has been interpreted as needing to fill these 34,000 beds,” she emphasized. “Is this justice?”
“It just doesn’t make sense,” McCarthy said. Many immigrants and refugees do not get a second chance to contest detention and deportation. If this pattern continues, she said, “Our reputation as a symbol of justice around the world will be diminished.” However, not all hope for reform is lost. The only way systemic change will happen, McCarthy noted, is through community-wide effort. “If you don’t give your time, your vote, and your voice to these issues, these issues won’t change, and justice won’t be done.”
Despite staggering statistics and tragic injustices, McCarthy remains hopeful about the future of immigration reform. “Social change is often generational,” she told the audience of students, faculty, and community members. “The challenge for you as the next generation is: How will you make your mark in the world? How will you make the world more just? You have that unique opportunity, and we are all counting on you to take advantage of it.”
In the end, what does justice really mean for migrants and refugees? Though these days justice can be a “moving target,” McCarthy hopes for a positive shift in the system in the years to come. This starts with giving the individual the chance to speak up, then inspiring the community to listen. “We empower individuals to tell their own stories, to let their own humble eloquence carry the day,” McCarthy said. “And that, my friends, is justice.”
– Kristen Darling ‘15