Current Initiatives Under Way at Legal Aid Justice Center
Fighting Family Separation
Many of the families coming here are running from incredible violence and persecution to seek asylum and a better life for their families. Seeking asylum is not illegal, but these parents are being treated like criminals. They are being arrested and their children are being taken from them, declared unaccompanied minors, and placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The number of immigrant children – from babies to teens – now in ORR custody has swollen to over 11,000. They are being held in tent cities and warehouses, and locked up in juvenile detention centers (two of the three secure detention centers for unaccompanied minors nationwide are here in the Commonwealth). LAJC is fighting to get the children held by ORR released and reunited with their families, and to support these families and our entire immigrant community as they struggle through these horrors.
The Civil Rights & Racial Justice Program (CRRJ) fights to decriminalize poverty in Virginia while dismantling systems of racial injustice. In the courts, CRRJ is currently focused on how Virginia’s bail practices harm low-income communities and communities of color. Judicial officials in Virginia regularly set money bail in amounts that many people charged with crimes cannot afford to pay, meaning they remain in a cell when someone wealthier in the same situation would walk free. Once someone is held in jail, even for as short as a day, a cascade of consequences that push people deeper into poverty can result: job loss, eviction, and many others. Each day in Virginia, poor people suffer under our current bail system.
Virginia has a duty to make sure that our schools are safe and supportive for all students. Across the nation, tragic gun violence in schools has brought increased focus to the resources needed to keep all students safe. To ensure school safety, Virginia must increase support staff, including counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists in all elementary and secondary schools; improve school policing accountability; invest in positive school discipline and school climate; and broaden the accessibility of supports and services for all children.
Many local governments, including those who are otherwise pro-immigrant, go above and beyond to make it easier for ICE to detain and deport immigrants. When local law enforcement engages in federal immigration enforcement, trust between the local community and the police is damaged. When immigrants think the police are ICE and “out to get them,” they stop reporting criminal activity out of fear of repercussions. And when the local police are spending their time enforcing Federal civil immigration laws, they have fewer resources at hand to do their actual jobs. This makes everyone less safe and contributes to the dehumanization of our immigrant brothers and sisters. We are committed to supporting communities throughout Virginia to push their local officials to stop doing ICE’s dirty work for them.
Fighting ICE Enforcement Abuses
In February of 2017, ICE announced that the gloves were coming off. In the months that followed, ICE agents nationwide began engaging in increasingly aggressive and discriminatory practices. Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program is committed to fighting these abuses with every tool at our disposal including representing individuals detained by ICE and filing cutting edge litigation that challenges the way that ICE operates. Much of that litigation is ongoing.
Fluvanna Women’s Prison Litigation
On July 24, 2012 Legal Aid Justice Center along with co-counsel Wiley Rein LLP and Lawyers on behalf of wmen incarcerated at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW). Wiley Rein and Washington Lawyers’ Committee filed a class action lawsuit asserting that the 1,200 women incarcerated at FCCW are being provided constitutionally inadequate medical care, leaving their health and lives at serious risk. On In early 2016, the parties settled. The settlement provided a framework for significant reforms of the medical care at FCCW and the appointment of a monitor. In September 2017, the women incarcerated at FCCW filed a motion for contempt in the Federal District Court in Charlottesville. The motion asked the court to enforce the class action Settlement Agreement decided upon in February 2016. The women charged that prison continued to fail to provide constitutionally adequate medical care in violation of the agreement.
Drive Down the Debt
In Virginia, when an individual is assessed court costs and fines, he/she has 30 days to pay in full or establish a payment plan with their local court. A debtor who fails to comply loses his/her driver’s license, seriously compromising their ability to maintain and secure employment. This consequence hurts low-income families. Our goal is to increase the amount of court costs/fees collected by Virginia courts by reducing the systemic barriers to paying those costs/fees.
RISE for Youth
Virginia’s use of large juvenile prisons places the safety and security of our communities and our young people at risk, but we have the opportunity to put youth back on track – not just behind bars. The Re-invest in Supportive Environments (RISE) for Youth campaign is a bipartisan coalition effort to develop a continuum of community-based alternatives to incarceration that will keep juvenile justice system involved youth in their homes and connected to their support networks while making our communities safer.
Educate Every Child
The Educate Every Child Campaign promotes school discipline practices and policies that keep Virginia children in school and decrease the likelihood that they will dropout and enter the justice system. The campaign has produced a series of reports documenting Virginia’s school suspension crisis, and in 2018, the campaign won major school discipline reform legislation in Virginia’s General Assembly. The campaign is supported by the Educate Every Child Coalition, a group of interested stakeholders, including parents, teachers, counselors and advocates who support constructive alternatives to suspension and expulsion.
Unaccompanied Minor Refugees
Gang violence in Central America has become so pervasive that tens of thousands of children have risked their lives in the last year to travel, alone, to the United States seeking refuge. Typically, these children are apprehended in Texas after crossing the border. They are then connected to family or other sponsors who agree to care for the children and ensure that they show up in immigration court where a determination can be made of whether to allow them to stay or deport them. Legal Aid Justice Center, along with a cadre of other legal aid providers, is mobilizing to connect these children to attorneys who can help them to demonstrate to the court system that they ought to be allowed to stay. Without our assistance, these children would face a judge in a potentially life or death deportation hearing, alone.
Health Insurance Assistance
A lack of health insurance can be devastating to a family’s health and to their economic security. Thankfully the Affordable Care Act puts health insurance within reach for thousands of Virginians. With state and federal funding through the Virginia Poverty Law Center, Legal Aid Justice Center employs a team of Navigators, In Person Assisters, and Outreach Specialists who will focus on helping as many people as possible to access insurance through the ACA Exchange. Please click here to access this service.