Local attorney brings to life immigrant child realities
By Clara Atwell, Editor-in- Chief At the front of a crowd of passionate Vashon community members stands Molly Matter. Preparing to tell her story of advocating for Central American immigrants seeking asylum in the United States, she takes a deep breath and lights a glass prayer candle.
Before she begins her emotional account, she notes that telling this story is an essential part of the healing process, and asks the crowd to take a moment of silence to recall the first time they heard about the separation of children from their parents at the border.
Matter is a local voting rights attorney, owner of Amend Law LLC, and chair-elect of the Washington State Bar Association’s Civil Rights Section. In the past, she has primarily worked to investigate voter suppression and to educate communities on their voting rights.
Her focus shifted when the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border was brought to the public eye. The situation led her to do pro bono work for the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law (CHRCL), an organization that has been working with unaccompanied minors for over 30 years.
Matter’s specific call to action came in early August when she was sent to a Southwest Key detention center in Arizona. Joining her were three other female attorneys, each of whom was a descendent of persecuted immigrants. Their job was to take declarations of migrant children and to run a site inspection.
The Southwest Key Program claims to be a nonprofit. However, the New York Times reported that the company’s chief executive Juan Sanchez makes a large salary for a charity worker, bringing in $1.5 million last year. His wife, the vice-president of the charity, made $500,000.
Southwest Keys runs 24 shelters for migrant children throughout the Southwest United States and received $626 million in federal aid last year. Recently, they have received negative publicity for their high employee salaries and profits, as well as multiple allegations of employee sexual assault inflicted against detainees.
One such case occurred at the center Matter visited, in which an HIV-positive employee was convicted of sexual abuse against seven boys.
At this particular detention center, which Matter chooses to call a prison, there were 239 minors. Sixty of them had requested to see a lawyer. Matter and her team of lawyers were assigned to the case with only two days to gather as many declarations as they could, which included taking testimonies from the children, reporting on their living conditions in the center, and educating them on their rights.
Living on food from the hotel’s continental breakfast bar, the group worked nonstop for two, 15-hour work days.
Matter and her group met with minors seeking asylum from Guatemala, Hondorus, and El Salvador. Each of these countries has struggled with economic and political exploitation inflicted upon them by both the United States and Canada.
“The United States’ foreign policy in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala is the reason is we have a refugee crisis,” Matter said.
A federal consent decree governs the rights of children and minors seeking refuge.
These rights, established under Reno v. Flores (1987) include release within five days to an immediate family member, blood relatives, adults designated under a child’s parent or guardian, or into the foster care system in the United States. Under Flores v Reno, no child should remain in detention longer than 20 days.
Instead, some of the detainees had lived in the detention center for four to five months. Matter and her group met with each minor twice, first to listen and record their declarations and second to read their declarations back to them and make edits. “We couldn’t go through this like it was just business or something that you could detach from,” Matter said. “You had to be very present and emotionally available.”
Although Matter can speak Spanish proficiently, she does not consider herself fluent. Because of this, she worked to write everything down throughout the interviews, while her partner conducted them.
Before separating children became official policy in 2018, separations still occurred. This led to labeling these children as ‘unaccompanied minors.’ Due to this mislabeling, tracking and reuniting children with their families has been a challenge.
“What’s really difficult — it’s really frightening as well — is that we don’t actually know who’s been separated and who’s an unaccompanied minor,” Matter said.
There are 3,000 children who are currently unaccounted for within the database of immigrant minors, which Matter cited as a another major problem in the system.
Along with interviewing asylum seekers, Matter also ran a site inspection. Although she couldn’t disclose detailed information about this topic or the interviews she conducted — to maintain confidentiality and not put litigation in jeopardy — she described the building as sterile, where she felt as though every minute was planned out for detainees.
In her talk on Sunday, Jan. 20, she described her first time going through the center and seeing only a single smudge of dirt on a whitewashed door.
While Matter was visiting the site, the children were not allowed outside, and all the doors were kept locked, despite the facility director telling her that it was a non-secure site, meaning that detainees should be free to come and go. Granted, it was 110°F outside, Matter explained. However, this lack of access to the outdoors was troubling to Matter. She believed the schedule could’ve been easily reworked to allow the children outside during the cooler hours of the day.
The rooms of the detainees, which carried the same sterile and monotonous theme as the rest of the building, stuck with Matter the most.
“That’s the thing that will haunt me for all of my life … just seeing the quarters where they sleep, and wishing I could do something more.”
Seeing a pair of toddlers living this way had a deep emotional impact on her. When talking to the crowd, Matter got teary-eyed.
“The hardest part for me, because I have a five-year-old, was that I met two children that were not accounted for,” Matter said. “ I just thought, ‘Who’s going to sing this [child] to bed? Who’s going to be next to them?’”
Although she was not allowed to talk to these two children, Matter sat down with them at one point and silently worked with them on a puzzle of a world map. In these moments, Matter recalled, she tried to radiate as much love as she could as they “put the world back together.”
Once she returned from Arizona, Matter quickly began working with Northwest Detention Center Resistance, based in Tacoma, to take statements from detainees who participated in the site’s huge hunger strike.
Matter has continued with this work.
“It’s humanizing, and it’s liberating for me to do this work. Because we aren’t separate. I could easily be that person on the other side of the table,” Matter said.
Based on her experiences, Matter believes there is a huge problem in the way the U.S. is dealing with the current immigration crisis, particularly with the treatment of children.
Matter further said that the U.S. is the only country in the United Nations that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Additionally, in December, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that children don’t have the right to an attorney in immigration court, leaving many to represent themselves.
“The challenge for me is people not wanting to hear about it … because it is so painful and so much, and people feel so overwhelmed and powerless, but there … [are] really easy things you can do,” Matter said.
In response, Matter urges people to write letters once a month as part of a pen pal system at the Northwest Detention Center, gather print media coverage to share with detainees who do not have access to any media, and write to one’s representatives.
“Take off your whole savior missionary complex model and just do a simple thing and stay connected to it,” Matter said. “We actually need to connect, and that’s what is going to heal us.”
Local attorney brings to life immigrant child realities