"He told us it had been four months since he had breathed fresh air"

Part 2 of our interview with Sofia Kalogirou at The Florence Project on her work with detained migrant children; plus, links and book club details

Dear readers,

Happy March!

Michelle here. Spring has come to Paris. Our seventeen-month-old baby loves being outside so much she’s been known to lick her shoes. Albert also celebrated his birthday. He’s one of those people for whom shopping is impossible—“I have everything I want,” he says cheerfully, with nary a hint of moral sanctimony—so every year I scramble to come up with something.

This week we share part II of our interview with Sofia Kalogirou, our former student who now works at The Florence Project, one of the country’s leading immigrants’ rights organizations. You can find part I of our interview here, in which Sofia describes what it’s like to explain immigration law to fourteen-year-olds and outlines the challenges she faces working with detained migrant children. 

In part II, she shares the story of a teenage client who fled gang violence in his native Honduras and the changes she witnessed in him after he spent seven months in adult detention. She talks about the joy she felt meeting him at a Greyhound bus station after he’d finally been released. She discusses the irony of having to tell Black clients who've fled violence in their own countries that they have to be wary of police violence here. And she shares a bit about how she came to this work and her own family background as the child of Mexican and Greek immigrants. 

Sofia (right) with Eva Bonsignour (left), in San Antonio. Sofia, along with another student, drove her fellow students two hours a day to Karnes, a detention facility that imprisons families. One common misconception is that these facilities are located “on the border.” In reality, they can be found anywhere across the United States; Karnes is located in a rural patch in Texas and is difficult to access without a car. This means that it is hard for lawyers, family members, volunteers, journalists, and members of the public to visit loved ones, gather information, and organize protests.

Michelle: Could you talk about the details of a particular case that has stayed with you?

Sofia: In November 2019, we had a minor who turned eighteen in the shelter. Once you turn eighteen, you get sent to adult detention. He spent seven months in adult detention and it was so brutal for him. He was so depressed. So we called him every week, and we had a social worker on the team. We were supporting him not only legally but also emotionally. You know, he was in such a dark place and he wasn’t even supposed to be there—he was supposed to go to his sponsor, but there wasn’t enough time for him to transfer before he turned eighteen.

Seven months later, we finally got a bond for him and we were able to take him out of adult detention. The attorney and I got to meet him at the Greyhound station before he took the bus to New Orleans. We brought him some food and a backpack of supplies—hand sanitizer, masks, toothpaste and toothbrush, deodorant, a prepaid cell phone, some stress balls. I have a friend in DACA who was detained for a month, so he donated some clothes and came and waited at the station with us.

Anyway, we got to sit and talk with him for a little bit. He told us it had been four months since he had been outside and breathed fresh air. One of the bond company’s conditions was that he had to wear an ankle monitor until he reached New Orleans. It looked silly on an adolescent with a large rosary around his neck. I let him use my phone to call his family in Honduras so he could speak with them and let them know he was safe. That was emotional for him, to talk to his mother for more than a few minutes. And before we left the attorney bought him some tacos—his first warm meal since the beginning of March.

We called him a few weeks later to check in, and his personality had already changed so much. The difference in his voice was like night and day. It was so clear that he was improving, that there was life in him again. We could hear how hopeful he was, how excited he was to enroll in classes at a community college and work to help pay his family back for the bond. So to know we were able to do that for somebody is amazing. It really encourages us to keep going.

MK: That is amazing. Where is he from and where is he now?

SK: He is from Honduras and he’s in New Orleans now. He’s a great guy. He’s so motivated to study and work. The great thing is that we were able to apply for asylum and get him a work permit, so now he’s legally able to. He has a great future ahead of him. His life has changed so much in these past few months.

MK: Can you tell us about his asylum claim?

SK: He witnessed his cousin’s murder. He ran away after it happened, and the gang found him and said, “If you say anything to the police, we’ll kill you.” Then they actually showed up to his cousin’s funeral to intimidate him. So he said, “I’m no longer safe here, I need to run away.” That’s when he decided to come to the United States. We filed his asylum claim and he still needs to go through his interview process. He still hasn’t had an interview scheduled, so we helped him look for attorneys in New Orleans to help him prepare for when he goes in. Hopefully soon.

MK: I’m glad he’s free for now.

SK: He was one of our clients who really exposed to us the poor conditions in the adult detention centers. He was there pre-COVID and was still detained when it first broke out. He used to work in the kitchen and he had to stop, so he had no income to make phone calls and things like that. But he was able to call his attorneys, and he told us the conditions were just horrible. They were making them clean the cells of people who did have COVID, with very limited protective gear.

In detention they had no fresh food. He and other clients sent us one of the packages of the food they were receiving, and it consisted of moldy bread, salami, and little juice boxes. That’s their whole meal for the day.

Again, it’s because of people like him that we learned about the conditions in the shelter, and we tried to bring attention to the media. During this time we’ve really been engaging more with the media, whereas before we didn’t so much, mostly for the privacy of our clients. But we’ve come to realize that media outreach is a very powerful tool.

Albert: What can ordinary people do?

SK: Continue to support organizations like The Florence Project and other legal service providers. We have funding from the government and different types of grants, but donations help us do other programs. The government funds attorneys, but its logic is, “Why should we pay for social workers?” Public donations really do make a difference because all of our work is pro bono. We never charge our clients for the services we provide.

AW: Are children still being separated from their families?

SK: No, that policy has ended. But the reunification still hasn’t happened. The problem is that a lot of the parents had already been deported when their kids were sent to these shelters.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the new Netflix documentary Immigrant Nation, but it talks about how family separation is still happening, just not specifically through that policy. It talks about ICE coming into these neighborhoods and taking parents away from their communities and families, which is still family separation to us.

Especially with the recent BLM activity, here in Phoenix as well, we’ve told our undocumented community to be very careful when they go out to these protests. We’ve had a few get arrested, and because they’re undocumented they can be sent to adult detention. And that’s a form of separation as well. Any time a family is separated because of immigration, that’s family separation to us.

AW: There are children from that original separation who still haven’t been reunited with their parents?

SK: Yes. They’re either with their sponsors, often family members, or in long-term foster care, in a shelter I work with. All kids who don’t have sponsors and who are under eighteen are sent to long-term foster care. We help them with their legal cases. Once they turn eighteen, we have to ask for a release on their own recognizance or they’ll get sent to adult detention. That’s how that one kid got sent to adult detention: ICE refused to release him.

AW: Do asylum laws work differently for juveniles and adults?

SK: Not necessarily. It’s mostly a question of the shelter. They’re protected until they’re eighteen in the least restrictive setting, which is these shelters where ideally they’re with their family members. Immigration hearings can be carried out in the least restrictive setting, namely these juvenile shelters, but once the kids turn eighteen they lose that right. So even though this kid applied for asylum and we submitted the application before he turned eighteen, that didn’t mean he would be allowed to be free, it just meant he had to continue his immigration hearings in detention.

MK: Do your older colleagues talk about what's different under Trump? Do they see a continual abuse of executive power? I know a lot of attention has been paid to Trump, but when I worked at an immigrant rights non-profit under Obama deportation was already breaking up families.

SK: I couldn’t give you a complete answer on that. But from what I see, there’s always going to be administrative abuse of power. Our main enemies, as we say here, are ORR, the immigration court, and frequent policy changes.

Immigration lawyers constantly have to make adjustments. At every weekly meeting we have there’s a new strategy about this pilot program starting in Phoenix and how we’re going to combat it. Our organization as a whole is very reactive to everything that’s thrown our way. There’s not a lot of time to think about all the differences between the Obama administration and the Trump administration. But as a whole we know DHS is going to oppose us no matter what, whether it's under Obama or Trump. I don’t think there’s been that much differentiation. We’re looking more at particular judges in Phoenix and how we can work better with them or get them to do what we want.

MK: You made reference earlier to Black undocumented immigrants, who studies have shown are arrested and detained at higher rates. How do you see it in your own work?

SK: We tell our clients who are Black to be extremely careful when they’re out in public. For example, my client from Guinea is Black and a young man. We have to check in with him all the time to make sure he’s aware.

The sad thing is that he has an asylum claim due to police brutality in his country, and we have to explain to him that it happens in America too. We tell him he has to be extremely careful with how he’s interacting in public, that he has to “behave” especially well because he’s undocumented. We tell that to all of our clients: “When you go out and you live with your host family, just because you’re living outside of adult detention or outside of the shelter doesn’t mean you’re free. You still have to be extremely careful to follow the laws. You can’t drive without a license. You can’t work without a work permit”—even though we know they do—“because any arrest could lead to you going back into adult detention and to deportation.”

Navigating that experience with them is very difficult, but it’s very important for us that they know that just because they’re in America right now doesn’t mean they have a visa granted or an approval or a status. They don’t understand that. They think that because they’re not in detention, they’re free. We’ve had a lot of kids get deported for marijuana possession or for driving without a license. You know, they’re teenagers, they’re young adults, they want to live their lives here in the U.S. But they need to be aware of the risk they’re taking.

MK: Let’s talk about your journey. You spent part of your childhood in Arizona, right?

SK: Yes, all of it!

MK: And I know you’re the child of immigrants. How has that shaped your perspective on immigration and on your own work?

SK: My mother’s from Mexico and my father is Greek. But my parents didn’t go through any of the trauma I see with my clients. They had it pretty easy by comparison. They are naturalized citizens now, and they came in twenty years ago with student visas and work visas. So their experiences have nothing to do with what I see now. I think I never really understood the different kinds of immigrants before now. There are obviously many immigrants who are wealthy, who come and do really well and succeed. But in my work I see others who have been here for twenty years and are still undocumented.

I’ve made a lot of friends who come from undocumented families. I see that struggle in a way I never did in my family. Growing up, I wasn’t able to differentiate immigrant families until I got to know people from other communities and saw how privileged my family was.

And this really began back in France, when I was reading the news and realizing that these were people coming from the same country my mom did. One story talked about the same town my mom is from, and that’s when it really clicked for me how fortunate my family was. I really wanted to go back and find some way to serve that community. I had been so privileged, and wanting to find a way to give back motivated me so much. In a way, it was a sort of guilt. I just thought my life was so fortunate and knew that not many people have had the same opportunities I have. I don’t do it because it makes me feel good, but because I’m in a position where I can.

I know a lot of Hispanics who voted for Trump and supported his policies. And yet had they decided to come to the country at a different period in American history, they wouldn’t have been so fortunate. So they don’t realize the struggle. It frustrates me. I see a lot of Hispanics, not just Mexicans but also a lot of people from Venezuela, and their fear of Socialism, their support for Trump. I’ve been trying to find that community of Hispanics who do support each other, who support people striving to become like them. So that’s also helped me acclimate back to Phoenix, knowing there’s a really good community of supportive Hispanics here. Pretty much everyone here at my office is from an immigrant background; some have stories similar to mine, where their families are well off compared to our clients. So we just have the same mindset.

MK: Albert and I met you as a bright young student in Paris in fall 2015. I was impressed by how engaged you were with refugee justice issues in France. How has your picture of Arizona changed, and how did you decide to go back to Arizona after doing such interesting work abroad?

SK: I’m so thankful that I had you guys in my life. You were very formative for me. Honestly, your class, Michelle, was the very first class of my college experience, and was so meaningful in helping me decide what my passion was. And here I am now, living it out.

MK: That class was such a wonderful group. It holds a special place in my heart. And we went through a tumultuous time together—that was the year of the Paris attacks, heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Syrian war, and the influx of asylum seekers in Europe.

SK: It was a reverse culture shock coming back. I always say I’m very thankful that I left Arizona, and also thankful that I came back. I really do see things with a whole new set of eyes. Phoenix has become so much more diverse, liberal, and accepting of people’s differences; it’s really become a great progressive city.

I grew up in a suburb outside of Phoenix—very conservative, very white. It still is that way. So living in Phoenix has also helped me develop a new perspective. And as I said, it’s great to be back and be surrounded by people of my culture as well. I really missed having a Hispanic community when I was in France. Being surrounded by that all the time has been a breath of fresh air.

MK: What advice do you have for college students?

SK: Just soak in as much information as you can. Your professors are experts in their fields; they love having you there, and there’s no reason not to sit in the front and engage as much as possible. For me college was eye-opening because I didn’t know a lot about the world. That was just my experience growing up in a bubble in a suburb of Phoenix. So challenge your ideas and views. Be open to that change, that new perspective you’re going to get from your colleagues, from other students, from your professors. Don’t be afraid to be a little nerdy. And do your readings. I don’t know why you’re there if you’re not reading.

AW: You were at AUP for all four years, right? You didn’t transfer in?

SK: No. AUP was the only university I wanted to go to, and I’m so glad I did.

MK: How has your view of the law changed?

SK: When I was younger, I thought the law was rock solid and that everyone obeyed it. Since starting this job, I’ve realized that access to law is so important. Our clients don’t have appointed lawyers like you would in a criminal defense case, and yet I can’t imagine going through the immigration process without a lawyer. I think the law needs to be more available to the people, especially the most vulnerable.

I’ve also realized that we have to exercise our voting power: vote for the right people in local elections. The people who write the laws, who serve as district attorneys—it’s so important, yet we don’t really pay attention to it. That’s all a part of the law. It’s not just judges, but also legislators and lawyers. Everyone is so important in creating a just legal system.

If you enjoyed this, you may want to read our interview with Nicole Ramos at Al Otro Lado, who talks about working with asylum seekers in Mexico.

Links for the Week

  • Brandon Terry has an excellent two-part article in the New York Review of Books on the legacies of Malcolm X. In part I, he examines Les Payne and Tamara Payne’s new biography of Malcolm X. In part II he reviews Peniel Joseph's latest book, a dual biography of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. As Terry writes,

    After Malcolm's and King's assassinations in 1965 and 1968, this moralized opposition attracted a host of others. In popular and political culture, Malcolm and Martin represented not just separation and integration but hate and love, particularism and universalism, resentment and reconciliation, North and South, the street and the church and, to King's particular frustration, masculinity and effeminacy. The cumulative weight of these facile dualisms helped cement one of Black politics' most enduring questions as a three-word loyalty test, as simple as it is bewitching: Martin or Malcolm?

    Terry explores how Joseph in part dispenses with such binaries, examining how they converged around ideals of radical black dignity and radical black citizenship. At the end of the piece, Terry suggests that Malcolm did not adequately grapple with King’s radical views on economic redistribution and political participation. In King’s words, integration was "meaningless without the mutual sharing of power."

  • Jacobin Radio has a great podcast on the multiple legacies of Vichy France. Jim Wolfreys explains the continuities between Vichy and the far right parties in France today.

  • Here’s an illuminating piece by Jacob Hamburger on Immigrant Nation, the Netflix documentary that Sofia mentioned above.

  • We've pre-ordered not one but two copies of our colleague Amanda Dennis's new novel Her Here. We can’t wait to read it! Pre-order your copy here.

  • We’re so excited that the super talented Sara Stolz, who is a former student of ours, is releasing her first EP on March 12! You can pre-order the album here. You can also listen a couple of tracks here.

Our next book club, March 26th: Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters.

It was wonderful to share a live conversation with you about Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat a week ago. Our next book club meeting is Friday, March 26th at 2:45 PM EST. We are reading Junichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, which has been called the Japanese Middlemarch. Don't feel like you need to have finished the book to come! Please email us for the zoom link.