"They don’t even know what a visa or a passport is": An Interview with Sofia Kalogirou at the Florence Project

We caught up with our former student Sofia Kalogirou, who now works with detained migrant children.

Michelle:

We’re proud to share a conversation with Sofia Kalogirou, whom I had the good fortune of meeting in the fall of 2015. Just eighteen and newly arrived from Phoenix, Arizona, Sofia enrolled in my course on immigration, which was otherwise filled with juniors and seniors. Self-effacing and shy—and perhaps intimidated by the older students—she tended to defer to others in class, but she suddenly came alive in a mock trial on asylum law. Being an advocate, even in a fake setting, brought out her inner ferocity.

That same month, Paris was rocked by terrorist attacks that killed over a hundred. Just a week before, our students had gone to a concert at the Bataclan, where ninety people were gunned down. Summoned by fearful parents, a number of our American students flew home. Sofia stayed, and for the next few years she worked with refugees here.

Three years later, after immersing ourselves in asylum law, Albert and I took Sofia and seven other American University of Paris (AUP) students to Texas. Under the supervision of RAICES staff, the students helped prepare detained migrants for their asylum interviews. Humbled and transformed by the experience, Sofia applied and was accepted to her dream job: The Children’s Program at The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, a leading immigrants’ rights nonprofit based in Arizona. Since 2019, she’s been a legal assistant, working with detained kids anywhere from one to eighteen years old. She also occasionally helps with adult cases where her French is needed, such as those involving migrants from Haiti and Guinea.

All teachers know there is no reward greater than seeing a student grow and flourish. Sofia is no longer that timid freshman in the front row, writing down everything I say. Now it’s more like the reverse: I filled up my notebook as we spoke to her, and came away with many more questions I didn’t get to ask. I’m inspired by her fire, her moral purpose, her humility, and her dedication to her clients.

Sofia tells us what it’s like explaining immigration law to fourteen-year-olds. She tells us how government attorneys have used the notes of kids’ therapists against them in court. She talks about the irony of having to tell Black clients who have fled violence in their own countries that they must be wary of police violence here. She explains how for months Border Patrol was handing kids to ICE and detaining them in private hotels without notifying parents, lawyers, or anybody else: “COVID became an excuse for the Trump administration to do what it wanted all along,” she says: “stop the flow of immigrants.” And she talks about how the resilience of her kids keeps her going.

(Note: we’ve had to postpone our interview with Julia Valero at RAICES due to continued issues related to the Texas power outages, but we’ll share that with you soon.)

This is the first of a two-part interview.

Our students from the American University of Paris enjoy late-night tacos in San Antonio after a 12-hour day of volunteering at Karnes, one of three detention facilities in the U.S. that imprisons families. Sofia is standing at the far right, waiting for her tacos.

Michelle: Can you tell us about your work with The Florence Project? You started working there before COVID; what did your day-to-day look like at the time?

Sofia: At The Florence Project, I work with minors who are detained. Pre-COVID, I went at least once a week to one of the shelters; I would spend a day there and give them a presentation of their rights. It’s really hard to explain immigration law to fourteen- or fifteen-year-olds, but I would try to make it as interactive as possible.

Afterwards, I’d meet with each person individually and do a legal screening. On an average week I saw maybe eight kids. I had to ask them questions to determine if they had any legal relief. A lot of them get released to sponsors who live outside of Arizona, so I would also help them get connected to lawyers in the states where they were being released.

Other than work at the shelter, I also have my own cases that I work on with attorneys, cases for local kids here in Arizona shelters who don’t have anyone to go to. (They’re either detained there until they turn eighteen or they have family members in Arizona and live in-state permanently.)

MK: What’s it like to explain immigration law to fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds?

SK: We have to explain why they’re detained to begin with. A lot of them have the same impression: “I’m going to come to the United States, I’m going to live with my cousin, I’m going to work.” They don’t understand what ICE is, why they were picked up, why they can’t be with their family. They don’t even know what a visa or a passport is.

So we explain: you need permission to come into the United States, but because you’re a minor you have certain rights. We explain what it means to claim asylum. And we talk about whether they can claim special immigrant juvenile visas, which is a common situation. That visa is available to those who have been abused or neglected by their parents. For some minors abuse is a common reality in their home country, so they don't realize it’s not okay, or that they can claim legal relief by testifying to that abuse.

A lot of them also come with very heavy trauma, so we have to work through that with them and validate their emotions and their past. That’s very difficult. My training had prepared me for this, but I didn’t realize how much exposure I would get by seeing all these kids going through such difficult lives. They are so brave to come by themselves, to be in a different country, and still have so much hope.

We’re much more than lawyers for these kids. We act as social workers as well. There have been cases of abuse and neglect at these shelters, so we’re their lifeline there. We tell them that if anything happens to them there they need to contact us right away.

That first meeting that we have with them is so important. There are about ten shelters in the Phoenix area that our team serves, and each legal assistant is assigned to one. Pre-COVID, we saw maybe a hundred kids a week. Now we don’t see any of them because they’re not at the shelters. Since March, I haven’t had those weekly meetings. That makes me think of how many kids I haven’t been able to speak to, who haven’t been able to receive valuable information about pathways to staying in the U.S.

Albert: What are the shelters like?

SK: I was surprised at how public they are. They’re located in people’s neighborhoods and look like a cross between a hospital and a poor summer camp. They have bunk beds and a cafeteria. The kids are supervised all the time, not allowed to go anywhere by themselves. They have very strict schedules. They take classes, and pre-COVID they followed a school schedule, which gives them a basic education for the short time they’re there—anywhere from a month to three or four, depending on their sponsorship situation—while the shelter works to reunify them with their family member or sponsor.

During that time they have access to us, the lawyers. They also have access to therapists, but we tell them to be careful what they tell therapists. Therapists work for the government, so anything they write down goes in the kids' files, and ICE can go and look at them. So when a child discloses to the government therapist, for example, “I was a part of a gang, I experienced this violence,” ICE can use that in a future hearing. There’s no confidentiality at all in those shelters.

MK: Is that because the therapists are government-funded?

SK: Yes. A lot of the therapists don’t even know that. I was reading an article about this: the therapists didn’t even know their notes were being used in immigration hearings. They just attached the notes to the kids’ files as they normally would.

AW: You mentioned that the children talk about the trauma they’ve lived through. Do you find they have the language to describe it? How do they process their experiences?

SK: They really don't. They just say things very matter-of-factly—“This happened to me.” They struggle a lot to share. During the first meeting, I sometimes see a kid who’s gone through a lot but is reluctant to talk about it. I tell him or her, “It’s okay, we don’t have to talk about it now,” and then I go back and do follow-up meetings. Building a rapport with the kids is very important toward getting them to feel comfortable enough to share what happened to them.

Other times, kids open up very easily. They can be very explicit, and I think that’s a result of their trauma; they’ve become desensitized to what’s happened. So it depends. For those hesitant to share, language can be a factor; some don’t speak Spanish, just their indigenous languages, so we have to get interpreters on the phone, which makes it less personal because they’re sharing these stories with somebody they can’t see. And of course they might not even speak the same dialect. That also makes it difficult for them to express themselves and how they’re feeling. When we get kids who speak indigenous languages, it’s really difficult to get them to open up.

MK: Could you talk a bit about the situations they’re fleeing?

SK: The most common one goes something like this: “I couldn’t go to school and had to start working after I dropped out of sixth grade. I worked twelve hours a day in the field, and my family didn’t have food. My father is an alcoholic, he abuses my mom, he beats me and my siblings, and at the age of fourteen I had to leave for the United States to try to work and support my family.” That’s the most common story we hear.

We also hear about a lot of gang violence. A kid might tell me, “The local gang was threatening me, they killed my family member and told me that if I said anything they would kill me as well; they were forcing me to join the gang and I refused, and they said if I didn’t give them an answer in a week they would kill me.” So they leave right away, within that week. That’s another really common one.

We can classify them by country as well. Almost all the kids from Guatemala are trying to get out of poverty. The ones escaping violence are the ones from Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. I mean, there’s poverty everywhere and in all the stories, but these are the most common divisions that we see.

MK: Have you seen kids from other countries too? From where else and what kinds of situations that they are fleeing?

SK: I’ve seen kids from Brazil who leave due to extreme abuse when they’re in families involved in violence or drugs. We’ve seen kids from Haiti, from countries in Africa, and a few from India as well. I haven’t worked on those cases so I don’t know what their situations are like. I have a client right now who’s from Guinea, and it’s been cool to work with him and speak French together. Along with one attorney, I’m the only legal assistant who speaks French.

AW: How did COVID change things?

SK: COVID became an excuse for the Trump administration to do what it wanted all along: stop the flow of immigrants. Immediately after it started, we stopped seeing kids in shelters. ICE stopped sending kids there.

The government also wasn’t assigning migrants A numbers, which are what get you registered in the system. So we didn’t even have a sense of how many people were being turned away.

Adults were definitely still coming through. Some of them were sent into adult detention. But we weren’t seeing any kids. It wasn’t until much later, in July, that we learned that the government was detaining kids in hotels. They stayed there for a short period of time, and the government expedited their removals right away.

MK: The government didn’t notify anybody?

SK: Nobody. No lawyers, not even the parents. They just sent the kids back.

MK: And the kids never got to declare their right to asylum or learn about legal options for staying?

SK: Yeah, it was a black box. We finally started learning about the hotels from parents. They told us, “My child is in this hotel and we need your help to get them out of there.” The Texas Civil Rights Project went to the actual hotels and were honking their horns, trying to get the attention of people inside the hotel to let them know they had a right to speak to a lawyer. They brought a lot of media attention. That's when things started to pick up.

AW: Do we know how these private hotels got involved?

SK: They had ICE contracts. Once the media broke the story, the hotels ended those contracts. They claimed they didn’t know they were contracting with ICE. Something like, “We didn’t know they were ICE and that they were private contractors.” How do you not know who’s coming and staying at your hotels?

[AW and MK aside: The article’s findings are chilling: “The Hampton Inns in McAllen, El Paso and Phoenix were used 186 times.” The article reports that “169 children were detained at the hotels. At least two 1-year-olds were held for three days. But some young children, including 3- to 5-year-olds, were detained for two weeks or longer. One 5-year-old was detained for 19 days in the McAllen hotel.”]

We heard so many devastating stories of people who were COVID-positive and deported. Some, when they got back to their home countries, were refused entry. Some were quarantined at the airport. They weren’t allowed back into their villages because the authorities were so fearful of bringing COVID into their communities.

One kid told me he was so scared to go back because he had recently heard someone was murdered after being deported from the U.S. His neighbors refused to let him come back home because they thought he had COVID. So they killed him. This kid told me, “I don’t want to go back home, because if I go back home that might happen to me.”

MK: That’s devastating. Detention in private hotels is no longer happening, right?

SK: In July, along with other nonprofits, we filed a lawsuit and the judge ruled in our favor, so now that's being honored. We've had kids come through since December. Every time we meet with a new kid, we screen them for potential abuses, asking: Have you been in a hotel? Where were you held? Were you held in a CBP facility? What did it look like? We make sure they haven't been through this process.

So our shelters have been full and reaching pre-COVID numbers. But this is a problem too, because now they have to quarantine the children and they're having difficulties providing proper isolation. Now we have COVID running rampant in the shelters. They have about forty children there, and each one has had COVID at some point while there. Every one of them.

MK: Oh my God.

AW: And they're all unaccompanied minors?

SK: Yes, the particular shelter that I work with is for long-term foster care minors. They don’t have sponsors in the U.S. and they stay in the shelters until they're eighteen. It’s like a group home facility. They go to school. In Arizona public schools were open, so these children were going to school in person back in November and December. They only recently went online.

It’s no wonder every one of them got COVID. These shelters are like summer camp cabins; it’s impossible to isolate them. Thankfully, the cases we did have were very mild because the kids were younger.

MK: How is the medical care?

SK: In the long-term foster care facility, the medical care is somewhat acceptable. They do have a doctor on staff and take the kids to hospitals in the area and treat them. They take them regularly to the dentist. And we've only had two hospitalizations.

At the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelters, “medical care” is more limited because the kids are expected to reunify with their family in relatively short periods of time after their fourteen-day quarantine. They do have checkups, but the shelters are overwhelmed and understaffed and don't know how to properly isolate. So ORR’s solution is to leave kids locked in their rooms all day. Whenever we’ve spoken to them in the past month, they’ve been forgotten in their rooms because there are so many minors back in the shelters now. Some have siblings with them, but the majority are just by themselves in a room all day. They’ve been very depressed.

MK: So how are you talking to the kids now? Are you going into the shelters?

SK: No, we're not going to the shelters. It’s a mess. We meet with them through video calls. Often they don't have a good connection or they don't have enough tablets. Nor do the shelters have the capacity to provide the kids with private, confidential rooms. So we spend a lot of time just working through technical issues, trying to connect to the minors. Since the shelters are full again, there are around seventy kids we could potentially see.

MK: That sounds so hard.

SK: And that’s just the technical side of things. It’s so difficult to speak to children over the phone and get them to open up about a traumatic story that they need to share. Before COVID, we relied a lot on body language to get them to trust us and open up. Now we meet with them through video, and they have masks on too. I can only see half their face. So I’m really limited as to what information I can take during our video call. I can’t see how they're reacting emotionally to what I say.

I'll give you an example that just happened this week—it was such a headache for us. We had to submit an asylum application by Friday, and we had only recently been assigned the case. This kid was aging out in a month, so we had to put his package together super quick. We mailed him the signature pages; we also always include a return envelope in the original mailing. And we say, “You don't have to go to the post office or pay anything. Just put it in your mailbox.” We try to make it as simple as possible.

It got there in two days, then I called him on the phone. The application was all in English, and he didn’t know where he needed to sign. So I read the entire application to him and told him, “Okay, see the little arrow that's pointing here? Sign here.” And then I sent him a picture of the page, just to make sure he signed the right box.

But he didn’t. He signed somewhere else. So I sent him a new page. But then he forgot to mail back two other pages I needed. We didn't have time to send him a new prepaid return envelope, so we ended up having to take a clear picture of the signature pages he had at home. I printed them out and added them to the application. Thankfully, electronic signatures and faxed and scanned signatures are being accepted. Without that, we wouldn't have been able to submit the application.

So that's just a technical challenge of getting work done; it stresses us out, and the client too. What made it even more challenging in this case was that Spanish isn't even his first language. So I'd have to call an interpreter every time. It's not like I can quickly chat with him and he knows what I'm trying to ask for.

AW: Can you talk a bit about The Florence Project and the people you work with?

SK: It’s really great. We have many different programs, and it’s been pretty cool to see how everyone has integrated as a team during this time. I’ve been able to grow so much. They give us so much support—they let us get all the training that we need. I’m glad I got to work pre-COVID; I can’t imagine what new staff must be going through adjusting to working here remotely. It was a big adjustment for all of us, trying to figure out how to manage our dockets and casework. We used to have clients coming into our office all the time. But now even mailing packages to our clients—for instance, to have them sign documents—has been difficult.

MK: How do you stay positive?

SK: The clients encourage me so much. Their stories are just so encouraging. They are so brave. That sounds cheesy, but they really do inspire me. They’ve gone through so much, and some of them are still so positive. It helps put into perspective my life and their life and where I am now. Some of them have their difficult moments, but even then just seeing how much they’ve overcome is inspiring. Also, there are moments of good news—for instance, when we get someone released from adult detention, or get an approval notice or an immigration court determination. Those few happy moments that we get to see make it worth it.


Links for the week

The Terrible Inspection by Huang Rong-can. Huang is considered Taiwan’s first left-wing woodcut printmaker. The print commemorates the 228 massacre. Huang was arrested and executed by the KMT government in 1952. He was 32 years old.

Two short notes of thanks

We had such a wonderful time at our first book club! Such a stimulating conversation that touched on free will, class inequality, literary approaches to history, and whether Tolstoy was perpetuating an ideal of the “noble savage.” We all delighted in Tolstoy’s send-up of Tsar Nicholas. Our next conversation will center on Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters in the last week of March. Please join us! We will announce a definite date next Sunday.

We received a flood of responses to Albert’s post about teaching the atomic bomb. Thank you! It must have touched a nerve. We’re currently gathering your responses one place and shall share them soon. If you’d like to respond to that post or any others, it’s not too late. As always, you can be anonymous, and we will never publish any of your responses without checking with you first.