Casa Marianella: The Only Homeless Shelter In Austin Dedicated Solely To Immigrants.
by Jennifer Long
July 20, 2018
This interview with Jennifer Long, the director of Casa Marianella, was conducted and condensed by frank news.
Jennifer: My name's Jennifer Long and I'm the director of Casa Marianella. I've been the director for 20 years and we have been in existence for 32 years. We are a shelter, an emergency and transitional shelter, for immigrants and refugees who we help get on their feet. We try to do that in three months and in general, we're trying not to just take people in and put them back out again, we're taking people and actually resettling them. We have legal services, we have english classes, we have an acupuncture herbal medicine clinic, we have case managers and a very humble setting in which we live. We work out of nine houses that we own and four houses that we rent and we have a staff of about 20 and a couple of different shelters. We have a shelter for adults, a shelter for women and children, and a shelter for families, and we also have four houses for transitional housing.
Tatti: Is it all in Austin?
Jennifer: It's all in one neighborhood in Austin.
Tatti: What’s the detention center experience like, from the perspective of having worked with so many people transitioning out of them over the last 20 years?
Jennifer: We had a visit from the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a number of years ago and we went to visit one of the detention centers. He was saying it's a complete violation of human rights the way we handle people who come to our border. When someone comes to our border and they ask for asylum they get put in a detention center. Prior to that they are put in what we call a cold cell where it's extremely cold and harsh and where the reason seems to be strictly to try to get people to deport themselves.
The people we know that have been in detention are in detention anywhere from three months to two years, having committed no crimes and not done anything with their legal case, and are applying for political asylum in this country. People can be released, sometimes they can pay a bond, sometimes they can get parole while they're in proceeding, sometimes people lose and can’t be released because they're from a country that you can't be deported to, and then there are people who have actually won asylum, which means they have a pathway to citizenship and they're official refugees and they are released from detention but with no immediate housing.
People who win asylum get out of detention and have to figure out where they're going to live for a couple of months 'cause that's how long it takes to get the cash assistance and things that they need.
Tatti: How has the treatment of immigrants changed over the last 20 years?
Jennifer: It has been a steady increase of security over the past 20 years and I think in particular since 9/11. There was a big shift then. I was working here the day 9/11 happened and my immediate thought was, I hope it wasn't a Latin American who did that because I knew it was going be really bad for them. It turned out that it might as well have been a Latin American because they've been treated so badly ever since. Treated like potential terrorists ever since 9/11.
Tatti: Is there an obvious change in how detention centers are being used because of the influx of immigrants being detained?
Jennifer: There's an interesting exhibit that was done by a bunch of universities a few years ago and one of the things they showed was the proliferation of immigration detention centers. There were only a few in the country back when Casa Marianella was founded and now I don't even know the latest count, but it’s a steadily increasing number. The number now I've heard is 42,000 detention beds for immigrants and through appropriation there's a guarantee to the detention companies that their beds will stay full all the time.
I think that the private prison aspect of it is a big part of the problem. Both in terms of proliferation and in terms of conditions because I feel like most people think that the conditions of the private prisons are worse because they are trying to make a profit so they're the ones that are charging $200 a night to the government and then paying the inmates a dollar a day to work in the prisons.
Tatti: What are the living conditions in the detentions centers you're most familiar with like?
Jennifer: What people describe to me are these enormous cells with 100 beds in them and they are just big open rooms of all these beds. They are locked in 23 hours a day and then one hour they get to go outside on a patio or something.
Tatti: How do you connect with those leaving detention?
Jennifer: They hear about us while they’re detained typically and they write us letters. They also call us but we ask them to write us a letter and we choose the most compelling cases and we write back to them inviting them to stay with us, and we give them a copy for their judge and a copy for their ICE officer, and sometimes with our letter they can be released.
One of the most important parts of this is that the average American believes there is some orderly system people can apply to and that the problem with the people who are undocumented is that they are line jumpers. You hear this language like, “just get in line”, and of course there is no line and that's exactly what immigration reform would be, it would be a line.
You have all these people that have come into the country undocumented who would love the opportunity to line up and show that they have been productive citizens who stay out of trouble and built their lives here and deserve recognition in this country, but Americans absolutely don't know that that's not already happening.
That seems really important to me because I think the overall narrative in the American mind is that we're such a nice country, and we're so friendly, and if anything we're getting taken advantage of. President Obama, in his effort to get immigration reform, deported 4 million people. The people against him that were against immigrants just lied about it and said he had just let all these people into the country which is absolutely false. He was the toughest president on immigration that we've had, and he did it specifically in order to get immigration reform and then he got completely outmaneuvered, just as George W. Bush did. It plays to the American narrative that we're being too nice and so I think that getting over that is huge. If people actually knew how we treated people who come to our border looking for help, that would be a starting place.
The other thing that's killing me right now is DACA and TPS because I think the other thing Americans really believe in is a meritocracy and those are two programs that are meritocracy. They keep saying about DACA, “oh the poor children, they were children on arrival it wasn't their fault it was their parents fault” and using it as an excuse to sort of beat up on their parents but in addition to that, that's not even true because there are a lot of childhood arrivals who didn't get DACA.
You only get DACA if you finish high school and went to college or went to the military. It is the cream of the crop of the childhood arrivals and these are all kids who have worked really hard to get there and many of them are working professionally all over this country and I don't think that's who anyone in this country would want to deport, but there's no understanding of that.
TPS, the Temporary Protective Status for Salvadorans, those people have had to jump through all kinds of hoops to maintain that status, paying every year $450 for Visa renewal, and staying out of trouble, and working hard and paying their taxes and to turn around and deport those people is just complete craziness.
Tatti: Do you think there's hope for full immigration reform?
Jennifer: Not in the current context because there's so much dishonesty around it and because every time anyone, including George Bush, says anything about immigration reform the refrain and the response is enforcement.
All we ever get to is the enforcement within any immigration reform.
And the current attempt by President Trump is to deport everyone. Whoever they are no matter what they've accomplished, how they've cooperated, what contribution they're making to our country because he's using them as scapegoats. He doesn't frankly care about a rational immigration policy and I'm afraid that's true for a number of legislatures. They're very happy to throw immigrants under the bus if it serves a purpose of whipping up the base and that's what they've been used for.
Tatti: Why do you think the narrative shifted so drastically in the last 17 years? George W. Bush was incredibly liberal on immigration.
Jennifer: I think it’s a clever use of immigrants to build political power. It’s extremely intentional.
There's been a very intentional use of rhetoric to dehumanize immigrants in order to build political power for the right wing.
Tatti: Power in terms of building up their electorate?
Jennifer: It's certainly manifested in everyway both in terms of passage of bills and in terms of electoral politics. It has been used very much on electoral politics and has been used to feed people's fear of a non-white society.
Tatti: How do you clarify the narrative?
Jennifer: The most helpful thing people can do is to treat new arrivals with dignity and stay informed with what's really going on with how our country's treating people and to speak up on behalf of people that don't have a voice.
Tatti: Right. Activism, I suppose.
Jennifer: I don't really know how it's going to shift. I have a very hard time seeing it. I think that progressive people have been a lot less successful at using language to accomplish what they want than the right wing business.
President Bush, when he was the Governor of Texas, was so good on immigration and he very clearly stood up and said “We're not gonna penalize people. We're not gonna tell children they can't go to school. We need to respect the people here working hard. They’re our trading partners, my sister-in-law is from Mexico, and Mexico is not our enemy” and we’re not going to do that. He was excellent as Governor on that point and he was pretty darn good as President as well but he got silenced, ultimately.
Tatti: Do you feel at all optimistic about the future of immigration policy?
Jennifer: I am optimistic on a daily basis because what I get to do, which is work with people individually.
I see a lot of hope there. As far as political change, a more reasonable, rational immigration policy, it’s hard to picture unless, and I'm hoping for this too, we have a major shift and the pendulum swings the other way, so I'm holding out hope for that.
We haven't done a very good job as immigrant rights advocates of framing it. The whole word, the whole phrase, Comprehensive Immigration Reform, sounds like throw open the gates, which it is not. Really we're talking about setting up a line, an orderly line that people can get in to prove they are contributing to our country and have something to offer and we haven't communicated that. We made it sound like let everyone in willy-nilly and no one's advocating that.
Tatti: What do you expect from border state politicians, Texans especially, in their language and leadership on immigration?
Jennifer: Well, the great state of Texas was built from immigrant labor. It's still the case, Austin is a boom town. It would not be a boom town if there were not the immigrant labor. I would push them to be honest and to recognize the contribution of immigrants and to treat them in a way they deserve to be treated based on their contribution to our country.