Episode 63: Bill Holston and Immigration

The border crisis is all we can think about these days. Images from the news stain our minds and still our hearts. Most Americans agree that we need good immigration policies, but that the current policies aren't working and are inhumane and immoral.

Bill Holston, a Dallas immigration lawyer at the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, Inc., talks about his work with immigrants and refugees and helps educate us on what's really going on at our southern border.

Listen to the podcast and read the transcript below, or click here for the full video.

George Mason: 00:00 What do we do about the massive number of people seeking asylum in the United States? How do people of faith think about these people who are coming among us and our political policies that address those subjects? We'll be talking with Bill Holston of the Human Rights Initiative on Good God. Stay tuned.

George Mason: 00:26 Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm the host George Mason and I'm pleased to introduce to you and welcome to the program today, Bill Holston. He is the executive director of the Human Rights Initiative here in Dallas and Bill, welcome to Good God. We're glad to have you with us.

Bill Holston: 00:44 Thanks for the opportunity to have a conversation.

George Mason: 00:47 Well, we've become friends recently and it's been wonderful to get to know one another and to learn more about the work you do, why you do it, that sort of thing. And I really would love for people to understand more about who you are and what you care about and what your work life is and all of that. So just to begin with, you've been with the Human Rights Initiative for seven years. Talk about that organization, what it is and what you advocate for.

Bill Holston: 01:14 Sure. We're a 19 year old organization. We were started by a lawyer and a social worker and we do free legal services for immigrants. There's two unique things about it. One is we're focused on human rights abuses, so asylum cases, unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, women escaping domestic violence. And the other unique thing is our pro bono model. So we're the largest we've ever been in our history, which is 13 employees, but we have about 300 volunteer lawyers and many other volunteers, psychologists, doctors. And so our model is to stay lean and mean and use volunteers to do most of the work.

George Mason: 02:00 This is obviously an issue that is in the news almost every day now. We have a growing sense of conflict around immigration politically, but it's as your organization is titled "Human Rights" Initiative. And so there is a human factor involved in this. And I think probably Bill our conversation today if I had an ambition, at least it's to be able to help clarify for people some of the many different angles to all of this. To begin with though, I'd like to ask you, you were in private practice for many years as a lawyer and decided that you were going to give your next phase of your career vocationally to this work. What's the connection for you between your personal sense of faith and the work that you do? This is Good God, after all, and we try to explore that together. So can you make that connection for us?

Bill Holston: 03:07 Sure. You know, one thing is, and I've been a student of scripture for my entire adult life and I take the Bible seriously and there's quite a bit of... the scripture talks quite a bit about justice. You know, one year I read through the Bible cover to cover, and I'd never done that before. I was an adult and been practicing law for some years. And I started writing down themes that I saw in scripture. And one of them that stood out to me was God's sense of justice. And the passage that I think resonated the most deeply with me was a passage in Isaiah, the 58th chapter where the Prophet Isaiah says, "This is the fast I choose. To loose the bonds of injustice and the let the oppressed go free." And the reason that scripture resonated with me so much is that there it's very clear that justice work is actually an act of worship. And so when I... I don't differentiate really between secular and spiritual. You know, my career is a way that I honor God, and it's an advantage you have as a lawyer because then I can make a completely direct tie between my faith and my faith values and actually what I'm doing professionally.

George Mason: 04:39 So Bill, let's get into this question of not making a distinction between your faith and your work on this issue. Because I think this is a struggle for many American Christians who are wrestling with: Yes, they know that the Bible says that they're supposed to love their neighbor as themselves. They know that, you know, when you asked the question, who is my neighbor? Jesus gives the most extreme example in his day of the Samaritan who is the, you know, the hero of the Good Samaritan Story. They know that they're supposed to welcome anyone into their church, but then they wrestle with the fact that they are Americans. They have political loyalties, and there are people who are desperately trying to get into our country and the system feels overloaded and they listen to the political arguments and they are persuaded that we are a law and order country and we're losing our national identity and those sorts of things. So how do you talk to people about how to apply their faith commitments, their moral values about these things when they begin to think about the nation state that we are, its laws and how we treat people who are seeking to come into our country?

Bill Holston: 06:16 Well, I guess the very first thing I would say is particularly from the point of view of somebody who working in a legal services organization as much as the debate is around legal rights. So this is not most of the debate's not around evasion of the law, but rather helping people to comply with the law. And so those of us who are legal service providers, that's our mission: not to help people evade the law, but to help them to comply with the law, which is quite complex. The other thing I would say, and this is more germane to the faith community, is it's disappointing to me to see how much fear permeates the conversation when people of faith talk about immigration. And for instance, when you talk about refugees, there's all this emphasis on vetting of refugees. And are we going to be safe?

Bill Holston: 07:11 Are we going to be able to keep terrorists out of their country? And fear is not a worthy attribute of people of faith. We should be the people that live with the most comfort around fear because there's security and then there's welcome and those things are intentional and there are things, there's something that gets debated and should be. As a citizen, I want to be safe. But what happens when we shut our doors as a country to, for instance, refugees and asylum seekers, is we're trading really profound values that we are a welcoming country to people and that we're a safe place for people to seek refuge. That goes back all the way to the very beginning of our history for an illusion of safety. Because it doesn't really matter whether we build a completely impermeable wall across our border, we're never going to be completely safe.

George Mason: 08:22 Well this actually goes to a point that is not just about immigration, it's also about law enforcement in local communities. It's about gun laws, for example. It's about a debate that we have even in church. How much armed security should we have? How many people should be carrying guns, if any, in and around the church, in case of someone who wishes to do harm. And certainly we've seen shootings, churches, right? Synagogues, mosques. It feels to me like we need to make a distinction between security and safety, right? And I think if we would focus more on safety than security and acknowledge there will never be perfect security in this life. That is to say, you know, we're always going to be vulnerable in some way and therefore we have to sort of give up the illusion of security.

George Mason: 09:26 Safety tells us that we can make wise common sense choices. I'm not going to walk out in the middle of traffic and expect that I'm going to be fine. I've got to make some wise decisions. But on the other hand, if I never leave my house because I'm afraid of traffic, of crossing a street or a meteor falling on me, I'll be immobilized. So somehow there has to be some balance there. It feels to me like this is part of the struggle we're having with immigration and that is increasingly, the conversation is around one group wants open borders and no, absolutely no safety, and we're putting our nation at harm and the other wants nobody to come in because our country is full. And so don't even try. It's time to just seal the border. Where do we live in between these things so that we can keep our values and recognize that we do have to have processes for immigration at the same time. Where's the common sense place in the middle of that for you?

Bill Holston: 10:39 Well, one of the thing I'd say before, it's not just a tension between safety and openness. It's also a question of resources. That's the other thing is there's the conversation. This often gets expressed in this meagerness of resource as if, you mentioned we're full, as if we have insufficient resources here to take care of refugees and asylum seekers. And you hear that same contrast all the time with people saying things like, well as soon as we take care of all of the homeless and take care of our veterans, then we can start taking care of refugees. And as if there were not sufficient resources to do all of those things, which there actually are, we continue to be a very wealthy country, and we have sufficient resources to deal with those things. So that's the, I think the baseline of how I think we should talk about it.

Bill Holston: 11:37 And then we get to your question, which is, okay, where's the common sense approach? And I think that's something frankly, most Americans agree on. I think most of us actually think, look, we should have a process. We should have legal processes for dealing with asylum seekers. They should be subject to interviews with asylum officers or immigration judges to determine whether or not people are telling the truth or not. We should screen for people whether they're terrorists or criminals or people that mean us harm and not be naive and just welcome people no matter who they are. But we've shifted at this moment way in the other direction. You know, we are... what I'm seeing in the last two years has been a widespread, consistent attack on the rights of asylum seekers. And it seems like almost every month there's a new effort to restrict people, the ability to even come here and pursue those legal remedies.

George Mason: 12:56 Right. Well, when you say that you're saying that we need to have adequate people in immigration forces to be able to process people and then we need courts that are adequately staffed and judges... But that's not happened. Right? In other words, we do have an increase in people seeking asylum. And so people who say there's no crisis at the border. Let's not worry about language. Let's talk about in terms of is it a crisis or is it not a crisis? We do know that in Central America we have an enormous number of people, new people who are seeking asylum and trying to come into our country. And it is also true that is overwhelming our system. But one of the questions is what does it take to get our system up to speed to match the demand. And so far it seems, you know, that the supply of those who are coming, or the demand of those who are coming is not met by the supply of those who can process them and handle them completely. So let's take a break for a moment and we'll continue to pursue this when we come back.

Jim White: 14:13 Compassionate DFW is striving to make Dallas Fort Worth more intentionally compassionate, where everyone is committed to live by the principles of compassion and the golden rule. It works through diverse initiatives, arts, business, education, environmental health care, religious, spiritual, interfaith, and more. Visit Compassionatedfw.org to get involved.

George Mason: 14:36 We're back with Bill Holston of the Human Rights Initiative here in Dallas who works in the legal field to help especially asylum seekers and refugees with processing their claims and helping them in their process. Bill, we were talking before the break about the increased number of people seeking asylum. Let's start with terminology. I think there are a lot of people who confuse the language of immigrant, asylees, refugees. I'm not sure all the terminology that exists there, but would you help us to define terminology?

Bill Holston: 15:20 Sure. I'll start with the with asylum seekers and refugees. That's a subset of immigrants to the country, and that's what we call humanitarian immigrants or people seeking humanitarian relief. Both of those groups meet the same legal definition. And that's somebody who has a well founded fear of persecution because of five reasons. Your race, religion, nationality, membership in particular social group, political opinion, those five things. So a refugee is somebody who meets that legal definition and is resettled into the United States that are identified by the United Nations, and they come into the United States with legal status. An asylum seeker has to meet that same legal definition, but they have to be physically present in the United States to do that. The difficulty is in the details of determining whether or not--I'm gonna get technical, but I'm a lawyer--the nexus between the things that happen to people and one of those five protected grounds. So the fact that you've experienced some terrible hardship in your life doesn't qualify you for asylum unless it is persecution that is connected to one of those five grounds. So most of the cases we've handled, and I've handled as a individual lawyer, have been political persecution cases, pro-democracy activists that are fleeing torture because of their advocacy. Also religious minorities.

Bill Holston: 16:57 The part that gets complex is the membership in a particular social group ground. And those are people with a characteristic that has some characteristic that they can't change about themselves, but it's subjected them to persecution. The best example of that is probably homosexuality. But the more controversial one is this social group for people, women, escaping domestic violence. So a lot of these cases from Central America have been women escaping widespread domestic violence and also gang related violence.

George Mason: 17:39 When we say domestic violence in this case, domestic doesn't mean in country, so to speak. It means actually from their husbands or boyfriends with whom they living.

Bill Holston: 17:49 Correct.

George Mason: 17:49 It's very specific to the home. But they have no place to go. So they come all the way to the United States to escape.

Bill Holston: 17:59 Because the government, they may have laws that prohibit domestic violence, but they're not enforcing these laws.

George Mason: 18:08 So this is part of the problem of cultures that may be more patriarchal in their orientation, that defend the rights of a man to be the owner of his house and his wife and children. And those sorts of things. And so even if the law says one thing, the culture operates in a different way.

Bill Holston: 18:33 That's right.

George Mason: 18:33 Okay. All right. So, an asylee is someone who can get to, put his or her feet into the United States somehow and declare that they are seeking asylum.

Bill Holston: 18:49 An asylee is actually someone who's been successful, and an asylum seeker is someone who, cause you'll hear people say, well, why don't they apply at an American embassy? And the answer's really simple because they can't. You have to physically be present in the United States in order to apply for asylum.

George Mason: 19:04 Okay. So therefore they are going to do everything they can to get physically present in the United States, whether legally or illegally. Because if legally, if they come to a legal crossing point, right? They will be welcomed on the basis of their saying, I'm seeking political asylum, and they'll be admitted? Or will they be turned away? How does that work, Bill?

Bill Holston: 19:33 How it's supposed to work is that they come to a port of entry and claim asylum. I've represented lots of people who did that very thing and then placed immediately in review. They're given what's called a credible fear interview by an asylum officer. And if they pass that, what happened historically is that they were paroled into the United States and then they made their way to a big city and they had access to legal services, including free legal services. What started happening during this administration is that asylum seekers were literally turned away at the border and told that, no, you're not welcome. We're not taking asylum seekers and just refused entry. Then the administration started this policy, they called metering, which is just letting in a few people at a time, to pursue their asylum cases.

Bill Holston: 20:27 And then they started most recently this policy called migration protection protocols, which is also referred to as "Remain in Mexico," which is actually people who come to the border, and as they're permitted to do under the law, claim asylum. And then they say to them, you have to wait back in Mexico. Because most of this migration is occurring at the southern border, for your case, which of course is extremely impractical. Because how are you even going to get notice to someone like, how are you even going to get mail to somebody who's living in Mexico while they wait for their asylum cases? How are they going to access legal counsel? Are there going to be lawyers? How are they even going to enter the United States in order to get back for their court hearing? And that was enjoined by a federal court.

Bill Holston: 21:22 That policy was enjoined by a federal court in the northern district of California yesterday.

George Mason: 21:28 Yesterday, as a matter of fact. Okay. So all of this is in flux. It's just one policy after another that's being implemented, challenged for its legal status and those sorts of things. But it still comes down to how do we process all of this? How do we take what has in theory been a predictable process where we operate in a certain way, and then deal with the enormous influx of people who now overwhelm the system that we have. In other words, if we let everyone in right now who is seeking asylum, what would happen to them with our current resources being allocated?

Bill Holston: 22:16 Well, I'm struggling with or where to even start. It's true we've inadequately resourced our immigration courts for many years through multiple administrations. So that's true. And that's resulted in I think 800,000 cases in the backlog of these courts, which means people... We have clients that came, we filed their cases in 2014, 2015. They're waiting, they want to go to court, pursue their case, but they can't. And so at this moment, as you said, given the present resources, we really can't process that many cases. So the first step should be to adequately fund our courts, and adequately fund and staff asylum officers that we can process these claims.

Bill Holston: 23:14 Then a broader conversation that should be happening, is, you know, the people are coming here. I guess one myth I want to address is, people are always saying they're just coming here to take our welfare benefits. And you know, I've been representing asylum seekers for 30 years. I've never once in that 30 years been asked by an asylum seeker, "When can I access public benefits?" I've been asked many, many times, when can I work? When can I get my work authorization? When can I work? And so, people are fleeing in desperation. They're not making a frivolous decision to travel a thousand miles and that dangerous journey to come here for frivolous reasons. And so we should be at, and some of the situations, those countries we're complicit in because of our Cold War policies in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, those places have been unstable for a long time. And so rather than cutting aid to those countries, we should be recognizing our own culpability in the conditions of those countries and helping those countries to develop so that people have economic opportunity in those places.

George Mason: 24:33 I mean, if we take a moment to go to Honduras and Guatemala for example, El Salvador as well. You know, we're talking about, you mentioned our Cold War policies, and to clarify what that means is that during the Cold War, we had, essentially, a political contest of ideologies between the Soviet nations about communism and their desire, to dominate the world. And especially those countries that were banana republics and were poor and were corrupt and whatnot. And they made significant inroads into Central America and South America. We see in Venezuela right now, for example, the terrible tragedies that have come from that kind of communist socialist approach to government and its terrible desperation. But in justification for that Cold War policy, we failed to make the same sort of play for the affections of these countries and work with aid and try to build democracy, and instead withheld.

George Mason: 25:46 And so we end up with the collapse of one ideology and nothing to replace it. And so what's happened is criminal replacement essentially, and lawlessness, a lack of GDP and whatnot. But then you add in the fact that in Honduras, for instance, the average temperature for the course of the year is 97 degrees and they have 11 inches of rain per month. So what you have is a humid hot culture. And across the world, geography plays a significant role in this as well. You look at Europe and you have a much higher productivity in northern Europe than you do closer to the equator in southern Europe. And weather plays some factor in that. There's all sorts of things, in other words, and then you have natural disasters and the lack of response to those or the recovery of those. So there's a lot of factors that go into this.

George Mason: 26:41 And trade agreements have become a big part of this as well. So what we're talking about, it seems like, Bill, is when you start talking about a comprehensive look at how we address global migration, we are in such a big arena here and the whole global notion of this seems to be broken. You're playing one part in one small area here and I think we're going to continue to talk about this in a second episode, but as we wrap up this one, what would you say to people who are, now, as a result of our conversation and with all the political conversation that's going on, just sort of their heads are about to explode over this. What do you say to them? What do, what can they do to feel like they are a constructive part of the answer, not the problem.

Bill Holston: 27:46 I think the very first thing would be to educate yourself on the facts. There's a lot of propaganda, from the left and the right and it's very challenging to find out what the actual facts are. And so I'd start there and I would start asking people who are knowledgeable and I'm happy to work with you too on putting a resource out there. These are resources that are scholarly. I'll give you a couple examples. Migration Policy Institute is a nonpartisan think tank. Locally, the Bush Institute is very knowledgeable about immigration issues and they have a lot of resources available on immigration. The Federal Reserve, the chair of the Federal Reserve here in Dallas speaks quite a bit and writes quite a bit about immigration. So those are the...

George Mason: 28:51 And these are not left wing or right wing. These are center left and center right organizations you're telling them about. And people could go to your website as well. Human Rights Initiative. What's the website?

Bill Holston: 29:03 It's HRIonline.org.

George Mason: 29:06 H R I online.org. We'll Bill, we've just gotten started here. This is a lot to do and I'd like to continue this conversation in a second episode. Thank you for being part of Good God and for joining us today. We look forward to continuing.

Bill Holston: 29:22 It's been a pleasure.

Jim White: 29:26 Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason, is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2019 by Faith Commons.

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