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Child Refugees Are Pleading For Asylum in Downtown LA

Immigration march

Courtroom X, on the 17th floor of a nondescript office building in downtown Los Angeles, is a cramped and bland-looking space about the size of a classroom. It seems like an appropriate place to adjudicate traffic citations. Instead, it’s a place where veritable death sentences are handed down to children.

Just two months ago, before the Ferguson protests, the Islamic State beheadings of two American journalists, and the celebrity-nude-picture hack, the Central American child refugee crisis briefly dominated the headlines and sent Congress into conniptions. Republican lawmakers, with support from the Obama administration, called for changes to existing law to allow the government to deport tens of thousands of children with asylum claims much more rapidly. Democrats balked, and in what has become a ritual in Washington, Congress deadlocked, went on recess, and the status quo prevailed.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the legal process hasn’t changed for the refugees themselves. In the absence of congressional action, the Obama administration quietly accelerated the pace of deportation hearings for unaccompanied minors, aiming to cut the wait time for an initial hearing down to 21 days, a process referred to informally by civil rights advocates as the “rocket docket.” Every day, in cities all over the country, teenagers, children, and even infants appear in rooms like Courtroom X, without an attorney, ostensibly to argue their case for asylum against a government prosecutor trained and practiced in one of the most complex bodies of law in existence.

The look of the proceedings is exactly how you would imagine it: part parody of due process, part bureaucratic stage acting, and part struggle to provide real justice under extremely harsh conditions.

It was 9:50 AM in Courtroom X. About a dozen people, mostly unaccompanied minors and members of their families who reside in the United States (refugees who come to the US typically do so to join family members here), crowded several rows of benches on one side of the courtroom. Immigration Judge Ashley Tabaddor presided over the hearings. Her demeanor plainly showed that she had administered this drill hundreds of times before; she was polite, but firm. She explained the legal circumstances to the audience before her, and asked for confirmation that they understood. It was obvious that it mattered to her that the defendants before her were given every opportunity to exercise their full legal rights, within the extremely narrow parameters that the courtroom allowed.

She asked the first defendant on the docket a series of basic biographical questions. The girl was 17 years old. She came from Honduras, where her father still lived. On this day, she was staying with her aunt and her mother in Bakersfield, about two hours from downtown Los Angeles.

This hearing, however, was for minors who did not have parents currently residing in the United States, and so the judge reset the girl’s case for the second week of September. It was now 9:52 AM.

The judge went down the list of the other children in the room, asking the same questions each time. Armando* was 16 years old. He was in court with his uncle. He came from Guatemala, where both his mother and father still lived. He was currently staying in the Westlake neighborhood of LA.

Raul was also 16. He was with his aunt; his mother lived in Guatemala. He didn’t know where his dad lived. He was staying in South LA.

Sandra was 13. She was seated with her sister, Jessica, who was 9. They both came from El Salvador. So did Oscar, 16 years old. He was staying in North Hollywood.

It was now 9:56 AM.

Judge Tabaddor explained to the defendants the legal facts of their situation: In the government’s view, all of the defendants were in the country illegally and should be removed. She asked them to confirm that the court had the proper addresses for where they were currently residing in the US so that removal notices could be delivered if—or in most cases, when—they were issued by the court.

She explained that they had a right to acquire representation by an attorney, but at no expense to the government. These were not criminal proceedings, so she could not appoint an attorney for them, but she did provide them with a list of legal aid groups that may be willing to offer them free counsel. It was the defendants’ responsibility to find an attorney. Did the defendants wish to find an attorney? Yes, they said, nodding.

Judge Tabaddor held up two thick books. These, she explained, were books on immigration law and procedure. The attorneys the defendants obtained should be thoroughly versed in the contents of these books, she said, since immigration law is extremely complex and attorneys who are not experts in it would not serve the defendants’ interests.

The judge also warned them to stay away from “notarios.” In some Latin American countries, the word “notario” refers to full-fledged lawyers. In the US, it refers to notaries public, who notarize legal documents. Some notarios will use this unfortunate discrepancy to pose as qualified attorneys. They will sound like they know what they are talking about, but they do not. Stay away from them, Judge Tabaddor inveighed. They would not be able to help in these asylum claims.

If this group of defendants reflected national trends, most of them would not find free or affordable lawyers to argue their asylum claims. With their lives potentially on the line, they would be forced to represent themselves. Without legally mandated government-appointed counsel, there are simply too many refugees, too much haste in deportation proceedings, and too few pro bono attorneys to provide real due process.

The judge reset their cases for November and dismissed the room. It had only been about 15 minutes since the first defendant on the docket was questioned and a little over an hour since the courtroom opened that morning.

In the hallway, Sandra’s aunt explained to me why her niece fled El Salvador. The region they came from, La Paz, has a heavy gang presence. Some of Sandra’s family members had already been recruited into the gang, which, she said, made the rest of the family visible to the gang and therefore a target. Gang members had threatened to kidnap Sandra. They knew that Sandra’s aunt lived in the US and demanded that she start sending the gang money.

Sandra’s entire school was threatened with violence by gang members from La Mara Salvatrucha, her aunt explained. The school principal sent out a letter to all of the students’ families informing them of the danger.

The risks to her safety in El Salvador were great, and Sandra fled the country. She made it to Texas before being detained and then spent a month in a detention center there. The room was cold and she claims that she was given no clothes to keep warm. According to her aunt, she was treated poorly by the staff.

She was transferred to a second detention center in McAllen, Texas. Circumstances there were much better. They had better rooms and even a school.

Now, she was in California with her aunt, but the threat of deportation looms. Altogether, she had been in the US four months.

What would happen to Sandra if the judge ruled against her, as most immigration judges do to most asylum claimants?

Her aunt began to explain while Sandra listened and her nine-year-old sister began fidgeting, as nine-year-olds tend to do. If Sandra was forced to return to El Salvador, her aunt explained, she would face the risk of injury, and maybe death. Several children who had been sent back to the homes they fled had been killed, she told me. (Press reports bear out her assertion.)

Sandra was ready to leave this conversation—to leave the building behind and get back to her new home, however temporary that home might prove to be. It was written on her face and in her nervous fidgeting.

I thanked them for their time and their openness and let them go.

In a few months, Sandra will return to Courtroom X, likely without an attorney, to find out whether the immigration judge will allow her temporary respite to be her permanent salvation, or whether she will be sent back to the miserable and potentially lethal circumstances she risked her life to escape.

This article originally appeared in VICE.

Holiday Lists for the Misanthrope: Part Three


Do you have a radio station in your city that starts playing Christmas songs 24 hours a day for 30 days the day after Thanksgiving?

Los Angeles does. When I first moved here in 2000 it was charming, but now it is nauseating.  Imagine it’s 10am Wednesday and you’ve already listened to your podcasts of This American Life, Radiolab and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and for some reason The Moth hasn’t uploaded a new podcast in weeks. So you start flipping stations. You have the choice of Justin Beiber singing “Baby, Baby”, sports talk radio, or 103.5 The KOST playing The Backstreet Boys singing Little Drummer Boy followed by Johnny Mathis roasting chestnuts on an open fire.

For these thirty days filled with insufferable Holiday cheer, I always make sure to have my ears safely guarded by a mixed tape (1996-2000) or a playlist.  I will now share my 2012 playlist with you.

Holiday List for Misanthropes by yanseepants on Grooveshark

Week Three: Holiday Music

I’m Only Happy When It Rains
Garbage, Garbage (1995)
During the month of December you will find that people give you disingenuous wishes of a Happy Hanukah, Kwanza and New Year. But we both know what actually makes you happy, their silence, and rain.

Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis
Blue Valentine
, Tom Waits (1978)
It’s a misconception that I dislike Christmas music. This Tom Waits song is an old favorite of mine. It first made it’s way onto my playlist in college. I know it’s strange to say a Tom Waits song is beautiful, but this song is beautiful and messy and sad. Merry Christmas!

Sullen Girl
Fiona Apple (1996)
Have you ever been a 9-year-old girl with a birthday five days after Christmas so it is always impossible to have a cool birthday party because everyone is always out of town or at their grandparents or skiing or something lame like that? I don’t want to bum you out; but some 9 year olds never quite recover from it getting dozens of “RSVP- no” responses year after year.  Hypothetically speaking.

 Old Boyfriends
One From the Heart, Crystal Gayle (1982)
Let’s be honest, a reason lots of people don’t like The Holidays is because no one loves them. Ok, well someone that used to love them doesn’t love them anymore, or doesn’t love them enough. Basically they’re not in a relationship anymore – that’s the worst during the holidays. HBO is constantly showing Love, Actually, there’s mistletoe everywhere – it’s totally obnoxious. I get it you guys; I’m single this year too. However, music is balm for the soul – so here’s another Tom Waits song for you sung by Crystal Gayle. This one is particularly balmy.

Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)
Brain Drain,
The Ramones (1989)
A friend really felt this list needed some punk. I didn’t want to fight about it.

I Don’t Give a Fuck
2Pacalypse Now,
Tupac Shakur (1991)
I’m not going to lie to you, while this is one of my favorite workout songs, the beat and Tupac’s attitude may compel you to sincerely not give a fuck. Or punch someone in the face. You’ve been warned.

For Traditionalists
If you insist on having some Holiday cheer, I suppose you could enjoy the following, but it’s pretty close-minded of you.

Santa Baby
Eartha Kitt (1953)

All I Want For Christmas Is You
Merry Christmas, Mariah Carey
(I LOVE this song, but just singing and dancing around to it, not because it inspires Holiday cheer or whatever.)

Christmas in Hollis
Run DMC, (1987)

We Wish You A Merry Christmas
A Christmas Together,
John Denver and the Muppets (1973)
Yay, the Muppets and John Denver! Aww, John Denver…

Happy Holidays you scrooges!

Activists Protest Juicy Couture Founders for Use of Fur in New ‘Skaist Taylor’ line

skaist-6622 620px

Juicy Couture, the brand that built a fashion empire out of rhinestone-studded velour track suits with “Juicy” emblazoned across the ass, became a darling of animal lovers in 2008 when it pledged to go fur-free.

But on Saturday, Juicy Couture co-founder Pamela Skaist-Levy found the street outside her Beverly Hills home the site of a demonstration by dozens of animal rights protesters shaming her and her business partner Gela Nash-Taylor for trading in the pelts of foxes, raccoons and other animals that were raised in confinement and brutally killed for fashion industry profits.

Juicy Couture is still listed on the Humane Society’s website as a fur-free designer. But now Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor, who left the company two years ago, have a new fashion line out called Skaist Taylor which embraces fur with the same ostentatious aplomb with which Juicy showcases costume jewelry and the color pink.

The fur trade has been the object of protests and boycotts for decades for its horrific treatment of animals.

“Animals including fox, rabbits, mink, cheetah, and even dogs and cats are gassed, beaten, have their necks broken, are caught in steel-jaw leg hold traps and vaginally and anally electrocuted for their fur,” said animal rights attorney Shannon Keith, who produced a documentary on the fur industry called “Skin Trade” and was one of the campaigners behind West Hollywood’s ban on fur retail a year ago. “If someone were caught anally electrocuting a dog, they would be arrested and sent to prison for felony animal cruelty; however, because the fur industry is completely unregulated, those who control it get away with it.”

The demonstration Saturday was organized by two longtime anti-fur activists, Ellen Lavinthal and Jessica Schlueter. Lavinthal was one of the primary organizers behind the West Hollywood fur ban, and Schlueter helped launch a boycott of a major fur retailer.

At one time, Lavinthal, who lives in the neighborhood, was friends with Skaist-Levy. That relationship had already grown distant, but ultimately soured over Skaist-Levy’s decision to use fur as a centerpiece in her new Skaist Taylor line.

“I approached Pamela when she appeared on the front page of the L.A. Times wearing fur to promote her new line,” said Lavinthal. “The next day, my daughter and I reached out to her and dropped off a letter from my daughter asking her to stop using fur, as well as a copy of ‘Skin Trade and some literature about the fur industry. I told her that I and the rest of the animal rights community would be glad to help promote her new line if she changed her mind about fur. A few weeks later, we gave her a petition with 33,000 names on it. When she didn’t do anything about it, we were left with no choice but to protest.”

Skaist Taylor’s press agent did not respond to repeated attempts to contact the company for comment.

Schlueter also had a falling out — not with the designer herself, but with the Juicy Couture brand. Like countless other young women around the world, in high school and college, Schlueter spent “hundreds, if not thousands of dollars” on Juicy clothes. The company’s image appealed to her: the story of two women with practically no resources starting a global brand out of their small L.A. apartment was irresistible. Juicy Couture’s pledge to go fur-free sealed her brand loyalty.

Now, Schlueter feels disappointed and betrayed, dismayed that all the money she spent on Juicy Couture clothes over the years had only helped further the careers of two fashion industry giants who then went on to become part of the multibillion dollar fur industry.

“I don’t think they are horrible people, I think they have spent years in a community that glamorizes fur and that mocks people who stand up against its inherent cruelty,” Schlueter explained.

Skaist Taylor has no physical stores, so the activists chose Skaist-Levy’s home residence as the site for their demonstration. Especially given its residential setting, the protest was conceived from the start as a calm, peaceful, educational action — no screaming in people’s faces or mixing it up with the cops.

But demonstrations in front of private homes are an inherently risky tactic for animal rights activists. Federal prosecutors have shown a willingness to classify “home demos” as acts of terrorism under the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a law that the fur trade and other animal-based industries lobbied for and which was written explicitly to criminalize certain protest tactics in animal rights campaigns that are Constitutionally protected in every other context. In 2009, the government indicted four Santa Cruz animal rights activists on terrorism charges for engaging in First Amendment activities, including protests in front of the homes of UC Santa Cruz vivisectors, claiming a connection between those actions and two 2008 firebombings of the car and the home of two UCSC scientists, crimes which remain unsolved. A federal judge threw out the indictments the following year for lack of specificity.

With about one bike cop for every three protesters, however, no tension was visible between law enforcement and activists at the demonstration on Saturday. Protesters restrained their passion with civility, aiming to reach the public instead of alienating it. A few Star Tours vans passing by slowed down for tourists to take pictures.

The organizers were pleased. “I’m beyond thrilled that this was one of the largest home demos ever in the United States,” said Leventhal. “The fact that so many people would give up their Saturdays and choose to be there really made a statement of how strongly they feel about the use of fur in fashion.”

Jessica Schlueter and Ellen Lavinthal

Photos: Dominic Greco

I Hate L.A. LOL

Battle LA 2

Hating on a city you live in is the cheapesteasiest writing assignment in the world (that last one is actually pretty funny). And nowhere does it come cheaper and easier than in Los Angeles. At one time in the not-so-distant past, hating L.A. was a national pastime. The city was America’s foil, a reliable punchline, a catalyst that brought people in other cities together by welcoming their collective disdain and transmuting it into a momentary salve to their own festering self-hatred. It was a lazy writer’s bottomless feeding trough.

Then, things started to change a bit. The cliché got stale, and it slowly dawned on people that like everywhere else in the world, L.A. is a place with a lot of assholes and a lot of not-assholes, some ugly parts and some nice parts, and even some interesting and exciting things you could appreciate if you took a look around.

But here’s the thing: writing is hard, especially when you’re not very talented to begin with. And when you get paid for it, you have deadlines to deal with. Disposing of mindless conceits that guarantee clicks/flame wars (= more clicks) is just bad for everyone trying to eke out a living as a writerly hack.

Which is why the hack community is indebted to Vice magazine, whose continued existence as anything other than a YouTube channel (they actually have some really good videos) was something of a mystery until British ex-pat/Vice blog post assembler “Jamie Lee Curtis Taete” came along and gave it renewed purpose by reviving the tried and true “I hate L.A.” theme, with all its cherished classics, like: The having-to-drive-everywhere! The hippie Californians! The unemployed actors! The gift of L.A. hatred is back. Suddenly it’s 1983, or 1993, or 2003 all over again.

To make it even easier for future Vice writers to regurgitate the I Hate L.A. schtick, here’s a template blog post on Los Angeles for Jamie and his colleagues to just cut and paste next time they run out of vaguely offensive, possibly ironic topics to write pointlessly about. As long as they don’t use it more than twice a year, it should feel fresh and new every time.


1. Traffic!

Have you noticed how much fucking TRAFFIC there is in L.A.? Holy shit, I HATE TRAFFIC! Don’t you hate traffic, or am I the only one? Everybody drives a car here because there’s no public transportation. Not like LONDON OR NEW YORK OR SAN FRANCISCO, where you can hop a bus or a train or at least a cab, or even walk places! Here in L.A., everyone drives their cars *everywhere,* which means there’s lots and lots of TRAFFIC (and also pollution)! I hate that! Has anybody noticed that before or am I the first?

2. Weird people

ZOMG there’s so many weirdos in L.A.! And I mean like, New Agey, hippie dippy weirdos. They’re into crystals and energy stuff and they even have energy stuff for their pets! Not like in New York, where nobody does yoga or has funny personal religions or pampers their pets in amusing ways. It’s just one big mob of Jenna Elfmans here, or at least it is from this café on Abbott Kinney all the way to La Cienega, which I don’t go past because then it gets dangerous, and then past that it’s too far to drive in all the crazy TRAFFIC!

3. Actors

Everybody — and I mean EVERYBODY — works in the film or TV industry. Or as they call it here, “The Industry.” They’re all sad aspiring actors or screenwriters who still haven’t let go of their dreams and accepted their utter defeat in life, even though they’re already like thirty. It’s so lame but it’s also fun for me to laugh at their failure (LOL!). It’s not like in New York, where all my friends are struggling to be professional writers or editors or playwrights or theater actors or artists, which is totally sophisticated and rad. Here, they’re all trying to be *movie stars* or to write scripts for Hollywood or for TV studios, which is pedestrian and lame and worthy of contempt. As for me, I’m in L.A. trying to be a REAL writer — you know, someone who publishes in The New York Review of Books, or — not a *screen*writer. I mean, I’d be down to try my hand at a script for a pilot, for sure, I’m super talented, but my shit would be for like HBO or Showtime, not for some reality TV crap like people here do.

4. Weather!

Everybody thinks L.A. weather is so great but here’s the hard reality of it, and you heard it here first: with so much sunshine all the time, you KNOW it makes people crazy and stupid. You just know it! It’s just not *serious* weather, for serious people. In New York, it’s shitty and cold in the winter, and it’s shitty and hot in the summer. And then for like a month on each side of those seasons, it’s BEAUTIFUL. Have you ever been in Prospect Park when the leaves turn? ZOMG it’s so amazing. Go to the Farmer’s Market in Park Slope in October and then look me in the face and tell me L.A. weather is the best. You won’t be able to do it GUARANTEED. Anyway, even in San Francisco it’s cold all the time and damp in the winter, not like here, where you can go to the BEACH in DECEMBER which is INSANE and WRONG. Stupid sunny L.A. and its stupid sun-drenched minions.

5. Earthquakes

Ok I haven’t been in L.A. long enough to have actually experienced an earthquake since I just got here six weeks ago, but everybody knows how there’s straight up EARTHQUAKES in L.A., which is just *crazy *and even worse than the crazy traffic AND the sunny weather, COMBINED. I mean, why do people even live here? Why did they put a city here? It’s a totally uninhabitable danger zone that’s just waiting to be pulverized by The Big One. And you know what? When that happens, you know everybody else in the country is going to be SO HAPPY ABOUT IT! LOL I can’t believe I just said that — so wrong LOL. But anyway, everybody in L.A. has fake tits and fake tans and they’re all trying to be the next Lindsay Lohan or Matthew McConaughey or whatever, and they’re all stuck in their cars all the time getting baked in the non-stop sun on their way to their spiritual healing classes, so honestly, if this whole place just broke off and floated into the Pacific would these people even notice? Probably not! ZOMG I crack myself up sometimes. It’s so great that I write for Vice so I can just unload like this after a few lines of coke.

Photo: Battle: Los Angeles, Columbia Pictures

Photo: L.A. Weekly