Ranjana Natarajan

As interviewed by Ronan Rolston, February 20, 2015


I was really interested in practicing public interest law, and really interested in thinking about how you can use the law to further social justice. And by that, what I mean is, I wanted to think about how in every society there are inequalities, whether they be along the lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, income, etc. And so one of the things Iíve always been interested in is how do we make a more just society or a more fair society or a more equal society, and how do we use the law specifically as a tool of social change in that direction.

One of the things I learned working there was how challenging it is for people who donít have a lot of money to do the normal things that you or I and our families can take for granted if we have more money. For example, I worked in the housing unit where a lot of people couldnít pay their rent every month because of job loss or situations with their employment. Or they could pay their rent, but they lived in really, really substandard conditions, and their landlords didnít take cre of their apartments. So, for example, they would have kids, but there would be no heat on for a few days every month in the wintertime, or there would be mice infestations in their apartments, or really things that made their apartments uninhabitable, and they needed the assistance of attorneys to sort of persuade their landlords to provide them more habitable environments.

So, when I was working there, I really learned about how there is just a web of challenges that poor people face in this country Ė and Iím sure this is true in many other places across the world Ė and I started thinking about how it is that the law often serves as a tool by which people kind of get stuck where they are, rather than serving as a tool to enlarge opportunities and to create change so that people can, for example, move across classes or improve their situation in life.

Today, for example, the federal immigration authorities detain about 30,000 people per day, and in the course of a year itís something like 400,000 people who are detained in jails across the country. And that includes women, and in the last few months it has also started including children.
So one of the reasons Iím really interested in immigration law is that I think that the power of the state sometimes to detain people, or to deprive people of their physical liberty, thatís a very awesome power, and it needs to be constrained and be very limited. Especially when itís not for criminal purposes. And so the fact that we detain so many people is still disturbing to me in the immigration system. And so thatís one of the things that Iím really interested in working on.

In June of 2014, the numbers of people who were coming across the southern border, which is the US/Mexcian land border, increased. And the reason they increased was because there was tremendous violence in Central American countries, and the violence had just gotten so high that people felt so desperate that they had to escape their home countries, and they didnít feel that their governments could protect them anymore. Either from domestic violence, or gang-based violence, or other types of violence that exist. So, from countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, people were coming across in greater numbers.
So what our federal government did in response was to say Ė well, we need to increase the resources that we have to meet the need at the border; and they said Ė we seem to have a humanitarian crisis. But unfortunately, what happened was they turned the humanitarian crisis into a situation that they used to detain more people. So one of the things that they started doing was detaining more children along with their mothers at the southern border. So they created two big detention facilities south of San Antonio, one of them is in Karnes City and the other one is in Dilley, and in those detention facilities, they actually hold children in jail along with their mothers. And theyíre lockdown facilities. And they have schooling for the children, and they have some services. But for the most part, theyíre just Ė theyíre jails. And so I think there are real questions about whether our constitution allows that, and whether our laws allow that. And one of the things Iíve been working on is to try to minimize that detention over the past 7-9 months or so.

If you remember, back at the end of November, all of a sudden we had a couple of days of a very cold front, and so we were all putting on our jackets Ė except I donít know, in middle school, I feel like you never wear a jacket, but the rest of us wear jackets because we get cold Ė and the kids in the facilities didnít have jackets. All they were giving them were sort of hoodies, and it was 35 degrees outside. And so we complained about the fact that you have to give these kids jackets. Thatís not ok.
There were a lot of moms who wanted to heat up milk and give it to their kids at night. Well, they would tell them, after 8:00, you canít go into the cafeteria. You canít heat up milk for your kids.
So, itís already a very, very tense situation. Imagine escaping from your home Ė the only home youíve ever known Ėwith your mom, and maybe your younger sister. And imagine that you had to do that because there were people who came to your home and threatened your lives, which is what a lot of these women have faced. Either at knifepoint of gunpoint, I mean very serious threats to their lives. So imagine that you flee. It takes three weeks to get to the US, and what youíre doing is seeking assylum. Youíre saying, please donít send me back to my country, because I fear that I will die, and the government in my country canít protect me.
And imagine that the US governments says as a response, ok, well, weíll consider your assylum application, but you have to sit in jail, along with your mother and your sister, for six months and possibly longer.
And so all of a sudden, youíre in a foreign country, youíre in a jail, and you think to yourself, wait, what did we do wrong, to end up in jail? We didnít violate any law. All we did was, we said, we donít think we can live in our home country anymore because itís too dangerous. And so thatís the position that hundreds and hundreds of families are in. And then they would face things like this, with the facility officials telling them, you canít heat up milk, you canít have an extra snack, you canít have extra apples. Things that Ė as mothers specifically, we always want to provide for our children Ė food, safety, comfort sleep Ė so there were a lot of bad conditions at the facility that weíve been arguing about.

So letís say youíre speeding. When you get pulled over by the police, they give you a speeding ticket, right? So, you promise to pay that ticket. If, for some reason, you donít pay that ticket, you promise to appear in court and to explain why you havenít payed that ticket. So letís say something happens and you canít pay that ticket because youíre just too poor. And you canít go into court that day because you have a job that if you donít show up to, youíre fired. So a lot of people end up not being able to show up in court the day of to pay their tickets. Automatically, what happens is the original $150 ticket becomes like a $400 ticket, on top of which they add like $200 in court costs and fines. And so now, even though youíre poor and you couldnít pay the original $150 ticket, now you canít pay the $600. So now letís say youíve gotten a little bit of money and you can pay, but I need a payment plan. Well to get into court, you need to pay another $200 bond, otherwise youíre gonna be taken to jail. So we have all these systems that are supposed to be civil systems, not criminal at all, but people who are poor end up getting threatened with jail time because of the fact that theyíre poor, and they canít pay.

When you serve clients on issues as important as their physical liberty, itís hard not to get very close ties with your clients, and so sometimes itís emotional.
Sometimes itís emotionally very rewarding when something good happens in their cases, and sometimes itís very difficult emotionally when something bad happens in their cases. You definitely become their ally.

I think thereís a lot of anxiety that some people have about the changing racial and ethnic fabric of the United States. To many of us, itís an opportunity, and itís a wonderful sign that weíre more diverse. But not everybody feels that way, and some people feel really threatened about what it means that the United States is changing demographically. So I think these are really big underlying political and social issues.

Weíre able to really improve some peopleís lives along the way.