In the second episode of Netflix’s Living Undocumented, a six-part documentary series following the lives of several undocumented immigrants in the U.S., lawyer Andrea Martinez is wheeled out of a Kansas City Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility on a stretcher. Her heels are off and her left knee is bloody. Moments earlier, cameras caught an ICE agent shoving her to the ground as she tried to enter the building with her three-year-old client, Noah. He was reuniting with his detained, pregnant mother before they were both deported to Honduras.
In the next scene, Martinez says to the camera, “The fact that an ICE agent would assault me in front of cameras and 40 observers, knowing that I’m an attorney—imagine, just imagine, how immigrants are treated in private ICE detention facilities.”
At the time, Martinez and her colleague, attorney Megan Galicia, were accompanying Noah and his stepfather, Luis Diaz, to the ICE facility. Diaz was hesitant to go inside because he is also an undocumented immigrant, so the lawyers planned for him to hand off Noah in the parking lot. ICE agents previously said Diaz would not be detained, but when he arrived with his stepson, the agents told the lawyers Diaz would need to go inside because of the rain. As Martinez and Galicia asked Diaz if he wanted to enter the facility, an ICE agent approached and threatened to detain him if he didn’t go inside. As the lawyers tried to join him, the ICE agent pushed them out of the door and locked it. Martinez fell to the ground, and says she suffered a fractured foot and a concussion.
Inside, Noah and his mother were deported, and Luis was detained anyway. When the agents finally let Martinez inside the facility, the officer tried to get her arrested for forcibly entering without permission. “It was the most strange set of events, because when you’re told you have to come into a space and then the ICE agent flips and calls the police and lies, you think, ‘What world am I living in?'” she told ELLE.com. “‘What is happening?'”
Though a criminal investigation occurred right after, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, Timothy Garrison, decided not to press charges. But this past Thursday, Martinez, represented by the ACLU, filed a civil complaint in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Missouri, suing the U.S. government for “excessive force and unlawful search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” as well as the two ICE agents for “assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.”
ELLE.com spoke with Ramirez to discuss her lawsuit, her experience watching the documentary, and how she takes care of herself with such an intense job.
When did you first get involved in immigration law?
After law school, I spent nine months in Guatemala assisting with a human rights organization called International Justice Mission. I returned to the U.S. and spent a year as a law clerk for a federal judge at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. During that year, I married my Honduran husband and did his immigration paperwork and realized it is a very complicated field of law. People started asking me questions about immigration law, and I became increasingly interested in the complexities of the field and decided that I was going to dedicate my career to it, in large part because I always wanted to be a human rights lawyer. I believe the rights of immigrants are human rights, and this is the human rights struggle of our day.
How did you get involved with this case?
It started when my colleague Megan Galicia received an email to a Listserv in April 2018. It was a plea to help a pregnant detained woman. Megan said she sat on it for a couple of days. One night she couldn’t sleep because she kept thinking about this Bible verse that says, “I was in prison, and you visited me,” from Matthew 25. She felt tormented by the thought of what it would be like to be a pregnant woman detained in a place [where] you don’t speak the language, you don’t know anyone. Megan finally came to me and said, “No other lawyers have agreed to take the case. Do you feel like we should go visit this woman?” And I told her, “Yeah, let’s go visit her.”
How did the case make it onto the Netflix series?
Megan and I visited Kenia. It was really disturbing to see a pregnant immigrant woman with no criminal history being detained in a county jail with people who had committed crimes. We started reaching out to local press to talk about how disturbing this new ICE policy was. This was a fairly new policy at that time, that ICE would detain pregnant women; they used to not, in our experience. The Kansas City Star wrote up a newspaper article about her being detained, and little did we know, Netflix was scouring the internet, looking for stories of immigrants that they could feature in a new documentary. I got a call from some film producers and they said, “Hey, we’d like to follow Kenia’s story. Can we come film them?” We asked Kenia and Luis if that was something they would be open to. They both said yes. And wow, did [Netflix] show up.
Had anything like this incident happened to you before in your career?
I don’t think it’s happened to any immigration attorney before. It sent shockwaves throughout the lawyer world because, of course, we expect to be able to do our jobs without getting assaulted or physically injured. That’s one of the reasons why this lawsuit is so important. Lawyers simply cannot be assaulted when doing their jobs or tricked the way that we were. These ICE agents have no excuse for behaving the way they did. There were cameras, there were observers, but they were peaceful and they were in a public space. My advice is that whenever ICE is around, people need to take out their phones and start recording what’s happening.
What was it like to watch back on Netflix?
I’ve been going to therapy for about a year now, since the ICE assault happened, and I immediately was like, “I think I need to go to more therapy.” It’s really hard. It was very distressing to be locked in a room with an armed ICE agent who had just assaulted me and who was refusing me medical treatment and was trying to take my phone and not letting me call the police.
You said that if ICE officers were willing to do this to you in public, who knows what happens behind closed doors.
It’s a disgrace to the United States how these immigrants are treated. The problem is that many immigrants who are abused and mistreated by ICE are eventually deported, or [are] so voiceless that they don’t sue or can’t sue. That’s why this lawsuit is so important. This case was about me, but it represents a lot more. It represents, in my opinion, all the immigrants who have suffered abuse and mistreatment by officials at the Department of Homeland Security and have never gotten justice for the suffering that they’ve endured.
In such an intense field, how do you keep going? How do you make sure you’re bringing your full self to these cases, especially as more horrible news breaks about immigration policies?
I’m a huge proponent of self care and taking the time you need to take care of yourself first. If we’re going to help other people, we have to make sure we’re strong and we’re healthy as advocates. For me, that means I really prioritize my faith. Also, the other immigration lawyers throughout the United States, they’re such an encouragement. We don’t act like competitors. We’re just all sort of surviving, and there’s something that’s really beautiful about that. It’s a community.