EL PASO, Texas — Immigration advocates are expressing concern over limitations placed on legal support for those in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program.
As of this week, lawyers can only advise their clients during court hearings and advocates are being kept from participating in a friend-of-the-court role in MPP cases, advocacy organizations say.
“The courts have limited the ability of attorneys to have access to their clients prior to each hearing,” said Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso. “When (migrants) are brought over from Juarez to El Paso, they had the opportunity to be briefed by a lawyer on their rights just before they entered the courtroom. Now the court has stopped that practice.”
More than 8,000 asylum-seekers from Cuba, Central America or other countries have been placed in the MPP program in El Paso this year, which means they must wait in Mexico in between their case hearings.
The practice has been denounced by the advocates because they say it hinders communication with their clients and prospective clients and exposes asylum-seekers to criminal activity in Juarez.
Corbett also said the immigration court in El Paso has blocked attorneys and organizations from serving as friends-of-court, individuals who have been vetted to review the migrant’s paperwork.
“This will have a huge impact on individuals who are coming to court and don’t understand how the process works and how important it is for them to vocalize if they are in fear of returning to Mexico or their countries,” said Christina Garcia, staff member of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “Without a friend-of-court we can’t guarantee that individuals have basic documents like a notice-to-appear, documentation of how they entered the country or what charges they’re being served with.”
She added that “Know your rights” presentations prior to the hearings have also been discontinued by the courts. Garcia said she didn’t know the reason behind the restrictions.
KTSM contacted the Justice Department, which oversees El Paso’s immigration court. Late Friday, an official with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) said in an email that changes were made because unauthorized persons were having access to the migrants.
“EOIR recently became aware that persons from organizations not officially recognized by EOIR and not operating under the auspices of the Legal Orientation Program were entering EOIR space in El Paso, including in one instance a courtroom before working hours, to meet with aliens brought by DHS to court under the MPP,” said Rob Barnes, regional public information officer for the agency.
“To protect the rights of the aliens, to ensure that they did not receive misinformation from individuals operating outside of established programs with oversight and accountability, to ensure that the aliens were not misled or confused about their proceedings or otherwise taken advantage of, and to maintain the integrity of each respondent’s proceeding, EOIR stopped this practice,” he added.
The explanation seemed to upset advocates.
“We are definitely on the list of organizations. All of the registered legal representation organizations are also doing friend-of-court. So if they’re saying ‘we’re no longer offering this program because individuals are not registered or are not on our list,’ it’s a big lie because we’re on the list,” Garcia said.
She added that the government’s move was a “direct attack toward legal representation” and on the migrants themselves.
“What we are seeing lately is this false narrative that individuals who are being given information are being coached — which is completely inaccurate. Individuals are not being coached, individuals are being taught their rights,” Garcia said.
The restrictions apply to MPP cases only.
“It’s not all immigration clients,” said El Paso immigration lawyer Iliana Holguin. “If I show up to court and I want to talk to my client and he’s not on MPP, I can still do that. This is only for those who are being brought up from Juarez for their hearings.”
Increased use of videoconferencing
Corbett also said he’s heard of plans to expand the Migrant Protection Protocols through the use of videoconferencing for the migrant’s initial hearing, which could take place in tents, possibly at migrant holding facilities.
“I don’t know where the tents would be placed. My understanding is they would be placed on federal government property,” he said.
Holguin said the use of videoconferencing in immigration cases is already common, though “that’s always been a huge problem.”
“You hear that a lot of things get lost in translation, so when you have people talking through a TV screen, that’s even worse. Tele-video has always been problematic, but we’ve had it in immigration court for a long time,” Holguin said.
The attorney said that on Friday she was attending an immigration hearing in which her client and herself would be at the courthouse, but the judge would be on a teleconference from a detention facility.
“Now what we’re seeing is that they are expanding it and using it a lot more,” Holguin said.