Coronavirus complicates lawyer’s efforts to help migrants through asylum process

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Frustration and confusion over legal requirements now that asylum courts suspended

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Since September, Charlene D’Cruz, a lawyer from rural Wisconsin, has been giving free legal assistance to asylum-seeking migrants living in a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas.

She’s filed paperwork, translated documents and prepared migrants for their asylum cases. She has stood on the Gateway International Bridge for days — herself suffering respiratory distress from vehicle exhaust fumes — in her quest to convince U.S. Customs and Border Protection to parole special-need cases into the United States.

Her nonprofit organization, Lawyers for Good Government — which pays her salary but charges migrants nothing for legal services — relocated her to Matamoros from Wisconsin. For the past seven months, she has lived at a hotel so she could be on the ground to help the 3,000 migrants living in the tent encampment, as well as 2,000 other migrants living in this northern Mexican border city.

Close hangs Dec. 22, 2019, from a fence at a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, where 3,000 asylum-seekers live on the banks of the Rio Grande. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

That was until the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Now, the U.S.-Mexico borders are temporarily closed, immigration courts are shuttered, and D’Cruz is working from a Brownsville home on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande desperately trying to connect with clients on the other side via WhatsApp. And like many immigration lawyers, she’s trying to make sense of the new legal rules and realities in this changing environment.

On Monday, CBP and the Executive Office of Immigration Review announced that all immigration court cases for MPPs would be suspended until at least April 22 due to COVID-19.

Read a Border Report story on MPP cases halted.

This week has been particularly bad, D’Cruz said Wednesday via phone from Brownsville, where she is self-isolating after exposure to out-of-town travelers. She said her clients who had scheduled court cases this week don’t know what to do or where to go. Some were turned away Monday without any answers and for several hours some even lacked the proper paperwork to stay in Mexico because their hearings were suspended. All are uncertain how long this pandemic will last and when their cases will be heard.

They also don’t know whether they need to report to the Gateway International Bridge four hours before their court time — as is required when they are to appear in the judicial court there.

“Again, there’s no direction, there’s no anything, other than anybody who has a hearing has to show up,” D’Cruz said. “There’s so much uncertainty. Monday was crazy because we didn’t know what was happening.”

Border Report has asked CBP for clarification on the specific rules for suspended court cases and received the following response: “Migrants in MPP should report to the POE designated on the tear sheets they were issued by CBP.”

There’s so much uncertainty.”

Lawyer Charlene D’Cruz

D’Cruz’s adult career has been spent offering legal advice to those in refugee situations. The 54-year-old was embedded in the migrant caravan in November 2018 for four weeks as thousands meandered through Mexico. She volunteered with migrants who had fled to the Eleonas Refugee Camp in Athens, Greece. And in 1989, she founded a project for migrants in Florence, Ariz., halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. But nothing has been like the experience of seeing the migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande every day for the past seven months, she said.

Most of the asylum-seekers in Matamoros are part of the Migrant Protection Protocols program that was implemented by the Trump Administration last year and started in South Texas in mid-July. Over 60,000 migrants have been placed into the program, which forces them to remain in Mexico as they await their U.S. immigration court hearings. These hearings usually take many months and several visits to court. Those with special needs, disabilities or conditions — such as pregnant women and the disabled — are supposed to be exempt from the program. But over the months, D’Cruz has spent many days waiting on the bridge trying to convince federal authorities of her clients’ needs.

As the world’s attention swings to COVID-19 and the border is officially closed to all non-essential travel, D’Cruz fears the migrants will be ignored. As it is, there are fewer volunteers crossing and journalists reporting from the camp. World Central Kitchen has pulled out staff from serving daily dinners there.

Read a Border Report story on dwindling resources for the migrants in Matamoros.

“One refugee told me, ‘Once you guys stop coming, the Mexican government will take advantage of us,'” D’Cruz said.

“I feel they are sitting ducks for the virus, which I can’t do anything about, but also by the actions of the government and CBP. And all of us need to know that whatever we did across the border made a difference,” D’Cruz said. “It is so noticeable we aren’t there. You think about all of us that used to charge through the camp; that created a community. And that’s why people stayed in the camp.”

Team Brownsville volunteers on Jan. 6, 2020, take supplies to migrants living in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Locals with the nonprofit Team Brownsville are still walking over supplies. The nonprofit Global Response Management still provides on-site medical services, and migrants can still go to the nonprofit Resource Center for Asylum Seekers in Mexico, a two-story building overlooking the tent encampment where D’Cruz has offices.

D’Cruz’s assistant, Oscar, still works in the Matamoros office and is helping clients via an intercom connected to an outside gate on the first floor of the building. He enters their case information into a real-time Google document that D’Cruz can view and discuss on a three-way line. Wearing gloves and a face mask to minimize exposure, he hand delivers any printouts provided for the refugees downstairs.

Migrants are seen on Feb. 28, 2020, living in close quarters with tents side by side in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas. (Border REport Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Since COVID-19 was first discovered, there has been a real fear that it will infect the camp. Additional hand-washing stations have been added, but the migrants live just feet apart in tents and are unable to practice proper social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus, should it strike the camp, Global Response Management’s Helen Perry has told Border Report.

Read a Border Report story on GRM trying to build a hospital tent at the camp.

Over the weekend, the Mexican military sent buses to the camp and offered to transport adults to the southern Mexico city of Tapachula. Two buses were filled. And now D’Cruz is using WhatsApp to try and call all of her clients and see how many chose to leave.

Read a Border Report story on El Paso lawyers using WhatsApp to track migrant clients.

Lawyers for Good Government is committed to having D’Cruz in the region until December. But it’s unclear when and if court cases will pick back up. Those who did have court this week were rescheduled for the week of May 11, and D’Cruz says none of her clients are on the docket past July 7.

Two new DHS programs PACR and HARP, which stand for Prompt Asylum Claim Review, and Humanitarian Asylum Review Process respectively, have led to increased rapid deportations, and fewer immigration cases being placed on dockets, D’Cruz said.

Read a Border Report story on these new policies.

“MPP has come to a grinding halt even though they say MPP is not canceled,” D’Cruz said. “Somehow we just have to keep cobbling it together helping these folks. We’re watching and the ‘we are watching’ part is what is going to keep the government in check.”

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