Migrants struggling for lawyers

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EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Already struggling to find low-cost or free legal representation in the El Paso area, families seeking asylum in immigration court face a new challenge.

The looming expansion of the government’s Migrant Protection Protocols means they could find themselves cut off from legal counsel while they wait in Mexico, and thus report to asylum hearings in the U.S. without adequate preparation, immigrant advocates say.

“I think very few attorneys are able to travel to Mexico to meet with their clients and provide legal advice. Also, there are questions about potentially engaging in the practice of law in a foreign country,” said El Paso immigration attorney Iliana Holguin.

And it’s not like the migrants can stay in touch with their counsel over the telephone or internet, services that may be severely limited or unavailable in Juarez, Mexico, shelters that are overcrowded and lack basic services, added Marisa Limon, deputy director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso.

“MPP returns people to Mexico to wait out their hearings with no guarantee of shelter, no guarantee of a work permit or legal services access. Basically, we’re making them homeless,” Limon said.

The concerns come as, last week, the government of Mexico agreed to toughen immigration enforcement and to allow the U.S to send over more migrants awaiting asylum hearings. Mexico did this to avoid a 5% tariff on its exports to the United States — a punitive measure by the Trump administration for failing to stop thousands of mostly Central American migrants from reaching U.S. borders.

This amounts to a de facto expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocols, the advocates say. According to Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, some 11,000 third-country migrants have been sent to Mexico by the United States under MPP. Juarez has received nearly 4,400 migrants, and Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral expects that number to increase substantially because of the new binational agreement.

“I don’t think they are going to get an adequate defense. We know that people who have access to legal advice have a higher percentage of being approved for asylum,” Holguin said. “By forcing people to return to Mexico and restricting their access to counsel, folks that may have had a chance of getting their asylum granted may end up getting denied.”

That was a point of heated debate Tuesday in Capitol Hill, where Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled acting Department of Homeland Security Commissioner Kevin McAleenan.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, quoted federal government reports stating that migrants with lawyers show up to more than 90% of scheduled hearings, as opposed to being no-shows and trying to melt into the population. 

But in El Paso, the asylum denial rate runs about 94% and nonprofits that provide legal services are stretched to their limits, Limon said.

“People seeking asylum would like an attorney, and we don’t have the capacity now,” she said. “The folks that we do have are incredibly committed and valuable partners, but there is a huge workload and add that the difficulty in reaching clients in Mexico and it’s almost impossible.”

PRO-BONO IMMIGRATION LAWYERS SCARCE

Melissa M. Lopez, executive director of Diocesan and Migrant Refugee Services in El Paso, concurs that legal aid for migrants in the region is “stretched to the limits” due to overwhelming demand for their services and lack of funding to meet such demand. “I don’t see an end in sight with the current situation,” she said.

Lopez said that her agency is already experiencing difficulties helping people who are made to wait out their hearings in Mexico.

Limon, of Hope Border Institute, said that in the last hearings she attended in El Paso immigration court, the judge continuously ran into people who said they had no legal representation. The judge would hand the asylum seekers a list of low-cost or pro bono services providers, but the migrants would tell him they had already made the calls and been told the lawyers had too many clients.

The judge ended up granting continuances — in effect, postponing the hearing for another day.

But both Limon and Holguin said DHS lawyers are increasingly opposing the granting of continuances.

“By August we’re going to have people going to their hearings with an attorney or else be prepared to represent themselves,” Limon said.

As it is, even with legal representation, 9 out of 10 migrants are being turned down. 

“Self-representation is very challenging because immigration law is very complex, and all of the documents are in English. They have to have an understanding of asylum and what qualifies them. That means securing witnesses and facts that can support their case. That is why the help of an attorney is incredibly important. If they have to make their arguments alone, it’s an uphill battle,” Limon said.

Also, it means bracing for months’ long waits.

“There is a misconception among asylum seekers that there’s only one court date and they’re done. That’s not the case. It takes three, four, five court dates. There are calendar hearings, merit hearings and deadlines to submit a completed application and supporting documents,” she said.

Limon said advocates usually don’t use the term Migrant Protection Protocols because “it’s a complete misnomer.”

“If anything, it’s more into persecution than into protection. Remain in Mexico is the more accurate description of what it’s actually happening. The misnomer makes it more palatable for every day Americas to assume that the government is taking care of folks when it’s the opposite,” she said.

Still, she said she admires the resiliency of the migrants forced to wait out for months in Juarez. Despite fearing for their safety and that of their children in a city with a long history of drug violence, the migrants are hanging on, sometimes pooling resources to rent out low-cost hotel rooms or apartments and finding safety in numbers. 

“It’s a testament to human resiliency,” Limon said.

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