Santa Fe New Mexican
Analysis finds many migrants waiting in Mexico lack legal representation
SAN DIEGO — Outside one of the nation’s busiest immigration courts, dozens of migrant families streamed out of a pair of buses that had just pulled in from the Mexican border, all of them hoping to fight deportation and ask for refuge in the United States.
They filed into two packed waiting rooms at the busy federal compound southeast of San Diego. Mothers tried to soothe crying babies. Security guards escorted people to bathroom breaks.
For the 158 migrants brought in through the San Ysidro port of entry that day in July, their stay in the United States would be brief: Nearly all of them would be returned to Mexico at the end of the day to await, at a distance, what for some of them could be a life-or-death decision.
“I am afraid the Barrio 18 gang will beat me, rape my daughter to hurt me, cut us in pieces and kill us,” a Baptist preacher from El Salvador, who identified himself only as Carlos, wrote in his petition to the court.
For decades, those who could reasonably argue they were fleeing persecution in their homelands could enter the United States and obtain temporary residence and often a work permit while they consulted with a lawyer and prepared to present a full asylum petition to the immigration court.
That all changed under a Trump administration program that began in January. The program requires many migrants seeking admission to the United States to be sent back to Mexico for the duration of their court proceedings, allowing them to cross the border only for their hearings.
The program is proving disastrously difficult for many asylumseekers, who show up for critical court hearings like the ones in San Diego with no legal representation and little understanding of what is needed to successfully present a case.
According to a new analysis of immigration court data by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, 1,155 cases under the migrant protection protocols, often known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, had been decided by the end of June. Only 14 of these petitioners — 1.2 percent — had legal representation. Out of 12,997 cases still pending, 163 were filed with the aid of a lawyer, or 1.3 percent.
Access to counsel is a challenge even for those pursuing their cases from within the United States: Only 37 percent of them have representation. Even if a migrant can afford to pay, finding a lawyer willing to take the case of a client living in Mexico is a challenge. “You see all these people in court and can’t help them,” said Margaret Cargioli, a lawyer with a nonprofit called Immigrant Defenders.
One judge hearing cases that day in San Diego opened 52 cases over the course of the afternoon. Not a single respondent listed on his docket had a lawyer.
In one courtroom, about half the migrants scheduled on the docket failed to appear.
The requirement that petitioners remain in Mexico while their cases are in progress was intended to send a deterrent message to Central America, from where migrant families fleeing violence and poverty have been arriving in record numbers this year.
Because of a lengthy court backlog, many migrants apprehended at the border and then allowed into the country while their cases proceed have disappeared before or after their claims were denied, federal immigration officials say.
Administration officials are trying to set swift court hearings, and migrants are depending on that: The Mexican government has provided work visas only to some of those waiting for hearings, leaving many others with few options while they are waiting for their cases to be resolved. To help speed things up, the Department of Homeland Security is planning to erect tents in the Texas cities of Laredo and Brownsville for hearings, with judges to preside via video teleconference.
At the hearings that afternoon in San Diego, migrants donned headsets as they took their turns in the respondent’s chair, straining to understand the proceedings translated into Spanish by an interpreter. “Often, they are struggling to understand basic information that the judge is trying to relay to them,” said Cargioli, the immigration lawyer.