Santa Fe New Mexican

Analysis finds many migrants waiting in Mexico lack legal representa­tion

- By Miriam Jordan

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.

 ?? EMILY KASK/NEW YORK TIMES ?? The Instituto Madre Asunta, a family shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, has been operating well above capacity after a Trump administra­tion policy known as ’Remain in Mexico’ went into effect this year.
EMILY KASK/NEW YORK TIMES The Instituto Madre Asunta, a family shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, has been operating well above capacity after a Trump administra­tion policy known as ’Remain in Mexico’ went into effect this year.

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