The Border Area Is In Dire Need Of Lawyers To Represent Asylum-Seekers

There are not nearly enough immigration lawyers in the Rio Grande Valley to meet the needs of a large detainee population.
Spencer Platt via Getty Images

BROWNSVILLE, Tex. – Last week Carlos García and Efrén Olivares stood apart from the crowd at a rally here in this border town located at the southernmost tip of Texas. A large crowd of 1,500 protesters chanted “The people united, will never be divided,” and waved signs that read, “This Is Not A Border Crisis. It Is A Moral Crisis.” Everyone had gathered to protest the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

As they talked in a mix of Spanish and English, García, an immigration lawyer, said he had clients to visit at a detention center later that day. Olivares, the racial economic justice program director at the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), asked Garcia to visit a woman from Honduras, who had told one of his colleagues that she would kill herself if she wasn’t reunited with her five-year-old daughter.

“Let me put her on there, and I’m going to take someone else off,” said García, sending his legal assistant a Google chat message to update the list of 15 migrants he was scheduled to see later that afternoon.

Rather than spend his day working on cases from his private immigration practice, García, like so many other lawyers, is helping migrants who have been separated from their children by immigration authorities ― in addition to his day job.

But there aren’t enough Spanish-speaking lawyers who can stay long enough to take on asylum cases, which usually take around six to eight weeks to process.

“People see the crisis happening, and they want to do something right now, which is great. But when we explain that this is a long-term fight, and we need your long-term commitment. That’s when people sort of back off.”

- Zenén Jaimes Pérez, the communications director at the TCRP.

The border area, where the majority of separated parents are being detained in the Port Isabel Detention Center, desperately needs more lawyers like García to help with the work.

“We have a ton of lawyers saying ’We can come to the valley for two weeks and volunteer, and it’s not very helpful,” Olivares said. “We need a commitment to take on the case all the way for months.”

Legal representation is vital for detained migrants; those with attorneys are twice as likely to get asylum or another form of immigration relief as those without, yet only 14 percent of detainees have lawyers, according to research from the American Immigration Council.

The asylum process involves what is called a credible-fear interview, in which migrants must convince an immigration officer that their lives are in danger back home. If they pass, they can request a bond hearing to be released from detention. Then they must prepare for their asylum case in front of a judge. Since most migrants can’t afford lawyers, they rely on pro bono representation, which is harder to come by in rural areas.

In the Rio Grande Valley, García says that only he and a handful of other immigration lawyers are taking on cases pro bono. The 41-year-old pointed out that there’s no local law school, which means prospective attorneys from the community tend to move away and stay away, in part, because the area is so remote.

García points out that detention centers near bigger cities such as Houston, Seattle or New York, have a larger pool of local lawyers who can offer pro bono services to migrants. “We were talking to clinicians and law professors who could mobilize their students and who have institutional help,” he said. “We don’t have that. The closest law school is in San Antonio.”

The lawyer, who grew up in the valley, wore a blue-and-white checkered, collared shirt tucked into khaki pants, drove his Ford pickup truck past an expanse of grassy fields on his way to Port Isabel. “Look where we are,” he said. He has a strong sense of humor that buoys him through the serious work.

ProBAR, an organization that offers legal assistance to asylum-seekers in the border area, has brought in lawyers from around the country to do short-term legal work at Port Isabel. But Kimi Jackson, the organization’s director, says most people can only stay for a week, just enough time to help prepare migrants for their credible-fear interviews. “I wish I had more volunteers who could stay for a month or two months,” she said. “But that’s harder for people with jobs.”

Port Isabel has bed space for approximately 1,200 people, said Julie Pasch, a managing attorney at ProBAR. “A lot of people need representation,” she said.

This week, the TCRP assembled a team of 16 lawyers, mostly from the Texas area, who have agreed to represent migrants for the duration of their cases. But finding them wasn’t easy, especially since they need to speak Spanish and be available over the course of a few months.

“People see the crisis happening, and they want to do something right now, which is great,” said Zenén Jaimes Pérez, the communications director at the TCRP. “But when we try to explain to people that this is a long-term fight, and we need your long-term commitment. That’s when people sort of back off.”

Pérez estimated that the group of attorneys will represent more than 40 people. He hopes another round of lawyers will commit to cases since there’s a limit to how much local attorneys can handle.

A Visit To The Detention Center

García left the Brownsville rally early and pulled up to a long, brick building flanked by palm trees in Port Isabel around 2 p.m. He put his watch, wallet and phone in a small tray before walking through security, and then placed his possessions in a locker, save for a yellow file folder and pen he would use to take notes.

He spent three and a half hours talking to eight separated parents at the detention center, asking about whether they’ve been in touch with their kids, helping them to prepare for credible-fear interviews and explaining the asylum process.

The work is exhausting, García said, because the parents are often crying, completely consumed with devastation and worry. “Their kids have just been kidnapped,” he said. “How do you prepare for your [asylum case?]”

“Their kids have just been kidnapped. How do you prepare for your [asylum case?]”

- Carlos García, immigration lawyer,

On top of his private practice, García plans to visit Port Isabel a few times a week, which is an hour and a half drive from his office, to give migrants legal advice. He recently committed to fully representing a mother who has not spoken to her six-year-old child in three weeks. García says he’s tempted to take on more cases every time he visits the detention center, and he receives a few emails every day from other lawyers about someone else in need of an attorney. But the reality is, he doesn’t have time to take on more cases.

“Most of us are swamped and overwhelmed,” he said, adding that immigration lawyers in the low-income border area must charge low rates and take on many clients to make a living. “Everyone is extremely busy, and we want to help. But the reality is that we can’t neglect our practice.”

But despite the long hours, he feels a sense of duty to help out in his own community.

On Thursday night, García left Port Isabel at around 5:30 p.m.―late enough that he missed an event at his six-year-old daughter’s summer camp. But recently the lawyer has been cherishing the fact that he gets to spend time with his kids at all.

“Once all the emotion dies down, and these people are still in detention, are more [lawyers] going to keep coming down?” he said. “I hope so. But I don’t know.”

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