Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of 2 in a Border Report examining the challenges faced by asylum seekers and the people who represent them in court.
EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Having come legally to the United States at age 10, immigration is a topic that hits close to home for Marina Chavez.
That’s why the veteran El Paso attorney could not sit on the sidelines after hearing of the suffering endured by migrants coming to the United States seeking asylum.
“I spent 21 years in private practice, doing criminal cases and family law. But when I started seeing the crisis, particularly with the kids, I got really angry … and here I am,” said Chavez, referring to reports of children separated from their parents at immigration detention centers in the United States.
Now a staff attorney at Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, Chavez has had her share of sleepless nights preparing cases and endured the heartbreak of denials in a city where immigration judges turn down 96.6% of asylum petitions.
“It’s very hard on your soul to see all this suffering and not being able to help as much as you want. All you can do is take one case at a time and continue working and fighting. So any win that we get is a reason for joy,” Chavez said.
As 2019 comes to a close, immigration law professionals in El Paso shared some details about the lucky few who got asylum in a year that saw the highest levels of apprehensions in 12 years, overcrowded detention centers and federal policies from the Trump administration they say were designed to keep people out or send them back home as soon as possible.
What’s in a song?
Melissa M. Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, recalls the case of a Nicaraguan young man who saw the turmoil on the streets of his beloved country last year and decided to write a song. The protests started because the government wanted to increase taxes and reduce social security benefits. The protests left more than 300 people dead amid a pro-government crackdown.
“He was a student, a young kid 21 years old. He expressed his opinion through song and because of that he was threatened, he was beaten and it got to a point where he had to leave,” Lopez said.
The young man sought refuge in a church, but pro-government forces out to quell protests against the Sandinista regime invaded the church and sought to make an example out of him.
“When he came here he still had very deep scrapes on his legs of when he got dragged through the streets. We had documentation on that,” Lopez said. The group also was able to show the U.S. immigration judge a video of the song the young man had recorded.
“It was a protest song, a very touching son on how Nicaragua was crying. It was very moving. We saw the judge almost break down watching it,” she said, adding that the young man was granted asylum.
‘I will not murder for you’
Venezuela has experienced constant economic and political turmoil throughout the entire presidency of Nicolas Maduro.
The latest crisis erupted last March, when the country experienced a power shortage that led to 10 days of blackouts. Street protests then hounded the government in the capital of Caracas and in several cities and towns.
“We had a gentleman in his 30s, a father of four who was a municipal officer. His town’s government was a Maduro supporter, so (the town leaders) were asking the police to disband the protests,” Lopez said.
But when the protests continued, local leaders told their policemen to find the protest organizers and deal with them. “He was asked specifically to stop them no matter what it took: beatings, killing, anything,” Lopez said.
The officer refused to be a party to murder and was targeted himself, so he fled for the U.S. border. He was recently granted asylum, given the Maduro government’s track record on human rights.
LGBT petitioners get day in court
Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center staff has also struggled to adjust to on-the-fly changes in asylum policies. Staff attorneys have found it especially difficult to represent clients who’ve been sent to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program.
Despite all that, the organization has managed to help some clients obtain asylum. Those include a Cuban couple able to prove persecution for expressing political opinon, and several members of the LGBT community in Central America.
“We were able to achieve asylum for a trans individual from Honduras who would have certainly be killed if she was returned to her home country,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of the agency. “We achieved success for a lesbian Honduran woman who would also have suffered death upon her return because of her sexual orientation.”
Rivas said Las Americas also has focused its resources in getting clients out of the MPP program so they are better prepared to plead their case in immigration court.
“I think the most remarkable victories for us are the people we have gotten out of MPP. I think we defied what the original aspiration was to the program, which was to keep as many people out as possible. We have prioritized helping those folks that are in them most need or most danger,” she said.
Advocacy agencies in El Paso walk a fine line when it comes to dealing with federal immigration agencies.
“I’d like to give credit where credit is due. There are some cases where Border Patrol and OFO have said, ‘You know what, they shouldn’t be in the program; we’re going to go ahead and take them out.'” Rivas said. OFO is U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations. “But there’s been times we disagree. We have this back and forth.”
Rivas said advocates ask CBP to be kept in the loop on MPP cases.
“Sometimes we get it, sometimes we don’t. We’ve had many people successfully removed from the program and many who have not, and we continue to question why and we continue to fight them as well,” Rivas said. “But it gets to the point where these fights end up taking up an incredible amount of resources just to get them to do the right thing.”
Legit cases, not enough resources
El Paso advocates lament they lack the staff and resources to win asylum cases that appear to be slam-dunks but end up being tossed on minutiae.
Lopez recalls the case of an Ethiopian who spent 10 months in jail in his country for belonging to an ethnic group.
“He was detained, he was beaten almost to death. It took him a couple of months to travel here but he was denied asylum,” she said. The client was unable to convince the immigration judge and the follow-up with the Board of Immigration Appeals was denied on technicalities.
“Because he lacks resources, he couldn’t appeal to the 10th Circuit (court) and I think he would have won,” Lopez said. “Unfortunately, our means are very limited. We can go as far as the board of immigration appeals and after that, we can’t.”
Look for part 2 of this report on BorderReport.Com on New Year’s Eve.
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