September 19, 2019 Feature

At the Border and Beyond: Women Lawyers Defend Unprecedented Attacks on Asylum Law

By Hannah Hayes

Once you see what is happening at the border, you cannot unsee it. Advocates who come to the border quickly learn this, and it is easy to be crushed under the weight of that knowledge.

—Nicole Ramos, Project Director, Border Rights Project

In Spanish, El Chaparral refers to a dense, impenetrable thicket of shrubs or dwarf trees, which makes it a fitting name for the Tijuana, Mexico, border crossing approached by tens of thousands of hopeful migrants. The final hurdle into the United States is indeed becoming impenetrable.

In the early morning, the plaza immediately west of the El Chaparral crossing comes alive as newly arrived migrants with suitcases and backpacks line up to put their names on the lista, the informal waiting list that determines when they can cross over to request asylum. The waiting list is an unusual—and some say illegal—system spawned by the metering policies in which the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) decides how many individuals will be allowed to present themselves for asylum each day. The number ranges from 10 to 40, and no one seems to know what determines how many will be allowed on a given day.

Children wrapped in blankets huddle close to their mothers. Groups of men lean against fences or rest with their backs up against the approximately 10-foot-tall colorful letters that spell Tijuana, Mexico. The whimsical marker looms cheerfully above the clusters of weary travelers.

As the line lengthens, volunteers begin circulating among them, handing out flyers urging the new arrivals to attend a “know-your-rights” clinic sponsored by the Border Rights Project of Al Otro Lado.

Since December 2015, Nicole Ramos and human rights lawyers from Al Otro Lado have been documenting abuses on the border. With offices in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Tijuana, they provide direct legal services to migrants and refugees. Al Otro Lado is also the organizational partner in three lawsuits challenging Trump administration policies at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We provide direct service seven days a week,” says Ramos, project director of the Border Rights Project launched by Al Otro Lado late in 2018. “So on the one hand, we are responding to this crisis. On the other hand, we wear legal strategy hats to think about how we can dismantle systems of injustice that are operating contrary to the rights that are articulated for asylum seekers under the law.”

Since November, Al Otro Lado has trained and employed more than 2,000 lawyers who have arrived in Tijuana hoping to help in what many say is a manufactured humanitarian crisis. Women in particular are flocking to the border. Al Otro Lado’s Facebook page for volunteers shows women outnumbering men four to one. Data from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) also show that women make up the majority of their members (56 percent) even while, according to the U.S. Census, women make up only 38 percent of lawyers in the profession. 

In the early morning on the plaza, these volunteers urgently seek out those whose numbers have been called for a “down-and-dirty” lesson on asylum and what to expect when they cross. Other volunteers hand out warm socks and permanent markers so asylum seekers can write phone numbers on the arms of children in case they are separated. Volunteers tell the migrants to wear their warmest clothing close to their skins as they’ll be forced to turn over all of their belongings—including extra layers of clothes—and spend up to 48 hours in the hielera or “icebox,” a holding cell where temperatures are kept in the 40s.

For migrants, these lawyers represent the last line of defense in a system that has come under attack from an administration intent on dismantling asylum and revamping immigration policies. “All of these things that they’re doing—the Muslim ban and ending of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status), increasing interior enforcement and I.C.E. arrests and expedited dockets of immigration court—the whole way they’ve imploded the asylum system makes it really hard to practice immigration law,” says Kara Lynum, a practitioner in St. Paul, Minnesota, who specializes in family-based immigration law.

“Asylum exists to protect people who have no other options,” says Morgan Weibel, executive director for the San Francisco offices of the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit that provides services to women and girls fleeing gender-based violence. “You simply don’t walk 3,000 miles with an infant if you have any other option.”

Weibel was one of hundreds of lawyers who flocked to the border in November 2018 and volunteered at the Port Isabel Detention Center, a detention center near near Los Fresnos, Texas, after the court ordered the government to reunite families who had been separated because of the zero-tolerance policy. “There are all these layers of illegalities that put these people in harm’s way, and it’s exhausting,” Weibel points out.

Almost all of the Trump administration’s executive orders and policy changes have been met with litigation. Organizations like Al Otro Lado, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Council, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association have filed dozens of lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of many of these orders. Most are still pending, which means that immigration lawyers are often racing to keep up.

“Often we’ll look at some new regulation and policy and know immediately it will be enjoined, so we try not to panic our clients,” says Sarah Pitney, an immigration lawyer with the Washington, DC-based firm of Benach Collopy.

Pitney, who took a group of 14 law students to Tijuana last year to work with Al Otro Lado, admits, “Sometimes I wake up and think, Oh, God. What fresh hell awaits me this morning?”

Rapid Response

Shortly before Thanksgiving of 2018, Lorilei Williams, director of immigration and LGBTQ/HIV advocacy at Staten Island (New York) Legal Services, saw a listserv calling for immigration lawyers to volunteer in Tijuana. At the time, some 3,000 asylum seekers were making their way through Central America and were expected to arrive at the border crossing in Tijuana.

Williams says she was not prepared for what she witnessed. “I showed up the day they used tear gas and rubber bullets against migrants. There were hundreds of volunteers arriving daily, and there wasn’t really any structure in place yet to handle it.”

Williams dived in to organize volunteers and is returning a month later to help again.

Allison Spitz-Perry, whose Manhattan law firm focuses on business immigration and naturalization, also felt compelled to volunteer after hearing two women speak about their experience at Dilley, the site of the largest family detention center in the country. “I got physically sick and decided at that point I couldn’t sit still with the skills that I have.”

Through her networks, Spitz signed up with Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project and spent a week in Tijuana.

Lynum has made four trips to family detention centers to represent detained asylum-seekers. In December 2018, she traveled to Tijuana to assist as part of the Border Rights Project and was one of several lawyers and two members of Congress who camped at the port of entry for 18 hours before CBP allowed their group to cross. More recently, she journeyed to El Paso, Texas, to observe court proceedings and view the impact of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or “Remain in Mexico”) instituted by the Trump administration in January 2019.

Along with Denver-based immigration lawyer Christina Brown, Lynum watched two dockets empty out with each petitioner averaging less than a minute before a judge. They also visited a shelter in Juarez, Mexico, where migrants awaited their hearings in overcrowded conditions, often without food and water. “They’re surviving terrible conditions for three or four months only to get a 36-second hearing,” Brown says.

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which gathers data and information by using Freedom of Information Act requests, some 12,997 MPP cases were pending as of July 2019, with most migrants waiting in places like Tijuana and Juarez. Only 1.3 percent had representation.

“I think this is as serious or more serious than the family separation of last summer, but people don’t care as much because they don’t see what’s happening,” Lynum notes. “They dump [asylum seekers] on the sidewalk where they are vulnerable to gangs, and kids are living in horrible conditions.”

Other than volunteer lawyers like Smith and Lynum, who interviewed 67 families about their asylum cases in one afternoon, migrants have no access to counsel. What’s more, most families experience assault and kidnappings and are often robbed of their identity papers necessary for the asylum process.

Those who express fear of returning to Mexico are referred for further interviews but not allowed access to a lawyer. Lynum says she feel like people who showed up beat the odds by surviving horrifying conditions, threats to their safety, and other obstacles.

Impact on Lawyers

The ever-changing landscape has impacted how immigrations lawyers practice law, both practically and emotionally. Brown says she’s felt squeezed as her clients are no longer able to work or afford her fees, forcing her to drop them dramatically. Williams points out that “you cannot turn off work anymore because if you go away for one week, something will happen—a policy decision or an executive order—and you have to play catch-up.”

“Everything is changing, almost every minute,” says Ruby Powers, founder and managing attorney at Powers Law Group, P.C., in Houston, Texas, who volunteered with Al Otro Lado in December 2018. Powers recalls that, when planning to participate on a panel about recent changes in asylum, she realized that she might as well wait until the day of the event to prepare because so much changes daily. 

Powers admits she was a bit traumatized after returning from Tijuana shortly before Christmas. “There was so much food and drink and gifts, and I really didn’t understand why we waste so much of our resources on unnecessary things when people live on so little.”

Compassion fatigue and secondary trauma are commonplace for immigration lawyers. Learning to cope with these and other stressors is key. For instance, at the San Francisco Bay offices of the Tahirih Justice Center, a therapist is available to meet with lawyers once a week. 

At a recent session, Rajani Venkatraman Levis, a licensed trauma therapist, shared a Buddhist parable about taking time to notice beauty while being chased by tigers: “I see them dealing with an onslaught of trauma, need, changing circumstances and ever-tightening legal situations, where fear and hopelessness are those tigers. These strong, capable attorneys who chose this work because they care find themselves so weighed down by the heartbreak they are facing on behalf of their clients.”

Morgan Weibel says one way she copes is to focus on the positives. “[Immigration lawyers’ work at the border] has created coalitions that didn’t exist before and strengthened relationships where four years ago we might have known about each other. But now we’re coordinated and plugging people in and lending our skills and expertise in different areas.”

Powers agrees. “Professionally, it allowed me to see what people were going through and gave me a lot of perspective. It also connected me with lawyers in California who are doing a lot of work around the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy.”

So, despite the emotional toll, chaotic and chronic uncertainties, and volumes of pending litigation, immigration lawyers say there is little choice but to continue. “It’s sometimes hard to feel things,” Christina Brown says. “And as there’s no end in sight right now, I just have to separate myself and continue to do the work.”

Nicole Ramos says lawyers not only are in crisis mode when dealing with individuals impacted by these policies, but they’re also in constant litigation mode.

In a recent Facebook post, Ramos passionately thanked volunteers for their work and urged them to continue. “Once you hear the voices of those who have traveled thousands of miles in search of safety, only to be brutalized by the government to which they pinned all their hopes, you are left with no other choice than to voice these truths, often and through every possible platform to anyone who will listen because you know in your bones that silence signals complicity.”

The American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration works to ensure fair treatment and full due process rights for immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees within the United States. As part of that effort, the Commission operates two direct service projects on the Southern Border. The South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) provides pro bono legal services to adult migrants and unaccompanied children detained in South Texas, and the Immigration Justice Project (IJP) provides pro bono legal services for individuals appearing before the San Diego immigration court.

Editor’s note: This article was modified from the original to clarify the name of the detention center and to accurately define the ABA Commission on Immigration’s ProBar and IJP efforts.


By Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a Chicago-area freelance writer.