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September 21, 2022

On the Front Lines of Immigration at the Border: Reflections on Pro Bono Week at ProBAR

By: Commission on Immigration Advisory Committee member Bonnie Fought

During the sweltering heat of Texas in mid-August, I had the opportunity to observe a small part the U.S. immigration system up close and personal, and to see first-hand the challenges faced by lawyers and migrants at the southwest border.

Joined by a group of esteemed lawyers and immigration specialists (including past and current American Bar Association presidents), we spent a week observing, learning, and rolling up our sleeves to provide legal services to asylum seekers at our southern border.  As part of our observations, we traveled to Brownsville, Texas, to the tent courts on the border – literal rows of huge white tents making up a sprawling complex of portable trailers, cement hallways, and port-a-potties.

Migrants were bused into the court from shelters in Monterrey, Mexico, hours away from Brownsville.  We met 25 of them in a portable tailer where they received a “Know Your Legal Rights” presentation from the ProBAR staff.  Some watched attentively while others seemed too exhausted from their journey to focus on the presentation.  All would soon appear before an immigration judge that very day, so our job was to help them prepare paperwork and explain the basics of the immigration court process. Because of the quick turn-around between their arriving on the buses and the beginning of the court hearings, there was less than thirty minutes to provide an overview of the entire asylum process and answer questions in a group setting, recognizing this was the first time they were likely speaking to a lawyer about the asylum process.

Leaving one trailer, we entered a sprawling complex of even larger trailers which served as video court rooms where individuals or groups of five to thirty migrants would be connected to a judge somewhere in the United States. Some court rooms were so small that a lawyer could not be in the same room with the migrant. In other court room, groups of migrants strained to hear the judge while the audio feed failed part way through the hearing. In yet another, the judge explained in detail the rights and responsibilities of the migrants, while in a different court room, the judge never even gave their name or location and ripped through the docket with little regard for those on the other end of the video link.  The inconsistency of the justice system was on display, and while the MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols) program which necessitated the tent courts is winding down, the challenges of accessing legal resources for these migrants will continue.

Next, we visited an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelter where children, newborns to 17-year-olds, are housed until they are able to be united with their U.S. based sponsors. While the facility we toured provided homey cottages, outdoor playgrounds and classrooms for the children, other shelters in the Rio Grande Valley had fewer amenities and some were even quickly converted Home Depots with limited outdoor space and a warehouse dormitory feel.  The average child’s stay in a shelter is about three weeks, but many individual children are housed here for months.

We meet up with representatives of the ProBAR team who provide legal support services to the children in each of the 19 ORR facilities in the region (which houses 1/3 of all children detained in the US). These services include a “Know Your Legal Rights” presentations which provides these children with basic information about the immigration system, as well as individual legal support services.  We heard from the team about the multitude of challenges they faced during COVID, trying to engage children over Zoom for these presentations and missing the support they received from teammates during the pandemic when they were unable to be together in person.  Their passion for the work and their support for each other was palpable, as were the challenges they faced in trying to provide effective legal assistance to thousands of unaccompanied minors who pass through these facilities every year.

As we walked past a 5th grade classroom, the teacher invited us in, and the children explained that they are learning U.S. geography and personal hygiene – an interesting mix.  The twenty students had varying degrees of engagement – one eager boy jumped out of his seat and ran to the map to show me his knowledge of U.S. geography and the locations of his relatives.  I wondered how long it would take this child to reach his family members and if he would be able to navigate the immigration process with the limited information ProBAR was able to provide while he was in the shelter; he had no right to appointed counsel and ultimately could be on his own in the immigration system once he left the shelter.  Those concerns intensified as we traveled to the nursery – with babies and toddlers – some were born to teen mothers at the shelter while others entered the United States with non-parental family members and were separated at the border. Had they been trafficked across the border? Would they be reunited with their families?  It was obvious how critical the legal services that ProBAR provided were to these children.

In addition to observing various aspects of the immigration system, we also had the opportunity to take on individual cases and assist migrants with the next step in their immigration process. My case involved a 17-year-old new mother who had arrived in the United States after escaping an abusive relationship in Mexico with a man connected to a gun trafficking operation. He had threatened her, her family, even her unborn child, forcing her to flee.  Her asylum claim needed to be filed quickly, so my teammate and I worked rapidly to assemble the materials needed for her filing. Meanwhile, our mentor, realizing that the teen was struggling to support her newborn child while attending high school, was working to connect her with support services. Others in our group worked on a variety of cases:  filing for release from detention of a migrant who needed to obtain medical treatment for unaddressed serious medical issues; an asylum application for an opposition political leader; temporary protected status for a man from Africa.  Each of these cases benefited from our work because without a lawyer their chances of success were small. Depending on the case, someone in the immigration system is between 2x and 5x more likely to receive the relief they were requesting when represented by a lawyer than for those that were unrepresented.

All of this together reinforced the importance of the work being done by ProBAR’s dedicated staff and the pro bono attorneys that assist them. The numbers of migrants and the challenges of the system could easily become overwhelming, but this team continues to provide vital and necessary legal services while supporting each other and proactively looking for additional ways to meet the needs of their clients. 

As I returned home, my thoughts kept returning to Harlingen, Texas; even though I had left the border it had not left me.  As a result, I decided to take on pro bono cases that I could do remotely.  You too can get involved – and without traveling to the border!  Much of this work can be done remotely or in your hometown to assist migrants after they leave the border. Contact the ABA Commission on Immigration and find out about their mentored pro bono opportunities.