I started my post-law school immigration law career at ProBAR in Harlingen, Texas, as an Equal Justice Works Fellow from September 1999 to September 2001. In May, 2023, I had the privilege of returning to ProBAR as a volunteer with the ABA Commission on Immigration (COI) to engage in a week of pro bono service. I have been a Commission member for almost three years. My return, over twenty years after I left the Rio Grande Valley, provided me perspective, and caused me to reflect on the many changes as well as the constants in the South Texas border region, where I learned how to be a fierce immigration advocate. I was privileged to spend the week with welcoming ProBAR staff, COI colleagues, and the COI director, Meredith Linsky, who was my boss and mentor at ProBAR, a hero to the immigrants’ rights movement, and is someone I am proud to call a colleague and friend.
Our first day of our pro bono week began at the new ProBAR office. When I walked into the office, I felt like I was in a different world! ProBAR’s new office space is large, spacious, beautiful, and inviting. It is clear that much thought went into the design and structure of the office, considering the need for private office space, open collaborative space, large quiet spaces, conference rooms, outdoor space, and a gym and yoga room to ensure staff can decompress and energize before, during, or after long, challenging, and emotionally draining days. The office is a sharp contrast to the ProBAR office where I worked—two rooms on the second floor of an old, pest-infested house. The new office is equipped with state-of-the-art technology, another contrast from my experience, where we used dial up internet and unplugged the fax machine before we could access the internet. We learned that ProBAR now has a staff of 270 people. In 1999 when I started, we were a staff of three—the ProBAR director, the volunteer paralegal, and me. I am thrilled to see the investment in the staff through hiring and creating a livable workspace. Comfortable, functional, supportive workspace is crucial to the sustainability of the demanding work.
Our schedule for the week included meeting with partner organizations in Brownsville and Matamoros, meeting with individuals detained at the Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC), touring children’s shelters, and visiting La Posada Providencia, a welcoming shelter for many immigrants and refugees. I was impressed by the resiliency and responsiveness of organizations in the region. The increase in resources for noncitizens in the Rio Grande Valley was striking and is unquestionably due to necessity. The humanitarian crisis at the border is unlike anything I saw between 1999 and 2001 and the need has increased exponentially. I was impressed by the partnerships established by the ProBAR team. The increased staffing has allowed ProBAR to form and maintain crucial partnerships throughout the Rio Grande Valley. During my time at ProBAR, we relied on trusted partnerships; however, due to our limited staffing, we were unable to engage in outreach or foster relationships with many organizations. The current partnerships with shelters and other social services organizations are crucial to ProBAR’s ability to meet the needs to the community they serve.
ProBAR’s presence in Brownsville is remarkable. We utilized ProBAR’s small office close to the border. This space was crucial when the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program was still in place, as ProBAR staff served clients facing removal proceedings in the tent courts. The office space on the border continues to provide essential access to clients and the social services agencies that serve them. It allows the ProBAR staff to do outreach, education, and intake at the non-legal organizations that serve mutual clients. For example, while in Brownsville, we provided legal consultations to numerous individuals staying at a Brownsville shelter. We also visited one of the unaccompanied children’s shelters in Brownsville, where ProBAR staff provide services.
During our pro bono week, we had the opportunity to travel to PIDC twice to provide consultations to recently arrived asylum seekers. It was bittersweet to return to the detention center I frequented from 1999 to 2001, when I traveled daily to what was then called Port Isabel Service Processing Center (PISPC) – PIDC is a more appropriate name. PIDC has not changed much. The entrance, lobby, attorney visitation area, and court space have been remodeled. I recall a dingy dirty lobby with a pay phone I used regularly to call the ProBAR office after long afternoons of presentations and consultations. The lobby is now clean, spacious, and the pay phone is gone. However, the interior of the detention center remains the same- a jail with razor wire, barbed wire, and no freedom of movement. Also similar was ProBAR’s access to the facility due to the reputation the agency has built over the years. When I went to PISPC daily, I felt respected by guards and government officials. I learned the importance of building those relationships to ensure access to those who needed the services. ProBAR’s reputation endures, and the relationships remain strong. ProBAR’s continued ability to provide Know Your Rights presentations and consultations in the facility is crucial to serving the needs of thousands of individuals every year.
In the two days I conducted consultations with noncitizens at PIDC, I met men from Venezuela, Honduras, and Guatemala. The nationalities of individuals detained have shifted over the years, but the reasons they have fled their homes remains constant. They are fleeing political violence and oppression, gang violence, cartel violence, and government instability. The men detained at PIDC endured exceptional hardship, danger, and suffering to arrive at the United States border to seek refuge. While United States detention policies and conditions were cruel when I worked at ProBAR, they are exponentially worse today. Currently, noncitizens are forced to stay in unsanitary and unsafe refugee camps in Matamoros often for months while trying to request protection in the United States. They face disease, kidnapping, rape, and torture in Matamoros while the United States and Mexican governments turn a blind eye and collaborate to keep them from crossing the bridge into Brownsville. When those lucky enough to find a way into the United States arrive, many are forced to remain detained in Customs and Border Protection custody for weeks, sleeping on the floor with limited to no access to showers and in freezing rooms or cells. They then must navigate the new confusing and complex asylum rule without counsel. While we were unable to provide representation, the men we met with were grateful for our explanation of the legal process, as well as the pro bono legal consultations we provided.
As part of our trip, we also had the opportunity to go to Matamoros and meet with partners at the Sidewalk School. The plan to walk over the bridge, meet with Sidewalk School staff, and tour one of the refugee shelters took much time and coordination on the part of ProBAR and ABA staff. Unlike when I lived and worked in Harlingen, when going to Matamoros was often a spur of the moment decision to have dinner or go shopping, today, numerous considerations must be assessed. Matamoros was a safe city when I crossed regularly. However, today, due to the United States’ and Mexico’s war on drugs, Matamoros is often dangerous, particularly for refugees hoping to reach the United States. I appreciate the care, planning, and coordination that went into our day in Matamoros. Witnessing the situation at the base of the bridge as well as the refugee camp was crucial to gaining a true understanding of the consequences of United States immigration law and policy changes over the last several years. Photos of the bridge and the camp provide a glimpse into the reality that refugees are living. However, the photos did not prepare me for what I saw and experienced. Walking into and around the shelter full of makeshift tents, no sanitation, no services, in 90+ degree temperatures with soaring humidity was horrifying. People approached us for information and help, desperate to access medical care and safety. I fought back tears the entire time we were in the camp. No one should live in these conditions, and no one who lives in the camps is there by choice. Refugees tolerate the dangerous, unsanitary conditions that are making them sick because they were forced to leave their homes. Their flight was not voluntary. Seeing the camp provided me even greater perspective on the situations they fled. I left feeling sad, horrified, and angry at the United States government policies that created the humanitarian crisis in Matamoros. It is avoidable. It can be changed for the better. Instead, the United States government recently finalized a rule to make it harder for those seeking protection to access the United States asylum system. This rule will exacerbate the problems in Matamoros and has caused and will continue to cause greater human suffering on both sides of the border.
I am thankful for my week with ProBAR. I appreciated starting my days as I started many days when I lived in Harlingen decades ago, running on the path along the Arroyo Colorado in the heat and humidity, among the beautiful lush green plants, chirping birds, and adorable bunnies. I found peace and energy running on the path, which carried me through the days of the harsh realities of human suffering and unfair laws and policies. My time at ProBAR reminded me why I continue to work as an immigration attorney, why I work at another amazing nonprofit, Immigrant Legal Defense, to provide free legal services to underserved communities, including noncitizens in ICE detention.