I recently had the privilege of spending a week in Harlingen, Texas, to volunteer with the American Bar Association’s project ProBAR, as part of a remarkable group of talented, committed professionals from all over the country. It was an intense week that involved lengthy visits with detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center, situated in a flat green landscape dotted with palm trees and giant windmills, not far from the Gulf of Mexico. We also had the opportunity to visit the migrant shelter La Posada Providencia, in San Benito, and got a comprehensive tour of an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) immigrant youth facility that was a sprawling complex of newly constructed buildings. We crossed the international bridge into Matamoros with the tireless humanitarians of Team Brownsville to meet some of the migrants currently living in a park on the Mexican side of the bridge under the U.S. government’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy. All of this was made possible thanks to the expert preparation and guidance of the ABA Commission on Immigration attorneys Laura Peña and Jennie Kneedler who, along with the entire staff at ProBAR’s offices, facilitated an outstanding experience for the volunteers.
Our clients for the week included a Honduran man who fled gang extortion with his disabled 3-year-old son, from whom he was separated upon entering the U.S. The child is now in a shelter nearly 2,000 miles away in New York. Another client, a Guatemalan man from the Chinca Maya ethnic group, has an asylum claim based on a complex set of ethnic, racial, and political components, and came to the country with a 10-year-old half-sister who is in a shelter awaiting sponsorship by a U.S. relative. Others had fled Cuba and Venezuela due to political violence and persecution. Some showed us the physical scars they carried with them, and others pulled photos of their spouses and children out of carefully guarded, tattered manila envelopes. Some of the cases involve thornier legal issues than others, and—as with asylum cases in general—not all are likely to succeed on the merits, despite some very compelling circumstances.
The people we met on the other side of the border, in Matamoros, undoubtedly have similar stories.. They spend weeks and months awaiting their court dates under dire circumstances in a makeshift tent encampment. In addition to being subjected to appalling humanitarian and public health conditions under the policy, many of these migrants—who have already fled violence in their home countries and endured a harrowing journey to the border—have been easy marks for criminals, targeted for violence, kidnapping, and extortion. Access to lawyers and translators to help prepare asylum applications and navigate the system is extremely limited. As of September, only 58 of the 9,168 individuals with MPP cases awaiting their first hearing in Matamoros were represented by counsel. When they do go before a judge, it is via mass videoconference in one of the tent courts just across the bridge that have drawn sharp criticism for their opacity and lack of due process.
The work of lawyers is vitally important in these challenging times. On one hand, there is a central role to be played in shaping the dialogue and undertaking the impact litigation needed to address systemic problems and uphold the national and international standards being undermined by current policies including the MPP; on the other, there is a massive, critical need for the provision of direct services to those experiencing the immediate harm caused by those policies. Having a window into the situation at the border as a pro bono volunteer provides a unique opportunity for all kinds of practitioners to connect the abstract policies to the realities of their effects and think about ways to best contribute.
In one week, members of our group succeeded in obtaining two concrete legal outcomes that might not have been possible without their assistance. And in all of the cases, we were able to help prepare our clients for their upcoming hearings, listen to their stories, and give them a better understanding of the process and their rights. I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to spend a week with ProBAR, and I came away from the experience with deep admiration for all the people who are working on the front lines of this crisis day in and day out.