Like many, I have been reading and absorbing the news about the “immigration crisis,” stories of family separation, overcrowding, and inhumane conditions at our southern border for many months now. Whether it’s rhetoric about policy by one of our elected officials, or conversations with friends and family, issues surrounding immigration policy have been a constant topic of discussion during Trump’s presidency. I wanted to do my part to help and see for myself what was happening at the border.
I had the privilege to travel to Harlingen, Texas, during late September to participate in the ABA’s ProBAR project. During this week attorney volunteers from around the country had the opportunity to work with ProBAR’s talented attorneys and staff to assist asylum seekers, see firsthand the effects of the Migrant Protection Protocols (“MPP”), and visit the Port Isabel Detention Center. The experience was invaluable in learning about the many mounting challenges currently facing migrants at our southern border, as well as the policies in place that hinder attorneys and staff to assist those very migrants.
ProBAR invited members from Human Rights First and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to brief us on the effects of MPP, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, and the newly established “tent courts.” In September 2019, temporary tent facilities were established at two Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) ports of entry to function as virtual immigration courtrooms for MPP cases. Proceedings are closed to the public and attorney representation for these asylum proceedings have been reduced to less than two percent. In addition, due to the location of the tent courts, organizations are prevented from providing legal orientations for asylum seekers, which makes impossible for them to gain the information necessary to present a meaningful asylum claim. From its inception the problems were clear: asylum seekers are being prevented access to attorneys, proceedings operate in secrecy, and violations of due process are taking place. Furthermore, the “Remain in Mexico” policy has forced over 50,000 vulnerable men, women, and children to await their case for months in an area the Department of State has given a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” designation and describes as an area where “[v]iolent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, is common.”
During my visit I was able to assist an 18-year-old young man from Central America. He made his journey to the US to seek asylum after being a victim of assault and torture at the hands of a local drug cartel and law enforcement. In the US, he hoped to be quickly reunited with his mother and a younger brother who were already living in the US. Instead, he has remained in detention for over four months with his case still pending. While meeting with him it was clear that he was anxious, frustrated, and frightened by the entire process of his asylum application.
It is worth explaining what it means to be in detention. My preconceived version of a “detention center” was of a holding facility similar to a minimum-security jail. The Port Isabel Detention Center where I met this young man is indistinguishable from an actual prison and migrants there are treated like criminal inmates. At the facility security is intense and migrants wear jump suits, are under constant supervision, and subject to solitary confinement. The notion of a young man that is fleeing for his life, that makes the perilous journey to a place he believes will provide refuge, only to be placed in jail while his asylum claim is adjudicated was one of the more striking realizations of my time in Harlingen.
One reoccurring thought throughout the week was this: we can do better. As a country of immigrants, we possess tremendous resources and ingenuity to overcome our most difficult problems. As lawyers we have a duty to not only uphold the Constitution and our laws, but also to denounce and act when those laws are violated. The “Remain in Mexico” policy and tent courts punish migrants seeking asylum and operate in clear violation of due process. A system or policy that is intended to restrict access to counsel is a system that affects all members of the bar and cannot be tolerated. Immigration proceedings that take place in secrecy violate federal regulations and provide fertile ground for abuses of fairness and due process. Ultimately, a policy that systematically places vulnerable migrants in life-threatening situations is inhumane and ignores our principals as a nation.
I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to everyone at ProBAR and the ABA Commission on Immigration for their efforts to represent those in most need and provide the opportunity for attorney volunteers to participate in their efforts. I wholeheartedly believe that through initiatives by organizations such as the ABA, vigilant practitioners, determined volunteers, and honest dialogue, we will do better.