April 27, 2020 Feature

What I Saw Volunteering at the Border

Mary K. Ryan

Immigration is one of the hot-button issues of our times. You may be horrified by news reports about family separation at the border. Perhaps you’re angry over conditions for migrants in custody or the death of a father and his young daughter trying to cross the Rio Grande. Or maybe you’re upset by the conditions in encampments on the Mexican side of international bridges for those turned away at our southern border until their case is called. You could also be frustrated by increased immigration enforcement around the country, including U.S. Border Patrol SWAT teams being sent to New York and other major cities.

The ABA operates two immigration legal service programs, ProBar and the Immigration Justice Project.

The ABA operates two immigration legal service programs, ProBar and the Immigration Justice Project.

grandriver/E+ via Getty Images

Or you may think the United States needs more border controls and less immigration, but you may still be concerned by the erosion of due process and fundamental rule of law protections for asylum seekers, some required under international law that the United States has promised to follow. If you share my motivation to do something and, like me, have the time to do it, I want to tell my story about two weeks I spent at the Texas border last year.

How the ABA is Involved

You probably know that the ABA created and operates two immigration legal service programs, the Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, called ProBAR, in Harlingen, Texas, and the Immigration Justice Project in San Diego. ProBAR provides direct representation and pro se assistance to unaccompanied children in government custody and adult detainees in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s also beginning to serve migrant asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico while their relief applications are pending under the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the Remain in Mexico policy.

IJP primarily serves adult detainees at the Otay Mesa Detention Center and others who appear in the San Diego Immigration Court. These two programs are under the umbrella of the ABA Commission on Immigration, along with a resource and support center in Houston called the Children’s Immigration Law Academy.

CILA was established in 2015 in response to the surge in unaccompanied minors entering the United States. It provides technical assistance and training to attorneys working with those children in Texas, with an expanding range of services in Texas and beyond. Thanks to a 2019 Opportunity Grant from the American Bar Endowment, the commission hosted week-long volunteer trips for pro bono attorneys. They included some spots for attorneys without any (or much) immigration experience and for those, like me, who aren’t Spanish speakers.

I spent a week at ProBAR in early April and returned again in late October. Two of the trips also brought volunteers to IJP. No matter how much I had already read or heard about circumstances at the border, nothing is the same as seeing things first hand. The experience was eye-opening.

The Work We Did

My biggest concern as I traveled to Texas was handling the case work. I’m a seasoned environmental law attorney, and I’m an experienced pro bono volunteer, which includes some immigration work. But I’m hardly a seasoned immigration lawyer.

What I do know is that a good pro bono program provides appropriate support for volunteers, and the commission’s program was excellent in that regard, as in all others. There were great training materials to read before the trip, and there was a thorough half-day training Monday morning. It covered the logistics of visiting the detention center—no cell phones, smart watches, water, snacks, laptops, or tablets, among other restrictions—as well as substantive law.

Volunteers worked in teams with one or two other attorneys and translators, and mentoring was readily available. ProBAR staff had screened detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center, or PIDC, and paired volunteers with migrant detainees to whom meaningful assistance could be given in one week.

This included, for example, preparing someone for the initial asylum screening interview, done telephonically, to determine whether the asylum seeker has a credible fear of persecution if returned to her home country. That’s a threshold determination before she can seek permanent asylum relief and avoid expedited removal. It also included helping prepare an asylum application for someone with only days left before the filing deadline.

During both my trips, I worked with one client. The first was a young man from El Salvador, and the second was a middle-aged man from Cuba, both recently arrived in the country. The predominant legal issues for such detainees involve passing initial screenings, such as the credible or reasonable fear interview, and, if successful, seeking release from detention through bond or parole.

But the process is more difficult because of rapidly changing policies and practices affecting available relief and applicable legal standards. It’s also more challenging because of the constant sense of urgency due to short deadlines and, above all, the goal of getting people out of detention as soon as possible.

As it turned out, the major work I did was similar to work I’ve done many times before—interviewing clients and helping them tell their story in a declaration to supplement the record. Given the prison-like conditions of detention, the language and cultural barriers, and the lack of access to counsel before the interviews, it’s no wonder many migrants are nervous and afraid and need help telling their story.

There are several courtrooms in the Port Isabel facility. The highlight of my work was appearing before an immigration judge there on a motion I’d prepared with Michelle Jacobson, a seasoned business immigration lawyer at Fragomen, also a native Spanish speaker. The motion sought to vacate a finding that the client didn’t have a credible fear of returning to his home country. It was granted after a brief hearing, thus allowing this man to remain in the United States to pursue asylum relief.

Hearings like this aren’t open to the public, and there’s no appeal from the judge’s ruling. My sense of accomplishment at helping this man was undercut by knowing that he still faced significant hurdles to remaining in the United States and that my efforts were a drop in the bucket compared to the need. I also took to heart the advice from a staff member that just having a lawyer by someone’s side can make a difference, no matter what else the lawyer does.

During my first week, another volunteer represented an older man fleeing political unrest. But most of the migrant population I observed and heard about weren’t seniors; it seems to me that you have to be truly desperate to leave your home and family behind at our age.

Beyond the Legal Work

ProBAR is in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, a half-hour drive from the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville and, a little further away, the beautiful beaches of South Padre Island. Our visits naturally gave us a chance to soak up another culture in our own country. It’s one where the Mexican food (and barbecue) is far better—and ubiquitous—than in New England, and the hot case in the local supermarket sells tamales and carnitas, not rotisserie chickens.

But the ABA trips also provided different experiences and insights into life at the border, including how often it revolves around immigration. During my visits, volunteers could join forces with Team Brownsville, a group of men and women who came together in Summer 2018 to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants camped on the plaza on the Mexican side of the bridge, as well as at the Brownsville bus station, where migrants are dropped off after release from government custody.

Volunteers with Team Brownsville cook meals and pack them in rolling wagons, along with water, juice, and other necessities. Then they take the short walk across the bridge every day to serve meals to those living in an informal refugee camp minutes away from the United States in Matamoros, the Mexican city in the state of Tamaulipas. (The U.S. Department of State says Tamaulipas is as dangerous as Yemen and Syria due to gang and criminal activity, including murder, kidnapping, and extortion.)

Here, we found a tent city where men, women, and children—some very young—were living in the most dangerous and unsanitary conditions imaginable. In April, we served dinner to 50–75 people camped near the bridge because of the metering policy. It allows only a certain number of people to present at the port of entry each day to claim asylum.

By October, the numbers had ballooned to an estimated 2,000 people because of the Remain in Mexico policy, which has forced some 55,000 people, including 16,000 children and 500 babies, to wait for court hearings in Mexico. Many choose to stay close to the bridge out of choice or necessity, for example, not to miss court hearings for which they must be at the bridge by 4:30 a.m.

Tents were everywhere the eye could see, with only narrow paths between them. Laundry and clothes hung from chain-link fences on several sides of the plaza. The scene at dinner was ordered chaos. People patiently waited in lines for food as children crouched on the ground looking at picture books. At the same time, a volunteer from a lawyers’ group held up a sign with the names of people who could pick up asylum applications that had been translated into English, a requirement for court.

Relief after Troubling Hearings

They are the lucky ones. As of December, less than 5 percent of those waiting in Mexico for asylum hearings had a lawyer, and very few can prevail without one. On the October visit, we could see the tent courts that have been erected on the United States side of the border through the chain-link fence on the bridge. This is where MPP hearings are held, conducted by videoconference from immigration courts located elsewhere.

Thanks to the persistence of ProBAR attorneys, we were allowed to observe two MPP hearings in the PIDC Immigration Court, where the judge and ICE attorney were located. We witnessed much confusion and delay due to technical difficulties. It was hard for me to believe these hearings are part of the American justice system.

We found welcome relief from the grim conditions at the bridge during our visit to La Posada Providencia. It’s a nongovernment family shelter for migrants from around the world in San Benito, Texas, founded and sponsored by the Sisters of Divine Providence. ProBAR has a long-standing relationship with La Posada, has served many of the residents, and often brings visitors there.

During both trips, we brought pizza and joined the staff and guests of La Posada for dinner. The dedication of the nuns and lay staff and the warmth and hospitality of their modest quarters never failed to lift me up and gives me hope that good people everywhere will always find a way to help immigrants. Despite these welcoming conditions, the migrants’ desperation was evident when the word went out that lawyers had come to dinner. The Spanish-speaking attorneys were soon conducting an impromptu legal clinic.

Coincidentally, the October trip ended on November 1 with a festive dinner celebrating ProBAR’s 30th anniversary. It included a performance by an all-female mariachi band whose faces were painted to mark the Day of the Dead, along with a keynote from Lauren Markham, author of The Faraway Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life.

It was a perfect opportunity to appreciate and thank the dedicated, skilled, and tireless ProBAR attorneys and staff, to enjoy the company of committed and talented fellow volunteers, and to reflect on all we’d seen and done. It was also a time to be grateful for the extraordinary opportunities the week had provided.

What Can You Do?

If you’re interested in joining the ABA’s efforts, there may be limited opportunities to volunteer for a week in 2020 with ProBAR or IJP. The commission will also be working with the Immigrant Justice Campaign of the American Immigration Council, which has agreed to provide mentoring to ABA pro bono volunteers who take on full representation of detainees or MPP asylum seekers identified by ProBAR and IJP.

The best way to access pro bono opportunities through the ABA is to consult the commission’s website or email Jennie Kneedler, a commission staff attorney. Team Brownsville also needs volunteers and donations; see teambrownsville.org.

But let’s face it, senior lawyers with limited language skills and immigration law experience may not be the most useful volunteers at the southern border. However, while different, the need is equally great in your own community because unaccompanied children and asylum seekers who get past the obstacles at the border are resettled across the country.

Two ABA sites offer resources and information for those interested in working with unaccompanied minors: Pro Bono for Immigrant Children and the Child Welfare and Immigration Project. You should also reach out to the civil legal services providers in your area. If they don’t do this work, they’ll know who does.


Mary K. Ryan

Mary K. Ryan is a partner at Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP in Boston who specializes in environmental cases and administrative hearings and proceedings. She’s a member of the Commission on Immigration and a past chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service. From August 2014 to August 2019, she co-chaired the ABA’s Working Group on Unaccompanied Minor Immigrants, a presidential initiative to provide more pro bono assistance to children in the immigration system without lawyers.