February 15, 2020

Frontliners condemn Trump border policies as migrant case volume explodes

Lawyers and other groups working with migrant asylum-seekers at the U.S. southern border continue to be highly critical of the Trump administration’s “Return to Mexico” and “safe third country” immigration programs put into place last year.

Bruce Zagaris, a partner with Berliner Corcoran & Rowe, where he has served as a consultant, counsel and lobbyist for 14 governments on various subjects, said the programs are the administration’s deliberate way of slowing the flow of asylum applicants to the United States. And he said the agreements with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador violate international law.

“Clearly the expansion of the Remain in Mexico policy and the sending of Mexicans to Guatemala for asylum adjudication is intended to discourage and eliminate as many asylum applicants as possible,” said Zagaris, one of the panelists on the program “To the Border and Back Again” held Feb. 14 during the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas.

Alejandro Guadarrama, a tax attorney with Skadden Arps in Washington, D.C., came to the United States 22 years ago from Venezuela and became a U.S. citizen in 2016. He says the new policies violate international law because they send the asylum seekers back into the dangers many of them were fleeing.

He and Zagaris pointed to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which in part prohibits countries from deporting or returning refugees “in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

“In Guatemala there are all kinds of human [rights] violations and now we are going to send these people back into a situation that they are running away [from]. I think international law should stand for something,” said Guadarrama, who works on pro bono cases for immigrants.

Zagaris also said he thought it was ironic that at the same time the Trump administration was announcing its Asylum Cooperation Agreements with these countries, the U.S. State Department had “issued its highest level of security warnings against travel” to some of these areas.

Cynthia Hujar Orr of Goldstein & Orr in San Antonio, talked about the overwhelming volume of immigration cases. She noted that in the western region of Texas, immigration cases brought to criminal courts from 2017-18 increased 65% from 2018-19, an additional 16 percent.

“What does that mean as matter of practical reality?” she asked rhetorically. “That you go to court and cannot enter the courtroom because there is not enough room for the lawyers. The persons that are being charged and prosecuted fill the courtroom. Hundreds are being processed and they may have one lawyer sitting at counsel table, who has had to advise these people en masse about the plea bargains they are being offered. And I’m not sure that some of these people even know that they are in a court of law,’’ she said.

Orr encouraged the lawyers in the room to volunteer their time “whether it’s by telephone or email,” she said. “There is plenty of work that can be done to help process cases and plenty of organizations, including the ABA’s South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project.

Pedro Villalobos, an assistant district attorney in Austin, also participated in the panel. He said one problem affecting the immigration work of prosecutors like himself in Texas is Senate Bill 4, which he said mandates that local governments and law enforcement agencies cannot interfere with immigration enforcement.

“What most people don’t know about this law is that prosecutors are prevented from taking into consideration someone’s immigration status when negotiating a plea deal,” said Villalobos, a DACA recipient, who came to the U.S.  from Mexico with his parents as a 3-year-old. “So, when you talk about the intersection of immigration and criminal law, very much of what the state legislatures do affects us and not only the arresting agency in the municipality or county.”

The program was sponsored by the ABA Criminal Justice Section and the Center for Public Interest Law.