This week, I got the opportunity to become more involved with the Help Desk at the Immigration Court. The purpose of the Help Desk is to meet with unrepresented respondents, review and discuss the details of their immigration cases, and present them with the options they have (e.g. applying for asylum, filing for a motion to reopen their case before the Board of Immigration Appeals, etc). It is important to note here that while are able to discuss possible legal avenues they can take moving forward, we as the Help Desk can only provide “legal orientation” (i.e. lay out all the possible options) rather than “legal advice” (i.e. recommending a particular course of action).
On Tuesday, the lawyer whom I accompanied to the Help Desk allowed me to start conducting intake interviews with the respondents all on my own. While I was thrilled by this opportunity, I was naturally somewhat intimidated as well. Though I had observed the interviews the previous week, conducting them on my own was completely different because I didn’t want to say something incorrectly or misunderstand what the person was saying (the interviews were in Spanish), especially since the details of people’s stories are crucial in determining the best course of action for their case. Nevertheless, as the week went on, I got more comfortable with asking the questions from the intake form, and turned to the accompanying attorney or intern with any doubts I had.
While filling out the intake forms, I gained more insight into some of the forces that drove these people to come to the United States. Many of the people I worked with had come from Central America to flee from violent gangs that had threatened them, harmed them, or killed someone they knew. One case in particular that I recall involves a woman who was kidnapped by a gang on her way to the grocery store and forced to smuggle drugs across the border. Fortunately, she managed to escape and make it to the U.S., but her family remains behind in her home country and she fears that the gang may kill them or her if she returns.
Another common reason that many people from Central America come to the U.S. is to escape domestic or sexual violence, often committed by their partners or other family members. Many single mothers with children (MWCs) whom I saw at the Help Desk fell into this category. Since many of them had a legitimate reason to fear for their safety if they returned to their home country, applying for asylum was one viable option. However, several of these women had few – if any – medical or police records to corroborate their abuse, often due to collusion between their aggressors and the police, and fears (and in some cases, direct threats) of reprisal by their aggressors against them or their families.
Additionally, many people from both Central America and Haiti stated that they came to the U.S. for better educational or economic opportunities, as employment prospects and upward economic mobility were very limited in their home countries. From speaking with the lawyers, I gleaned that this reasoning oftentimes does not provide a strong enough argument to allow someone to stay in the U.S., and in many cases the individual ends up being deported to their home country. In fact, I met a woman whose lawyer had withdrawn from her case because he felt that her argument would not hold up in front of the immigration judge. While I understand from the attorney’s viewpoint the need to prioritize cases that have a greater chance of a positive outcome, I am also disheartened to know that many people like that woman end up unrepresented because their reason for immigration isn’t “good enough.” After all, wasn’t this nation purportedly founded to be a beacon of hope and opportunity for those from around the world seeking a better life? If so, why turn away the people coming here for that very reason?
Finally, the last group of people I saw at the Help Desk were unaccompanied minors (UCs). Many of the UCs had come to the U.S. from Central America after one of their parents had made the journey earlier. Out of all the people I saw at the Help Desk, the UCs seemed the most shy and anxious during the interview, and understandably so. I can’t imagine how much this whole process must be for them, from escaping gang violence to traveling without their parents while putting all their faith in a “coyote” to help them make it safely to the border, after which they’re thrown right into a confusing and intimidating legal nightmare.
One of the common options that the Help Desk attorneys presented to people was to apply for asylum. I was surprised and somewhat saddened to learn how many people had no idea what asylum was or did not know about the one-year timeframe from their date of entry in which they had to apply. Several of them had cases that could qualify them for asylum, and a few of them were quickly approaching their one-year deadline, so the lawyers had to schedule last-minute “emergency meetings” to help them fill out the paperwork.
While it’s good that the Help Desk exists, it’s still disheartening to know that these people can’t actually obtain legal counsel from us and may instead spend lots of time, money, and energy searching for lawyers. Even though many of these people are placed on CCLS’s waiting list, it seems to me that this is often just a formality as there are currently hundreds of people on the list. According to one of the attorneys, many of these people will likely never be taken on as clients. However, they are still invited to the monthly intake clinics or info sessions that CCLS hosts, which is better than nothing since someone can take a look at their case, but still not the same as actually having a lawyer to represent them in court.
This post is longer than usual and full of information; however, after everything I’ve seen and learned this week, writing it all out is the only way I can truly let everything sink in. At the beginning of the summer, I was eager to learn about current immigration issues in this country; in just this week alone, I’ve seen firsthand some of the challenges and complications of the immigration system. Furthermore, with new developments such as the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week to allow portions of Donald Trump’s travel ban to go into effect, I am growing ever more concerned about the future of immigration in this country. Even if we all do our part to fight back against bigotry and injustice, who knows what the future will hold?