By: Jacqueline Kelley, PHRGE Fellow at South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) in South Texas
I sat across from Jonathan as he told me a lifetime of stories. Abandoned by his mother at age three, Jonathan, from Michoacan, Mexico, was raised by a father who worked for drug traffickers and brutally abused him. After Jonathan dropped out of school and ran away from home, another drug cartel targeted him to recruit him into their ranks. Even though he resisted recruitment, Jonathan was arrested by the Mexican military on unfounded allegations of criminal behavior. He was then tortured before prosecutors even brought formal charges against him. When he was released after six months for lack of evidence, Jonathan faced a heavy choice: return to his abusive father or try to make it on his own on the streets, where the cartels would surely target him once more. That is when he made the choice to head to the United States, to save his own life. After two hours, I looked down at my pages of notes detailing Jonathan’s lifetime of struggles—those of a fifteen year old boy.
Every year, thousands of unaccompanied children attempt to cross into the United States through the Mexican-U.S. border—and in recent years, thousands make the attempt every month. The humanitarian crisis of 2014 that brought a massive influx of Central American and Mexican migrants, many of them children, has barely subsided as we approach mid-2016. Some migrants look for ways out of crippling poverty, in many cases caused by U.S. economic policies that stunt opportunity. Some are looking to reunite with parents or other loved ones whom they have not seen in years; harsh immigration laws make legal family reunification either an exceptionally lengthy process or, more often, an impossible one. Many are quite literally fleeing for their lives—running from ever-growing gang and cartel violence coupled with the inability or unwillingness of their home countries’ authorities to protect them. To call the choice to migrate under these circumstances a true “choice,” seems starkly inaccurate. When your life is on the line, is migration a choice? Did Jonathan have a choice?
Since early March, I have worked alongside ProBAR in the Rio Grand Valley of South Texas in the struggle to give detained migrants a fighting chance as they battle through our draconian immigration system. ProBAR (South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project) provides free, direct legal services to adult and minor asylum seekers detained by the U.S. government in South Texas, and coordinates national pro bono volunteer efforts to serve migrants who relocate to other parts of the country. For my first six weeks in Texas, I interned for the Children’s Project; there, I worked on the immigration cases of minors, like Jonathan, who are detained in local Office of Refugee Resettlement “shelters” and are in active deportation proceedings. ProBAR Children’s Project works to reunify migrant children with loved ones while identifying potential legal relief, coordinating with national pro bono partners, and providing full-scale legal representation to locally-released children and those facing imminent deportation.
In mid-April, I moved to ProBAR’s Adult Office, which serves detained asylum seekers primarily at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas. I spend long days in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, identifying legal relief, participating in Know Your Rights presentations and providing legal assistance in immigration cases—from drafting applications and gathering evidence, to prepping testimony for hearings and filing court motions. For many detainees, the time they spend in visitation rooms with ProBAR staff and volunteers may very well be the only opportunity they have to tell their stories and document their legal claims. Time with ProBAR staff may also be the only human contact they will have for months, aside from time spent with other detainees and detention/deportation officers. ProBAR believes that detained migrants should never have to fight deportation alone.
There is no right to counsel in immigration removal proceedings, despite the fact that the penalties associated with losing one’s claim—detention and deportation—are some of the worst that human beings can face. Because of the sheer number of individuals requiring assistance nationally, many migrants will receive no legal assistance whatsoever and will be returned to countries where they fear persecution, violence and even death. And the grim realities of our harsh immigration system, where the deck is stacked against migrants from the outset, ensure that even migrants with full representation and solid legal claims may still face deportation. However, due to the coordinated efforts of organizations like ProBAR, thousands more migrants know their rights, put forth strong claims for relief and have a fighting chance to emerge through the system victoriously—with stability and safety waiting on the other side.
For more information on the critical work of ProBAR,
Watch the video: The 25th Anniversary of ProBAR: Pursuing Justice, Changing Lives.
Or Read about ProBAR’s work.
For more information on the need for protections for children asylum-seekers, notably Central American and Mexican minors fleeing gang violence, see the UNHCR’s resources, including its report about the migration crisis, “Children on the Run.”