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"David vs. Goliath": Lawyers struggle to help asylum seekers sent back to Mexico

O'Rourke: "Remain in Mexico" fuels "suffering and death"

Since the Trump administration implemented its controversial "Remain in Mexico" policy in the Texas border city of El Paso in late March, more than 6,500 asylum seekers have been sent back to neighboring Ciudad Juárez, the largest city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

While they wait for their day in a U.S. court, these Central American migrants struggle to find shelter and employment in Mexico, some face persecution and extortion and most will show up to court without a lawyer. 

The Trump administration has begun to accelerate "Remain in Mexico" in El Paso and two other locations: the California border cities of San Diego and Calexico. More than 15,000 asylum seekers have now been returned to Mexico. 

A small cohort of local non-profits and pro bono attorneys in the El Paso area have mobilized to help them with legal counsel. But they face limited resources, logical barriers and safety concerns to help thousands of migrants stranded in one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico and the Western Hemisphere. 

"Nobody wants to take these cases," Danielle Escontrias, an immigration attorney based in the area, told CBS News. She works for the Las Cruces-based Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico, one the few groups in the El Paso area offering legal representation to these migrants. 

Honduran migrant Delmy Garcia, who is waiting for her court hearing for asylum seekers that returned to Mexico to await their legal proceedings under a new policy established by the U.S. government, is seen at a migrant shelter in Ciudad Juarez
Honduran migrant Delmy Garcia, who is waiting for her court hearing for asylum seekers that returned to Mexico to await their legal proceedings under a new policy established by the U.S. government, rests with one of her children at a migrant shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico May 20, 2019. Picture taken May 20, 2019. JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ / REUTERS

Escontrias is currently representing two women living in Ciudad Juárez. She keeps in constant contact with one of them, the mother of a young boy who is currently sick and has not been able to get adequate medical care. Communicating with her other client, a young woman in her 20s without a cellphone, has proved difficult — and she's on a deadline to fill out an asylum application. 

She said other attorneys are concerned about running into the same problems. "They go back to Mexico. You don't know what's going to happen to them," she said. "You don't know if you're going to be able to maintain contact with them."

On an ethical level, Escontrias said lawyers are also wary of taking cases they are ill-equipped to argue in court. "If you can't get ahold of them, if you can't submit things on time, I mean, ethically speaking, it's a problem," she added. 

Often, the only other way to communicate with clients is to travel to shelters in Ciudad Juárez. But the Mexican border city is considered to be one the top five most violent cities in the world, according to a 2018 report by a Mexican non-profit that ranked cities based on their homicides rates. 

"I grew up on the border, and I used to regularly go to Juarez," she said. "But right now, migrants are being targeted and anybody who's affiliated with the migrant is also being targeted, and I'm just not comfortable going there."

In an extraordinary court filing last Wednesday, a union representing some of the asylum officers overseeing "Remain Mexico" said the policy violates U.S. and international refugee law because it sends asylum seekers to places where they may face persecution. The officers asked the court to block the Trump administration from implementing the program.

Because of these issues, the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, one of the largest full-time legal organizations for low-income migrants in the area, is currently not representing any asylum seekers returned under Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), as the program is officially called. 

"That's the main issue with this program," Melissa Lopez, the group's director, told CBS News. "The way that is has been set up, it's been set up to effectively limit access to attorneys."

Central American migrants return to Mexico from the United States to await their court hearing for asylum seekers as part of the legal proceedings under a new policy established by the U.S. government, in Ciudad Juarez
Central American migrants return to Mexico from the United States to await their court hearing for asylum seekers as part of the legal proceedings under a new policy established by the U.S. government, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico June 14, 2019. JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ / REUTERS

Along with Catholic Charities and other groups, Lopez and her team have been participating in so-called "know your rights" and "friend of the court" programs at the El Paso immigration court, where there is one judge handling all MPP cases. 

Under the "know your rights" program, Spanish-speaking lawyers volunteer go to the court and give migrants advice about the U.S. asylum process before the hearing. Because the lawyers can't represent all the migrants, they also use this hour to identify those most in need, often women with children, pregnant women or those most likely to face danger in Mexico, such as LGBTQ individuals.

The attorneys can also act as a "friend of the court." They are not representing the migrants but do help the court with translations, document retrievals and other tasks.

In recent days, however, attorneys were informed the court would no longer allow the "know your rights" program. Taylor Levy, an independent immigration lawyer in the El Paso area, said the court, citing "orders from headquarters," will not give volunteer lawyers the opportunity to talk to migrants before the judge sits on the bench.

The change, Levy noted, effectively forces lawyers to travel to Mexico if they want to help. "It's absolutely impossible," for lawyers to do their jobs, she said. "There is so much need. It's ridiculous."

The Executive Office for Immigration Review — the Justice Department branch that oversees the nation's immigration courts — confirmed it had shuttered the program. A spokesperson said the agency made the decision after it became aware that some individuals not officially recognized by EOIR and "not operating under the auspices of the Legal Orientation Program" were entering the court in El Paso. 

"To protect the rights of the aliens, to ensure that they did not receive misinformation from individuals operating outside of established programs with oversight and accountability, to ensure that the aliens were not misled or confused about their proceedings or otherwise taken advantage of, and to maintain the integrity of each respondent's proceeding, EOIR stopped this practice," the spokesperson added.

El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz chats with Honduran migrants who were deported after crossing the Paso del Norte international border crossing bridge from El Paso, Texas, U.S., in Ciudad Juarez
El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz chats with Honduran migrants who were deported after crossing the Paso del Norte international border crossing bridge from El Paso, Texas, U.S., in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico June 27, 2019. JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ / REUTERS

Lopez said the situation for migrants will only worsen as MPP expands along the entire border. "People will go unrepresented. You will have thousands of people go through this program with no attorney," she added. 

Kenneth Ferrone, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico, said the U.S. government should instead tackle the root causes of migration by prioritizing long-term investment in Central America to help curb the widespread poverty, chronic violence and decades-long political instability in the region. 

Ferrone worries about what comes next. "We don't have the resources and we don't want to take the risk to put our attorneys in jeopardy," he said. "It's a David vs. Goliath fight."

Angel Canales contributed to this report.

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