Thursday, November 24, 2016

Lack a lawyer? Expect to be deported

As the refugee crisis from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras continues, immigration courts are swamped with cases where judges must decide whether or not to grant asylum to those fleeing violence in their home countries.   

In immigration court proceedings, there is no right to an attorney.   The US government does not provide lawyers for those who cannot afford them.   But having a lawyer makes an enormous difference in the outcomes of these proceedings.   Statistics gathered by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University (TRAC) show that less than half of the women with children who go in front of an immigration court have managed to obtain a lawyer.   TRAC figures reveal that without a lawyer, less than 2% of the unrepresented families who try to make an asylum claim have avoided being deported.   With a lawyer, however, the chance of making a successful claim rises to approximately 41%.

A recent story from PRI's The World, describes one such asylum case from El Salvador before a US immigration court.   Here is an excerpt:
In 2014, the extortion letters came under her own door. The first demanded $1,000, the second, $3,000. This amount of money, she tells the court, would have taken her years to make. Her lawyer asks her how she felt when gang members came to her home. They shouted at her to give them money or they would kill her, she says, looking straight ahead. “I felt gripped with fear.” Gang members accosted her oldest son, César, at school, telling him he must join or his family would suffer. At the time, he was 11. 
That was when she decided to leave El Salvador for good. She and her two boys traveled by foot and bus to the US-Mexico border in Texas. The journey took about a month. At the border she declared that she was seeking asylum. She and her boys spent one night in detention. Though their stay was short, the frigid conditions in the detention center, known by migrants as “las hieleras” or ice boxes, made a lasting impact on her younger son. Pablo is still afraid of air conditioning.
Read the rest of their story here.  They were the lucky ones with a team of volunteering law students from a local law school to develop and advocate their case.  The process requires the collection and filing of numerous documents and forms with specific timelines, and judges are quick to reject cases that don't comply with the requirements, regardless of the merits of a case.  It is certain that thousands of other meritorious cases fail for lack of a lawyer to guide mothers with children, or to assist unaccompanied minors.   Like many other parts of the US legal system, the poor and unsophisticated are the persons least likely to receive justice and a humanitarian response to their plight.    


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