Immigration Lawyers Struggle to Navigate ‘Remain in Mexico’ Policy


San Diego

The Trump administration’s policy of forcing some asylum seekers to stay in Mexico for the duration of their immigration hearing is confusing migrants and immigration lawyers trying to represent them.

Immigration lawyers scrambled to get answers to questions about the Migrant Protection Protocols program, informally known as “Remain in Mexico,” and in the process faced a host of logistical challenges , since potential customers are expected to stay outside of the United States.

Concerns shared by immigration lawyers run the gamut from how to communicate with asylum seekers, many of whom are staying in shelters in Tijuana, Mexico, to whether lawyers can practice law. in another country for profit, as in general these cases may differ from other cases of asylum seekers. In some scenarios, the uncertainty behind the program has led lawyers to turn down cases.

“Some attorneys are afraid to do consultations,” said Andrew Nietor, a San Diego-based immigration attorney who has already turned down two cases. Some lawyers in the region travel to and from Mexico and fear their passports will be flagged for working in Mexico without a proper work visa, he said.

Legal representation is often essential to the success of a case. Immigration courts fall under the Department of Justice and have different rules and rights. Immigrants, for example, have the right to a lawyer, but unlike the criminal justice system, representation is not guaranteed.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly denounced the country’s immigration system and recently appeared to mock and question the legitimacy of asylum claims. The so-called stay-in-Mexico policy was launched at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego and has since spread to other parts of the border. As of March 12, the United States had returned 240 migrants to Mexico, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

This month, hearings for protocol asylum seekers began in San Diego Immigration Court, about 18 miles from the port of entry, and while some had legal representation, others nope.

Jewish Family Service of San Diego, a non-profit organization that provides immigrants, periodically sends lawyers to Tijuana to meet with asylum seekers. The time spent planning visits across the border, as well as identifying places to meet clients, who have no place of their own, has limited its capacity.

“It’s not sustainable. As soon as we start getting into representation…we can’t continue to facilitate legal advice,” said Leah Chavarria, the group’s manager. senior immigration attorney, who said the organization would likely not be able to take on more than five cases.

“It’s at the sacrifice of other work as well,” she added. “There are so many unknowns with the MPP program.”

Research has highlighted the importance of access to a lawyer for immigrants. According to a 2016 report by the American Immigration Council, represented immigrants were more likely to seek and obtain waiver of deportation. Yet only 37% of immigrants nationwide had obtained legal representation in their removal cases.

The report notes that it is more difficult for immigrants in detention to obtain a lawyer. And to some extent, those same hurdles faced by asylum seekers staying in Mexico for the duration of their hearings.

“One thing that could be compared to those who are in immigration detention or incarceration is that communication is very difficult,” Chavarria said. “We can’t pick up the phone and call our clients who are incarcerated for immigration. And it turns out to be similar to those of the MPP program.

There is an added layer of complication since many asylum seekers in Mexico do not have cell phones or, if they do, cannot afford to make international calls. For lawyers, it is also difficult to find a meeting place in Tijuana where they can have private conversations with their clients – a necessity given the sensitive nature of most of their cases.

All of this is a barrier for asylum seekers under the program and lawyers who might consider representing them. Cases, after all, take dozens of hours to go through documents, discuss the case, engage in conversations with family and friends, who may witness an incident that led someone to flee, and navigate the immigration court system.

“When they flee persecution… they don’t flee with a neat binder of documents,” Nietor said. Lawyers are responsible for working with asylum seekers to obtain all necessary records and testimony, as well as gathering additional data to substantiate a claim.

The hurdles to getting a lawyer are obvious to some asylum seekers, who acknowledged them at their main schedule hearings, the first hearing in deportation proceedings, at San Francisco Immigration Court. Diego at the beginning of the month.

In one case, a male asylum seeker who did not have a lawyer said the government had given him a list of legal service providers, but he had trouble understanding it.

“I was confused,” he told judge Scott Simpson. “I can neither read nor write. It becomes difficult. »

He added: “In Mexico, it’s even more complicated. It’s more complicated than if I were here.

“I understand it’s more difficult,” Simpson replied. “It’s not lost on me.”


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