U.S. Mexican Border – Asylum Seekers and Legal Aid – by Kathryn Marquis Hirsch. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[Photo 1: The border fence between Brownsville, Texas, USA and Matamoros, Mexico. It’s very tall and hard to grasp but people still manage to scale it. It’s harder to get down than it is to get up, which leads to injuries.]
For one short week during my latest semester break, I was a law student volunteer with an organization that provides pro bono legal services to asylum seekers in South Texas, near the United States-Mexico border. Some of their clients are being held by the United States Department of Homeland Security in detention centers while a relative few are out on bond. Lawyers, legal assistants, and law students from The South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) give presentations and meet with asylum seekers individually to help explain the application process and how to navigate the United States’ very complicated and often arbitrary system of immigration law.
It is important to note that under international and U.S. law, asylum seekers must enter American territory to begin the process; they cannot apply for asylum before entering the country. Detainees are not “illegal;” even people who are undocumented are not being held because they have committed any crime. Before they are given permission to stay in the United States, they are, however, subject to a rigorous application process that is very confusing and counter-intuitive.
The application process requires a person to explain why they cannot safely live in their home country and why they qualify for asylum in the U.S. based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and/or membership in a particular social group. (They may also be allowed to remain in the U.S. because of the Convention Against Torture.) These categories are broader than they might seem at first reading, so many applicants do not realize how they qualify. For example, a person being targeted for persecution because he or she is a member of a certain clan, sect, or gender, or someone who is not being protected from persecution by the authorities of their home country because of membership in an unfavored group, would meet the requirements. Including evidence of the conditions in one’s home country also helps, but country conditions alone won’t convince a court. Showing that violence is high or that minority groups are being targeted can reinforce someone’s claim but isn’t enough; the government’s policy isn’t to simply give asylum to everyone from a country even if that country is in a state of chaos. Applicants must show that they are especially at risk and have a credible fear for their safety should they return to their country.
[Photo 2: The international border crossing in Brownsville, Texas is located right at a major intersection in the heart of downtown.]
One of the most important ways ProBAR can help an applicant is with writing a supplement to their application that explains why they felt forced to leave their home country and undertake a long, harrowing journey to the United States. This is a hard task even for native English speakers with some legal training. The process requires putting one’s story into a legalistic, sequential format that includes all pertinent information while also being brief and to the point. This is not how human memory works, especially not when thinking about terrible events, but any inconsistencies or omissions may undermine an asylum seeker’s credibility in the view of a court.
Consider the hypothetical of telling someone about something that happened the first day of the week. If they ask specifically, you might tell someone that it happened on a Monday without really drawing upon memory. If you then find some document that shows the event in question actually occurred on a Tuesday, that might prompt you to recall that it was actually the first day back to work or school after a three-day holiday weekend so it felt like a Monday, and that’s how you remembered it before you scrutinized the details. This is not a matter of being dishonest or even a sign of a faulty memory, it’s just how human memory works. People leave out or remember different details depending on what questions they’re asked, what order they discuss events in, and so on. Add trauma, time, and an unfamiliar language to the equation and it’s not hard to see how people need help to tell their histories in a linear, matter-of-fact way. Much of our work as volunteers was to interview applicants and review their information carefully to make sure that they understood what was being asked of them and that their answers matched the questions.
It cannot be overemphasized how complicated the process is– there is the basic process which is tricky enough plus different rules for different circumstances related to a person’s particular nationality, their parents’ nationality, whether they fit under an assortment of time-limited provisions, and on and on. Most people have a very strong case but don’t know how to convey this to a judge. Applicants who represent themselves without any sort of legal assistance have a statistically low chance of succeeding, while those who have even a bit of legal training and guidance are more likely than not to succeed.
Traveling great distances (often for months across thousands of miles) at great expense and risk and leaving one’s home country behind, never to return, is not entered into lightly. In the abstract, it’s easy to think about immigration as a policy problem to be solved, or in grandiose terms of huddled masses. From either a positive or negative standpoint, immigration is not a sea of humanity. It is important to look at the magnitude of the effects unrest in the world has on humanity as a whole while keeping in mind that immigration concerns the well-being of real children, women, and men.
Kathryn Marquis Hirsch serves as managing editor of The North Star Reports.
Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu
See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports
The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy (http://NorthStarReports.org) is a student edited and student authored open access publication centered around the themes of global and historical connections. Our abiding philosophy is that those of us who are fortunate enough to receive an education and to travel our planet are ethically bound to share our knowledge with those who cannot afford to do so. Therefore, creating virtual and actual communities of learning between college and K-12 classes are integral to our mission. In five semesters we have published 200 articles covering all habitable continents and a variety of topics ranging from history and politics, food and popular culture, to global inequities to complex identities. These articles are read by K-12 and college students. Our student editors and writers come from all parts of the campus, from Nursing to Biology, Physical Therapy to Business, and remarkably, many of our student editors and writers have long graduated from college. We also have writers and editors from other colleges and universities. In addition to our main site, we also curate a Facebook page dedicated to annotated news articles selected by our student editors (http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports). This is done by an all volunteer staff. We have a frugal cash budget, and we donate much of our time and talent to this project. We are sponsored by St. Scholastica’s Department of History and Politics and by the scholarly Middle Ground Journal: World History and Global Studies (http://theMiddleGroundJournal.org).
For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at: http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2013/1305/Opening-The-Middle-Ground-Journal.cfm
Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica.
Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports.
(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu
43 responses to “U.S. Mexican Border – Asylum Seekers and Legal Aid – by Kathryn Marquis Hirsch. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
I had heard that America’s application process for asylum seekers was over complicated but didn’t know any details until now. Unsurprisingly, it seems like a system set up to fail asylum seekers in most cases. Do you have any idea what percentage of asylum seekers are accepted? Also, do you speak any Spanish? Or were your meetings with asylum seekers done with translators or a struggle over a language barrier?
Reblogged this on Professor Liang 梁弘明教授.
Reblogged this on The Middle Ground Journal.
It surprises me how complicated the process seems for asylum seekers. It seems backwards to me. I found Photo 1 very interesting because it shows the lengths that people will go to. Scaling and trying to climb the wall/fence can be life threatening and cause serious injury, but in order to have the life they want, people are willing to risk that. The photo represents that well.
This is a great article. The complicated nature of asylum seeking is absolutely astounding. I also really enjoy how to talk about memory. That when people try and tell their stories in a legalistic way it is very easy to make mistakes. It is a shame that such small mistakes that are only part of being human, can force someone back into danger.
Hearing about immigrants wanting into our country is something that is brought up quite frequently, especially Syrians. Now, I:m not sure if this asylum process is the same for them but this really gave me an understanding of the long and difficult process it is to enter another country. Also, looking at the sense that they will never be able to return to their home can be a real eye-opener. Some are willing to give it all up. I think it is very wise of those who view the applications to take in account that those who are at a real risk are welcome, if they can pass the questions. I can absolutely agree that immigration is not a sea of humanity.
I have never heard of this process before. While it does seem very complicated, I feel like it needs to be. However, when people are at real danger in their home countries, the courts should be able to see this. I think the legal system is complicated for the average person, it definitely is for me at least, so add those additional barriers from being foreign to our country must make it that much harder.
I was interested in this article because I just watched a documentary on the issue of illegal immigrants and the U.S.-Mexican border. I also was just down in Brownsville, Texas (where your picture was taken) this summer for a wedding, so I can definitely put a picture in my mind while reading. Even though we didn’t cross any border, we still had to go through border patrol and got asked if we were legal American citizens, and pretty extensive border patrol to say the least (more on the way back, out of brownsville). The people I was in the car with looked authentic Mexican so they questioned them much more than I (a blonde hair, blue eyed person). The makeup of the people in Brownsville is significantly different (primarily Mexican) than even a neighbor city of Houston where I stayed the rest of my visit. Interesting ideas to think about, thank you!
I think that many times people forget about humanity and treat immigrants as inferior to them. They are often seen as pests , a term that does not even come close to describe these brave souls. People leave their homeland not because they want to but because they have to. They risk their lives in order to cross the border because the probabilities of being killed at home are higher than the probabilities of being killed in the journey . It pains me to hear how complicated the process is for individuals who are seeking asylum because they genuinely fear for their lives. Most of them don’t even speak english, making matters even worse. People don’t seek asylum to “take your jobs away” , they seek asylum for survival. We must remember that this is a humanitarian crisis and we most not turn our backs on immigrants due to fear because fear is all these individuals have ever known.
Like others are saying, I knew seeking asylum was a long process as well as difficult but I didn’t know what was expected out of these individuals. The process seems to be made to set people up for failure in attaining asylum in the US, which probably serves as a way to keep the numbers down or within a yearly quota for the US government. Reading your article made me very sad for those who have risked everything but are turned away. Do you know if there are other options for those individuals?
Thank you for discussing this topic, Kathryn! I think that this is such an important topic to discuss because it affects so many people. I was unaware of how complicated the asylum-seeking process was. I thought it was interesting how you gave the example of how difficult it is to remember sequential events, especially if English is not your first language. I thought picture 1 was interesting because it shows the fence that many people try to climb. I can see why so many people injure or possibly even kill themselves by scaling it because of the height. I guess it shows the desperation some people will go to.
This was so interesting for me to read! I never imagined how complex the process is for individuals. At such a hard point in their life when they are leaving their homes, family, and friends, it doesn’t necessarily seem fair to have these forms be so difficult to interpret for foreign individuals. Living in the US where we are relatively safe, it is hard to imagine how hard it would be to leave your home country because you felt unsafe. However, I can see on the other side how the US needs to be sure about who and how many people enter the country. Thanks for the great insight on a topic so prevalent in the media today.
This is a very important article. So many times I hear people who are uneducated on the topic list the aspects that are wrong about immigration. When people read articles like this one or research what is actually happening they start to understand and have empathy for the people that are leaving their homes. Thank you for telling what you learned in Texas and sharing it here. So many people need to learn more about immigration and how in depth the process is and your article gave a heartfelt account.
Fantastic article. I really enjoy the language you use. I have often wondered how such lengthy understanding is expected of immigrants that have not had to provide any previous sort of documentation such as this. You’re right, immigration is not a sea of humanity and people often forget to put any human aspect into it. It’s terrifyingly to think about people going through such change without support, especially when you put yourselves in their shoes.
Do you think solving the messy and confusing application issue would solve the immigration problem? Or should the U.S. get more involved with Mexico’s internal issues that are causing so many Mexicans to leave their homeland? I can’t imagine the language barrier, I know that’d be my biggest threat when applying to become an American citizen if I had been speaking Spanish my whole life. Do you find yourself feeling empathetic for those you’re helping, or just viewing the American government’s way of dealing with immigration from a more critical viewpoint?
I had no idea how complex and in-depth the process for asylum seekers is. This is a great topic to talk about since there is a lot about Syrian refugees in the current news. I think it is interesting that such a lengthy and complex process is supposed to be understood by immigrants who might not know the language that well. It is wonderful that there are people who are volunteering their time to help the asylum seekers be able to understand the process better and to give them a greater chance of succeeding in their immigration.
Very fascinating to see the lengthy and complex system it is for asylum seekers to enter into the United States. If people do not feel safe in their homeland for whatever reason, they should be able to move their families without question. Immigration has been such a hot topic for along time, especially since Donald Trump’s one sided view on it. The application for these asylum seekers seems nearly impossible to complete. How does one put a lifetime of information into a document that dictates a person becoming safe from any threats? Great article, especially since this correlates with the Syrian refugees.
The complexity of the application that asylum seekers have to complete displays the power dynamic that has been present for a long time now, but was heightened by the unintended consequences of NAFTA. The argument you propose here and is ever present in any other asylum seekers across the globe is; the difference between instilling safety (which has been instituted as a result of former misuses of permeable borders) and providing the egalitarian perspective for the movement of peoples. The application is in place to function as a barrier to entry. The US gov has the capability of doing what they please with the border to protect the citizens first, and also they could ease up on the barrier to entry if population becomes an issue.
This is a great article! With the presidential election coming soon we have seen candidates go on air talking about closing the border because of illegal immigrants, but this article shows how hard it is to seek asylum in the US. The US was started by people who were seeking asylum and it is sad to see that we have made it so hard and have started to turn our backs on people who are asking for help. Are question that comes up though, would changing the application and the process actually help the immigration problem? Great Article!
Great article that really shows the underlying challenges presented with immigration. With all the Syrian refugee talk in the news right now it is very important how hard these people have work in order to immigrate to the US under the best of circumstances. I thought the part about the memory recollection and forming a strong argument was particularly interesting. Just thinking back on my personal life it is often difficult to keep straight exactly when everything happened, and thus the importance of having lawyers.
Interesting to see how the process works to get asylum in the United States. Sad to note that many of those who need asylum are unable to get it due to lack of knowledge of knowing how to present their case well. It makes me question if there isn’t a better way they can get represented and what the costs associated with getting legal counsel for all asylum seekers would be.
It’s a bit ironic in my opinion that a country founded by immigrants has such a fear of immigration. They set these regulations into place to make it near impossible to make a “legitimate” claim for asylum, and therefore nearly impossible for those in need tocome into the untied states. I think it is cowardly for the worlds superpower to behave in such a way when they have nothing to gain from the other party, but in my mind it also shows what is motivating our country’s behavior. We should do the right thing for everyone, not just for us. I just don’t think that I will see a day where that is the case.
A very eye opening article. I’m sure listening to these people and why they are trying to travel to the United States is very interesting. You hear about people traveling thousands of miles to try and have a better life and support their kids in the United States but it’s horrible to hear that some people are targeted and are trying to cross over just to protect themselves and stay alive. Then just to be sent back because they weren’t understood correctly is very sad.
This is a very interesting article. I did not know that people needed legal documents written in order to seek asylum in the US. I can see how hard it would be for someone who is volunteering and not trained very well to help this process. It makes sense that not every person that wants to move to the United States can simply move in when they want but if it is in order to keep them safe, I think that this process could run a little smoother.
Overall this was a great article. I can’t imagine traveling a long distance and leaving all I’ve ever known behind for a new home. Before reading this, I have never really thought about how complex the system is for asylum in the US. I also cant imagine having a language barrier, which would also be frustrating when trying to understand a whole new country. I think it’s sad that people have to do that, and that some people are even so desperate to risk their lives coming to the U.S, and then, to top things off, they get turned away. I am glad you were able to share this.
This article was very interesting as it is a topic in the news quite frequently. I was intrigued to learn about your perspective as you had actually been directly involved with the asylum seekers. This topic of immigration is always one that is going to be debated. Which I think is what adds to the complexity of it. As you stated many asylum seekers are confused and overwhelmed with the process to become a citizen which is unfortunate. Yet, I do feel that this system is important in securing our country and its borders. Your volunteer works sounds like it was a great experience that really impacted you. It was interesting to hear your thoughts on this controversial topic.
I have heard that the process of accepting asylum seekers and immigrants is confusing and extremely difficult. However, I did not know all of the details involved in the application process. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and thoughts. I feel that the United States expresses more of it’s hypocrisy in this way as it is quoted on Ellis Island: “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…” It would seem to me those seeking asylum definitely fit into those categories (although they may not be homeless, as they may always consider their country of origin their home). Although times may have changed since the influx of immigrants during that time period, the U.S. still acts as the “world’s police” often claiming moral responsibility towards others as a reason to validate involvement in wars, and yet often denies physical refuge to those seeking asylum. A very complex topic to consider.
Everytime I read about the immigration process, it baffles me how confusing and difficult it is to get through. This article confirmed this thought even more. Also, the photos of the two different spots on the border were interesting to see. The first one almost looked like an entrance into a public park of some sorts, while the other clearly had a large amount of security around it.
This was a deeply insightful article delving into the complicated nature of asylum seeking in the United States. It is sad but true that the human aspect of immigration is often left out of the whole process.
I think it needs to be stressed that a humane and compassionate approach to refugees is not only our moral and legal responsibility but also ultimately enriches us as a nation; whether that be the U.S. or countries in Europe.
This was a great article to read. I have been to Mexico a few times and have heard of accounts where their friends have tried to get in to the United States only to be deported back and it seemed like a lengthy process then. Hearing this process now sounds like it is even worse. I feel for those who are not able to get in to the United States and wish that some times there were easier ways to handle the situations. Only the future will show us the way, however.
This article seemed very relevant as it is constantly in the news today. I can’t imagine being put into this type of situation where you are forced to make this big of a decision. Its hard to know what any one of us would do until we were actually put into that situation. It is easy for us to make judgements and form opinions off of things we hear, but nothing comes close to actually experiencing it. Its truly sad to see families having to go through this and not all of them making the journey in the end, leaves a what if.
This was an interesting read! Especially with U.S. asylum seekers in the news so often recently. It’s also interesting that you and others volunteer to do this work. I imagine that there is a huge demand for those services but that well-paid, full-time positions are scarce. How else can immigrants recieve the legal resources they need?
Your story really showed how difficult it is for asylum seekers here in the United States. It seems like the system is built against them, rejecting most. It led me to question, why? I think its due to the U.S. not wanting large amounts of asylum seekers. I do realize that we do have that population, but letting every single one in would cause many problems. As unfortunate as the sounds, we have yet to come up with a solution that would allow all of them inside our borders. Thanks for sharing!
This was so interesting for me to read! I never imagined how hard the process is for individuals. At such a crucial in their life when they are leaving their families it come to a place that they find very fruitful and giving. Living in the US where we are relatively safe, it is hard to imagine how hard it would be to leave your home country because you felt unsafe. It is also hard to see this knowing the history of the U.S and the fact that the U.S was founded off of those fleeing oppression.
After reading this article, it is amazing at the lengths that these people have to go through to get asylum. It is easy to just think that someone can pack up and leave when things get bad, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I understand that there does have to be restrictions and limitations to who we bring into our boarders because of safety, but at the same time I wish we could bring all of these people in. I know that if I was trying to escape an unsafe land I would want people to let me into their boarders. Thanks for sharing!
This article really opened my eyes up. I had no idea the lengths people had to take in order to gain asylum. This includes me learning about the emotional side of this process; the human side of it often left out.
Thank you for sharing what you learned in Texas. This is a crisis situation that we cannot forget about.
The first photo, of a fence, used to “keep people out,” was the first thing to put some emotional influence into the story for me. I thought about the idea of political borders and how much trouble it can cause. The idea that people have to make their experience sound exceptionally dangerous to return to their country is striking, and that if those people are not trained in law, they won’t know how to make it sound the way it should to be considered for asylum.
The application process for asylum you explained seems quite daunting especially if the applicants know little to no English. Your program serves a great need in helping those properly express their thoughts, and ideally this would be a service provided to each case by the government someday. Assuming that a great number of people attempt to navigate this process, and it has not been refined or improved almost shows a lack of empathy for our fellow humans. This could be because the common citizen is unaware, so I am thankful people such as yourself are attempting to make this issue more known. On the flip side, I can see how making the process so selective is necessary as it would not bode well for our nation if everyone was allowed entrance. Being selective helps the United States attempt to properly support the people currently living here, but more clear-cut guidelines should be put in place to assist those who in need and deserving.
Kathryn, thank you so much for sharing your account and thank you for the work that you did helping refugees seeking asylum in the United States. The system is certainly complex and hard to understand, even for an individual who is already an American citizen such as myself. What bothers me at the federal level in policy making, is across the board, I think most elected officials agree that the United States immigration system needs reform, but sweeping legislative reform to fix the immigration system seems like a topic that is not even possible, or there are many caveats that certain elected officials would like to see added, (such as funding for a border wall that our President wants to see approved), which would complicate a vote in Congress.
I must say that I very much admire your decision to help these people in need. No matter where one stands on the political spectrum, I believe that every person should at least try to place themselves in the shoes of the people that just like you point out undertake such an arduous journey in search for a better life. It is not something one does lightly.
I also find it frustrating to hear about the complexity of the legal system that makes people with strong asylum reasons still face a gigantic task in putting forward their application in a way that makes it hold up in court. It feels to me as this is a system that is neither fair nor moral.
Perhaps this article could make us that have had arbitrary luck of being born in a safe country more grateful for what we have as well becoming better at empathizing with people that have not been as fortunate.
This article is from a couple of years ago but I don’t think it could be any more relevant to what is going on at the border in the United States today. The caravan is coming from Honduras and is hundreds of miles away, but Trump has made it a major issue and continues to use the rhetoric that they are illegal, criminals, and dangerous. The article has a lot of information that I was unaware of and gave me a more clearer picture of the process many of these immigrants are going through. I find it interesting that the caravan is doing everything legally and in the correct to way to seek asylum in America but Trump has not wanted to mention that or bring light to it. Also, there has been a lot of news on children and the detention centers. It is crazy to think that someone under 18 arriving alone is having to represent themselves and go through a lot of difficult legal work. It will be interesting to see if anything happens with the caravan and if Trump tries to change USA immigration laws .
Kathryn, thank you so much for providing information on such a complicated process. It’s impossible to imagine how incredibly hard it would be to abandon ones home, make a treacherous journey to a country you know has an extremely anti immigrant administration and try to figure out such a convoluted process in a different language. A great deal of the immigration process seems to take the humanness away from these migrants… having to prove oneself or be thrown back to what you ran from… I wish the U.S. would take a serious look at this process and try to adjust it to fit more realistic expectations and circumstances.
Kathryn, thank you for sharing this article during a time of difficult politics. Your discussion about the grueling process that asylum seekers face upon arrival to the United States is one that needs to be remembered and truly considered at the present moment as well. While people on the far right of the political spectrum are using fear tactics to ward off the ‘migrant caravan’ filled with thousands of ‘illegals’, ‘criminals’, and ‘bad people’, it is critical to recognize that people who are seeking asylum must get into the country before they can process an application. Although people are genuinely fearful because of the toxic rhetoric being used to describe this situation, it is so important to emphasize the humanity of these desperate people (who wouldn’t have fled their homes if they didn’t have to). I commend you for your work with ProBAR, because not only was your job needed and difficult, it could also have been dangerous. Defending the rights of other humans is not easy and it is not a part of a safe bubble. Did you ever have to defend your work to others? How many cases that your firm worked on successfully attained asylum status?
Thank you again for this article.