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
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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.
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