Last October, Susanna Meringola, a family law attorney, joined a group of Christian volunteers on a visit to a migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso. The group was there to bear witness to the consequences of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a Trump administration program also known as ”remain in Mexico” that sends asylum seekers back to the other side of the border as they wait for their hearings in immigration courts in the United States. The migrants’ accounts were as varied as the countries of origin they feared returning to, but they shared one grievance: “If only we had attorneys.”
Meringola was the only lawyer among the 25 women on the trip. She hadn’t kept up with immigration law since school, and after the birth of the youngest of her three children, she had left her job as a district attorney to work part time at the Travis County Law Library and Self-Help Center, where she assists people representing themselves in matters like child support and divorces. But after her visit, Meringola was determined to be of service.
On a Facebook group for Austin-based attorneys she learned about Vecina, an organization in Texas that was launching a mentorship program for non-immigration attorneys interested in representing asylum seekers stuck in Mexico. The idea of Vecina, according to the founder Lindsay Gray, was to help provide legal services to those who are stranded in Mexico, tapping into the expertise of seasoned immigration lawyers “without asking them for more than they could give.”
Since January 2019, the remain in Mexico policy has forced more than 60,000 people—including 16,000 children—to wait outside the U.S. for at least two months for the conclusion of their immigration proceedings. Thousands have been exposed to murder, rape, and kidnapping, which a Department of Homeland Security lawyer recently acknowledged is a risk for all in the program.
Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court allowed the protocols to remain in effect after the government requested a stay of a federal appeals court ruling that the policy violates U.S. and international laws. Even as the Trump administration has rolled out new fast-track deportation policies and signed an agreement to send asylum seekers to Guatemala, as many as 25,000 people are still waiting in Mexico.
Access to legal representation for asylum seekers remains a major challenge. As of November 2019, only 4 percent of those under MPP had a lawyer, and fewer than 1 percent were granted asylum. Numbers show that asylum seekers represented by attorneys are five times more likely to receive protection.
In January, Meringola took on her first case: a Venezuelan man who had been detained and tortured by the military and was resting his asylum case on the claim of political persecution. Since October, he has been staying three hours south of the border, where he believes it’s safer, according to Meringola. His asylum hearing is scheduled for later this month—provided that immigration courts don’t close before then, as some legal groups have called for, because of concerns related to the coronavirus.
“When you do this kind of work, you quickly realize that what happens in a court really matters to people who are sitting in homeless shelters in Mexico,” Meringola said.
Attorneys willing to represent clients in Mexico face an uphill battle. Safety concerns discourage private firms from doing pro bono work. Crossing the border back and forth can be costly and prohibitively time-consuming for nonprofit lawyers and advocates who are already stretched thin. “[MPP] is an incredibly depressing program and we immigration lawyers are beaten down and broken in a lot of ways,” said one of the mentors, Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney in El Paso, where almost no one is being granted asylum and hearings are postponed and rescheduled for months in the future because of backlogged courts. “It’s really difficult to convince people to take on more cases when they are making one year and a half commitments.”
That’s where programs like Vecina’s Pro Bono Warriors come in. The organization has partnered with nonprofits in the San Diego–Tijuana and Laredo–Nuevo Laredo areas to screen for potential clients with strong cases, as well as with private firms and the International Academy of Trial Lawyers to recruit and train participants. So far, six mentors have come on board, with some choosing to volunteer and others receiving a low bono hourly rate ranging between $50 and $70. They can offer support, reviewing evidence and declarations and commenting on briefs and legal strategies. If needed, they might also accompany mentees to court. More importantly, they are there to boost their partner’s confidence. “We try to remind people that something is better than nothing,” said Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, one of the mentors.
Some of the ten mentees have dedicated their lives to serve the public interest and are extremely skilled trial lawyers. Austin-based Dicky Grigg has litigated hundreds of personal injury cases over a 47-year career, famously securing $22.5 million in compensation for a Texas Tech quarterback wrongfully accused of shoplifting in Lubbock in 1999. He said he is going to rely on his experience preparing clients for depositions and questioning witnesses to work on his first ever asylum case. “Like in any case, you got to know what the law is and you got to know what the facts are,” Grigg said.
Others like entertainment lawyer Dionne McNeff from Los Angeles have no courtroom experience. “I had no idea how unintuitive immigration law can be,” McNeff said. “It’s its own animal.” With Vecina’s guidance, McNeff said she would take on more pro bono immigration cases in the future. The experience has also encouraged her to leave a job at a production company to work with victims of domestic violence.
What the mentees might lack in experience and practice, they make up for in purpose. And with the right kind of support, they hope to provide life-saving services. “No matter how inexperienced these lawyers are,” said Erin Anderson, the pro bono coordinator with the partnering organization Al Otro Lado, “they are still more prepared than the person who would otherwise show up in court alone.”
There are still significant setbacks to the program’s ability to provide comprehensive legal aid to asylum seekers. Mentees are required to have malpractice insurance, which has discouraged potential candidates who can’t get coverage through an employer. Some volunteers like Meringola don’t speak Spanish and have to hire local interpreters or use Google Translate to communicate with their clients via WhatsApp. Although encouraged to, lawyers are not expected to meet their clients in person ahead of court hearings. Because the organization, which relies mostly on donations and grants, still doesn’t have a track record—the first hearings should be completed later this month—it’s also hard to predict how scalable it can be.
Participants are aware that the stakes are very high. As an attorney with no previous litigation experience, Lena Martinez-Wolfinger worried she could be doing more harm than good. “You don’t want to do a case poorly just because you have a savior complex,” she said. “But knowing you’re under somebody’s wing and that it’s not all on you helps relieve some of that weight.”
They also know the cards are stacked against their clients. Ahead of her Venezuelan client’s final hearing, Meringola is nervous, even if she feels prepared and supported by her mentor and her mother and brother, who help her translate her client’s paperwork.
“The piece that keeps me up at night is that even if he has everything on his side, it’s still somewhat out of our control.” Meringola said. “I just want to do the best I can for him.”