As Central Americans continue to stream across the Mexican border into the United States, more and more immigration attorneys from around the country are volunteering to represent children and families seeking refuge from gang violence in their homelands.
Among the hundreds of attorneys who have traveled to detention centers where border-crossers have been held are five from South Florida who last week sat down for interviews in Miami about their experiences helping the Central Americans.
They spoke of working long hours — often from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. — to help immigrants ask for asylum, appear in immigration court and prepare their cases.
The Central Americans — mostly children and families from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — are fleeing growing gang violence in their countries. They come to the United States mainly because it is the only country in the region where they feel safe and also because many of them already have family members in major cities like Miami, New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles.
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While there was a surge in Central Americans in 2014, mostly minors, the migrants have continued to make their way overland from their countries to the Southwest border.
Some of these families have been placed in detention centers north of the Mexican border. Two of the attorneys traveled in the last week in December to a detention center in Dilley, Texas, north of Laredo, and three other lawyers in 2014 spent time at a detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, north of El Paso, that has since closed.
Immigration lawyers from around the country have flocked to the detention centers to assist the arriving immigrants under a project sponsored by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). The project is run by a coalition known as CARA Project that includes AILA, the American Immigration Council, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, and the Refugee Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
Claudia Del Castillo-Hronsky traveled to the Dilley detention center in December during Christmas week.
“It’s a facility for women with children, children who are very small, some less than a year old,” Del Castillo-Hronsky said. “My role was to prepare the women. First give them a talk and then I would meet with each woman individually and they would me their stories.”
Del Castillo-Hronsky said she realized that besides fleeing violence, some of the women also were fleeing domestic violence.
“It was very hard for them to talk about what had happened,” Del Castillo-Hronsky said. “I would ask them questions and get out their story little by little. It was very intense.”
The purpose of drawing out the stories from the women was so they understood the need to tell their stories in as much detail as possible to asylum officers so they stood a better chance of passing credible-fear interviews.
The lawyers also accompanied the women to their initial immigration court hearings, she said.
Del-Castillo-Hronsky also traveled to the Artesia detention center in 2014, where she performed similar legal services for the women held there.
Artesia has since been closed following widespread protests by immigrants organizations. Some of the detainees at Artesia were later moved to Dilley, which immigrant advocates also want closed.
Florence Chamberlin, another immigration attorney, went to Dilley the week before New Year’s.
“I participate in the intake, the orientation talks, the subsequent reviews before representing them in court and bond proceedings,” Chamberlin said. “I was shocked. You interview women and you go through the questionnaire and you ask them do you fear persecution and they’ll say ‘no.’’’
Chamberlin said this happened so often that she realized the women did not understand what persecution meant.
So when the women answered that they did not fear persecution, it conveyed to U.S. asylum officers that it would be OK to deport them. Fear of persecution is a crucial threshold for determining whether a foreign national could qualify for asylum.
“That detail to an asylum officer is critical,” Chamberlin said. “It can undermine the whole effort.”
Laura Kelley traveled to Artesia in 2014. She recalled the effort by all immigration attorneys to help the detainees understand the importance of telling their entire story to the asylum officers.
“Some of it was just gaining trust from the women,” Kelley said. “It’s very hard for a lot of people who have been victims of severe violence, whether domestic or gang-related, to trust people.”
Mayerlin Almonte also went to Artesia, and spent a week there in 2014 — the average length of stay for the five volunteer attorneys from South Florida.
Maria Isabel Casablanca remembers the long work days at Artesia.
The day started at 6 a.m. when the attorneys boarded a government van that took them to a facility.
“Then at around 7:30 or 8 a.m. they start calling individuals who wanted asylum representation,” she said.
Attorneys would finish at the facility around 5:30 p.m., but that would not be the end of the work day.
After dinner, from 7 to 9 or 10 p.m., the group would gather around a table at the hotel to discuss the cases they were handling.
“We slept for four hours,” she said, “and then start again the next day.”