I work on Miami-Dade’s immigration front lines. Here’s what I have learned about finding help

By Maya Ibars

Migrant youths walk outside at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, a former Job Corps site that now houses them.
Migrant youths walk outside at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, a former Job Corps site that now houses them. AP

In the last year and a half that I have been working in the trenches of immigration law, I’ve been exposed to a whole new world. I had studied the immigration system in law school, worked in a private immigration firm and considered myself fairly knowledgeable.

But there is so much more than meets the eye. Our immigration system is complex and confusing, even for seasoned practitioners, let alone the scared and vulnerable migrant.

Through my work as a staff attorney at Catholic Legal Services, I have gone all over Florida, from Fort Myers, Immokalee, West Palm Beach, Pompano Beach, Doral, Homestead and south to Key West serving immigrants through free Saturday clinics. The program, funded by the IMPAC Fund, is a collaboration between Americans for Immigrant Justice and Catholic Legal Services, and was created with the goal of bringing people out of the shadows to seek real advice in a safe space.

I work on the front lines. From behind my desk, I learn firsthand what textbooks and news reports could never teach about the realities in other countries.

Because when societies crumble, people flee. And often they come to Florida.

And their stories show the impact of political turmoil, economic collapse and rampant illegal activity. Their stories are real, and when you hear similar stories again and again from people fleeing for safety, you start to see patterns and understand what goes on in those countries.

The tears and fears are palpable. For example, Honduras is a place of terror from what I have learned. Indigenous Guatemalans face harassment and obstacles in making an honest living. Southern Mexico is full of gangs, with names like Los Viagras.

As Miamians, Central and South America and the Caribbean are our back yard.

We absorb the shock of what goes wrong. And because the city is full of immigrants, full of Spanish-speakers and at times feels more like Latin America than the United States, it is easy for new arrivals to find themselves in communities of compatriots.

Migrants around the world are skilled at finding out information, using their networks and sharing stories to help one another in discreet and underground channels. But the problem we face as attorneys is that many times this information is wrong. The rumors are detrimental. Reliance on “my friend told me” leads to many problems that can affect their immigration processes.

For example, many Venezuelans who arrive legally in the United States with tourist visas have come to believe that filing for asylum is simple. Perhaps it’s the sheer quantity of people who have done it, so that it has become the go-to solution for those who have the resources to qualify for a U.S. visa and escape the misery back home. I have seen many people entrust their applications to notaries or paralegals, or even Venezuelan lawyers never trained in U.S. law, let alone licensed here.

But asylum law is very specific, and preparing an application is not easy. It breaks my heart to see the numbers of people who come to me after they were not granted asylum because they didn’t get proper help at the outset.

Cubans should also beware of the rumor mill. Procedures have changed in regard to what is the recommended course of action, and laws are changing month by month, so it is important to speak with licensed attorneys who can guide you in the right course of action.

There is way more demand than we can handle for nonprofit and pro bono attorneys. Many recent arrivals can’t afford to hire private immigration attorneys.

If some people need to handle their cases pro se, they should have some real information at their disposal.

I will be traveling to Tijuana to work, my second time on the border. There, I hope to learn more valuable information about how border agents are processing asylum seekers, and what the current trends in migration are this month.

To me, the essence of our American society is in its cultural mixture and its commitment to democracy. The treatment of immigrants is anathema to these ideals that many of us hold dear. Knowledge is power. If conditions and laws are to improve, we must understand how they work.

Maya Ibars is an immigration attorney at Catholic Charities Legal Services, Archdiocese of Miami.