Immigration lawyers deny help with Biden administration’s MPP plans

Henry Romero / Reuters

Immigrants sent back to Mexico to camp near border

The lawyers are refusing to be added to a list of pro bono legal aid providers the Biden administration plans to give to immigrants it places in a Trump-era program that requires them to wait in Mexico.

Immigration lawyers say they will not be complicit in relaunching migrant protection protocols, also known as MPP or the “Stay in Mexico” program, which they say is not only dangerous but removes due process rights for immigrants and asylum. -researchers. Organizations that help immigrants at the border will continue their work, said Sue Kenney-Pfalzer, director of the border and asylum network at HIAS, the Jewish nonprofit that helps refugees. But registering on a list created by the administration that will send more immigrants to squalid border camps and overcrowded shelters than they can represent is a “farce” and a “hollow gesture”, he said. she declared.

“For all of us, our duty is to the migrants, not the US government,” Kenney-Pfalzer told BuzzFeed News. “What we are not going to do is be complicit with the government in trying to make the MPP more acceptable, because there is no way to make it more humane. It is illegal and inhumane.”

The program was created in January 2019 under former President Donald Trump and has forced more than 71,000 immigrants and asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for months, and in some cases years, while a US judge examines their case. In June, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas officially ended the policy, but a federal judge then ordered the administration to restart it, which could happen as early as mid-November.

Immigration advocates said the administration had not done enough to fight the court order and criticized the way volunteer lawyer rosters were used by officials when the MPP was previously active.

When an immigrant showed up to his hearing without a lawyer, judges gave him more time to be represented, postponing his case for months and referring him to a list of pro bono lawyers. The problem was that many legal aid organizations were already overwhelmed with thousands of immigrants seeking help and could not handle most of the new cases. The pro bono list, advocates said, has become a false beacon of hope for immigrants and asylum seekers.

Felipe, an asylum seeker from Honduras who was placed in the MPP program with his family, said he was given a list of pro bono legal aid providers during his first court hearing. The hearing was held in a tent in Brownsville, Texas, and the judge presided remotely, appearing through a screen.

“I called the numbers on the list, but no one ever picked up,” Felipe told BuzzFeed News.

Henry Romero / Reuters

Immigrants from Central America wash their clothes in the Rio Grande, near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico.

Without a lawyer, it’s hard to figure out how to fill out asylum documents and what to say to a judge, Felipe said, and that makes it all the more difficult for immigrants who live in constant fear of being kidnapped. , attacked and extorted by criminals. at the border who see them as easy targets.

“The judges were unfairly judging the MPP’s cases because we didn’t know how to do it right,” Felipe said. “We were unlucky.”

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), only about 10% of the 71,044 immigrants placed in the MPP program were able to be represented, and having a lawyer greatly increases the chances of winning an asylum case.

The Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which oversees the country’s immigration courts, declined to say how many organizations have so far agreed to be part of the pro bono list that will be given to MPP immigrants.

On October 28, EOIR sent an email saying it was still looking for vendors to add to a list of pro bono legal services interested in offering help through “remote technology.” The list, EOIR said, will be given to MPP immigrants who will have hearings in San Diego and the three Texas cities of El Paso, Harlingen and San Antonio.

“We will speed up the application process due to the urgent need for pro bono legal services among the MP population,” the email said.

Refusing to be on the pro bono list is not the first time advocates have refused to work with the Biden administration on the reimplementation of the MPP. On October 16, border organizations “came out” from a virtual meeting with White House staff on upcoming plans to restart the MPP, saying they could no longer have good conscience conversations with the Biden administration because it continued to uphold policies enacted by Trump, including a policy that allows the United States to expel immigrants at the border quickly.

José Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

Guatemalan immigrants walk down a street after being returned from the United States to Mexico under migrant protection protocols.

Last week, the administration released a second memo quashing the MPP, months after its first attempt was thwarted by a judge for failing to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act. Lawyers criticized the time that elapsed between the two memos, which DHS officials admitted taking “some time” to go through the necessary documents during a recent call with reporters.

Despite the new memo, officials said, the Biden administration could still be compelled under the court order to restart the MPP.

“If and when Mexico agrees to accept returns and the injunction has not yet been lifted, we will be forced to start reintegrating people into the MPP,” said a DHS official. “We hope there will be groups and entities that come forward and provide access to a council that we all know is so urgent to do.”

The Mexican government, which must agree to take back immigrants sent back across the border before the MPP can restart, has expressed concerns about due process and the reception of vulnerable people returned to the country, administration officials said.

Taylor Levy, a lawyer who travels regularly to Ciudad Juárez to help MPP immigrants, said the lawyers did not want to be added to the pro bono list because it could be used by the Biden administration to demonstrate to Mexico that the new version of the program will include increased access to legal counsel.

Organizations and lawyers who provide legal aid to immigrants will help those in the MPP once it starts again, Levy said, but she will no longer be one of them. While working with immigrants at the MPP, Levy said, she was threatened by cartels.

“I saw a family get kidnapped in front of me, and I was told point blank to step down or I was going to be in trouble,” Levy told BuzzFeed News. “I watched a mother and father with a toddler. in their arms were sobbing and begging for help, and all I could do was watch because I needed to protect my life. “

Stringer / Reuters

Roberto, 37, from Honduras, who is part of the MPP program, speaks with immigration lawyer Taylor Levy after his family’s court dates changed amid the pandemic.

She recalled a family trying to attend their MP’s hearing showed up bloody, bruised and dirty at the border after being kidnapped on their way to court. Police in Ciudad Juárez beat them and orally raped the pregnant woman in front of her husband and stepmother, Levy said.

She tried to help the family, even though she knew she was putting her own life in danger by drawing the attention of the Mexican police and the cartel, whose guards told her they knew who she was. From February 2019 to February 2021, Human Rights First counted at least 1,544 public reports of murders, rapes and other attacks against people in the MPP across the US-Mexico border. After two years of working with immigrants and asylum seekers in the MPP and facing hours of questions about her work from U.S. customs and border protection officials, Levy said she was diagnosed of PTSD and that she could not return to the same job.

“I am not willing or able to continue emotionally and physically to put my life on the line because the Biden administration has broken its promise and decided to reinstate this totally evil program,” Levy said. “There is no way to make it human. There is no way to ensure due process.”

Nicole Morgan, family detention lawyer for immigrant advocacy organization RAICES, said the group will remain on the general pro bono list that immigration courts provide to immigrants, but the group will not be on the list. of deputies.

“We’re not going to legitimize this program by giving them the veneer of giving access to counsel or due process,” Morgan said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.

Felipe, the immigrant former member of the MPP, and his family were able to reopen their case and enter the United States after initially losing their asylum claim while waiting in Mexico in January 2020. He blamed the initial loss his ignorance of US asylum laws and how to properly complete the family’s application. He hopes that now that he’s in the United States, he can find a lawyer and win their case.

As the Biden administration prepares to restart the MPP, Felipe thinks of the families placed in the program under Trump who are still in Mexico.

“I have known mothers and fathers who have lived in shelters for years who are still waiting for an opportunity in Mexico,” Felipe said.

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