An ILAP Attorney at the Southern Border

After the administration’s punitive “Zero Tolerance” policy led to the forced separation and detention of thousands of immigrant families at the southern border, ILAP made the decision to dedicate some of our staff time and expertise to the crisis. A trained immigration lawyer can make a significant impact in a short time; our lawyers are no exception.

In August 2018, Asylum Attorney/Pro Bono Coordinator Jennifer Bailey spent a week with the Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (PROBAR) in Harlingen, Texas. Watching how much worse things have gotten for people seeking asylum under this administration, she was motivated to return to the Texas border after working as PROBAR’s first paralegal from 1989-1991.

Below, Jennifer reflects on her time in Texas and how the experience informs ILAP's work in Maine.

Q. What kind of work did you do while at the southern border?

A. We visited detainees at a 1,200 person adult detention center in Port Isabel, Texas and toured a shelter for unaccompanied minors. The people I met were from Honduras and Guatemala, and shared harrowing stories of political violence, domestic violence and gang persecution.

For example, I met with a man from Guatemala who entered the US with his nine-year-old son last May. They were caught by US authorities, who deported the man and detained his son. As we sat locked in a small room in the detention center, the man cried and explained why he made the dangerous trip to the US in the first place – gang members wanted his family to grow drugs on their farm and, when they refused, killed two of his brothers in front of him. He had returned to the US to reunite with his son, but lost hope after being detained again. I was able to notify a nonprofit working on family reunifications about the man’s case and hope that they’ve been able to put him in touch with his son.

I also attended a mass prosecution at the federal district court in McAllen, Texas. On the day I observed, 72 men and women were found guilty of unlawful entry and charged with a misdemeanor. At these group hearings, everyone stands at once and mumbles their pleas simultaneously into headphones. It was disturbing to watch. It was not the due process that I believe our Constitution intends.

Q. Did you learn anything unexpected?

A. I suppose I gained a greater appreciation for how we do things in Maine. We’re generally a welcoming state – asylum seekers can send their kids to school and are offered help getting on their feet. The asylum seekers I meet on a daily basis are ready to stop fleeing. They want to put down roots, so supporting them makes economic sense beyond the more obvious humanitarian reasons.

There are connections to the Texas border here, too. This year ILAP has seen more people from Central Africa coming through the southern border and making their way to Maine. In many cases, the husband is detained while the wife and children are paroled and travel north. These families face the reality that their husband or father could be deported to their deaths at any time. It’s heartbreaking.

Q. Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?

A. There’s a 19 year-old boy from Honduras that I met in Texas who comes to my mind daily. His stepfather killed his mother in front of the family. He showed me pictures of her murdered body. He said that “My life is like a bad movie, with a sad beginning, a sad ending, and only suffering in between.”

I want to ask people to remember the thousands of people who are detained at the southern border when they’re talking with their lawmakers, even though they're far away. I also want to encourage any immigration lawyers who are willing to help to contact me. Even the lucky handful of people who have made it to Maine have many struggles ahead of them.

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