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Volunteer Lawyers Help Asylum-Seekers, Sent Back To Mexico, To ‘Know Their Rights’

A line of asylum-seekers wait at the Pedwest crossing in Tijuana, Oct. 25, 2018.

Credit: Milan Kovacevic

Above: A line of asylum-seekers wait at the Pedwest crossing in Tijuana, Oct. 25, 2018.

A group of volunteer lawyers huddled together a little after lunch recently in immigration court in downtown San Diego.

They were there to help asylum-seekers navigate the constantly-changing and arcane court system that determines whether they’ll be allowed to stay in the United States.

For months, asylum-seekers sent back to Mexico under the “Remain-in-Mexico” policy have struggled to navigate US immigration courts, mostly without the help of lawyers.

The volunteer lawyers are organized by the non-profit Jewish Family Service. They handed out “know Your Rights” packets, and collected contact information for dozens of families that had been bussed up from Tijuana that morning.

In San Diego, some immigration judges have allowed the lawyers to help the asylum-seekers through their hearings, while other judges didn’t allow them in the courtroom. In El Paso, a similar program was barred.

RELATED: San Diego Immigration Courts Lead Nation In Returning Asylum-Seekers To Mexico

On Wednesday, Judge Jesus Clemente repeatedly told migrants that the system was confusing, but he had no power to make it easier to navigate.

“I take no pleasure in deporting women and children,” Clemente told the asylum-seekers while giving them a date in December to come back to court. He let them know that Customs and Border Protection officers might give them another date to return to court before the one he was issuing, but they should ignore it.

“If you don’t come back, I’ll have no choice,” Clemente told the Central American migrants, who each had been waiting months in Tijuana for their day in court.

In May, Jewish Family Service had requested that the Department of Justice allow it to present “Know Your Rights” to immigrants enrolled in “Remain-In-Mexico.” That request was denied. Now, the presentations are done in the few minutes between when asylum-seekers are brought into the courtroom, and the judge begins proceedings.

“Over three days, JFS conducted critical “Know Your Rights” presentations in six courtrooms, equipping 100 individuals with vital and accurate information about the legal process and MPP-specific proceedings,” the organization told KPBS in a statement. “These presentations have proven to be an invaluable resource to this vulnerable group, who otherwise would have little to no access to legal representation.”

With some legal assistance, the process might get a little easier for asylum-seekers contending with a language barrier and an international border. Nationally, only 1% of asylum-seekers in the “Remain-In-Mexico” program are represented by a lawyer.

Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.

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