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Refugee problems on the southern border of the United States: an immigration lawyer explained how to solve them

There were a huge number of asylum seekers on the southern border of the United States in 2021, many of them Russian speakers. This influx, as well as staff shortages and restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have created a number of challenges for would-be refugees.

Photo: Shutterstock

ForumDaily asked immigration lawyer Ekaterina Muratova explain the essence of these problems and describe ways to solve them, so that immigrants understand what they should prepare for if they want to receive asylum in the United States.

Problem #1: Finding a Lawyer is Mission Impossible

Edition KQED told the story of Pablo Lopez. He fled political persecution in Nicaragua and applied for asylum in the United States. After moving across the border with his 12-year-old son, Lopez settled in California and calls dozens of commercial law firms and legal aid charities daily, hoping to find an immigration lawyer.

So far, he has not succeeded, most lawyers say that they are already overloaded and cannot take on new clients in the near future.

One private lawyer agreed to represent his interests in court, but asked for $ 17 fee for this, Lopez does not have that kind of money. The man has already been put on trial three times, and each time he asked the judge to give him more time to find a lawyer and reschedule the case. The judge agreed, but emphasized that the third delay was the last one, and the court was waiting for him to complete the asylum forms, otherwise the application would be rejected and he would be deported.

Ekaterina Muratova's advice

In fact, it is advisable to decide on the choice of a lawyer even before arriving at the southern border of the United States. Firstly, at the border or later in the immigration prison, an interview is immediately conducted for the presence of a well-founded fear of returning to their homeland. After this interview, it is decided whether the stated facts and the person's fears fall under US asylum law or not.

If the decision is positive, the person is allowed to stay in the US and present their case in court. If the officer concludes that the asylum seeker has no grounds, there is an expedited deportation with a ban on return to the United States for 5 years or more, depending on the circumstances of the case.

Also recently, the detention of newly arrived immigrants and their placement in immigration prisons has become more frequent. Such people do not have the opportunity to call lawyer offices from prison. Often, their relatives and friends at large try to urgently find some kind of protection for them, or other detainees in the same institution share the contacts of their lawyers. In such a situation, one does not have to choose and it is not always possible to obtain the most effective and qualified legal services.

Problem #2: Expedited Procedure

Lopez's case falls under the accelerated asylum procedure. This program, which applies to refugee families, was created by the Joe Biden administration in May 2021. Its purpose is to expedite the process of asylum cases, the judge must make a decision within 300 days after the applicant's initial appearance in court. So the president is trying to close the backlog in immigration courts, where more than 1,5 million cases are waiting in line. A good goal and from the outside the idea seems good, but from the inside everything is not so simple.

Without legal assistance, Lopez and thousands like him must independently, and most importantly, quickly navigate the unfamiliar legal system and the new accelerated program. And if they fail, then everything will end with deportation.

In the case of Lopez - as with many other refugees - the situation is further complicated by the lack of knowledge of English. These people simply cannot fill out the necessary forms and documents on their own. The courts have immigration consultants who provide applicants with forms and contact information for legal offices and organizations. However, they are prohibited from helping to complete the forms unless they are the immigrant's registered representatives in court.

The accelerated pace of processing applications makes it very difficult for asylum seekers to find legal representation, as they need a lawyer here and now - as quickly as possible and for free or for little money. Lawyers working under these conditions are overwhelmed, with clients waiting months in advance. There is no right to a free court-appointed attorney in the federal immigration court system as there is in criminal courts. Therefore, if an immigrant has not found a representative, he will have to deal with his case himself.

In 2021, one third of all asylum seekers did not have a lawyer. And the outcome of a case often depends on competent legal representation. According to TRAC data (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse), over the past 20 years, only 10% of asylum seekers without lawyers have won cases. Those who have a lawyer are nearly four times more likely to be granted asylum.

Immigration lawyer Ekaterina Muratova. Photos from the personal archive

Ekaterina Muratova's advice

The accelerated procedure for the consideration of cases in court applies to people who arrived at the border with young children (families). Many applicants are very happy that their case can be considered within a year. But we must remember that your goal is not to resolve the case as soon as possible, but to win it - obtaining asylum in the United States. And to achieve such a result, careful preparation is necessary.

US asylum law is very broad and complex, based on both statutes and legal precedent. Not all negative events that could happen to a person in his life, no matter how bad they may be, are grounds for obtaining asylum in America. Also, asylum seekers must correctly present their case in court, explain to the American judge and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the situation in their country and how the situation in the life of the applicant is the basis for satisfying his request for protection in the United States. Completing forms that a person can get in court or online only make up 5% of the entire US asylum case.

Some mistakenly believe that they will tell their story in court, the judge will immediately understand everything and approve their case. I am sometimes told at the very beginning of the first consultation: “I have a strong case”. Then, during further discussion, sometimes it is necessary to disappoint the future applicant, and sometimes it is necessary to explain that the emphasis of the story must be placed on other facts from his life, change the priority of the presentation, otherwise the essence of the most basic may be lost behind the enumeration of many minor incidents. Such seemingly small things can play a critical role in winning or losing a case in court.

Problem number 3: loss of contact with relatives

Applying for asylum is usually associated with emotional stress, financial difficulties, the need to settle in a new country, as well as the risks that a person will be transferred from one immigration center to another. All this leads to confusion, complicates communication with relatives at home, and even results in a loss of contact with them.

This happened to a family from one of the post-Soviet countries. The children crossed the US border, they were detained by immigration agents and the connection was cut off. Now the parents who remained at home are asking Ekaterina Muratova to help with the search.

Screenshot from the phone of Ekaterina Muratova

Ekaterina Muratova's advice

On the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website in the Resources section there is an Online Detainee Locator System feature. Enter the person's first name, last name, date of birth, and country of birth, and you'll get information about which detention center he or she is in. Then on the site of this center, which can be immediately accessed by clicking on the link, there is complete information on how to contact the detainee.

Now, indeed, a lot of relatives of the detainees are calling us, asking us to find them, then provide legal support. Detainees also call, sometimes after they have already been subjected to an expedited deportation process or when they have a trial scheduled for the next day. Of course, most lawyers will not be able to take them because of the inability to plan a defense in such conditions.

All of this could be avoided very easily by following four simple steps:

  • establish a relationship with a lawyer before you arrive at the southern border of the United States;
  • leave a copy of your affidavit and documents (if any) that you want to use for your case with your relatives or friends so that if you are detained, they can forward these materials to a lawyer;
  • leave a copy (scan or digital photo) of your passport to relatives or friends;
  • organize financial matters. Namely, decide who will deposit money into your account at the immigration jail so that you can use the phone and buy things for yourself at the detention center; who will pay for the services of a lawyer, if necessary. I understand that not everyone has financial resources. But what often happens is this: people call from prison and say that all their belongings were confiscated (which is natural) and the detainee does not have access to them while he is in the detention center. The confiscated items also include money, that is, a person can and wants to hire a lawyer, but physically cannot pay for his services from prison. If there are no friends and relatives who are ready to help quickly, such people are left in a very difficult situation.

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