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Lacking Legal Help, Asylum-Seeking Migrants Often Deported

Gregory Bull / AP

Gregory Bull / AP

Zaidee Stavely | The California Report

New data show the vast majority of women with children seeking refuge in the U.S. who were ordered deported in the last year and a half never had a lawyer. One of those women was 21-year-old María Pérez, who escaped violence in her town in Mexico and in her home. She applied for asylum, but due to confusion missed an all-important court date.

Pérez lived in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, with her two small children and her husband. She says he was involved with a drug cartel and often beat her. She didn’t trust the police to protect her. After all, she says, they did nothing about the kidnappings, rapes and killings that had become common.

“The cartels showed up … and corpses appeared all over,” says Pérez. “The government didn’t do anything. Nothing. That’s how the government is in Mexico.”

Pérez says after her husband’s enemies shot up her house, she took her baby daughter and 3-year-old son and fled north. At the California border, she asked for asylum.

New Home in Central Valley

Pérez settled in the Central Valley, and she says she tried to do everything the government asked. She traveled every month to San Francisco to check in with immigration authorities. She didn’t have a lawyer, though, and when she got a court date in the mail, she mistakenly showed up at the immigration office again, instead of the courthouse.

“I got there and I asked, ‘Where is the court? I was supposed to have court.’ But the officer didn’t speak Spanish. He just told me to sign in, and then he gave me a new date to come back. So I thought I had done what I had to do,” Pérez says.

If you don’t show up to immigration court — and it looks to the judge like you were told when and where to show up — you can be ordered deported. That’s what happened to Pérez.

According to the nonpartisan Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, 18,607 women and children seeking asylum in the U.S. were issued final orders of removal between July 2014 and December 2015. Like Pérez, 86 percent of them did not have a lawyer. And also like Pérez, the vast majority simply never made it to court.

Importance of a Lawyer

Dana Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, says when potential asylees have legal representation, it makes it easier for judges to be sure they have all the facts before making a decision. That’s important, she says, because the stakes are high.

“If a judge makes a decision that someone has to go back, they may be sent to a life-threatening situation,” says Marks, who speaks as an official of her union, not on behalf of her employer, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is part of the United States Department of Justice.

‘These are people who are truly fleeing persecution, but they are not able to win without an attorney.’Attorney Laura Polstein

Marks says even if you do have a lawyer and make your case to a judge, it’s still hard to qualify for asylum.

“I compare asylum law to putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” Marks says. “You may have enough pieces that we all know what the picture is going to look like, but if there is a piece missing, that case cannot be granted.”

Winning Asylum

Facing deportation, María Pérez started desperately calling attorneys until she found Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland. Attorney Laura Polstein was able to reopen Pérez’s case, arguing that she did not willfully miss her court date.

In October, Pérez and her children won asylum in the United States. Polstein says attorneys had to do extensive research and submit multiple news articles, human rights reports and expert affidavits to document the violence by drug cartels in Mexico and the lack of protection for victims of domestic violence. She says the attorney for the government cross-examined Pérez extensively for about two hours.

“From a legal point of view, this is not something people can do without an attorney, especially if they have a low literacy level,” says Polstein.

She believes many other families who were ordered deported could also have valid claims.