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Attorneys Struggling to Help Migrants Navigate Complex Legal System

Texas immigration lawyers are scrambling to coordinate representation for the thousands of Central American migrants who have crossed into Texas illegally.

In 2014, a Catholic Charities shelter at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen helped hundreds of displaced immigrants who had crossed the Texas-Mexico border.

EL PASO — As images of Central American minors huddled on detention center floors or crowded atop a northbound freight train are being replayed around the country, Texas immigration lawyers are scrambling to coordinate representation for the migrants.

Unlike the criminal justice system, in which defendants are guaranteed representation, immigration law falls under the civil justice system and does not give undocumented immigrants that benefit. A migrant may be able to afford an attorney or find one willing to work pro bono, but lawyers say most migrants have to do without counsel. 

Amid the recent influx of migrants crossing the Texas-Mexico border, efforts to recruit lawyers have drawn significant interest from the legal community. But they also bring to light the hurdles those lawyers and their would-be clients face.

“It’s such a specific niche, even a lot of immigration lawyers need some training on how to handle these cases,” said Jackie Watson, an Austin-based immigration lawyer.

From October to July, more than 46,300 unaccompanied children were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley by the U.S. Border Patrol, according to the Department of Homeland Security. More than 48,100 families have been apprehended during the same period.

The Texas Bar Association has created a web page for lawyers interested in providing help, but they face more than the challenges of a complicated system. They must also grapple with judges who apply legal standards differently.

“We’re very limited by, one, the short time that they’re here and, two, the federal procedures,” said Benny Agosto Jr., a Houston-based lawyer spearheading a task force created by the Hispanic National Bar Association to help migrants. “There is still the discussion over if the children should be brought to the front of the line. It depends on what federal judge, in what region you’re in.”

Distance is also a factor. Many who enter illegally through Texas quickly migrate across the country to stay with relatives. Immigrants at a shelter in McAllen, have indicated they are given notices to appear before judges in cities to which they are relocating, like Chicago, New York, Boston and Miami. But several thousand have stayed in Texas.

Watson said another hurdle was access to potential clients. Most of the migrants are held in detention centers that give lawyers and volunteers limited access. Government officials also screen lawyers to ensure that they are not considered “predatory” or fraudulent.

“It’s hard to just go in and say, ‘I just want to talk to a bunch of people,’” Watson said. “Unless you have a client, they’re not giving you a lot of access.”

Emails to federal immigration officials in El Paso seeking information about access to undocumented immigrants were not returned.

Venues can also change daily. On Thursday last week, Watson received an email from a colleague saying that, according to the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, cases scheduled for court in Oklahoma City would be moved to Dallas beginning the following Monday.

“So they have played a dirty trick, and everyone who had a notice to appear in Oklahoma City, when they go there they say, ‘Oh, you have a hearing in Dallas today,’” she said. Immigrants can then be deported for failing to appear for their court date.

Agosto said potential clients could also be affected by congressional action. Though they adjourned for August without addressing the crisis, members could reconvene after Labor Day and pass legislation creating a number of policies, he said.

“It’s a shotgun approach, but this is what we’re doing right now,” he said.

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