CIUDAD JUÁREZ — Nicolas Palazzo can’t clone himself. And even if he could, it would still be impossible for the El Paso-based immigration attorney to provide legal services to the thousands of migrants waiting in the border city for their asylum hearings in the United States.
“Each time I travel to Juárez and cross the bridge, every day I am asked, ‘Mr. attorney, can you help me? Can you help me?’” he said in Spanish. “And I don’t have the ability to be able to offer [all] of them legal services.”
Palazzo and his team at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center hope that’s about to change with the launch of a pilot program that seeks to provide asylum seekers access to legal counsel via teleconferencing.
The project, called Puentes Libres, will offer asylum seekers access to computers at the municipal offices in Ciudad Juárez where they will be able to submit information about their cases, which will be reviewed by attorneys in the United States.
The project is part of what Palazzo described as a team effort of Las Americas, the Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Ciudad Juárez Mayor Armando Cabada and state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.
Since last year, after the launch of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, also called "remain in Mexico," more than 16,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Ciudad Juárez while they wait for their court hearings. Palazzo said fewer than 2% of those migrants have access to attorneys.
“The idea of using technology is critical,” he said. “I hope that the idea isn’t just to offer legal service to the people who need it. The idea is also to give a voice to people who are under this program.”
The computers, 50 in total, were donated by the New York-based Hispanic Federation, which has donated more than $300,000 to efforts aiding migrants.
“Because of the MPP, we had to do something different to help serve the legal needs of the migrant communities,” said Brent A. Wilkes, the federation's senior vice president for institutional development. “We said all right, that’s something we can take on.”
The program’s proponents know they won’t see a sea change overnight — lawyers need to be recruited, and many of them will need a crash course on immigration law if it’s not already their specialty.
“It’s definitely not easy, and it’s something we’ve given a lot of thought to,” said Linda Rivas, managing attorney at Las Americas. “The ideal pro bono volunteer is someone with immigration experience, and it’s somebody bilingual or that can provide their own interpreter.”
But the benefits outweigh the challenges, Rivas added. Even if volunteer attorneys need training, they’ll still be able to make some progress in a system where asylum seekers’ chances of obtaining protections increase exponentially if they have representation. In fiscal year 2017, the chances of obtaining asylum were five times greater for those who had attorneys, according to the National Immigration Forum.
The program will also offer migrants a chance to describe what it's like to be in the MPP program, Rivas and Palazzo said. Lawyers and human rights groups have documented the alleged crimes committed against migrants, which attorneys American immigration officials have downplayed.
Last summer, Human Rights Watch documented firsthand accounts of violence experienced by asylum seekers in Mexico, including the rape of a 20-year-old Honduran woman who was told her 4-year-old son would be killed if she screamed for help and the stabbing of a 21-year-old Salvadoran man who was told local police would not help him because he wasn’t a Mexican citizen.
“The people in the United States, the attorneys, the students, they want to offer help, but they also want to know what’s going on, and my hope is that creating these sources, these bridges, they’ll also learn about their situations,” Palazzo said.
Rodríguez, who is a former county attorney and is not running for reelection in the state Senate, said he’s going to sign up for the program. He hopes to see the program expand past the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso area.
“We aim, once again, to find a local solution to a draconian federal regime that insists on punishing migrants, including those fleeing persecution and violence, at every opportunity,” he said.