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Legal Help Out Of Reach For Many Asylum Seekers In El Paso Sector Detention Centers

By Mallory Falk, KERA

When Jesús Enrique Rodriguez Mendoza turned himself in to immigration officials, he figured he would be detained but assumed it would be for a short time. Instead, he spent nearly two years in an El Paso detention facility.

“You feel like you’re being punished and it’s a horrendous feeling,” he said. It’s not what he expected after fleeing political persecution in Venezuela. 

The detention center--a sprawling facility near the airport--did have a law library. Rodriguez said he spent a lot of time there, to sharpen his legal knowledge and prepare for court.

It also took his mind off his medical situation. Rodriguez is HIV positive, and said his health deteriorated while he waited months to receive the right medication.

“I really thought I would die inside detention,” Rodriguez said. “For me dying was a possibility and quite honestly the decision is, should I die here in the U.S.? Or, should I go and die in Venezuela on the hands of the regime?”

His bookish habits caught the eyes of other detainees. Rodriguez says some approached him, asking for legal advice on their asylum cases. He realized for many, getting a lawyer was out of reach.

“They would call two numbers and there was lines and lines of people waiting for representation,” Rodriguez said. “There’s nowhere to turn. Regardless of how well qualified their asylum cases were, they were not able to get the right legal representation because the organizations were completely overwhelmed.”

Thousands of people are detained in five detention centers in the El Paso sector, which covers West Texas and New Mexico. Many of the facilities are in rural areas, far from law offices. A lot of detainees are seeking asylum. Unlike in criminal court, they're not entitled to attorneys; they have to find their own lawyers. The demand for legal representation is high.

Linda Corchado is director of legal services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, in El Paso. “Nonprofits like ours, we certainly do the best that we can, but the need is very great,” Corchado said.  “We don’t have enough people on the ground hitting the streets and really helping as many people as they can.”

Beyond a few dedicated nonprofits like Las Americas, there aren’t many free or low cost legal services in the region. There are no huge law firms with pro bono programs. El Paso doesn’t have a  law school; the closest one is hours away from the border in Albuquerque.

Allegra Love, an immigration attorney and director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project said the region isn't built to handle the demand created by the detention centers. “We have all these [detention] beds dispersed over this huge geographic area, but we don’t have all the resources that you might find in, like, New York or California to support these people,” Love said.  “There’s not a lot of money in this region. El Paso’s a really poor city. New Mexico’s one of the poorest states in the union.”

Even for the lawyers who are on the ground, visiting detained clients can be hard. For Love, who’s based in Santa Fe, the closest detention center is about 150 miles away. “If I’m going to visit a client, we’re talking about a four hour round trip to do any sort of detention visitation," Love said.

Many nonprofit attorneys can’t justify the long trips. Private attorneys, who charge for travel time, can become prohibitively expensive.

It’s not just the El Paso Sector.  A study from the University of Pennsylvania Law Review found detainees in urban areas were at least four times more likely to have lawyers than detainees in rural areas.

“Even in places where there are legal service providers, you see people having no access to counsel because counsel is having difficulties getting into a detention center,” said Estrella Cedillo, an immigration attorney with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project who is based in El Paso.

“And then on top of that you add the fact that sometimes people get transferred between detention centers and you don’t know why or when or how they’re getting transferred and then that person has to start over again,” Cedillo said.

Having an attorney makes a serious difference.  Asylum seekers with lawyers are five times more likely to win their cases, according to the TRAC research project at Syracuse University.

For Jesús Enrique Rodriguez Mendoza, the asylum seeker from Venezuela, spending time in a detention facility brought these disparities sharply into view. 

“I felt lucky to have that choice, to contact private lawyers,” he said. “But what about those that don’t have the resources I have? Will they be less qualified for asylum than me?”

This story is the first in a two-part series about access to legal services for asylum seekers detained in the El Paso sector.  Click here to read the second story.