SAN DIEGO-More than five months into the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" program, not a single asylum-seeker has been granted refuge in the U.S. as migrants struggle to find legal representation, according to a new report.
The report published by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse — or TRAC - at Syracuse University reviewed immigration court records from January through June. Researchers found that out of the 1,155 Remain in Mexico cases that have been decided, only 14 migrants had legal representation — that's 1.2 percent.
"The record thus far is that very few asylum-seekers forced to remain in Mexico have been able to secure representation for their upcoming immigration court proceedings," the report says.
In immigration court, the government is not required to provide applicants with free legal counsel. Migrants have the right to an attorney as long as they can afford to hire one or find one willing to take their cases for free.
Legal representation greatly increases someone's chances of being granted asylum. Data show that applicants represented by attorneys are five times more likely to receive asylum than applicants without, according to TRAC.
Under the Remain in Mexico policy — officially known as Migrant Protection Protocols — asylum-seekers who show a credible fear of persecution in their home countries are sent to Mexico to await asylum proceedings in the U.S. Previously, asylum-seekers who passed the credible fear interview were allowed to wait in the U.S., usually in a detention facility or with family members.
San Diego based-immigration attorneys weren't surprised by the lack of legal representation available to asylum-seekers.
"There is a daily desperate call for attorneys to help," said immigration lawyer Andrew Nietor. "There are various Listservs and Facebook groups that attorneys who take on asylum cases belong to, and it's now a daily plea. 'Can someone take an MPP case? Is anyone available to help?' "
In San Diego, most of the lawyers representing asylum-seekers in the Remain in Mexico program work for nonprofits like Jewish Family Service, the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties or Al Otro Lado.
For most private immigration attorneys like Nietor, the logistical hurdles of representing someone in another country are too much to overcome.
Asylum cases are some of the most time-consuming and complex cases in immigration court. Typically, an attorney meets with a client several times because they need to corroborate the persecution by reaching out to other family members, and ask for police or medical records from the home country.
"By their nature, asylum cases involve very personal stories of persecution, abuse, often torture and rape," Nietor said. "So it's not the sort of conversation somebody should have from a public phone in a homeless shelter to a faceless attorney in another country." Meeting a client in Tijuana takes an entire day when factoring in the travel time.
The lack of legal representation in Remain in Mexico cases appears to be having an impact on their outcome. Since the program began in January, not a single asylum-seeker has been granted asylum. It should be noted that only 1,155 cases have been decided. There are more than 12,900 cases pending.
Of the 1,155 cases that have been decided, 285 have resulted in removal orders — meaning the applicant is ordered to be deported. The vast majority of those removal orders have been granted in absentia because the applicant did not show up to court.
Only 21 Remain in Mexico cases have resulted in removal orders based on the merits of the asylum claim. None of migrants in those cases had legal representation, according to TRAC.
The other cases were closed for a variety of reasons, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers not properly notifying applicants of a court hearing, data show.