Associate, Anita Mukherji, and Of Counsel, Anna von Herrmann, spent this past weekend volunteering for the Al Otro Lado Pro Se Asylum Clinic. The clinic was originally set to be done in person at Al Otro Lado’s office in Tijuana, Mexico, but, due to the COVID-19 virus, it was held remotely. Al Otro Lado and all the volunteer attorneys and interpreters worked hard to change and adapt to the format of the clinic at the last minute to make sure that asylum-seekers had access to legal assistance even in light of this public health crisis.
Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project’s Pro Se Asylum Clinic allows volunteer immigration attorneys and interpreters to prepare asylum applications for those subject to the disastrous and inhumane “Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP),” policy, otherwise known as “Remain in Mexico.” This Trump policy enacted last year, forces asylum seekers who attempt to enter the United States to seek asylum through the southern border, to wait in Mexico while their cases are pending. This has forced at-risk migrants to camp out or stay in shelters for many months in dangerous border towns- vulnerable to violence, human trafficking, and extreme poverty.
Over the weekend, Anita and Anna were able to assist several asylum-seekers in preparing their asylum applications and declarations to present pro se in immigration court. These applicants had all entered the United States only briefly to attend their preliminary removal hearings at the San Diego Immigration Court. After their hearings, they were taken back across the border to Mexico where they had to await the next part of their legal process.
None of the asylum-seekers the clinic serves can obtain legal counsel. Most of these asylum-seekers are unable to afford the fees of a U.S. immigration attorney while stuck in Mexico. Unable to reunite with family members in the United States or to obtain work permits through their pending applications and to get jobs in the United States, these individuals are at a severe disadvantage in being able to afford high quality legal representation. Additionally, it is extremely challenging and expensive for a U.S. immigration attorney to represent a client in another country without being able to meet and prepare together in the office.
Working remotely on applications with individual asylum-seekers and families was certainly a technical challenge for Anita and Anna. They worked to fill out separate forms for each family member and to take down their narratives and formulate them into brief declarations. The interpreters then read back the forms and declarations to the applicants in Spanish. Using WhatsApp video chat with applicants who were sitting in cars or inside their migrant shelters with spotty WiFi, added an extra element of difficulty.
Despite the logistical issues, however, Anna and Anita are extremely grateful to have been able to assist these pro se applicants who were severely persecuted in their home countries and whose governments could not or would not protect them. The applicants they worked with all fear death should they be deported to their home countries and are putting up with unconscionable conditions in Mexico just to get a shot at legal protection in the United States.
Anna and Anita hope to be able to volunteer at future Al Otro Lado clinics in Tijuana when it is safe to travel again. In the meantime, they will continue to serve their clients remotely, as Bean, Lloyd, Mukherji, & Taylor remains committed to representing clients in these uncertain times.