A group of Austin lawyers is building a response effort across the country to help immigration cases move faster.
Austin, Texas – Editor’s note: Watch this full report on KVUE at 10 pm tonight.
“They told me that if I continue to protest or march, their words were: ‘We will make you disappear,” said Reynaldo Serra.
Serra loved where he grew up in Venezuela, but said he couldn’t stay there.
He was beaten and arrested for protesting the Venezuelan government. He said a group of workers hired by the Venezuelan government had also threatened his daughter.
Venezuela is dangerous, according to the U.S. Department of State. Travel advice declare that Americans must stay out of the country. A recent United Nations resolution it shows human rights violations, extrajudicial executions and a concern for the lives of those sent back to Venezuela.
“I had to leave my country. I was very scared there. I was very scared, afraid that something would happen to me, ”said Serra.
O The US Citizenship and Immigration Services website shows, “You can apply for asylum if you are at a port of entry or in the United States.”
Serra went to an international bridge in Laredo, Texas. There, he said he applied for asylum. He said he was instructed to stay in Mexico and wait for a court hearing.
“I cried every day,” said Serra.
He joined 70,000 other asylum seekers forced to wait on the other side of the border.
Crowded shelters in Mexico welcome families and children alone. But Serra said he could not find any shelter.
He ended up cleaning a school pool. He slept in the janitor’s closet.
“It was difficult,” said Serra.
Months passed. Then Serra heard about a group of lawyers helping migrants waiting in Mexico.
Now Dicky Grigg, a lawyer specializing in personal injury, helps Serra for free.
“You are making a difference in someone’s life,” said Grigg.
“My guardian angel was born,” said Serra.
Grigg has no history of working on immigration lawsuits and does not speak Spanish. So Grigg offers his help through a non-profit organization called VECINA.
The organization was founded to help recruit lawyers like Grigg. Volunteers bring recruiters to immigration lawyers and pro-bono translators.
“It takes that work off the shoulders of legal service providers on the ground and says, ‘We will handle these cases,'” said Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, an immigration lawyer in Austin and chairman of VECINA’s board of directors.
Lincoln-Goldfinch said that VECINA has a lot of work ahead of them.
In 2019, then President Donald Trump created the Protocol for the Protection of Migrants (MPP). It is known as the “Stay in Mexico” policy. The MPP ordered those seeking asylum to stay outside the U.S. border while awaiting court hearings.
President Joe Biden ended the program and allowed migrants to enter the United States. Temporary shelter in Donna, Texas, it shelters migrants until they can be moved elsewhere.
“Accepting an immigration case, especially an asylum case, can be really scary for someone,” said Lincoln-Goldfinch.
She said MPP case backlogs and COVID-19 shutdowns could delay an asylum case for years.
“It’s like you literally have someone’s life in your hands,” said Lincoln-Pintassilgo.
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VECINA started by helping adult asylum applications. As soon as the MPP ended, they also focused on the rights of migrant children.
“What should happen under the Flores Agreement is that if a child is arrested or comes to the bridge, within three days, he or she must be transferred to the Refugee Resettlement Office,” said Lincoln-Goldfinch.
The Refugee Act of 1980 established the Refugee Resettlement Office (ORR). The government agency works with private, non-profit companies.
The Texas Tribune and the Center for Investigative Reporting show more than two dozen ORR shelters in Texas. The shelters shelter migrant children until social workers can place them with relatives or in foster homes.
Lincoln-Goldfinch said the process should work quickly, but it doesn’t.
“The system has atrophied because everything has been closed,” said Lincoln-Goldfinch.
Lincoln-Goldfinch said that part of the delay is due to the closure of shelters for migrant children.
“The facilities must be reopened. They must be staffed. Social workers must be assigned to these children. And so, the resulting chaos is a natural consequence of having shut down the system,” said Lincoln-Pintassilgo.
Lincoln-Goldfinch said the closure of children’s migrant centers dates back to January 2019. MPP’s policy included children.
The Department of Justice reviewed how the government handled immigration lawsuits. Shelters for active migrants closed to strangers. Pro-bono lawyers were kept out, the review showed. Immigration courts stopped listening to certain cases, including those who remained in Mexico.
“They may have been out of sight, out of mind for many of us, but they have been in danger all along,” said Lincoln-Pintassilgo.
When the courts were able to resume all cases in June 2020, federal investigators noted in the Pandemic Response Report, “many immigration courts were not yet holding hearings for non-detainees.”
Those under the MPP did not have cases restarted immediately. Analysis of Syracuse University TRAC reports shows that 85% of MPP cases have not been transferred to the immigration court.
The latest government statistics show that the majority of children and adults are still turned around at the border due to the COVID-19 threat.
Under Title 42, CBP prohibits “the entry of certain people who potentially pose a health risk, either because they are subject to previously announced travel restrictions or because they have entered the country illegally to circumvent health screening measures”, the The CBP website shows.
Translation errors in Serra’s paperwork could have put his case at risk, but Grigg and his team realized.
“It was all wrong. So, if it weren’t for them …” said Serra.
As the country moves beyond the pandemic, Lincoln-Goldfinch said that more lawyers need to work together to help reduce the backlog of immigration and help those waiting for legal migration.