With immigration cases, success can be temporary

With immigration cases, success can be temporary

Vard Johnson is spending this week at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas as a volunteer lawyer for refugees from Central America. He shares his experience here. Find all his posts here

Today at the South Texas Family Residence Center in Dilley, Texas, a co-volunteer met a Mayan woman from Guatemala and her ten year old son.  Communication was treacherous as the mother spoke Ch’orti and could neither read nor write.  The ten year old knew some Spanish.

Several of the CARA volunteers are fluent in both Spanish and English but none know any of the indigenous languages.  Over two very challenging  hours, the co-volunteer, working with the ten year old, determined that the mother fled Guatemala because ongoing land grabs, coupled with violence, threatened the very safety of the family and the small community where they were living.
The CARA volunteers assist individuals, such as this woman and her son, in establishing a credible claim for relief through a grant of asylum which would allow them to remain in the United States.  To secure their release from the detention center, it is not necessary to prove that, when the law of asylum is applied to the facts of their case, they will be granted asylum.  Instead, the volunteers need show only that there is a substantial possibility of such a grant. 

Thus, the volunteers hear the client’s story and then pose the types of questions that will come up when the client is interviewed by a federal Asylum Officer. If the Asylum Officer does not find the individual to possess credible fear of returning to her native country, CARA volunteers seek review of that decision before an Immigration Judge. As the Court assigned to Dilley cases is situated in Miami, Florida, the review will be conducted by televideo.
To date, some 8,000 women and children have entered the South Texas Family Residence Center since CARA established its volunteer pool.  90% of these detainees have secured favorable credible fear findings from Asylum Officers while 90% of the balance have secured similar findings through the Immigration Court.  As a result, 99% of all women and children at the South Texas Family Residence Center have secured their release.
Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story.  To remain in the United States permanently, those who are released ultimately must establish to the satisfaction of an Immigration Court that, under the facts of their cases, they qualify for asylum. Most do not succeed, primarily because they lack the lawyers and resources to thoroughly flesh out their cases.  Can you imagine the efforts required to locate and retain a Ch’orti interpreter to capture the Guatemalan woman’s story completely, to retain an expert on the struggles of Mayan communities in Guatemala against spurious and violent land grabs, to then develop and present the record to the Immigration Court, while at the same time keeping the woman and her son abreast of the ongoing proceedings and their nature?   Very few lawyers will undertake this work on a pro bono basis as time and cost commitments are overwhelming. 

So, while our work in securing this woman and her son’s release from detention is gratifying, it may represent only a delay in her return to Guatemala to face the terrors she just escaped.  Be that as it may, I delight in being at the border, ready to welcome the stranger. 


Vard Johnson

Vard Johnson, a member of Old South Church in Boston, is an attorney focusing primarily on immigration law. He is a member of the Conference Board of Directors.

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