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This travel fund helps lawyers fly to the border and help asylum seekers

Attorneys and asylum seekers  at San Ysidro port of entry.
(Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union-Tribune )

From her home in northern Wisconsin, Charlene D’Cruz has to drive two hours to Duluth, Minn., and take a two-and-a-half hour bus ride to St. Paul, where she hops on a four-hour flight to San Diego so that she can represent migrants stranded in the U.S.-Mexico border.

“There’s a saying in Wisconsin,” she said. “If you don’t drive 60 miles away you haven’t left your house.”

D’Cruz, an immigration lawyer, has been doing this for more than a year to volunteer with other attorneys trying to help asylum seekers in Mexico. Each trip takes hours to complete and costs hundreds of dollars.

For D’Cruz, who runs her own small, private firm, it wasn’t exactly sustainable.

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“Doing that on my own account can get really expensive,” she said.

Fortunately for her, a group called Lawyers for Good Government has been trying to pick up the tab. Through the Project Corazon Travel Fund, it has collected over 45 million air miles to help cover transportation for lawyers trying to help migrants along the southwest border. The organization is currently accepting more donations on its website.

The fund has already flown more than 40 lawyers to the border or detention centers using donated airline miles and organizers are currently matching 26 more attorneys with donors. By the end of the year, the travel fund is expected to purchase flights for more than 100 volunteer lawyers, organizers said.

With the help of those airline miles, lawyers have flown into places like Tijuana and Matamoros to help migrants.

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Part of that works includes running know-your-rights workshops, helping people fill out complex legal documents in their native language, getting those documents translated into English, and preparing migrants to make their asylum claims before an immigration judge.

Ideally, some of the volunteer lawyers like D’Cruz would like to represent some of the migrants in immigration court. However, because they only fly out for a couple of days and asylum cases are heard over a span of several months, it is very difficult for a lawyer to be involved throughout the process.

On her trips along the border — D’Cruz now spends more time in Matamoros than in Tijuana — she has seen lawyers from New York City, Grand Junction, Col., San Francisco, North Carolina, Ohio, Minnesota and Arizona.

The travel fund has been particularly helpful for lawyers who do not live in border states, particularly because it can get very expensive to fly south in the winter, said Veronica Walthers, a Minneapolis-based lawyer.

On a recent trip to San Diego, Walthers didn’t realize she had planned a volunteer trip to Tijuana during the same weekend as Comic Con and ended up paying higher airfare and hotel rates than normal.

Before using the travel fund, Walthers would crowdfund and pay out of pocket for volunteer trips to the border. But the fund is a game changer, she said.

“It really opens the door,” she said. “Especially for self-employed lawyers. If we’re not working, we aren’t making money. Plus, if you’re getting an extra financial hit on top of that it is very very difficult.”

Walthers has used the travel fund to volunteer in Tijuana and Matamoros. She plans to return to Tijuana within a month.

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Solis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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