Immigrant lawyers handling a border surge: ‘This is really an emergency room situation’

Marie Vincent, 29, a volunteer lawyer from San Francisco, enters the family detention center in Dilley, Texas, with Brian Hoffman and fellow volunteers.
(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

In a ranch house up a red dirt cattle road, Brian Hoffman explained to the 13 attorneys before him the challenge at hand.

The volunteer lawyers had come from across the country — from Chicago and New York, Washington and Minneapolis — to represent immigrants held at the detention center in Dilley.

One was paid by a small federal program the Obama administration created to address the surge in unaccompanied youths crossing the border illegally, known as justice AmeriCorps. But most raised the money themselves to cover their expenses, about $2,000 each.


Four didn’t speak Spanish. A couple were corporate and housing lawyers unfamiliar with immigration law jargon. Hoffman gave them a glossary of acronyms and assured them that by week’s end, they would be experts.

“Any given day we see 90 to 100 clients,” Hoffman said. “It’s going to be pretty grueling.”

Hoffman leads an effort to provide legal counsel to immigrant mothers and their children. He rented the ranch house — reached after driving past a Confederate flag and a natural gas flare — and last Sunday greeted the 13 lawyers in shorts and flip-flops, serving spaghetti as they took their seats on worn vintage sofas in the pine-paneled living room to prep for yet another week of uncertainties.

He reminded them that in court they needed to pay attention to the mothers.

“As an attorney, you often forget how afraid your clients are,” he said. “A lot of them have never been in front of a judge before. Some have never seen fluorescent lights before. So do your best to reassure them.”

It’s not easy because futures are at stake.

That was clear earlier in the month during a hearing held for Delmarys Melendez Guzman in one of three trailer courtrooms at the nation’s largest family detention center, in this roughneck oil field town an hour’s drive north of the border.

The judge, appearing on video from Miami, addressed Melendez: “Have you ever been to the United States before?”


Melendez, 26, waited for an interpreter to explain and then shook her head, thick black ponytail bouncing against her purple T-shirt. She came from Honduras in May and crossed the border illegally with her 7-year-old daughter, headed for friends in Arkansas and Tennessee. They got caught, requested asylum, passed screening by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but remained locked up.



Aug. 3, 4:51 p.m.: A previous version of this article referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement as Customs and Immigration Enforcement.


For Melendez, like many others, this bond hearing would be her first chance at freedom. She couldn’t afford a lawyer. In immigration court, there are no public defenders. An ICE attorney wanted bond set at $3,500. The interpreter didn’t translate that.

But the pro bono attorney sitting beside her understood.

Marie Vincent, 29, had just arrived from San Francisco for the week of volunteer work. A slim, confident figure in a khaki suit and floral flats, she chatted with Melendez briefly in Spanish, then flipped through a case file compiled by volunteers the week before.

“The respondent has a strong incentive to show up at future hearings based on the threat of persecution back in her home country,” Vincent said, arguing for $3,000 bond and noting, “The family cannot afford more than that.”


The judge agreed.

The Obama administration is facing increasing political pressure to end family detention after expanding this year from one 95-bed detention center to three with a total of 3,700 beds. Late Friday, a federal judge in California sided with attorneys for children in detention, who said conditions at centers violate a 1997 consent agreement.

She gave the administration until Aug. 3 to show why she should not hold them to the consent agreement, potentially ending family detention.

The expansion followed an influx of Central American families and unaccompanied children crossing the southern border illegally last summer. One of critics’ complaints about the centers: Families lack access to lawyers, who studies have shown play a decisive role in navigating complicated immigration cases.

Less than 2% of immigrant families without attorneys were allowed to stay in the U.S., compared with 26% of those with attorneys, according to figures released last month by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

When Melendez appeared in court, there were 2,172 immigrant mothers and children detained at the country’s three family detention centers, about 150 fewer than the month before. Most of them — 1,979 — were at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley.

The detention center opened in December and finished expanding in April, and the CARA Pro Bono Project began the following month. They have represented more than 2,000 immigrants and freed hundreds, Hoffman said.


CARA was started by four national immigration lawyers’ groups, some of which had represented immigrant families at another detention center in Artesia, N.M., that opened and closed during last summer’s surge. Among them was Hoffman, 32, of Columbus, Ohio, who volunteered for a week in Artesia, then Dilley, then decided after a month to quit his job and lead the project.

This month, he appealed for a second asylum screening for a Honduran woman who fled after gang members threatened to pour gasoline on her 13-year-old son and set him afire unless he joined. The woman won a second screening, and passed.

“Had lawyers not been involved, that kid would be ashes,” Hoffman said.

During the Sunday strategy session over spaghetti, he walked the volunteer lawyers through how immigrant families were processed by ICE and the immigration courts at the detention center. There are also pro bono lawyers working at the detention center in Karnes City, Texas, from the San Antonio-based Raices immigrant advocacy group and New York-based Immigrant Justice Corps.

CARA only represents families while they are at the detention center, although it is developing pilot programs in other cities.

The lawyers would prepare women for bond hearings and initial screenings by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers to see whether they had “credible” or “reasonable” fear of returning to their home countries — grounds for asylum.




Aug. 3, 6:31 p.m.: A previous version of this article referred to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers as ICE asylum officers.


He reminded the lawyers that face time with the women was a priority: CARA, an acronym representing the four groups that founded it, is also Spanish for “face.” Rape victims can make a strong case for asylum, but many don’t reveal details of the assaults until the third or fourth meeting, and only if they trust their attorney, he said.

“That’s part of what we do: help people focus their story,” Hoffman said.

Vincent asked about asylum officers who screen families.

“Do you have a list of the more sympathetic ones?” she said.

No, Hoffman said — like the lawyers, a new batch arrived every few weeks.

Focus on families with strong cases in dire need of legal help, Hoffman said: those who speak indigenous languages, have little education, have been abused or were victims of gang violence. Each week, they would have to turn some families away.

“This is really an emergency room situation,” Hoffman said. “Every step of this process is triaged as much as possible.”

When the lawyers first arrived at Dilley, which is run by a private federal contractor, the Corrections Corporation of America, they were required to cart supplies and equipment in and out of the center daily. Now they have a trailer they’ve stocked with office equipment, including a landline they call out on using donated phone cards.

Vincent spent her first morning at Dilley representing five Honduran women in court. Three were brought in by guards ahead of the hearing, and she met each for a few minutes behind closed doors. Two she met in court. All had passed asylum screenings. None were released without bond or with ankle monitors.


Afterward, she spent the afternoon preparing two other women who had been victims of gang violence for asylum interviews, including one with a strong but frustrating case.

“She was the imputed witness of a crime and has some domestic violence stuff with the baby daddy, but she doesn’t want to say because he’s here, and she wants to be with him and it’s worse back there” in Central America, Vincent told the other lawyers at their Monday evening meeting.

They groaned in sympathy.

Each weeknight, volunteers gather at a downtown driving school across from the town park with its vintage gazebo and statue commemorating the watermelon capital of Texas (the town motto is “A Slice of the Good Life”). They eat takeout as they review their work and prepare for the next day.

“How many clients do you think we saw today?” Hoffman said. They were not surprised when he announced 108.

“The pace was so fast that I feel like I didn’t have time to get attached,” said Vincent, who works at a nonprofit immigrant legal advocacy group, Pangea Legal Services.

They left about 10 p.m. to grab a few hours’ sleep at a nearby motel before returning to the detention center.


Twitter: @mollyhf