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Catholic Charities attorneys get a close-up view of desperation at the border

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Two Catholic Charities attorneys have returned from a week at the U.S. border between Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Arizona, with a deeper understanding of the journey facing migrants headed north to U.S. ports of entry in search of asylum.

Ashley LaRiccia and Tyler Lloyd, who work in the Hogar Immigrant Legal Services office in Alexandria, spent five days along the border and in Tucson, Az., conducting immigration screenings and asylum orientations to individuals and families. 

The lawyers scheduled their October trip following an appeal by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. CLINIC called on Catholic Charities and other agencies to send attorneys to provide migrants something they were unlikely to have otherwise: legal advice for navigating the complex immigration system and gaining permission to reside in the U.S.

CLINIC reimbursed agencies for the attorneys’ time and travel. The decision to grant admission to migrants rests with border authorities. 

LaRiccia and Lloyd worked alongside the Kino Border Initiative, which provides humanitarian assistance to migrants. Kino was established by the California Province of the Society of Jesus, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, the Mexican Province of the Society of Jesus, the Diocese of Tucson and the Diocese of Nogales.

Many migrants were waiting in Mexico to request entry to the U.S. and apply for asylum. A U.S. immigration judge will grant a migrant asylum if it is established that he or she suffered persecution or has a well-founded fear of persecution, based on a protected ground established by the United Nations and enshrined in U.S. law.

These migrant men, women and children who, after being victims of targeted violence, travel for days or weeks to get to the border, the attorneys said. At the border they wait in shelters or on the streets for several more days or weeks for the opportunity to request admission to the U.S. to apply for asylum. 

“Everyone there was doing things legally. They were waiting to present themselves to U.S. authorities at a port of entry,” said Lloyd.

The attorneys interviewed migrants from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Venezuela who had traveled to Nogales at great expense and personal danger. “It’s not cheap to get to the United States, especially for individuals who may not have had many resources to start with,” Lloyd said. “But far greater than the monetary cost is the physical and emotional cost of making this journey.”

LaRiccia interviewed migrants who may have cause for asylum but didn’t understand the legal process for being granted that status. 

Migrants seeking asylum must undergo a “credible fear” interview. If they pass this interview, they will have the opportunity to apply for asylum within the context of deportation proceedings before an immigration judge. Some migrants will be required to remain in immigration detention centers throughout the asylum process. Others will be released on the condition they appear for their immigration court dates. 

Migrants may hire an attorney to represent them and help them apply for asylum, but one is not provided for them. Catholic Charities attempts to fill that gap by providing legal representation. Migrants who appear without attorneys are significantly less likely to be granted asylum. Those who are released to small towns without nonprofit or pro bono attorneys face an even more difficult time, as do migrants forced to apply for asylum while detained, Lloyd said. Ultimately, if their asylum claim is denied, they are deported.

LaRiccia said the primary motivation for migrants seemed to be their family’s safety. “Everyone we met with was willing to sacrifice everything for their children,” she said. 

LaRiccia told of a Central American grandmother and her granddaughter seeking asylum. “I’m leaving my home because I’m afraid of the violence,” the grandmother told her.

But that response does not fit the criteria for asylum status, LaRiccia said. As she probed the grandmother further, LaRiccia learned the woman’s pregnant daughter had been murdered by a drug cartel. Her granddaughter also had been shot, she told LaRiccia, and she showed LaRiccia the multiple wounds on the little girl’s body. After the brutal murder, the grandmother reported the incident to police who were unwilling or unable to assist. Because of the long arm of the cartel, the grandmother had nowhere to find shelter in her home country. 

Once she knew the details of the woman’s story, LaRiccia was able to help the grandmother understand her claim in the context of asylum law. 

But they couldn’t help everyone.

“We had to tell many people that there was only so much we could do there in Mexico,” Lloyd said. “The process of crossing back into the U.S. and leaving those people behind was really hard.”

In Nogales, the pair also witnessed the Catholic Church in action. The Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist and volunteers provide meals, distribute clothing and offer medical assistance to migrants and recent deportees. They run a shelter for women and children waiting to cross the border. Kino also provides education, research and advocacy related to migration.

“If it were not for the Catholic Church and the Kino Border Institute these migrants would be left completely on their own,” LaRiccia said. “(The sisters) live day in day out feeding these people and it seems like with each group they come in to meet, they treat them with the same exact level of kindness.”


Find out more


Go to kinoborderinitiative.org/


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018