Some Central American Asylum Seekers Learn to Represent Themselves in Court

Participants in an asylum legal clinic at the Central American Resource Center listen to a presentation by staff attorney Eryk Escobar. The free clinics are attended by recently arrived immigrants, mostly from Central America, who wish to represent themselves in immigration court as they seek asylum in the United States. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC)

As Central Americans continue to arrive in the U.S. seeking asylum, low-cost legal providers are in short supply, so some immigrants are learning to represent themselves in immigration court.

That's why about a half-dozen women sat at a meeting room downtown one recent afternoon, listening intently to a staff lawyer with the Central American Resource Center, an immigrant aid organization near downtown Los Angeles. They were learning what to expect in immigration court when they represent themselves pro se, acting as their own lawyers.

Katherine Navarrete, 20, who came to this country two years ago from El Salvador seeking asylum, was among them. She said she wanted to escape rampant gang violence. Her court date to seek asylum is scheduled in a few months.

"I want to defend myself because I don’t have the resources," Navarrete said in Spanish. She doesn’t have the money to hire an immigration lawyer, she explained.

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Neither do many of the newly arrived Central Americans who are still coming to the U.S. after a large wave of unaccompanied minors and families migrated from that region in 2014.

According to U.S. Border Patrol figures, immigrant apprehensions — total attempts to cross the border illegally — by families and unaccompanied minors are higher this year to date than the same time period last year.

At the same time, more applications for asylum are being filed. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the number of asylum applications filed by nationals of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala combined was five times higher in March 2016 than in January 2014.

This has strained pro bono and low-cost legal providers who take on these cases, said Javier Miranda, a coordinator of the refugee families program at the Central American Resource Center, which provides the free legal clinics.

“There is a very big lack of representation for these families,” Miranda said.

The legal clinics are operated with church funding. But some think such resources should first focus on the needs of legal residents.

“We say help American citizens, help veterans and help American children and families first,” said Robin Hvidston with We the People Rising, an immigration-restriction activist group that organized protests in Murrieta, California, in 2014, as more Central Americans arrived.

Navarrete said she thinks it’s tough for some Americans to understand the violence in Central America.

"They are well off here," she said. "They won't know the stories we come here with. We have different lives. They have their families safe here. We are looking for safety."

She said she did not come to be a burden but wants to work legally and contribute to the economy.

“If everything works out, I’d like to become a police officer,” Navarrete said.

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