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'I Hope a Lawyer Will Answer': Asylum-Seekers Risk Deportation in Expedited Process

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A person has their back to the camera as they talk on the phone outside a house on a sunny day.
Pablo López makes phone calls to immigration lawyers, looking for help with his asylum claim, as he stands on the balcony of a friend's apartment in Walnut Creek on Nov. 9, 2021. López says he fled political violence in Nicaragua and asked KQED to use a variation on his name to protect his identity because he fears for his family's safety — and his own if he were forced to return to Nicaragua. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

Pablo López sat on the small balcony of an apartment in a Walnut Creek housing complex, dialing phone numbers for legal aid groups across the Bay Area.

Just above his head, the freshly washed Chick-fil-A uniforms of his housemates were hanging to dry. He was focused on a printed list of nonprofit legal service groups and private immigration attorneys, hoping that one of them might help him make his case for asylum in the United States.

He doesn’t have long to find an attorney because his case falls under the expedited asylum process created in May by the Biden administration for recently arrived families. The aim of the so-called "dedicated docket" is to resolve asylum cases more quickly, with a loose goal of a judge issuing a decision within 300 days of the initial court appearance.

It’s an effort to prevent such cases from slipping into an immigration court backlog that recently surpassed 1.5 million cases.

“Families who have recently arrived should not languish in a multiyear backlog,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas when the program was launched.

But without legal help, López and thousands like him must navigate an unfamiliar system on their own — and face deportation if they fail.

The two-bedroom apartment in Walnut Creek is the home of an old friend from Nicaragua. López and his 12-year-old son have been bunking in the living room since they arrived in July. The guest room is occupied by a family of four who also fled political violence in Nicaragua last summer.

López said he and his son abruptly left their town in the Nicaraguan mountains after local government officials came to his house and tried to strong-arm him into working for the reelection campaign of President Daniel Ortega, flashing a gun and threatening to kill him if he resisted.

“In the next town over, they beat people up and took them away, and nobody knew where they’d gone,” said López, speaking in Spanish, of Ortega’s supporters.

We’re using a variation on his name to protect his identity because he fears for his family’s safety — and his own if he were forced to return to Nicaragua.

López, 37, said he was never involved in politics. Instead, he worked in construction to support his parents, his wife and two kids.

He wishes he could send money home to the wife and toddler he had to leave behind, but the cash he earns from odd jobs is just enough to feed him and his son. He said his wife tells him she and their daughter are fine, but he’s not convinced. Ortega’s supporters have been asking his family and his neighbors about his whereabouts.

The journey north took a month, and López and his son traveled much of it on foot, resting in migrant shelters when they could find them.

One night they were on a bus somewhere in central Mexico, López said, when Mexican police officers stopped the bus and made him and other Central American migrants get off. Then the officers took all their money before allowing them to continue on their journey.

“So when we reached the border, we had nothing, no money. We were hungry,” he said. “The hardest thing was not being able to care for my son. I had to beg people for food and water. That’s how we made it.”

They were held for three days by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Arizona, then released with a notice to appear in immigration court.

The ups and downs of the 'rocket docket'

Both the Obama and Trump administrations implemented versions of an expedited “rocket docket” to handle the growing number of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Trump administration, in particular, stripped away due-process protections, and well over 90% of cases ended in a deportation order, according to analysis by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Advocates say the current system has more safeguards for migrant families and isn’t placing them in detention facilities, but the accelerated pace still makes it tough for asylum seekers like López to find legal representation.

People in the federal immigration court system do not have the right to a court-appointed lawyer if they can’t find their own, unlike defendants in criminal court. Last year, a third of all immigrants in asylum cases did not have representation, according to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University.

The Biden administration has taken steps to increase access to lawyers, including asking Congress to budget $15 million to provide representation to families and children, as well as $23 million for legal orientation programs. But Congress has yet to act.

The stakes are high. Over the last two decades, just 10% of asylum seekers without legal representation won their cases, while those with lawyers were nearly four times as likely to win protection, according to TRAC’s data.

An impossible situation

López said he calls lawyers every day. He’s spoken to at least half a dozen. Most say they’re overloaded.

He said one private attorney quoted him a fee of $17,000, money he simply doesn’t have. Mostly, though, he’s gotten voicemail.

“I know it’s better to have a lawyer because there’s a higher chance of winning asylum that way,” said López. “But the judge said she’s going to move my case forward even if I don’t have one.”

In late October, López went before an immigration judge in San Francisco and told her he’d had no luck finding a lawyer. He had been to court twice before, and both times the judge had given him a few more weeks to try.

The third time she granted him three months, setting his next hearing for Jan. 26. But if he didn’t bring a completed asylum application to court next time, she said, she would deem his asylum claim abandoned and order him and his son deported.

López, who speaks only Spanish, has no idea how to complete the detailed, 12-page asylum application form in English. But that’s the necessary first step to explain why he fears persecution, one of the five legal grounds — race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group — for seeking asylum.

Johanna Torres, an immigration attorney with a private practice in San Leandro, met López in October. Once a week, she fills in as “attorney of the day” at the San Francisco court as part of a Bar Association of San Francisco program to give immigrants basic legal guidance.

Torres gave López the handout with the phone numbers he’s been calling. She said attorneys are not allowed to help with asylum forms unless they officially represent the person. Without help, she knows, the process is bewildering.

A person sits at their desk in an office, facing a monitor.
Immigration attorney Johanna Torres says it’s hard for lawyers to take on asylum seekers like López because the fast-track “dedicated docket” doesn’t allow enough time to prepare their cases. With a shortage of lawyers and no right to court-appointed counsel, Torres, seen here in her San Leandro office on Nov. 15, 2021, says asylum seekers are in “an impossible situation.” (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

“I put myself in their position,” she said. “I’m in a country that’s speaking a language that I don’t understand and I’m afraid of going back to whatever country I'm from. And they’re like, ‘Fill out this application that’s in a different language. I know you don’t know anyone. You don’t have the money to hire anyone. But if you don’t bring it, then we’re going to have to deport you.’ It’s an impossible situation for them.”

Torres knows about the political repression in Nicaragua, where Ortega jailed seven opposition candidates in the lead-up to his reelection in November. She believes López could be in serious peril if he were returned there.

But she and other immigration lawyers say the swift pace of the dedicated docket makes it tricky for attorneys to accept clients like López.

“I do not have the resources to complete a case in two months,” she said. “It's harder for [asylum seekers] to find representation because it’s hard for us to take on cases that are that fast.”

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Room for improvement

A spokesperson for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, as the federal immigration court system is known, said that while the goal of the dedicated docket is to resolve cases in less than a year, judges do have leeway to give immigrants more time to look for a lawyer. In a statement, she said “fairness will not be compromised.”

Torres said she thinks the dedicated docket was Biden’s corrective to the Trump administration’s controversial strategy of holding court in tents erected at the border where immigration lawyers can be scarce.

“I think we’re doing better than under the previous administration,” Torres said. “But there’s a lot of room for improvement, and I don’t know if the people that are being named to supervise this actually know what’s happening in the trenches.”

Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said she’s also concerned about fairness.

“Fair notice and access to counsel, adequate time periods within which to seek representation — [that’s] certainly an important component of providing due process,” she said.

Tsankov said she’s encouraged that the director of EOIR sent a memo to the judges in November instructing them to work closely with the pro bono lawyers in their area to “accommodate and facilitate” getting free legal services to more immigrants in deportation proceedings.

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Still, the number of people seeking asylum has grown in recent years. Without more federal funds or a mandate to ensure every person in immigration court has representation, such initiatives are likely to fall short.

López paced the tiny balcony at his friend’s place in Walnut Creek as the sun sank low in the sky, repeatedly dialing the numbers on his list. Inside the apartment, his son and the children of the other newly arrived family played on the couch. The mother of those kids prepared tortillas for supper as ranchera music played on the radio.

“I hope a lawyer will answer,” López said. “The journey was hard, and crossing Mexico was dangerous. But we’ve come this far, with God’s help.”

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