Individuals Seeking Protection in El Paso Detention Centers Continue to Face the Impossible. Help Us Push Back.


Removal defense lawyers in New Mexico and West Texas have long appeared in El Paso courts where the Immigration Judges appear to operate under their own rule of law and where the approval rate for asylum applications is consistently under 5%. In one court, the asylum approval rate in 2018 was under 2%, the lowest grant rate in the country.

Asking for asylum in El Paso has become near impossible as this region has become ground zero for some of the Trump administration’s cruelest immigration policies. Thousands of asylum seekers attempting to request asylum in El Paso have been pushed back to Mexico under “Remain in Mexico”; CBP continues to prevent migrants from accessing the asylum process at the southern border through its illegal practice of metering; the Trump administration piloted its horrific zero tolerance policy in El Paso. For those who are somehow permitted to fight their cases in the United States, most are barred from seeking asylum due to the Third Country Transit Bar.

Attorneys attempting to represent detained clients in the El Paso sector face a unique combination of obstacles. It begins with initial contact.

Clients can’t call lawyers. Currently, there are no mechanisms in place in the two largest ICE detention facilities in the El Paso sector – the El Paso Service Processing Center (El Paso SPC) and the Otero County Processing Center (Otero) – for clients to conduct free, unmonitored phone calls to their attorneys. The El Paso SPC and Otero have a combined bed space of over 2,000.

That means that a client who does not have money on their personal phone card accounts simply can’t call their lawyer. Many individuals who end up in ICE detention centers in El Paso have recently crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. They may have recently undergone a treacherous journey across hundreds of miles to reach “safety” in the U.S. or been forced to wait for months in Mexico before being transferred to ICE custody. In any event, the vast majority do not have any money to add to their accounts.

Lawyers can’t call clients. Similarly, there is no mechanism in the El Paso or Otero Processing Centers for attorneys to call their clients, set up phone meetings, or even get messages to their clients. In other words, when a client is lucky enough to have obtained counsel they are still not afforded meaningful representation by denial of access to phone calls.

Filings are misplaced. If a client is able to obtain counsel and speak to them, the attorneys are next confronted with a court clerk’s office that is only nominally operational. Some filings or motions are never processed or do not make it into the judge’s file before the hearing; entries of appearance are frequently misplaced and counsel are regularly not notified of hearings; and hearings are moved up without notice, rhyme or reason.

Lawyers can’t appear before the court telephonically. The legal community in El Paso is small (but mighty), and there is a dearth of free or low-cost legal services. Some of the Immigration Judges in El Paso rely on “standing orders” to systematically deny requests from attorneys to appear at hearings telephonically. This is hugely problematic as it means that willing attorneys who are not close to the detention centers may be prohibited from representing their clients at high-stakes hearings.

Putting this in perspective: the Otero and El Paso SPC immigration courts categorically refuse to allow a person in detention to be represented in a five minute Master Calendar Hearing or fifteen minute bond hearing without counsel being able to physically travel to El Paso or, in the case of the Otero court, onto a military base in the middle of rural southern New Mexico. Otero and El Paso SPC courts are two of the busiest immigration courts in the country, situated hundreds of miles away from any large urban center with adequate legal resources.

Attorneys representing detained immigrants in their bond proceedings are confronting additional extraordinary circumstances. One judge in the Otero court has recently been regularly denying bond for anyone who entered the country at night, claiming it is an indication of a flight risk. This interpretation undermines law and is inconsistent with other immigration courts around the country. Several judges in El Paso require the immigrant requesting release on bond to submit a sworn statement regarding the client’s underlying asylum claim, and regularly question the client on their underlying asylum claim in open court.

All of these factors converge into a virtually impassable wall preventing some of the most vulnerable immigrants in our country from accessing the basic legal help they both need and have a right to.

That’s why we need your help to push back. Through the Immigration Justice Campaign and the El Paso Immigration Collaborative (EPIC), AILA and its partners are organizing volunteer lawyers to file bond motions and argue them telephonically. The goal is not only to get more people out of detention – it’s also to challenge the judicial and enforcement practices that systematically interfere with access to counsel and a fair day in court.

Here’s a glimpse into the hurdles we’ve faced so far. We have taken over 20 cases so far through EPIC, and some attorneys were only able to speak with their client one time over the course of several weeks of representation. Our Advocacy Team kicked into high gear and was able to successfully break the impasse. Now all of those clients have spoken with their attorneys – but it’s not a permanent solution.

We’re ready to use every tool in our toolbox until lawyers are able to provide full and meaningful representation to their detained clients. That includes supporting volunteer lawyers to demand access, appeal cases and, if necessary, go into federal court.

We need creative, fearless lawyering to change this ecosystem. Will you partner with us in this work?  Sign up at the Immigration Justice Campaign website.

by Rebekah Wolf