McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — During the past 14 months, immigration lawyer Charlene D’Cruz, has filed thousands of asylum claims for migrant refugees who desperately want to live in the United States.
Most of her clients live in Matamoros, Mexico, in a refugee tent encampment on the muddy banks of the Rio Grande. They are just across the shores of Brownsville, Texas, but far removed by the water’s swift currents that keep them south of the border.
D’Cruz is with the nonprofit organization Lawyers for Good Government, which offers free legal advice to immigrants. And for most of the time, she has been the sole lawyer from her organization operating on the ground in Matamoros and Brownsville for their Project Corazon. Hundreds of other lawyers who volunteer with the organization are scattered throughout the country and offer pro bono work, but she has been the go-to trusted legal eagle that most everyone in the camp knows.
But new stricter asylum application rules set to take effect Jan. 11 by the Trump administration now have her scrambling to quickly file hundreds more claims for clients, whom she says have well-founded legitimate fears of returning to their home countries. Many live in the squalid Mexican refugee camp under the Trump administration’s remain in Mexico, or Migrant Protection Protocols program where they have been waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic that has put a stop on all asylum cases since March.
During an in depth conversation with Border Report on Thursday, D’Cruz said she has real fears that under the new rules, asylum cases could be reviewed and decided outside of court proceedings, and her clients could be rejected summarily under the new regulations imposed by the Department of Homeland Security with no course for appeals.
“This is terrible. It is further gutting asylum,” D’Cruz said. “And so right now I have a push to get as many cases in before Jan. 11 so that some of these very draconian things they want to do to asylum applications won’t take effect for the ones that I am filing before.”
The new 419-page rule by DHS that takes effect on Jan. 11 will make it tougher for migrants to assert legal asylum claims, and will limit the circumstances that migrants can qualify for protection. Changes to rules governing credible fear determinations could disqualify many who seek asylum in the United States, D’Cruz says.
Under the new rules, immigration judges could more easily declare fraudulent and “frivolous” asylum claims and they will be able to dismiss cases, she said. Most frightening to her, she said, is the possibility that cases will be summarily dismissed without any formal hearings.
“It can happen in chambers. They can just start going through the docket and say ‘nah’ and I think that’s how the government wants to empty out the docket,” D’Cruz said.
The government wants to empty out the docket.”Border immigration lawyer Charlene D’Cruz
DHS says these “streamlined proceedings” would provide a “clarified standard of review,” according to the new regulations.
“If the immigration judge concurs with the asylum officer’s determination that the alien does not have a reasonable fear of persecution or torture, the case shall be returned to DHS for removal of the alien. No appeal shall lie from the immigration judge’s decision,” reads the new rules published Dec. 11 and signed by Attorney General William Barr, who has since announced that he will be resigning from the post before Christmas.
D’Cruz, who relocated her family from Wisconsin to deep South Texas over a year ago to help migrants on the border, says she feels as if she has been swimming upstream her entire time here.
The current asylum application rules already are arduous and complicated enough, she said. Filling out the 12-page I-589 Application for Asylum and Withholding for Removal form requires that the applicant include countless documentation of past persecution in their home country, and that it be submitted entirely in English, and that all documents be translated, and that a proof of translation certification is included.
“The horrible thing is that it is impossible for someone sitting in Mexico, in a tent to try to get a sufficient application without help,” D’Cruz said.
She has filled out forms for 2,000 heads of households and for all of these applications she says she has had only three clients win asylum — “less than half a percent,” she said.
She claims MPP is an overtly discriminatory policy that targets Central American refugees. The Matamoros refugee camp used to have about 3,000 migrants but now has only about 500 and the numbers dwindle daily since so many families have given up waiting and retreated to points elsewhere.
Since Title 42 border restrictions were implemented in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, no asylum cases have been heard and no migrants have been allowed to cross into the United States. Those apprehended without proper documents in between legal ports of entry are being expelled or deported, including unaccompanied minors who are from the Central American countries known as the Northern Triangle, which include El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Right now “essentially there is no asylum,” D’Cruz said.
Earlier this week, U.S. authorities announced the travel restrictions would continue through Jan. 21.
President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan 20, but D’Cruz says even though he has said MPP is inhumane, it will take his new administration time to change current rules. The new rules taking effect on Jan. 11, for example, were proposed last summer.
Last December, D’Cruz was there when Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, visited the Matamoros camp and helped to pass out tamale plates to families with U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela.
For those families who remain in the migrant camp, or migrant shelters on the border or even low-rent apartment and hotel complexes that a few can afford, D’Cruz worries that at some point, Mexican officials could change their laws and revoke the special visas granted to these migrants that allow them to stay and work in Mexico.
On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador defended Mexico’s restrictive immigration policy, which has prevented many Central American migrants from crossing Mexico to reach the U.S. border. And he deflected criticisms against the MPP program saying “We have protected migrants, there have been no violations of their human rights.”
Said D’Cruz: “Mexico went along with it. And you have these folks out there with no lawyers, no representation, in very dangerous (situations) and Mexico is doing their dirty work.”