Despite promises, lawyers are in short supply as US quickly resumes border asylum checks

SAN DIEGO (AP) — As the Biden administration prepared to launch rapid asylum checks at Border Patrol detention centers this spring, authorities promised a key difference from a version of the policy of the Trump era: migrants would be guaranteed access to a lawyer.

Nearly three months and thousands of screenings later, the promise of access to a lawyer appears largely unfulfilled, based on reports from advocacy groups and interviews with those directly involved, some of whom spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

A coterie of lawyers involved estimate that perhaps 100 migrants obtained official representation, and only hundreds more received informal advice through one-off phone calls ahead of expedited checks.

Jones Day, one of the world’s largest law firms, has partnered with the administration to provide free legal advice to migrants. Its phone bank handled 460 informal phone consultations, each lasting about two hours, as of June 21, according to one of the people who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity. Jones Day himself only had two official clients, the person said.

Four other advocacy groups that offer free counseling and whose names are published on the Immigration Courts website handled far fewer phone consultations, in part because they started much later, the court said. person. Representatives of those four groups declined to comment or did not respond to AP inquiries.

This represents only a fraction of the thousands of screenings accelerated since early April, although a precise percentage could not be determined. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, whose asylum officers conduct the interviews, did not respond to questions about legal representation.

US authorities aim to complete checks in 72 hours – the limit for holding a person under Border Patrol policy. The Department of Homeland Security said the expedited schedule is intended to “bring relief to those who are eligible more quickly and remove those who are not.” AP has repeatedly asked to visit a testing center to better understand the process.

During the screenings, known as ‘credible fear interviews’, migrants must convince an asylum officer that they have a ‘significant chance’ of convincing a judge that they are at risk of persecution in their home country. country of origin because of their race, religion, nationality, political views or political opinion. membership in a social group. If successful, they are usually released to the United States while their case goes through the system.

The percentage of people who passed asylum checks fell to 52% in the second half of May as the fast-track process resumed, from 77% in the second half of March, just before it began.

Government figures give no explanation or say how many expedited checks have taken place in Border Patrol custody without access to a lawyer. Administration officials have attributed lower approval rates in part to a new policy that severely limits asylum for people crossing from another country, such as Mexico, to reach the U.S. border.

A lawsuit filed last month in federal court in Washington seeks to end screenings in Border Patrol custody, noting that applicants only have 24 hours to find attorneys after often harrowing journeys. The lawsuit argues that “allows virtually no time or opportunity for non-citizens to consult with anyone or meaningfully prepare for these often life-saving or life-threatening interviews.

Even passing migrants are reluctant to talk about their experiences as they continue to seek asylum. U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, a Democrat from California, said in a statement that reports of a lack of access to counsel at Border Patrol facilities are “disturbing and disappointing.”

The administration won’t say how many checks it has carried out at Border Patrol facilities, which prohibit visits by in-person attorneys, though they easily number in the thousands. The Department of Homeland Security said on June 5 that asylum officers conducted more than 11,500 border checks in the first three weeks after pandemic-related asylum restrictions ended, although some could have been at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Centers, which allow visits by attorneys.

Normally, about three out of four migrants pass credible fear interviews, although far fewer are ultimately granted asylum. But the results roughly reversed over the five months of the Trump-era expedited screenings program: Only 23% passed, while 69% failed and 9% withdrew, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Biden ended Trump’s fast-track reviews less than a month after Democrats occupied the White House, as part of an executive order to ‘restore and improve the processing of asylum claims at the border “.

New screenings began in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and expanded the following week to equally sprawling tent complexes in Laredo and El Paso in Texas; Yuma, Ariz.; and San Diego — all Border Patrol temporary detention centers built since 2021 with hundreds of phone booths for interviews.

For about three weeks in April, Jones Day attorneys were able to prep any migrants who sought informal legal advice over the phone, but were quickly overwhelmed, according to a person with direct knowledge of the effort.

Some legal service providers have wondered if they should participate in the “enhanced expedited exit” program as the selection process is called. They are not paid and some fear that this implies approval and legitimacy.

Americans for Immigrant Justice joined the Jones Day-led effort because the interviews deal with “life or death” issues, said national policy adviser Cindy Woods.

“It’s a difficult situation to be in, especially because of the way this new iteration was presented,” she said.

Calls that come in at night or on weekends are missed, and lawyers say they have no reliable way to respond to messages.

Obtaining official representation for selection may require a signature, requiring the assistance of agents who may not be available. One of Woods’ clients spent five hours on the phone waiting for an agent to print out a consent form and fax it to the attorney with the migrant’s signature.

The National Immigrant Justice Center, which guides clients through the telephone bank run by Jones Day, said in a report that six of the 23 clients did not have access to a pen and paper to take notes.

Jones Day lawyers held the highest ranks in the Trump administration, including White House counsel Don McGahn. Despite its ties to the former president, who called asylum a “sham,” the company has established a robust practice representing asylum seekers free of charge known as the “Border Project,” operating out of from an office she opened in 2017 on the banks of the Rio Grande. in Laredo.

Jones Day says he has provided legal training to more than 10,000 migrants. More than 1,100 lawyers have devoted more than 280,000 hours to their cases, an investment unmatched among large firms.

The firm declined to comment publicly on its role as legal counsel for expedited checks.

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