by Vard Johnson
Vard Johnson is spending this week at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas as a volunteer lawyer for refugees from Central America. He shares his experience here. Read all his posts here.
I am in San Antonio, waiting my flight to Boston. My Dilley week has ended. During this past week, we volunteers saw 200 or more women and children. We prepared them to meet Asylum Officers and tell the stories as to why they abandoned their homes in Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador and made the 1500 mile trek north to the US border. If the Asylum Officers determined they had a credible fear of returning to their home country, we then helped them seek bond amounts before an Immigration Judge so they might be released from detention without ankle bracelets. If an Asylum Officer concluded that a mother could not make a case of credible fear, we took the mother’s case before an Immigration Judge for a review. As a result of our work, many women, along with their children, were released from the detention facility during the week. Not a day went by when a mother with a young child in tow did not come to our trailer to tell us they were on their way to a welcoming home elsewhere. She would thank us, wipe away the tears, and then disappear out the door into an unknown future.
As I wait in the airport, I read an editorial in the New York Times supporting Senator Harry Reid’s proposed legislation that would require lawyers to be made available to children who are asylum seekers. It chastised Hillary Clinton for supporting efforts several years ago to turn children away from our Southern border under the belief that such action would send a message to the adults of Central America that the US would not be accepting of migrants of any age. It noted that these children were not migrants but instead are persons fleeing horrendous conditions in Central America. It laments the byzantine and arcane process for obtaining asylum in the United States and states that, in the absence of competent legal counsel, the meritorious claims of disproportionate numbers of asylum seekers will be denied or go unheard. The pool of volunteer lawyers who can assist these individuals is inadequate to the need. For that reason, Senator Reid’s legislation should be adopted.
My reading of the editorial caused me to linger over the people who came as volunteers to Dilley this past week. There was Tom, age 75 -- a patent lawyer from San Jose and his granddaughter, Erica, age 22. Tom knew nothing about immigration law but he was a lawyer, he had a reasonable command of Spanish and he felt called to come. Erica, the granddaughter, was a better Spanish speaker and was just out of UC Berkeley. Her mother had persuaded her to link up with her grandfather for the experience. There was Jeanne, the former executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association who came out of retirement to meet the challenge. Like me, she knew no Spanish, so she recruited Elissa—a retired reference librarian from Washington DC -- to serve as translator. Elissa has had a love affair with Guatemala, spending several years there in a former life. My own translator was Tim, a retired Lutheran pastor who had spent two years in El Salvador with the Peace Corps and whose church in Minnesota -- St. Paul Reformation -- has supported the education of 120 El Salvadoran young people from the village where Tim first worked. Jeremy, a tenure track professor from UT El Paso and his wife, Karla, spent a week with us. Neither were lawyers but both were proficient in Spanish and extremely personable. Six young, impassioned and earnest immigration lawyers completed the mix---Genna and Amalia from the premier immigration litigation firm in San Francisco, Tania from Catholic Charities in Cleveland, Brett from his own office in Cleveland, Kendra from a highly regarded immigration firm in Chicago, and Carolina, formerly of Costa Rica and now opening her own office in San Antonio. Four were bi-lingual; two were not. All were committed.
We never talked among ourselves about religion or matters of the spirit. Nevertheless, in coming to know my compatriots and observing their willingness to go the extra mile for the persons we were meeting, I have to believe that, if asked, each volunteer would relate positively to Isaiah 6:8 “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ and I said, ‘Here I am; send me!”
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