An Asylum-Seeker Struggles With The Legal System NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro follows up with a woman from El Salvador who's navigating the complicated process of applying for asylum in the U.S. without a lawyer, and talks with lawyer Judy London.
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An Asylum-Seeker Struggles With The Legal System

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An Asylum-Seeker Struggles With The Legal System

An Asylum-Seeker Struggles With The Legal System

An Asylum-Seeker Struggles With The Legal System

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/588642977/588642978" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro follows up with a woman from El Salvador who's navigating the complicated process of applying for asylum in the U.S. without a lawyer, and talks with lawyer Judy London.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This past week, President Trump revived something he used to do on the campaign trail. He read the lyrics of a song called "The Snake."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is called "The Snake." And think of it in terms of immigration.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the song, a woman nurses a snake back to health. And then it kills her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: (Reading) Oh, shut up, silly woman, said the reptile with a grin. You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.

(APPLAUSE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Trump was speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference - or CPAC. And in his version, the snake represents immigrants, and the woman is the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And that's what we're doing with our country, folks. We're letting people in, and it's going to be a lot of trouble.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Immigration - both legal and illegal - is at the center of President Trump's domestic policy agenda.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is that 218 going to be PA? Romeo 415.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to reintroduce you to a woman whose story illustrates how Trump's immigration policies are playing out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A year ago, I met her at the U.S.-Mexico border, where she had crossed into the U.S. with her son, seeking asylum. She'd been traveling for a month and a half from El Salvador. And on that dusty road near the Rio Grande River, she told me why she had come.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's telling me that the Mara Salvatruchas, which is one of the most feared gangs in El Salvador, wanted to take her 17-year-old son and make him work for the gangs. And she had him hidden at a relative's house until they could try and make the journey north, so she could save him from that fate.

We're not using her name for her protection. After she was picked up by Border Patrol, she formally asked for asylum. She was processed and then ultimately released to her family in Los Angeles with an ankle bracelet and a very important court date. I've been keeping in touch with her as she winds her way through the legal system.

Last month at a cafe, she told us the past year in America has been hard.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She began by saying she's had to move around a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She needed money, she says, but she wasn't legally allowed to work. Her family helped her a little, but it wasn't enough.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And as for her son, it's not gone well.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He went to school for a few months, but he didn't understand English, and he was bullied. So he dropped out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she's been living in fear. She's been checking in with ICE - Immigration and Customs Enforcement - as she is required to do. But the immigration system here bewilders her. Here's the real issue, though. There is one thing that often determines whether or not someone like her gets to stay in this country or whether they get deported - a lawyer. She does not have one. She says she's had trouble finding free legal counsel, and she can't afford a private attorney. She also distrusts that a lawyer can really help.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she knows what will happen if they get deported back to El Salvador. She says her son could be killed by the gangs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She confesses she's worried that she doesn't have a lawyer for her upcoming court date in February. And she's right to be. America's immigration system is convoluted, especially its system of asylum, which requires a lot of paperwork and documentation.

JUDY LONDON: Individuals, you know, fleeing here and seeking lawyers find out pretty quickly that, by and large, there are no more to get.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I reached out to Judy London to get a sense of how hard it really is to find a lawyer if you are an asylum seeker from Central America. She is the directing attorney for the Immigrant Rights Project (ph) in Los Angeles, where our Central American immigrant lives. London says since 2012, there's been an exodus of people coming to the United States from Central America, fleeing gang violence.

LONDON: You know, initially, people were trying to go all over Los Angeles County to find lawyers. And if you lived in Los Angeles and had no money, you'd understand how challenging that is just for someone to come up with not only the money to go on the bus. But to cross Los Angeles can be four hours by bus - only to find out, oh, they've been closed to new cases for six months. The reality is, unless you have, you know, $5,000, you're probably not going to get a lawyer. So you can ask the judge for more time. You can try to do it on your own. There really - there just isn't any way for people to defend themselves because most people are never going to get a lawyer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we have been following a case. And the person has not taken steps to retain a lawyer. Is this common? Is this a common thread?

LONDON: Yeah. I mean, this is the reality for refugees fleeing Central America. You know, it was clear to us, seeing people come into our office starting several years ago, the scope of this crisis. And had it been labeled what it is, which is a refugee crisis, you might have seen a different treatment by our legal system and more compassion and more resources flow. But instead of being accurately defined as a refugee crisis, the government, even starting under the Obama administration, framed this as people simply coming here to work or coming here to reunite with family members. There's a reason thousands and thousands of families with no money are fleeing. And that's because the violence is so extreme. And so, I mean, they're running for their lives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The person that we're following is applying for asylum. Tell us what the asylum plea looks like.

LONDON: So it really - so much depends on whether you have a lawyer and then whether you have a good lawyer. But when you seek asylum, you're asking this country to let you stay here more or less indefinitely because you've established a fear of persecution. And there are various requirements in the big scheme of things when your government can't protect you from being terribly harmed or killed. And you reach the border here. You have a right to seek asylum. So another common misconception are that - is that hordes of people are sneaking over the border to seek asylum. They're actually following U.S. law. They're showing up at a border checkpoint and saying, I'm afraid I'll be killed in my country. I want to seek asylum.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain to me why it is so important to have a lawyer to navigate this legal process.

LONDON: Statistically, you're five times more likely to win your case if you're detained and fighting your case from detention, and you have a lawyer than if you don't have a lawyer. No one in immigration court is given a lawyer at the government expense. They have a right to a lawyer only if they can pay for a lawyer. And that includes children. So we've represented a 1-year-old. And if we hadn't stepped in, that 1-year-old would've been expected to represent himself in court, which is quite an idea to wrap your head around.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Judy London, an immigration lawyer. For its part, the Trump administration has been trying to change asylum laws. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said courts are overwhelmed with fraudulent claims by Central Americans who, quote, "fear generalized violence, crime, personal vendettas or lack of job prospects." And he says their lawyers are gaming the system. But for our asylum seeker, the clock was ticking. The weekend before her court date, I called her up to see if she'd made any progress in finding someone to represent her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hola.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Coughing).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She was sick, so we didn't talk for long.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She said she didn't know how she was going to get to the courthouse, as all her relatives were working. She also seemed confused about where she was supposed to go. And she told me she was not able to get a lawyer.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Advocates say one thing many immigrants do when the legal process feels overwhelming is that they go underground and try to disappear. But on the day of her court date, she did show up. We sent a producer to see what happened. Our asylum seeker was there on time. But she went to the wrong courthouse.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was a small mistake that ended in disaster.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: By the time she found the right place to go, it was too late. The judge had deemed her a no-show and issued a deportation order against her and her son. That same day, she tried to get the judge to hear her case later in the afternoon, but the judge said no. To reopen her case will require paperwork and legal help. She left the courthouse this past week with few options.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The last time I spoke to our asylum seeker a year ago at the border, she was about to get on a bus to what she hoped would be a new life. This is what she told me then.

(Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says that she - her dream for this country is that her son can study, that he would be fine and safe and that she can find a job to support him.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she feels good. She's still worried about what's going to happen. But the only thing she doesn't want is to go back to her country.

The day after her court date I called her up one last time. She said ICE had already been in touch. She's hoping to find a lawyer to appeal to reopen her case. But she and her son could now be deported at any time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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