Asylum-Seekers In California Wait For Their Day In Immigration Court Immigrants who manage to make it to cities in California face a high cost of living, but they also have access to legal aid which makes a huge difference in asylum cases.
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Asylum-Seekers In California Wait For Their Day In Immigration Court

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Asylum-Seekers In California Wait For Their Day In Immigration Court

Asylum-Seekers In California Wait For Their Day In Immigration Court

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. On the other side of the border, California law limits how much local law enforcement can cooperate with federal officials enforcing federal immigration laws. And California is providing free legal assistance to migrants. Here's David Wagner from our member station, KPCC.

DAVID WAGNER, BYLINE: When Rosa began her journey to Los Angeles, fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, she had a picture of the city in mind.

ROSA: (Speaking Spanish).

WAGNER: "Luxurious, beautiful." Some areas are like that, she's found, but not her heavily Latino neighborhood near downtown LA. She lives in a studio apartment with her two kids and her mother-in-law, and the neighborhood feels familiar.

ROSA: (Speaking Spanish).

WAGNER: She says she sometimes feels like she's in the capital of El Salvador. We're only using Rosa's first name because her asylum case is ongoing. She's one of over 70,000 immigrants in LA waiting for their cases to be heard. She's been surprised by how expensive housing is here. Asylum-seekers can't get a work permit until at least six months into their case. Many work under the table in order to pay their rent. But Rosa says California has what she needs - safety and the chance of a better life for her kids.

ROSA: (Speaking Spanish).

WAGNER: "There is opportunity here," she says. "You can realize your dreams" - often with the help of a pro bono asylum lawyer.

INGRID EAGLY: Finding a lawyer, we find throughout, is powerfully associated with positive outcomes in these cases.

WAGNER: UCLA law professor Ingrid Eagly did a study that found families released from detention only won asylum 7 percent of the time when they didn't have a lawyer. Those who had a lawyer increased their odds of winning to 49 percent. Eagly's data only goes up to 2016. Since President Trump took office, denials have been on the rise. Still, legal aid can make a big difference for asylum-seekers.

EAGLY: They're more likely to be able to gather evidence, to work collaboratively with their lawyer and to otherwise prepare and find witnesses who can testify in their case.

WAGNER: But immigration lawyers tend to concentrate in expensive cities. Jenna Gilbert is a pro bono asylum attorney at Human Rights First in LA. She says it's heartbreaking to get calls from clients who say they can't afford to stay in California.

JENNA GILBERT: If you move to a small town in Texas, housing is going to be much cheaper, but you probably won't have the legal resources and you also will be in a circuit that is much less favorable to asylum-seekers.

WAGNER: Unlike California's more immigrant friendly 9th Circuit. But wherever you are, the asylum process can take a long time. One of Gilbert's clients, Lizeth, has been pursuing asylum for more than two years. Even on a day off from her job in a fast-food kitchen, she's cooking, stirring a big pot of beef soup.

LIZETH: (Speaking Spanish).

WAGNER: Lizeth is originally from Honduras. She now lives in a studio apartment with her husband and two of her kids. There's not much privacy, she says, but they no longer have to share cramped quarters with other families. They've settled into a routine, growing more comfortable in California every day. They've put a down payment on a car. Their kids are picking up English in school. Lizeth says what they have here is better than anything she imagined.

LIZETH: (Speaking Spanish).

WAGNER: It's a thousand percent better, she says. Lizeth and her family have already been waiting a long time. But her attorney, Jenna Gilbert, says at this point she hopes cases like hers slow down even more, until perhaps there's a new administration in the White House. For NPR News, I'm David Wagner in Los Angeles.

INSKEEP: And this story comes from the statewide California Dream collaboration.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAYZERO'S "CENTRAL AIRPORT")

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