Asylum Lawyer Discusses New U.S. Policy Changes NPR's Ailsa Chang talks to asylum lawyer Ruby Powers about changes to U.S. asylum policy including keeping migrants in Mexico while their claims are processed.


Asylum Lawyer Discusses New U.S. Policy Changes

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The Trump administration announced a major change in asylum policy yesterday. At a hearing with lawmakers, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said asylum-seekers at the southwest border will no longer be allowed to stay in the U.S. while their claims are being processed. Instead, those asylum-seekers will be sent back to Mexico to wait there. Mexico's government has agreed to this. The White House says the move is aimed at deterring illegal immigration and stopping migrants from disappearing in the U.S. under what President Trump has called catch and release. To talk about how this could affect asylum-seekers, we're joined now by Ruby Powers. She's an immigration attorney who's been in Tijuana helping migrants prepare their asylum cases. Welcome.

RUBY POWERS: Thank you very much for having me.

CHANG: Can you just start us off by telling us what it's been like in Tijuana now as you're helping migrants build their asylum cases? Give us an idea of what that entails.

POWERS: Well, there's, I think, thousands - potentially five to 8,000 people waiting to enter the United States in about 30 or so shelters. A lot of people have no means. Some don't even have phones. People are living in tents in the mud and rain and just taking whatever, you know, food NGOs are able to provide. It's very chaotic. And there's a lot of desperate people waiting to come to the United States.

CHANG: Right. These aren't people who have, like, packed documentation into their bags, dragging that across miles and miles and miles, to meet you.

POWERS: No, the most I saw someone have is, like, maybe four pieces of paper. And that might be just, like, their children's birth certificates or something like that.

CHANG: So on top of these very real challenges, now we have this new policy where a migrant claiming asylum has to stay in Mexico while the claim is pending. How will that affect the ability of these applicants to access lawyers and their ability to collect evidence for their asylum cases?

POWERS: It's going to be prohibitive for them to put on a strong case. First of all, most of them don't have an actual fixed address. They're living in shelters. To have internet, to be able to have an experienced immigration attorney to come visit with them and talk with them - I'm also concerned about their safety in Mexico while their case is pending.

CHANG: Tell us about that. What physical safety concerns do you have about them waiting in Mexico?

POWERS: Well, two young children were strangled and murdered this weekend at a shelter - unaccompanied minors. And then there's just people who come up to me and say, I'm fleeing from southern Mexico, and the people that I'm fleeing from know that I'm here and have threatened me. And they know what shelter I'm staying at. Just those little tidbits have, you know, made it more evident that it's not safe for them to be living this way and in Mexico during this time.

CHANG: Now, DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, assures that due process will be preserved, that these asylum applicants will be able to get lawyers. They say everyone should trust them. What do you think of that?

POWERS: I don't know how they even think that's possible. It's hard enough for me to go to Pearsall or Conroe, you know, which are three or one hour away from my own office. But to go to Mexico - I mean, luckily I am a U.S. citizen that can travel over to Mexico. But to drop everything and go over there to meet with clients, I don't see how it's even possible.

CHANG: What about lawyers in Mexico? Could lawyers there fill the need?

POWERS: You know, unless a person is licensed by a U.S. State Bar and knowledgeable about U.S. immigration law, I wouldn't trust that that they should be providing immigration advice. In fact, when I was at a shelter helping out, I noticed that a Mexican attorney had given bad U.S. immigration advice to some of the people at the shelter.

CHANG: Ruby Powers is an immigration attorney based in Houston, and she's been working with asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Thank you very much.

POWERS: Thank you very much.

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