Posted On 20 Dec 2019
WASHINGTON — Lawyers representing migrants seeking asylum at the border say U.S. border agents are systematically writing the same wrong address on the migrants’ papers, leaving hundreds with no way to receive communications from the U.S. government about their cases, and undermining their ability to win asylum in the U.S.
Eighteen examples of migrants whose forms note their address as Casa del Migrante, a shelter in Ciudad Juarez they have never visited, are included in an amicus brief the lawyers plan to file to the Supreme Court next week, NBC News has learned. One lawyer told NBC News he knew of hundreds of migrants who had that address on their papers, and few had ever been to the shelter.
The brief will urge the justices to consider the legality of the Trump administration policy known as “Remain in Mexico” that has left over 60,000 Central Americans in dangerous conditions as they wait in Mexico for what could become years for entrance to the U.S.
“Consistent with these international law obligations, federal law recognizes that, at a minimum, asylum seekers must be notified of the charges against them and have rights to a fair hearing,” said the brief, to be filed by the Justice Action Center and the University of California’s International Human Rights Law Clinic.
The form, known as a Notice to Appear (or NTA), is given to migrants to tell them when and where to arrive in immigration court for their next asylum hearing and how the government will reach them with notifications about their cases. The agents are supposed to give the migrants NTAs based on information provided by the migrants and the court.
If the migrants fail to appear in court, they could be deemed in absentia by a judge and ordered to be deported back to their home country without making their case for asylum. Under the Remain in Mexico policy, many immigrants have been ordered deported for failing to show up to their proceedings, and the false addresses could be one reason why they don’t appear.
One of the immigrants referenced in the brief is Angelina, who uses a pseudonym to protect her identity, a 42-year-old Cuban who told NBC News she fled persecution at the hands of police and others in Havana for being lesbian. She arrived at the border in El Paso in July, hoping to be given asylum so she could live in Florida with her partner, a doctor who once worked at the same hospital in Havana where Angelina was a nurse.
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Asked for an address of a U.S. contact, Angelina provided agents with her partner’s information. It was not until later, when she met with an attorney, that she realized the agents did not include the Florida address on her paperwork. Instead they wrote down the address for Casa del Migrante, a shelter she has never been to or heard of.
“I have no idea if I missed court dates or if anything was sent to me,” Angelina said in a phone interview from Ciudad Juarez, where she lives in an apartment with four other Cubans.
She has never tried to find Casa del Migrante because she rarely leaves the apartment, except when needed for food, because she fears for her life.
“There’s a lot of violence. Every single morning when we wake up, we see and hear on TV about the number of dead overnight. They’re killing women, they’re killing people from the LGBT community,” Angelina said about life in Ciudad Juarez, where she has been living since July.
Her attorney, Nicolas Palazzo, who works with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said he has met with hundreds of asylum seekers awaiting their next asylum hearing in Ciudad Juarez and all of them were given paperwork that included the Casa del Migrante shelter as their contact address.
Despite many giving Border Patrol another contact address, including the addresses of family or friends they’re in contact with in the U.S., the agents in El Paso continue to use only the Casa del Migrante address, according to Palazzo and the attorneys filing the amicus brief.
Palazzo said many of the migrants are not aware of the mistake and are shocked and surprised when he tells them what has happened. While there is a hotline immigrants can call for an update on their cases, many of the cases have not been updated, he said.
The lawyers filing the brief to the Supreme Court hope the justices will see from the examples in Ciudad Juarez that the Remain in Mexico policy has inconsistencies and creates an emergency and that arguments against it should be heard in full.
“The risk is not only that the U.S. violates its own procedures under due process, but also the risk of sending back asylum seekers to places they could be tortured or killed,” said Karen Tumlin, the founder and director of the Justice Action Center.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that immigrants must provide U.S. addresses in order to receive correspondence on their legal cases. Tumlin said that decision will have “massive consequences” on asylum seekers who are subject to Remain in Mexico.
But even when immigrants give U.S. addresses, such as the one Angelina provided, border agents in El Paso are ignoring them and including the address for the shelter in Ciudad Juarez, say Tumlin and Palazzo.
Reports from earlier this year alleged agents in other sectors along the border were simply writing “Facebook” as an address for immigrants. Tumlin said she has seen cases where agents write a Spanish term that translates to “known address.”
Angelina continues to wait for her next court date, scheduled for February, from Ciudad Juarez. And she is hopeful she will be eventually granted asylum.
“Hope is the last thing to die,” she said.
Palazzo is now personally making sure that Angelina knows of her court dates and the status of her case. But he said the majority of immigrants waiting in Mexico for their asylum hearings in the United States are not lucky enough to have found a lawyer and are left navigating a very confusing process.