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By MegAnne Liebsch

August 25, 2021 — “To have papers in this country is extremely hard — or impossible,” says Gustavo Angeles. In his work at the Jesuit ministry Sacred Heart Center in Richmond, Virginia, he meets dozens of people living without documentation — often because they don’t know how to navigate the U.S. immigration system.

Gustavo Angeles (right) with other SHC staff (Courtesy of SHC).

“People are under the impression that immigrants in this country don’t have papers because they don’t want to have papers,” continues Angeles. “People are under the impression that you can go to an office and file paperwork, and in three or five years, you will get your paperwork.”

Broadly speaking, immigration papers provide non-U.S. citizens with legal authorization to live and work in the U.S. Out of 45 million immigrants living in the U.S., an estimated 11 million are undocumented. And for most of them, there’s no clear pathway to receive working papers or permanent status.

As an accredited representative of the Immigration Legal Services Program (ILSP) at Sacred Heart Center, Angeles helps families navigate the U.S. immigration system. SHC ILSP provides accredited immigration legal representation to families — whether they’re applying for asylum or temporary status, such as employment authorization. For families and minors facing deportation, the program coordinates with local attorneys to secure low-cost representation.

None of these processes are clear-cut, and without legal representation, the immigration system is nearly unnavigable. “If you don’t have the advice of an expert or a lawyer, you are jeopardizing your opportunities here in the country,” Angeles says.

In recent years, SHC ILSP has assisted an increasing number of asylum seekers — many of whom are fleeing violence and persecution in Central America. Angeles and his team help families navigate the years-long process of applying for asylum. ILSP serves as a kind of immigration services hub. They field assistance inquiries and then navigate people to the relevant program — whether that’s ISLP’s in-house paperwork assistance or external attorneys whose fees ISLP helps supplement.

How does the asylum process work?

Asylum protects a narrow group of immigrants fleeing persecution—or those who fear persecution—on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Any immigrant can apply for asylum inside the U.S. or at the border, and if granted, asylum seekers have a clear pathway to citizenship.

An asylum-seeking migrant from Central America who was airlifted from Brownsville, Texas, to El Paso, and later deported with her son, gets into an ambulance to be transferred to a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, March 23, 2021. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

Often, migrants request asylum at a border checkpoint or in Border Patrol detention. They’re then interviewed by an asylum officer who determines whether their fear of persecution is “credible.” If the officer approves the asylum application request, migrants are often detained in immigrant detention. Others are released into the U.S. to await their court hearing.

After that, asylum seekers are on their own. Immigration is a civil proceeding, so unlike in criminal courts, migrants do not receive lawyers at the government’s expense. Migrants must hire lawyers themselves or find pro-bono or low-cost representation through legal aid programs like SHC ILSP.

The stakes are high without such representation. Only 17% of unrepresented applicants were granted asylum in 2020 versus 31% of represented applicants. Navigating the asylum process — from paperwork to court hearings — is almost impossible without a lawyer, Angeles says. To start, official forms are written in English and loaded with complex legal terms. And although these cumbersome documents are available online, many migrants lack computers or reliable internet access. What’s more, asylum seekers must support their asylum claims with concrete evidence, such as witness affidavits or psychological evaluations.

After submitting their paperwork — applicants wait some more. Over 1.3 million asylum cases are pending in U.S. courts with an average wait time of 1,206 days, according to the TRAC Immigration Project.

Even asylum seekers released into the U.S. are not guaranteed work permits. Due to a 2020 rule, asylum seekers must live in the U.S. for 365 days before they can apply for a work permit (the previous rule required a 180-day wait), and if they did not come into the U.S. through a border checkpoint, they are barred from applying entirely.

“This rule was purposefully designed to deter migrants from coming to the U.S.,” says Caitlin-Marie Ward, the migration policy advisor at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. “It prevents applicants from supporting themselves and paying for legal representation — a key factor in ultimately being granted asylum.”

These restrictions render many asylum seekers functionally undocumented, stuck in a years-long paperwork limbo.

“They have to eat,” says Peter Farago, an accredited representative with SHC ILSP. “So they’re in this incredible bind. They are forced to rely on food banks with scarce supplies while waiting for months to more than a year for permission to work.”

How does SHC ILSP help?

Farago is one of two Department of Justice accredited representatives on SHC ILSP’s staff who helps families sift through tedious and complex application processes. According to SHC ILSP accredited representative Daniel Bickett, many migrants don’t understand their current immigration status. SHC ILSP offers free consultations to help migrants understand their current immigration status, to advise them of their rights and to review their options under U.S. immigration law.

“We see it time and time again during our intake,” Bickett says. “We ask: ‘Were you aware that you had to do such and such? Did the border patrol review this document and translate it to you?’ And the answer is no. Border officials have not advised them what their rights are. There’s a good chance they’re not going to find out, until it’s too late.”

A mural at Sacred Heart Center (Courtesy of SHC).

SHC ILSP starts by assessing what kind of relief clients need. They help clients understand their rights and their obligations, and they also help guide clients through self-help materials produced by the court, as they work to connect families with representation. SHC ILSP also prepares and submits client applications for employment authorization, green card renewals, DACA renewals, Temporary Protected Status renewal and citizenship.

Unlike many private law firms, SHC ILSP helps families secure these services at a low cost. Private legal fees for defensive asylum cases can range from $2,000 to $15,000, and simpler processes, like work permit applications, may cost as much as $600.

“Families are either forced to cough up enormous amounts of money to contract private attorneys in order to just secure the basic needs of their life here or they end up in the hands of fraudsters who pose as immigration attorneys, but in fact, they merely scam and defraud people,” says Bickett.

Given the steep cost, many migrant families forgo representation. SHC ILSP’s services are designed to fill the chasm between going unrepresented and hiring for-profit lawyers. Demand is high — last year, SHC ILSP fielded hundreds of requests for legal aid.

SHC ILSP is hoping to expand its capacity in the coming year, but it’s highly specialized work. Farago and Bickett waited six months to receive feedback on their applications for official Department of Justice Office of Legal Access Programs accreditation, after approximately a year of preparation.

“It’s not just something that you do, you have to really grow your expertise in it,” says Sacred Heart Center executive director Tanya Gonzalez.

How has the pandemic affected migrants and asylum seekers?

While waiting for various authorization approvals, migrants and asylum seekers are largely ineligible for federal assistance, including food assistance or health care. During the pandemic, this access gap has widened. In Virginia, where Sacred Heart Center is located, Latino Americans accounted for 45% of COVID-19 cases and 11% of COVID-related deaths despite making up only 6% of the state’s population.

As of April 2021, there were 15 COVID deaths in the Sacred Heart community. “That’s really difficult,” says Gonzalez. “I’ve been hearing our community ask for spaces around healing and processing trauma, and this loss that we’ve all been experiencing.”

Nationally, the asylum system has ground to a halt. Since March 2020, a Department of Homeland Security rule called Title 42 has effectively closed the U.S.-Mexico border to migrants and asylum seekers. In total, Customs and Border Patrol has enforced over 751,000 “turnbacks,” returning migrants to Mexico without an opportunity to request asylum.

A Border Patrol agent in Penitas, Texas, instructs asylum-seeking migrants, as they line up along the border wall after crossing the Rio Grande (CNS photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters)

In April, DHS committed to ending the program “as quickly as possible,” and the department has loosened certain restrictions. Since May, the department admitted 2,000 of the “most vulnerable” asylum seekers into the U.S. As of publication, however, Title 42 remains largely in effect.

Who actually receives asylum?

For asylum seekers who arrived before the pandemic, the final hurdle is often the hardest to surmount.

After years of waiting in detention centers, hiring lawyers, filing paperwork and even working in the U.S., most asylum cases are rejected by the courts. In 2020, 71% of asylum petitions were denied.

“It’s an absolutely miserable system,” Farago says.

When asylum is denied, the majority of asylum seekers are funneled into deportation proceedings. From 2019 to 2020, SHC ILSP funded close to 100 removal defense cases. While SHC ILSP does not have a lawyer on staff, they coordinate with local attorneys to provide low-cost representation to clients in immigration court.

SHC ILSP primarily helps to fund the removal defense cases of families and minors in the metro Richmond area. From 2013 to 2018, ICE deported over 231,000 parents with U.S.-citizen children. If those children have no other U.S.-based family, they may be remanded into foster care.

This possibility fuels fear and distress. According to Angeles, some children at Sacred Heart Center don’t want to go to school. They worry that their parents will be arrested, and they will return to an empty home.

“The families that I see on a daily basis are in survival mode. And so a lot of times, they’re not even processing or healing a lot of that trauma,” says Tanya Gonzalez, executive director of Sacred Heart Center.

SHC ILSP is just one of the specialized services that Sacred Heart Center offers. They also have mental health and wellness programs, designed to address the trauma migrant families face. With the pandemic, requests for counseling have only increased.

Why does it matter?

Immigration — and how to reform it — is hotly contested in the U.S. political arena. However, most American citizens have little knowledge of what authorized immigration entails, and complex legal processes are reduced to political talking points.

Farago says people ask him, “Why don’t immigrants get in line?”

He responds plainly: “There is no line. There’s no line to get into. If they could just get into line, they would be glad to do it.”

At the start of his term, President Biden announced a series of immigration reforms. Broad packages, like the U.S. Citizenship Act, would open up a pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Other more targeted proposals would make specific groups, such as DACA recipients or farm workers, eligible for citizenship. While two bills have passed the House, they are stalled in the Senate.

On the U.S. border, Title 42 remains in effect. In June alone, 188,829 migrants attempted to cross the border — 104,907 were turned back without due process.

From the backlog at the border to the lengthy adjudication process, the U.S. immigration system is ill-equipped to sustain its current load of cases. And it leaves millions of Americans in a murky in-between — integrated community members who have no protected legal status.

Making the naturalization process available to undocumented immigrants is a desperately needed reform, says Bickett. “That would be an enormous opportunity for charitable teams like SHC ILSP to provide limited legal assistance and bring people out of their vulnerable status into a secure one.”

Support SHC ILSP’s work.

Note: While SHC ILSP provides funding for attorney’s fees for indigent individuals in deportation proceedings, SHC ILSP does not control or direct the course of any legal representation in those cases which they fund.

MegAnne Liebsch is the communications associate for the Office of Justice and Ecology of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. She holds an MA in Media and International Conflict from University College Dublin and is an alumna of La Salle University. She is based in Washington, DC.