In October 2018, law professor Erin Barbato and her students represented a Cuban man in a political asylum case.
He was “beaten, detained (and) threatened with disappearance by the Cuban authorities twice,” said Barbato, director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. He fled when his wife was eight months pregnant because he was accused of a crime he didn’t commit and knew he didn’t have any other options. He traveled to South America and walked all the way to the border.
He was granted asylum.
Barbato and her students want to help with even more cases like this, but due to shifting asylum policies at the border, they haven’t been able to, Barbato said. She's also seen firsthand how these changes have limited access to justice and due process for asylum seekers.
“These policies are really affecting the work I do, and the way we teach and the way that we can serve,” she said.
Arriving undocumented immigrants used to present themselves at the southern border and tell a customs and border patrol officer they’d like to apply for asylum, Barbato said. They needed to then pass a "credible fear" interview, giving the reasons they believed they would qualify for asylum.
Those who passed the interview could be released on bond or transported to detention centers throughout the U.S., like Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, to await their court hearing.
That’s where Barbato and her students found them. They regularly represented clients from Dodge seeking asylum like the Cuban man. It’s a great chance for students to learn and participate in a humanitarian effort, Barbato said.
After the Cuban man was granted asylum, the judge said he would allow IJC to defend asylum cases in Chicago via telephonic appearance, which would let IJC take more cases.
“I think it’s easier for (the judge) when the individual seeking asylum is represented and the government’s represented,” Barbato said. “And so we left there and we’re like, 'Wow, maybe we can do more.'”
So when they went back to Dodge a few weeks after that successful case, they prepared to take two asylum cases. But there weren’t any asylum seekers at Dodge, which was “really curious,” Barbato said.
And there haven’t been any since, Barbato said. That’s because many asylum seekers aren’t being allowed into the U.S. after passing a credible fear interview. Instead, even after passing the interview, they have to wait in Mexico for their court hearing, she said.
Barbato witnessed this in action this March when she went to Tijuana to serve with a binational legal services organization called Al Otro Lado. While there, she saw several other immigration trends she considers troubling.
Asylum seekers in Tijuana go through a process called “metering,” which began several years ago. Even if a migrant makes it to customs and border patrol, they are directed back to Mexico, where they are then put on a list in a notebook reportedly managed by another asylum seeker, and given a number. They wait in Tijuana for 30 to 40 days for their number to come up before they can present themselves to CBP, Barbato said. A Mexican immigration organization called Grupos Beta is thought to be responsible for managing the number of migrants who can present themselves for asylum on any day.
And the migrants don’t necessarily have anywhere to stay in Tijuana while they wait to present themselves for asylum, Barbato said.
“Many of the shelters are full, and they’re not very safe because most of these people are fleeing gang violence,” Barbato said.
Once a person's number comes up a month later, the migrant gets in line once again, where humanitarian volunteers hand out sweaters and socks because the person is headed into a holding facility (called “hielera” or “ice box,” for its frigid temperatures) for seven to 10 days as they await their credible fear interview.
One of the hardest parts for Barbato to stomach: unaccompanied minors reportedly aren’t allowed on the list. Barbato said Mexican officials have put some in child protective services, where they can be deported back to their home country.
“There’s effectively no way for unaccompanied minors to present themselves lawfully for asylum,” Barbarto said.
Barbato met with a 16-year-old girl who fled after her father sold her to a 25-year-old gang leader, and she was beaten, raped and falsely imprisoned for two years.
Now in Tijuana, the girl’s options were all bad: to wait at the one children’s shelter in Tijuana, where she “felt really alone and unsafe,” try to enter illegally where she would be subject to trafficking or the elements, or present herself to Grupos Beta and risk deportation, in which case she would “be most likely murdered because she fled the gang and disobeyed her husband.”
Barbato encouraged those who are concerned to go volunteer themselves in Tijuana, and “speak out on behalf of these children that are stranded in Tijuana.”
“The bottom line is, we can’t save everybody. Not everyone is going to qualify for asylum, that’s just not it. But at least how our laws stand right now, everyone has the right to at least seek those protections,” Barbato said. “And if our government wants to change those laws, they have to go through Congress to do so, they can’t just change these laws through policies.”