Meet the Women Fighting America's Border Battle
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there are only a handful of lawyers dealing with tens of thousands of asylum cases.
By Nick Fouriezos
The refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, was buzzing the morning of Feb. 29. Hundreds sat on concrete steps, their children in their arms, clamoring to hear the half-dozen or so lawyers delivering the news. The night before, many of them had gathered their meager possessions and began queuing at the Liberty International Bridge into Brownsville, Texas. After what had been months of fruitless waiting, they thought they may finally get their claims for asylum processed and be able to leave this place rife with extortion and violence. One mother had even dressed her tiny son in a suit, hoping perhaps that today was finally the day they would see the inside of a courtroom.
But the lawyers knew their message was disappointing. While the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco had temporarily struck down the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy — officially titled the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP — within a few hours the decision was paused until the Supreme Court weighed in. They gathered to discuss tactics, led by the linchpin of their efforts, Charlene D’Cruz, a hard-charging, Mumbai-born immigration lawyer and head of Project Corazon, the Matamoros legal office set up by the nonprofit Lawyers for Good Government. She scribbled talking points on white printer paper: “Biz as usual” read one bullet point, a nod to the fact that the ruling had changed nothing in the short term. “General fuckery” read another, a nod to her ever-mounting frustration.
They then separated, with each lawyer delivering these charlas, “chats,” across the camp of more than 2,500 people. These attorneys are part of a small, insanely overworked club of mostly women navigating the front line of America’s immigration debate, which is now concentrated in a handful of border towns teeming with migrants.
Project Corazon lawyer Kim Hunter — who wears a “My New Year’s Resolution Is to Drown the Patriarchy in the Sea of Male Tears” T-shirt — was peppered with questions in frantic Spanish. Karla Rosario, a Dominican paralegal who immigrated to Philadelphia as a teenager, helped translate the trickier parts. A mother was asking, if her children presented themselves to Border Patrol without her, would it hurt her own asylum case? It’s an all-too common, if tragic, calculation. Unaccompanied minors have to be brought into the States, where they are safer and have a much better chance of getting a lawyer and finding a legal path to stay.
The sledgehammer Trump has taken to America’s immigration policies has proven far more effective at keeping immigrants out than anything made of brick and mortar.
Such is the situation in Matamoros and six other Mexican cities stretching along the border from California to Texas, where some 60,000 migrants have been displaced since the start of the Remain in Mexico policy in early 2019. The announced intent of the policy was to deter migrants, particularly women and children, from embarking on the dangerous journey from countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. And immigration has decreased: In early January, the Trump administration announced seven straight months of decline in illegal immigration (although the numbers jumped once more in February).
But courts have ruled that the policy also breaks U.S. and international laws regarding asylum seekers. And it has placed almost the entirety of the immigration debate’s burden on lawyers in just a few hot spots along the southern border. Nearly all of these lawyers are women, many working for far less pay and recognition than they could receive in different fields and different cities. The situation is especially evident in Brownsville, where local advocates estimate there are maybe 15 lawyers total crossing the border on a regular basis to represent refugees. Of that group, only a few are immigration specialists qualified to represent clients in court. “We have a tiny handful of lawyers trying to provide representation to all these people who in the past would be spread throughout the country,” says Jodi Goodwin, a private practice attorney based in nearby Harlingen, Texas.
As a result, about 5 percent of all MPP applicants actually get a lawyer in court. That is critical, because those who do get representation have a five times greater chance of winning their asylum request, according to federal data gathered by Syracuse University. Overall, less than 1 percent of all MPP cases are successful. “I tell people that if you have 100 pesos, take one peso and cut it in half — your chances are less than that,” says D’Cruz, a firebrand under 5 feet tall, known for casually reminding Border Patrol agents towering over her that she’s been taking boxing classes recently.
Despite the sobering statistics against them, her motivation to keep going is simple: “This is the front line,” says the immigration lawyer, who left behind her practice in Wisconsin to fight this battle. Whether they can hold it will have deep ramifications — not just for the asylum seekers here, but for the immigration debate waging in Washington and throughout the rest of America.
After the charlas, the lawyers reconvene at the Project Corazon office, a two-story building where an attendant admits guests through a Ring video doorbell. The precautions are necessary. The U.S. State Department has released a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” advisory for this part of Mexico due to high rates of kidnappings, murder and rape. A week before, just a few doors down, a shootout between cartel members and Mexican police rattled the street in broad daylight.
To be here, these women have put their lives on pause and at risk. And each of them has their motivations. Cinthia Romo, a Mexico-born college student raised in Kansas City, took off a semester from Grinnell College to collect the stories of migrants. “It’s the whole Ivory Tower, where everyone sits in their book clubs and talks about the situation but doesn’t actually do anything about it,” she says. Rosario, who immigrated to Philadelphia from the Dominican Republic at 16, remembers the teachers who wrote her off as having no future other than being a clerk at a bodega or a drug dealer’s girlfriend.
“It’s super sad. Because we are trying to do our best, but we don’t have the resources to do our best,” says the 26-year-old paralegal, who often finds herself laughing inappropriately at the absurdity of the obstacles they face, to keep from crying.
Indeed, when Donald Trump campaigned in 2016, he promised a border wall. But the sledgehammer he has taken to America’s immigration policies since becoming president has proven far more effective at keeping immigrants out than anything made of brick and mortar. “This humanitarian approach will help to end the exploitation of our generous immigration policies,” then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in January 2019, announcing the policy that shifted the U.S. migrant crisis outside its borders. The shift requires that asylum seekers wait in Mexico before facing judgment in tent courts hastily constructed across the border in Brownsville, with judges often presiding via video conference from hundreds of miles away in Dallas or Houston.
The stories here of life in limbo are wrenching. One Guatemalan woman tries desperately to learn English, struggling with the “wh” sound of “who, what, where,” after having already seen her two young sons cross without her two months ago. She has no idea where they are now. One father told a lawyer that he brought his preteen daughter here to escape gang violence. He thought that even if he was denied, she would be let in, since she had a grandmother already in America. But Border Patrol told them to wait in Mexico, and within days of being in the camp she was kidnapped and raped by cartel members before being returned. “With past policies, she would have been having cookies with grandma,” says Erin Thorn Vela, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Instead, she was stuck in a dangerous Mexican camp.”
It’s anger at those situations that drives Hunter, who forsook her Minnesota law practice to begin working on border issues, beginning with family detentions in 2014. “Pure bile or rage — whatever is more effective,” she says. It’s no surprise to her that women are leading the charge in situations like this: While more women attend law school than men these days, they also are disproportionately more likely to go into humanitarian work rather than take large salaries at big law firms. “That’s where you see the separation of gender,” she says.
Yet despite the challenges they face, these four women at the heart of the border crisis have forged a powerful connection. Hunter and D’Cruz, who are in their fifties, watch out for their two young coworkers, an “auntie” type of relationship — that includes occasional teasing over tacos about the cute “mariachi boys” staying in their hotel.
“This is a car full of feminists,” Rosario declares later, back on American soil.
“Feminists? No, chingonas,” laughs Romo.
Translation? “Ballbusters,” one says. “Badasses,” adds another.
Before night falls, the women leave the Project Corazon office to head back over the Gateway International Bridge. It’s a journey rife with irony: The final day of the Charro Days Fiesta, an annual, two-nation festival celebrating the sister-city relationship between Brownsville and Matamoros, is underway. The event is so well-known that Barack Obama stopped by during his 2008 presidential campaign, chomping on tortas with locals. Amid the immigration-law tension, festivity remains. Parade floats filled with young women in traditional huipil dresses and men in charro apparel line the streets, and crowds of cheering Mexicans and Americans are dancing.
Still, there are signs of the new realities shaped by the Trump administration’s immigration policy. Until recently, Border Patrol would open the bridge (and border) for the day, allowing crowds to freely float between two cities, two nations. Now dozens of Matamoros residents watch the spectacle through mesh nets, still waiting in line to cross. “So much for sister cities,” Romo says. Border Patrol agents begin to leave their posts to watch the multicultural celebration. “If I brought one of my disabled children over,” D’Cruz gripes, “they probably would deny me entry.”
Despite her frustration, there are signs of progress. So far, Project Corazon and D’Cruz have been able to get 60 members of families facing extraordinary sicknesses or disabilities safely into the States through their advocacy. They are the only ones keeping a record of these asylum seekers, including their names, countries of origin and the situations they are fleeing, all information that will prove critical in court. And for all her F-bombing bluster, D’Cruz believes the more damaging effects of Trump’s immigration policy can be overturned in time.
After all, she has seen it happen before, as a founding member, in 1989, of the Florence Project in Arizona, which sought justice for Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants who faced discrimination while filing for asylum. “People were just getting deported left, right and center,” she says, before a major victory came with the “ABC Settlement Agreement” that eased resettlement claims in 1991.
“That was how they took care of all those thousands of people then,” she says, and she’s hopeful something similar could happen today. While the Supreme Court last week allowed the MPP to remain in place for now, it will likely take up the case as soon as the fall. Resolution may well be on the horizon. In the meantime, the chingonas of Matamoros will be paving the way.
- Nick Fouriezos