Summer on the Border: Preparing for Battle

Renowned civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson has dedicated his career to eliminating injustice in the United States by addressing poverty and demanding racial reconciliation for our country’s oppressive history towards people of color.[1] One of the principal tenets of Stevenson’s work is the importance of “getting proximate to the problem.”[2] In order to truly address the pervasive issues of injustice in our country, you have to be able to look the people in the eye who are most affected. According to Stevenson, doing death penalty work, for example, is much more effective if one is willing to go to death row and experience it first-hand. Id. Getting proximate means experiencing the problem for oneself. Instead of theoretical solutions to far-off issues, proximity also means one will be able to develop real solutions to problems they have experienced first-hand.

The first time I met Allegra Love was brief. Shortly after our introduction, she had a family emergency. We had breakfast the next morning, during which, she tried to recruit me to join her on an upcoming trip to Mexico to connect with a migrant caravan. Twice during my first year of law school, she called me to see if I could travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to help out with the badly deteriorating immigration situation, but classwork and timing forced me to decline. In the summer of 2019, I was thrilled to finally be able to say yes to Allegra. That is how I found myself driving to Santa Fe for a month-long job assisting Allegra in New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.

Allegra, or “Legs” to her friends, is an immigration attorney and the founder and executive director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project (“SFDP”), an organization that offers free legal services to the immigrant community.[3] For five years before coming to law school, I worked at a community resource center that supported immigrant farmworkers in California. That experience brought me up close and personal with many people who had crossed the border, but I was situated far from the border itself. Being in El Paso redefined what it meant to be working on the “front lines.”

I did not have a precise sense of what work on the border would entail before I went, but I trusted Legs and held myself out to do whatever she needed. After spending my first year of law school with my head buried in books, I was ready to spend some time working on the ground—perhaps even to apply some of what law school was trying to teach me. While I was confident my work on the border would be rewarding, I was also confident that it would be enjoyable. Any down time Legs and I had was filled with our shared love for laughter as well as country music, which was crucial in striking a balance with the heavy weight of our coming work.

Allegra is a force of nature within the office and her community. She has worked hard in the service of other people for so long, while also raising money to fund the project, such that she knows exactly who to call or what to do when challenges arise. She commands respect and dedication from her colleagues and somehow manages to meet every single client with depth and empathy. And when she must, she rages. It is a productive and inspiring rage, but it is rage, nonetheless. Her work brings her toe-to-toe with the horrific racist immigration policies put in place by our own government, and so a certain amount of rage is both expected and justified.

For my first few days, we worked out of the main SFDP office. Legs put me to work drafting motions that she needed. I kept assuring her I was not really qualified to write motions, and she kept assuring me that I was capable. Of course, she was right.

I also listened in to phone calls one of the SFDP attorneys was making—they were “virtual” bond hearings. The incarcerated people were at a place called Cibola, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) detention center about 140 miles away. The immigration judge was in Colorado, an entire state away. Over the phone, the SFDP attorney asserted why ICE should release the person they had in custody to a friend or family member while they awaited their date in immigration court. The court approved two of the requests and when it looked like they were going to deny the third one, the attorney withdrew the request. The judge was not convinced that the potential host family was ready to receive the detainee. The judge was concerned that the family’s rental agreement did not specify that others were allowed to move in. The attorney thought it best to do more research on the host family or work with the detainee to find a different safe place for them to stay.

The following day, we visited the ICE detention center in Cibola with some members of the SFDP team. Cibola contained a transgender pod, making it the only ICE facility in the country dedicated specifically to housing trans women.[4] All of the women in the trans pod had experienced threats and unspeakable violence in their home countries because of their identity. While being incarcerated by ICE was certainly not a pleasant experience, being housed with other trans women removed the constant threat of being attacked and abused by male detainees. Legs was instrumental in establishing the trans pod, having recognized that trans women seeking asylum are high-risk and require special protection.

SFDP staff regularly visited the trans pod to offer support and resources to the women there. We took over a mid-sized visiting room and about thirty women filed into the room. Legs and SFDP staff recognized several women but some were clearly new arrivals. I sat with Legs and listened to a couple of new arrivals recount their harrowing stories of rape, death threats, and other violence they had experienced in Honduras and El Salvador. Two of the women were the ones who had been granted bond the previous day over the phone and so would soon be on their way out. SFDP had set up a halfway house that could receive them in Albuquerque, about an hour away. Watching the women’s joyful responses when Legs told them about a place where they could eat normal food, brush their hair, and shower every day was truly inspiring. I am not sure how long they had been in detention but knowing they would be getting out soon was certainly the best news they had gotten in a while.

On my fourth day in New Mexico we made the 4.5-hour drive south to El Paso, Texas.[5] Sitting across the border from its Mexican sister city Ciudad Juarez, El Paso has long been a bilingual and bicultural place. Residents of both cities still regularly cross between the two, although wait times have greatly increased as border security has significantly multiplied in recent years. Our home for the next two weeks would be a second-floor apartment close to downtown El Paso. From the back door I could easily see into Mexico and from the front porch we could see both the federal courthouse and the “Star on the Mountain,” an El Paso nighttime landmark since 1940.[6]

On our first morning in El Paso, I accompanied Legs to immigration court in front of Judge Robert Hough. The case in front of Judge Hough pertained to one of the motions I had written which felt exciting, and the judge allowed me to sit at counsel’s table which was also a bit of a thrill for a first-year law student. The case was for a Guatemalan youth who was in deportation proceedings. However, he qualified for immigration relief and was also awaiting a green card. His date had become current and he was approved for his green card, so the motion I wrote was to ask the judge to dismiss the deportation proceedings, which he did.

However, what I quickly learned, and what Legs had prepared me for, was that immigration court was somewhat of a mess. I was struck most by how little attention the judge paid to the actual clients in the room. Our client was not present, but we watched several other cases. All the clients were monolingual Spanish speakers. If the judge spoke any Spanish, he certainly did not use any of it while in court. All of the cases we saw were dealt with at lightning speed which made it hard for me to follow, and I cannot imagine how the clients themselves felt.

The judge and the representative from the government would, off the record, quickly talk through how a case was going to progress. If a client had an attorney, the attorney would try to explain what was going on. Then, the judge would go on the record, and the courtroom translator would interpret what was happening. The client had very little, if any, input during the portion that was off the record, when things really got decided. We watched the court adjudicate several cases in this manner before we left. Legs told me that day in court was par for the course and that the judges rarely paid much attention to the clients, those whose lives were actually being affected by the outcome.

The principal reason for the El Paso visit was to launch a new legal project called the El Paso Immigration Collective (“EPIC”). EPIC is a collaboration of several immigration organizations “dedicated to implementing a massive collaborative representation strategy in five detention centers in New Mexico and West Texas that house over 3,500 ICE detainees.”[7] A major issue on the border is that so many asylum seekers are detained there without legal representation and so have very little chance of winning their cases. The immigration court system is not known for being particularly fair to migrants, and continued design and implementation of harmful policies by the Trump Administration has exacerbated the problem.

EPIC was designed to address the problem of asylum representation head-on: a bare-bones staff would manage groups of volunteer lawyers and students who would come and work in El Paso for a week at a time on asylum cases. Incoming volunteers were able to easily pick up on a case where a former volunteer had left off by utilizing software pioneered by EPIC partner, Innovation Law Lab. EPIC planned to capture as many asylum cases as possible with the goal of keeping ICE detention down to a minimum for each individual migrant.

Legs had rented a space for EPIC to be set up—formerly a legal office. We launched into the mundane but crucial tasks of buying office supplies and scouring second-hand furniture places for desks and chairs. The first two EPIC hires were going to start in three days and the office needed to be usable before then. We ordered an industrial copier, bought a clock and stocked the place with toilet paper, legal pads, and coffee.

On our second day in El Paso, Ian Philabaum from Innovation Law Lab arrived to help coordinate the EPIC launch. Ian is equal parts drive, joy, and brilliance and we became fast friends. He and Legs were the powerhouses behind EPIC, and I count myself lucky for being able to collaborate with the two of them on a project that was driven by their passion. Ian had the vision of EPIC in his head and part of our job that week was to get it down on paper so that future staff and volunteers could utilize it. In that vein, we spent hours with piles of colored post-it notes mapping out how the processes would work.

The process would begin with an intake interview done on a recently incarcerated asylum seeker. The results of that interview would determine whether EPIC would pursue bond or parole for the client, or if there was some other type of relief for which they qualified. The challenge was not how to structure the legal arguments but how to handle the high volume of cases efficiently. One of the keys to EPIC’s success was the software designed by Innovation Law Lab, where all volunteers and employees would log all their tasks and progress on each case. Permanent EPIC staff would supervise the volunteers to ensure that each case was moving along as it should.

I was awe-inspiring to be present during the nascent stages of EPIC. It was obviously only a start, but it was also the result of a lot of hard work. EPIC aimed to impact every person who was incarcerated while awaiting their court proceeding, quite an ambitious goal. But if I have learned one thing from Legs, it is that fighting this system and this administration requires bravery. There is little room for small ideas when the problems are so large.

After ten days of non-stop work setting up EPIC, Legs, Ian, and I were looking forward to a relatively calm Saturday. The actual day was anything but. In the late morning, we got word that there had been a horrific mass shooting at a Walmart merely eight miles away at a mall in El Paso. Some point later that day, we learned that the alleged shooter had traveled over 600 miles across Texas to carry out the heinous attack on the border at a place he was reasonably certain would be full of Latinx people. In the end, he murdered twenty-three innocent people because he believed Latinos were “invaders.”[8]

Being proximate to the border meant that Bryan Stevenson’s work was at the forefront of my mind throughout my entire tenure there. Stevenson has done groundbreaking work in bringing the reality of racial terror and this country’s history of lynching to the forefront. For decades in the American South following the Civil War, white people used lynching to intimidate and frighten African Americans into submission. The threat of lynching helped to maintain racial caste in the South throughout the Jim Crow era.

The day after the El Paso shooting, I came to the realization that it was indeed a modern-day lynching. Fueled by racist beliefs and a desire to maintain white supremacy, the shooter made it clear that he believed Latinos and immigrants are not welcome in the United States. Hours before the shooting, he posted what authorities referred to as a manifesto online, which referenced the invasion of Texas by Latinos. The shooter is clearly not a student of history, given the land that became Texas was part of Mexico after being settled by Spanish conquistadors. If any race has invaded Texas, it is the white race.

My ailing grandfather’s health took a turn for the worse while I was gone, and he died the day I got back to Cincinnati. He’d lived a very long and happy life, and he was the first grandparent I lost. Needless to say, I started my second year of law school in an extremely pensive state. Law school is not an environment that invites much reflection or down time. However, seeing what I did on the border put law school into an entirely new perspective. When the shooting happened, I briefly wondered if I had been too proximate to the problem. I myself was at a Wal-Mart in El Paso just days prior to the shooting to buy supplies for EPIC. Could getting proximate have cost me my life? It was a fleeting thought. Regardless, the proximity had the precise effect on me that Bryan Stevenson postulates that it would. It made me realize that law school is preparing me for battle.

  1. Read more about Stevenson and the organization he founded at www.eji.org.
  2. See Ashlie Ford, Bryan Stevenson: Get Proximate on Issues of Race and Justice, Texas Lutheran University, Jun. 6, 2020, https://www.tlu.edu/news/bryan-stevenson-get-proximate-on-issues-of-race-and-injustice.
  3. See generally Santa Fe Dreamers Project, www.santafedreamersproject.org.
  4. For more on Cibola and the trans pod, see Sylvia Johnson, The Horrors of ICE’s ‘Trans Pod’, The Atlantic, Jul. 9, 2019,   https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/593554/trans-asylum-seeker/.
  5. En route from Santa Fe to El Paso, we made a stop at The Owl in San Antonio, NM for a famous green chile cheeseburger. Highly recommended if you get the chance.
  6. For more on the Star, see Star on the Mountain, El Paso Chamber, https://www.elpaso.org/el-paso-chamber/star-on-the-mountain.
  7. See generally El Paso Immigration Collaborative, www.elpasojuntos.org.
  8. Prior to the massacre, the shooter posted a manifesto online, citing the “Hispanic invasion” as a reason for his actions. See Michael Biesecker, Reese Dunklin, and Michael Kunzelman, El Paso suspect appears to have posted anti-immigrant screed, Associated Press, Aug. 4, 2019, https://apnews.com/article/df6dc60f37664833ba3b953927ef835d.

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