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"I Hope a Lawyer Will Answer"

January 03, 2022 (2 min read)

Tyche Hendricks, KQED, Jan. 3, 2022

"Pablo López sat on the small balcony of an apartment in a Walnut Creek housing complex, dialing phone numbers for legal aid groups across the Bay Area. Just above his head, the freshly washed Chick-fil-A uniforms of his housemates were hanging to dry. He was focused on a printed list of nonprofit legal service groups and private immigration attorneys, hoping that one of them might help him make his case for asylum in the United States. He doesn’t have long to find an attorney because his case falls under the expedited asylum process created in May by the Biden administration for recently arrived families. The aim of the so-called "dedicated docket" is to resolve asylum cases more quickly, with a loose goal of a judge issuing a decision within 300 days of the initial court appearance. It’s an effort to prevent such cases from slipping into an immigration court backlog that recently surpassed 1.5 million cases. “Families who have recently arrived should not languish in a multiyear backlog,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas when the program was launched. But without legal help, López and thousands like him must navigate an unfamiliar system on their own — and face deportation if they fail. ... López, who speaks only Spanish, has no idea how to complete the detailed, 12-page asylum application form in English. But that’s the necessary first step to explain why he fears persecution, one of the five legal grounds — race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group — for seeking asylum. ... A spokesperson for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, as the federal immigration court system is known, said that while the goal of the dedicated docket is to resolve cases in less than a year, judges do have leeway to give immigrants more time to look for a lawyer. In a statement, she said “fairness will not be compromised.” ... Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said she’s also concerned about fairness. “Fair notice and access to counsel, adequate time periods within which to seek representation — [that’s] certainly an important component of providing due process,” she said. Tsankov said she’s encouraged that the director of EOIR sent a memo to the judges in November instructing them to work closely with the pro bono lawyers in their area to “accommodate and facilitate” getting free legal services to more immigrants in deportation proceedings."