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Immigration lawyer helps detainees in New Mexico know their rights

August 25, 2014 at 6:44 PM EDT
A group of lawyers filed a lawsuit against the federal government on Friday, charging immigration officials with violating the due process rights of detainees held at a New Mexico detention center. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery talked Laura Lichter -- with one of the attorneys who offers free legal services at the facility -- about her experience and interaction with detainees.
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GWEN IFILL: A group of lawyers is charging immigration officials with violating the due process rights of detainees held at a New Mexico detention center. They filed a lawsuit against the federal government Friday.

Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery talked with one of the attorneys offering free legal services at the facility before the suit was filed.

It’s part of our series of conversations with those on the front lines of the immigration crisis.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: This is the third time in less than a month that Laura Lichter has driven nearly 550 miles from her home in Denver to Artesia in southeastern New Mexico. She comes at her own expense, and a hotel stay in this oil town isn’t cheap, upwards of $150 a night. Gas and meals all add up.

Plus, the 47-year-old lawyer has left behind an immigration practice in Colorado, where an hour of her time can cost $300 or more. She is the immediate past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Lichter shows up at the federal law enforcement training center at 7:00 a.m., ready to meet with clients she barely knows and whom she charges nothing.

There are women and children who tried to owner the U.S. illegally, were captured at the border and sent here. Most are making claims of asylum. When in Artesia, Lichter works a 15-hour day, culminating with an evening session at a local church, where the pro bono attorneys share stories.

We caught up with her during an unusual midday break and began by talking about what happens when an immigrant says she’s afraid to be sent home.

LAURA LICHTER, Immigration Lawyer: Well, ideally this person is telling the government at the moment they have been arrested that they actually have a fear of being sent back home.

And if they tell the government that they’re afraid to go back home, they’re supposed to be referred for an interview on what’s called an asylum claim. The government official that reviews this case is supposed to look at whether or not that person actually has a reasonable possibility of being able to prove a case.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: So what is that reasonable basis for asylum?

LAURA LICHTER: Asylum and being able to qualify for asylum means that the person has to prove to the satisfaction of the government that they have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of one of five bases.

They have to show a connection between the harm that they’re afraid of and the reason why someone is trying to harm them. And that can be anything from their religion, their race, nationality, politics, or what we’re seeing a lot of here is a particular social group. And a social group is defined as something that is an immutable characteristic, the type of thing about yourself that you really can’t or shouldn’t have to change.

So, for example, your gender might be part of the social group, your experiences, being forced into recruitment by a gang, having a gang member tell you as a 14-year-old girl that now you’re going to be the girlfriend of this individual who is in the gang.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: U.S. officials are saying that a lot of these women and children are economic migrants or they have come here because they think that they are not going to be sent home.

LAURA LICHTER: I find this ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous that there is a bias against these women, that the people entering on the southern border right now in this humanitarian crisis are all economic migrants, that they’re here because they want to work, not because they are running away from something.

And nothing could be farther from the truth. It is so bizarre to see a government attorney arguing that the young mother next to you and her 7-year-old and her 3-year-old are a national security threat, because somehow the government thinks that if any one of these women escape from this institution, by being able to pay a reasonable bond, that somehow that means that more people will come.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Is there something different happening here in terms of the speed of the process?

LAURA LICHTER: If you are an immigration lawyer, this is kind of like watching Hurricane Katrina happen. I have never seen a process where the government was so hell-bent on moving people through a process, just completely pro forma, like a matter of checking boxes, with the assumption that nobody here has a real case, and that we just need to run them through.

It is — I run out of words to describe how frustrating, maddening, Kafkaesque, unfair, irrational some of the procedures have been that we have seen. We have seen cases that have been pushed through this process so fast that there literally could not have been any meaningful opportunity for the person to be heard.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The government says, look, we’re protecting rights. These women have access to counsel.

What’s your view on that?

LAURA LICHTER: When these one of these women would first go in front of an asylum officer, the government will hand them a sheet of paper that tells them how to find free legal services.

We’re in Artesia, New Mexico. We’re about three-and-a-half from El Paso, and we’re about the same distance from Albuquerque. There are no legal services providers in this entire state that are funded to do representation for people who are in detention. The legal services list that the government is providing to these individuals has the names of three organizations out of El Paso, Texas, none of which set up or funded to actually do direct representation.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: So what is it that you have done?

LAURA LICHTER: The first thing we recognized is that people — people didn’t understand their rights. They didn’t understand, for example, that they could ask for time to try to find an attorney.

They were under the impression that, if they tried to delay their case, that the case would just kind of go on without them. They were told that they would just get deported if they didn’t show up to a hearing. There was a lot of misinformation.

This is probably the one thing I am most proud of in my legal career. This was a neat little, very subversive tool. And these forensic green sheets basically say, know your rights. Immigration cases are complex. You have a right to a lawyer. You have a right to ask for time to talk to a lawyer. No one can deport you without you having an opportunity to present your case.

And, most importantly, this is my little personal hammer. We gave them a tool. We gave them something that they could use to have a voice, because on the reverse side of this form, it says, I would like to continue my case so I may seek legal help.

And it doesn’t sound really dramatic, and you might wonder why I’m getting all choked up about this. But this changed everything. When we presented these, they flew around the detention center. And ever since we did that, people realized that there were lawyers here, and they cared about what was going on. And they were going to help these women.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: A final question. It’s stressful, long hours, expensive. Why do you do it?

LAURA LICHTER: I have never felt more pressured in my life that, on my work, what I am doing, people’s lives are depending. But I have also never felt more energized and more rewarded by what I have ever been doing. This is the highest and best use I have ever seen for my little piece of paper law license.

And I will tell you that, almost to a single person, every single person that we have had that has come down and volunteered — and these are — these are lawyers who have dropped everything. They’re on their own dime. They have abandoned their practice, you know, everything, to come down here and do this. Almost every single person that has been down here has said: I’m coming back. I’m coming back.

GWEN IFILL: Laura Lichter plans to return to Artesia in September.

For the record, we have asked for an interview with an official in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement service.

Online, you can see more of the interview with Lichter, where she describes conditions inside the detention center, plus, Kathleen’s reporter’s notebook about another dispute there over crayons for children.

We will continue our series of conversations on this issue tomorrow, when we talk with an Arizona rancher and veterinarian who works along the border.

Hear more voices from the immigration debate. PBS NewsHour has invited an immigration judge, a border patrol officer and an immigration lawyer to give a personal account from their front-seat view of the clash over the recent influx of migrants from Central America. On Tuesday’s program, we hear from an Arizona rancher. Watch these conversations in the playlist below: