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US action in Latin America boosts border surge, say future immigration attorneys

Law school students (l-r) Elizabeth Mullins, Philip Hamilton and Annery Miranda volunteered at Northeastern's Immigrant Justice Clinic. They helped process asylum claims on behalf of Central Americans at the U.S. border. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

What’s really driving record numbers of asylum-seekers to the U.S.-Mexican border?

News headlines say migrants are either escaping poverty, violence, harsh weather, or government corruption. But law students in Northeastern’s Immigrant Justice Clinic say there’s an elephant in the room that isn’t being addressed: the United States’ own complicity going back decades.

“U.S. intervention has really been the root cause of why some people are having to leave their countries,” explains Elizabeth Mullins, who is in her final year at the Northeastern School of Law. She points to a U.S.-backed coup in the 1950s that overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president, a move that reverberates some 70 years later, as one example.

The CIA operation “created a lot of instability that people are still fleeing from,” she adds.

U.S.-fueled involvement in El Salvador and Honduras has also contributed to the situation that now unfurls at the Texas-Mexico border: the highest number ever of migrant apprehensions over the past year, eclipsing the previous record set more than two decades ago.

Democrats and Republicans point fingers over who’s to blame. The Biden administration is considering paying millions to families separated at the border under former president Donald Trump’s policy.

Northeastern students who work directly with asylum applicants say step one in getting a handle on the border situation is fixing U.S. asylum laws.

“What’s really frustrating is how arbitrary everything is depending on how and when people enter the U.S.,” says Mullins. People living at the border and waiting to enter the U.S. to apply for asylum don’t have the same access to legal services as they would if they were pursuing their case inside the country, she explains.

Another problem is that it’s difficult to win asylum without a lawyer. This is especially important because, unlike in criminal law, immigrants aren’t provided with free legal counsel.

“In a perfect world,” Mullins adds, “the law would be simpler so that people could more easily be granted asylum without legal help. However, with the law being what it is, probably one of the most important things that our clinic did was to be able to work remotely so that we could help provide legal services where they’re harder to access.”

Philip Hamilton, whose background was in human rights before pursuing a law degree, sees another legal headache: limitations on non-citizens’ ability to appeal certain decisions by immigration judges and the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals, which are part of the executive branch, not elements of the judicial branch of the government.

U.S. immigration law limits regular federal courts’ ability to review immigration decisions, particularly around certain decisions to issue a final removal order, he says.

“You need to be very specific and very careful about how you bring a claim,” he says. Hamilton proposes that one way to address that problem is legislation that would grant federal courts more authority to review decisions by immigration courts and the BIA.

“It would open up some more avenues for using the legal system to advocate more for immigrant rights,” Hamilton says. He also proposes a rethinking of how and when the U.S. ships weapons to other countries. A contested presidential election in Honduras years ago used U.S.-provided tear gas canisters and other weapons to crack down on protesters.

“We’re playing exactly into some of these root causes by providing resources to the perpetrators of violence,” Hamilton says.

Serving her community is why Annery Miranda, who is also in her final year at Northeastern Law, wants to be an immigration attorney. She is a U.S.-born daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Being bilingual and bicultural is a rarity among immigration attorneys, she says, and being raised in Latino communities helps her forge relationships with clients.

“It’s a privilege to bear witness to their harrowing stories,” she says. “That’s the reason that I want to do this work.”

Miranda spent last summer volunteering with the clinic, allowing students like her, Mullins, and Hamilton to do work they find immensely rewarding―advocating on behalf of non-U.S. citizens on immigration matters. Border work, in fact, has recently become the clinic’s primary focus.

The three students, under the watchful tutelage of Hemanth Gundavaram, the clinic’s co-founder and current Northeastern law professor, worked directly with migrants who came through the border, offering remote assistance from Boston. The clinic works in tandem with Houston-based Lawyers for Good Government, which offers pro bono services.

Ilana Greenstein, a Northeastern faculty member and law school graduate who works for the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, had been leading volunteers to the border for years before the pandemic.

It was there, in fact, where Miranda initially saw what life was like for asylum-seekers when she visited a Texas-based detention center for women and children in her first year of law school.

She spent a week at the South Texas Family Residential Center―the largest immigrant detention center in the United States―interviewing women and preparing them for legal proceedings. “A lot of them were fleeing really dangerous situations,” she recalls. 

Miranda thinks that since U.S. foreign policy with respect to Central America is one of the root causes of migration, it ought to grapple with past harms through changes in its immigration policies.

“We have done terrible things in Central America and we’re not taking responsibility for it,” she says.

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