Project “Puentes Libres” (Bridges of Freedom) to Connect Asylum Seekers Forced Back to MX With U.S. Lawyers Via “Virtual Bridge”

Gebe Martinez

EL PASO, TX - Asylum seekers who are now forced by the Trump administration to apply for protection from outside the U.S. will soon get free legal services from U.S.-based lawyers under a pilot program, “Puentes Libres” (Bridges of Freedom), that will operate through teleconferencing between El Paso and Cd. Juárez, MX, sponsors announced Tuesday.

During a news conference at the Cd. Juárez Municipal Government office, hosted by Juárez Mayor Armando Cabada Alvídrez, sponsors issued a call for attorneys to volunteer for this humanitarian initiative, necessitated by the harsh, anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration, and echoed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who recently announced refugees would no longer be allowed to resettle in the state. El Paso immigration courts have one-fourth of the approximately 15,000 cases currently open nationwide under the disingenuously named “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) imposed by the Trump administration last year.

The new legal aid program for asylees and their families who have fled unsafe conditions in their homelands only to be forced to wait in Mexico, is led by El Paso-based state Sen. José Rodriguez. Trump’s policy “places migrants and refugees in immediate danger. This policy seeks to remove them from our reach and line of sight and renders our community unable to provide assistance that we have historically provided,” Rodriguez said, citing the need to build a “virtual bridge” through “Puentes Libres” program.

Hispanic Federation, which created its Latino Immigrant Families Together (LIFT) program after the Trump administration created its “zero tolerance” anti-immigrant policy, donated 50 laptop computers set up with the technology needed for the project, with support from Charter Communications.

“U.S. immigration policies have made it virtually impossible for those families to even speak to an attorney to help them pursue their claims,” said Stephanie Gomez, director of Immigration Initiatives for Hispanic Federation.

“The ‘Puentes Libres’ project will change that by allowing migrants to have confidential one-on-one conversations with attorneys in the US to help them decide their next steps and in many cases lead to actual representation. Through this project we are saying that all asylum seekers deserve to be given a fair chance to be heard,” Gomez added.

Other partners in the legal aid project include Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which will lead the training for attorneys; Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services; Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; and the Municipal Government of Cd. Juárez, and federal and local immigration agencies in Cd. Juárez.

"Access to a secure and reliable channel of communication between our clients in Mexico and legal counsel in the United States is fundamental to fair representation," Nicolas Palazzo, Staff Attorney for Las Americas said. "Less than two percent of migrants in MPP are represented by counsel. A welcoming and safe space like this will help bridge the digital and physical divide between attorneys willing to help and individuals who need help."

Under the Trump administration’s rules, asylum seekers can only enter the U.S., and await adjudication of their claim, with the help of a lawyer. Through this new program, pro bono attorneys will provide full legal representation for pre-screened asylum claims, consulting with clients via remote video conferencing throughout the duration of an asylum claim. Attorneys who are willing to offer pro bono services must be fully bilingual in Spanish and English, be available for teleconferencing appointments, and be able to travel to El Paso as required. A training will be provided for volunteer attorneys in this program through Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.

“The inhuman, anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration, and mirrored in states like Texas, have created the humanitarian crises that now exists at the U.S.-Mexico border,” Hispanic Federation President Frankie Miranda underscored. “This important partnership between advocacy groups and local officials reflects our commitment to do whatever it takes to provide help to our fellow human beings.”

Attorneys who are interested in volunteering may contact Diana Nevárez Ramírez, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Volunteer Coordinator at diananevarez@las-americas.orgPro bono attorney information can be found here.

Audio of news conference can be found here, 17:18 minutes into the recording. Remarks are in Spanish and English.