Advocates and legal experts from Chicago and the city’s western suburbs are grabbing their water bottles, sunscreen and clipboards before crossing the U.S.-Mexico border Saturday and Sunday. They’ll be providing legal assistance to migrants waiting in Mexico while they seek asylum in the United States.
The group of 10 individuals — among them two attorneys and four legal experts — left Chicago Friday. They will cross a bridge that connects Brownsville, Texas to Matamoros, Mexico — that’s the place where hundreds of migrants have been sent to wait for their appearances in immigration court under President Donald Trump’s recent “remain in Mexico” program.
“There is a huge need in the area right now,” said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, executive director of PASO-West Suburban Action Project. “Our plan is to both provide some direct support in the border partnering with some border organizations and some attorneys locally but also to bring back and document that experience.”
Based in west suburban Melrose Park, PASO is a social-justice nonprofit providing advocacy and legal assistance to immigrants in the U.S.
Now that migrants have to stay in Mexico, while they apply for asylum under this new policy, it’s harder for them to get legal help from lawyers in the U.S.
For Ruiz-Velasco, who is also an attorney, this trip is also a chance to find ways to work with other attorneys remotely. At the border, immigration attorney Jodi Goodwill is trying tools like the the popular online chat application called WhatsApp to communicate faster and more efficiently with migrants. It's a tool that she says has facilitated her communication with some of them.
Goodwin will be leading the group to Matamoros Saturday and Sunday. She has a private practice but has been mostly doing pro-bono work in the last 15 months. She travels to Matamoros on the weekends to offer legal help.
On Friday, she gave the group a crash course on what to expect once they cross the border.
“It’s crazy. It’s unorganized. It’s chaos,” Goodwin said. “We’ll try to make them get in line, but crowd control is a problem.”
In the last six weeks, under “remain in Mexico,” the U.S. government has sent thousands of migrants back to Matamoros to await hearings, Goodwin said. About 600 migrants had been camping out at a nearby plaza in Matamoros, but that number varies constantly, she said. Just on Thursday, Mexican immigration agents showed up in the camp and asked migrants to clear the area by Friday. The Chicago-area delegates are heading to that plaza Saturday.
With migrants being sent back to Matamoros, Goodwin said the “know-your-rights training” that she usually conducts for migrants has evolved into a more advanced session. The new arrivals now learn how to advocate for themselves in court, which can help to speed up their cases.
Group members are planning to help migrants with drafts of their asylum applications. The group will also help migrants talk about — and put in writing — the dangers they experienced in their home countries. Those drafts will then go to volunteers across the country who will prepare the final drafts to be filed in court.
Annett Uriostegui, who grew up in Melrose Park, already knows this is going to be an extremely emotional experience for her. She is the operations, development and community engagement manager with PASO.
“It is going to be difficult,” she said. “Especially since I also come from an immigrant family, and I grew up with two undocumented parents myself.”
PASO’s legal director, Ambar Gonzalez, grew up in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Gonzalez hopes she can help as many people as she can in the two days that she will spend crossing the border, but she knows that’s not going to be enough. “I wish I could stay,” Gonzalez said. “I wish I could do more.”