The Otero County Processing Center is a squat, beige facility surrounded by desert, about 30 minutes outside El Paso, in Chaparral, New Mexico. Last fall, a group of volunteers drove out to the site, to meet with some of the asylum seekers detained there.
“We’re truly in the middle of nowhere,” says Elaina Vermeulen, a legal assistant visiting from California.
She and the other volunteers were helping out with the newly-launched El Paso Immigration Collaborative, or EPIC. It’s a group of immigration lawyers and advocacy groups working to bring more legal representation to detained asylum seekers in the region.
Otero is one of five immigration detention facilities in the El Paso sector, which covers West Texas and New Mexico. It’s a large jurisdiction with a lot of need, and a limited number of lawyers.
Vermeuelen and the other volunteers had a list of asylum seekers they planned to interview.
“We’ll meet with them one at a time for about 15, 20 minutes,” immigration lawyer Susan Beaty says. “And talk to them about why they fled their home countries, their experience entering the United States, their experience in immigration custody since they crossed in.”
Some of those interviews took place through thick panes of Plexiglas, over crackling phone lines. The volunteers then brought the information back to EPIC, to determine whether the detainees they spoke with may be eligible for bond or parole, and in need of legal representation.
Allegra Love is the director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project and one of the leaders behind EPIC.
“The point of EPIC is to try and essentially crowdsource the issue of representation in these detention centers,” Love said, “We’re calling it super massive collaborative representation.”
Volunteers from all over the country and local university students visit detention centers and conduct legal screenings.
“And then we have partnerships with national law firms and national agencies that are hooking us up with remote pro bono attorneys so we can bring representation to as many people as we possibly can to get them released,” Love said.
Getting people released — on bond or parole — is a key part of the collaborative. Outside of detention, it’s far easier for asylum seekers to access legal services. And they can pursue their cases in a part of the country where they’ll face better odds in immigration court. Asylum denial rates in the El Paso sector are some of the highest in the country.
Beyond release, EPIC has a second goal. The group says it’s meticulously tracking data to get a better sense of what’s happening inside detention centers.
Collaborative member Ian Philabaum, with the Innovation Law Lab, said EPIC can potentially use this data to push for systemic change.
“The scales are tipped so heavily against an asylum seeker in this jurisdiction,” Philabaum said. “By inserting legal assistance and by inserting immigration attorneys and by looking at what happens in these spaces in mass, we push back against that imbalance in power and we implement a healthier ecosystem for adjudicating of these asylum cases.”
Take for example, Allegra Love said, judges denying hearings over the telephone, which allow lawyers to represent their clients remotely.
“We all know it’s happening,” she said. “We all have had it happen to us. We know it anecdotally.”
For now, though, it’s just that — anecdotal. But Love said EPIC can track denials over the course of a year.
“When we have a thousand data points on that, then it’s something we can actually use as a powerful tool to make things happen,” like potentially filing a lawsuit, Love said.
She also hopes this model can eventually be replicated in other regions with remote facilities and limited resources. She notes that Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently opened several new centers in rural Louisiana, another place where detainees will likely face the same challenges.
This story is the second in a two-part series about access to legal services for asylum seekers detained in the El Paso sector. Click here to read the first story.