In recent weeks, more than 7,000 migrants have gathered in Tijuana, hoping for asylum in the United States. Some will be deported. Others will be detained for long periods of time.
Those who have made it into California are finding support mixed with hardship. Across the border, there’s a cadre of pro bono attorneys eager to help them navigate the asylum application process. But the areas offering the most assistance also tend to have the highest cost of living.
“A lot of our immigrant community are finding themselves having to move outside of Los Angeles so that they can afford to live,” said Patricia Ortiz, a lawyer with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project.
“But once they’re there, there is not quite the same amount of resources or support that they would have here,” she said.
One of Ortiz’s clients, Rosa, fled gang violence in El Salvador with her two children. Before arriving in Los Angeles about two months ago, she pictured the city as a place full of luxury and natural beauty. Some areas are like that, Rosa said. But her corner of Los Angeles looks and feels familiar.
“I sometimes feel as if I were in the capital of El Salvador,” said Rosa, who requested that her last name be withheld because her asylum case is ongoing.
Another surprise was the high cost of housing. During their first month in Los Angeles, they lived in cramped quarters with another family that slept right next to the bathroom.
“Where they live is very small,” Rosa said. “We chose to move because we could not access the bathroom. We did not feel comfortable entering it.”
Since then, Rosa has found a studio apartment renting for $800 per month, cheap by Los Angeles standards. But even coming up with that amount will be a struggle. Asylum seekers are not eligible for a work permit until at least six months into their cases. Many work under the table to get by.
Despite these hurdles, Rosa said California has provided what she did not have in El Salvador: Safety, and the chance of a better life for her kids.
“There is opportunity here,” she said. “Here, you can realize any dream you want.”
Ortiz said as expensive as Los Angeles is, asylum seekers here have access to people who want to help.
For instance, Ortiz said, “Getting our clients connected to mental health resources outside of the L.A. region is very difficult. It’s something that we are always struggling with.”
Jenna Gilbert, another pro bono asylum attorney at Human Rights First, said it is heartbreaking to get calls from clients who plan to leave California, months into their case, because they can’t afford to stay.
She tells them they’re not just losing their lawyer. They’re leaving behind California’s Ninth Circuit for courts that may be more likely to deny asylum claims.
“If you move to a small town in Texas, housing is going to be much cheaper,” Gilbert said. “But you probably won’t have the legal resources. And you also will be in a circuit that is much less favorable to asylum seekers.”
In 2017, California lawmakers approved a state budget including $45 million in funding for immigrant legal assistance. The state’s Department of Social Services has contracted dozens of nonprofits, like Esperanza and Human Rights First, to offer legal help to thousands of immigrants every year.
The data shows that having legal representation makes a huge difference.
“Finding a lawyer is powerfully associated with positive outcomes in these cases,” said Ingrid Eagly, a UCLA law professor. She and her colleagues did a study tracking outcomes for families after being released from detention.
Between 2001 and 2016, released families that did not have a lawyer were only allowed to stay in the country 7 percent of the time. Those who had a lawyer increased their odds to 49 percent.
“They’re more likely to be able to gather evidence, to work collaboratively with their lawyer and to otherwise prepare and find witnesses who can testify in their case,” said Eagly.
The data from Eagly’s study does not include cases since President Trump took office. Under his administration, asylum denial rates have been rising.
THE LONG ROAD TO ASYLUM
Even on a day off from her job at an El Pollo Loco, Lizeth finds herself cooking. While her kids are at school, she stirs a big pot of caldo de res, or beef soup.
“I’ve always cooked,” she said. “I like it.”
Lizeth, who only wants to use her middle name, had a small business selling food out of her home in Honduras. But she said gangs threatened her for refusing to pay a “war tax,” a local form of extortion.
She and her family are still awaiting a decision in their asylum case after living in Los Angeles for more than two years. By now, they’ve settled into a routine. Mornings in their San Fernando Valley apartment are busy.
“At six o’clock, we get up and get ready,” Lizeth said. “We all leave at 7:20 a.m. At 8:30 a.m., I have to be at my job.”
It took Lizeth a year and a half to get her work permit. Her husband just received his. Like other asylum seekers, they started off renting rooms in houses crammed with other occupants.
But now, they can afford the $1,000 rent for their own place. They don’t have much, Lizeth said. But they have what they need.
“It’s one thousand percent better” than what she expected, Lizeth said. “I have dreams. I have goals. And I know I can achieve them. In my country, you have goals. You have hope. But everything remains a dream.”
Two years may sound like a long time to wait for an asylum decision. But Lizeth’s attorney, Jenna Gilbert, said asylum cases can stretch on much longer.
“Two years is on the shorter end,” she said.
As years go by, Gilbert worries that judges may start to think her clients no longer have a credible fear of gang members in their home country. She says a claim that may have been strong a few years ago, “maybe today isn’t so strong.”
“Things are changing so rapidly, there’s really no way to provide your clients with any kind of comfort, any kind of understanding of what the road ahead might look like,” Gilbert said.
UC Hastings law professor Karen Musalo attributed that uncertainty to recent actions by the Trump administration.
In a decision earlier this year, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote, “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum.”
Musalo said Sessions was ignoring the strong legal basis many migrants have for these sorts of asylum claims. But immigration judges are getting a different message.
“Certainly the administration is sending a message that people fleeing gangs or people fleeing domestic violence should not be recognized as refugees,” Musalo said.
On Wednesday, a federal judge struck down parts of the Trump administration’s policy of turning away asylum seekers based on domestic violence and gang violence claims.
“Many of these policies are inconsistent with the intent of Congress,” wrote Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court in Washington. “And because it is the will of Congress—not the whims of the executive—that determines the standard for expedited removal, the court finds that those policies are unlawful.”
At this point, Gilbert has been hoping that a decision in Lizeth’s case is delayed until 2020 or later, when there could be a new president in the White House with more favorable asylum policies.
“Now that we’re kind of at the halfway point, I’m hoping that cases slow down as much as possible until we can see the end of this administration,” Gilbert said. “Hopefully.”
In the meantime, Lizeth and her family grow more comfortable in California with each passing day. They’ve put a down payment on a car. Her kids are picking up English in school. She worries what would happen if they were deported back to Honduras.
“They think those of us coming from the United States are carrying a lot of money,” Lizeth said. “There are many cases of people who went back to Honduras and didn’t live more than a month.”
But for now, Lizeth said, the future is bright. In Honduras, holidays were hard. She could afford to give her kids gifts or a nice meal, but never both.
“Now, I’m going to make a big dinner. And my children will have clothes, shoes and a nice Christmas,” she said. “Like I haven’t had in a long time.”