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Experiences of an Asylum Attorney in New Mexico

/ Blog Post

Photo of Sophia Genovese
Photo of Sophia Genovese

By Sophia Genovese, a 2022 Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, where she is also a managing attorney. 

The decision to leave one’s home country is unimaginably challenging. People do not want to leave their homes, but they know they have no other chance for survival than to flee.  

The journey to the United States is dangerous. Every single person I’ve spoken to who has migrated to the US has faced kidnapping, extortion, and physical violence at the hands of criminal actors throughout Central America. They consider themselves lucky because they made it—though not everyone does. People are aware of these risks before they flee their home countries and still make the decision to leave, indicating just how significant the threat of harm is back home. 

In my role at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC), I work directly with people who immigrate to the US and are seeking humanitarian protection as well as people from Afghanistan who aided the US military effort in the war against the Taliban and assist people fleeing political persecution by their governments in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and El Salvador. I counsel people fleeing horrific violence by guerrilla groups and other armed actors whom their governments are unable and unwilling to control.  

I encounter people simply seeking safety and dignity for themselves and their families, who, once at the US border, face additional barriers to protection. For example, border patrol officers regularly return people to Mexico in violation of international and domestic laws, and dark-skinned people are unable to access border processing appointments because the technology used by our government cannot recognize darker faces—just to name a few. 

I encounter people simply seeking safety and dignity for themselves and their families, who, once at the US border, face additional barriers to protection.

Sophia Genovese /
2022 Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program

If permitted entry into the US, individuals are either given instructions to appear in immigration court at a later date, or alternatively, they are sent to an immigration detention facility. In my work at NMILC, I encounter people with nearly identical backgrounds and no criminal history, but one will be released while the other is detained —a random and arbitrary decision driven by the availability of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bed space with disastrous consequences.   

If someone is detained in ICE custody, they are far less likely to obtain legal counsel and far more likely to lose their cases and be deported. Only 10-14% of all detained immigrants secure legal counsel compared to nearly 40% for non-detained immigrants. Immigrants in civil immigration proceedings, including those who are detained, are not appointed free legal counsel. Often, many detained immigrants in New Mexico appear unrepresented in their proceedings. There are only approximately six pro bono attorneys in New Mexico, including myself, who can assist detained immigrants. That is six attorneys for approximately 2,000 people.

There are only approximately six pro bono attorneys in New Mexico, including myself, who can assist detained immigrants. That is six attorneys for approximately 2,000 people.  

Sophia Genovese /
2022 Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program

Even people in detention who have legal counsel are denied asylum at far higher rates than non-detained asylum seekers. Only 3% of unrepresented detained people win their applications. Represented detained immigrants are successful 32% of the time, compared to a 78% success rate for non-detained immigrants with legal counsel.  

Many factors impact a detained person’s ability to win their application. At its core, though, immigration detention intentionally disempowers, disorients, and creates insurmountable barriers for asylum seekers to win their asylum claim. Every day, legal practitioners observe people with strong asylum claims lose and be deported back to danger due to barriers such as the inability to access information in one’s own language, the Biden administration’s asylum ban, and horrific mistreatment and human rights abuses in detention centers. 

As an immigration attorney who works with immigrant communities in a border state, I have observed the violent consequences of certain policies intended to curb immigration. The result is rarely an end to migration to the US. Instead, we observe people driven further into the shadows and made vulnerable to smugglers and traffickers and an increasingly backlogged immigration system. We’re witnessing a stripping of access to free and fair immigration systems in communities that could otherwise be invested in.  

An alternative vision does exist wherein people have access to basic dignity and due process. For example, case management models where families have immediate access to social and legal services are far less costly to taxpayers and far more effective with integrating families in the US. Investments in these systems have benefited immigrants and citizens alike and help to ensure that immigrant neighbors have what they need to thrive and contribute to their new homes. Likewise, a return to compliance with international standards for qualifying for refugee status would have an immediate, life-changing impact on millions of people across the country. Winning asylum would improve access to work authorization and stability, that is otherwise not attainable under our current legal system.  

Until we meaningfully invest in these policy alternatives, the US government will continue to cause harm to immigrant communities and cause further chaos in our immigration system.  

To learn more about the Disaster Resilience Program, click here. To learn more about Sophia’s work, click here. 

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