Columnist Bill Newman: Long ago lessons from the Southern border

  • In this June 28 photo, Katty Rodriguez and her 3-year-old son, Jose Luis, who were recently deported from the U.S. wait for their turn in La Chacra Immigration Center, in San Salvador, El Salvador. Rodriguez was kept apart from her son for 4 months, in McAllen, Texas, and was reunited with him only on they day when they were flown back to El Salvador. AP Photo/Salvador MELENDEZ

Published: 7/7/2018 12:12:52 PM

It was 1974. I was a law student living in Texas just north of the Mexican border.

Some Friday evenings, friends and I would drive south from Edinburg, where I worked for Texas Rural Legal Aid, through the almost as sleepy towns of McAllen and Hidalgo, taking the bridge over the Rio Grande (which at that point was more like a rivulet and certainly nothing grand) to Reynosa on the Mexican side.

There we’d order spiny lobsters, corn on the cob, rice and beans, along with Dos Equis, occasionally a Modelo Negra. After dinner we’d stroll around town, then drive home. Back then, crossing the border was pretty routine.

No longer. McAllen recently made national news as the epicenter of Trump’s family separation program. A giant Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility is now located there. It’s called “Ursula” because it’s on West Ursula Avenue.

There was no Ursula when I lived in South Texas. It opened in 2014 and now is famous — or infamous — for locking up children of undocumented immigrants, as NBC News reported, “behind metal wire, the type you’d see on a neighborhood batting cage or a dog kennel.” As of Father’s Day this year, 1,129 kids were locked in Ursula’s cages.

At Texas Rural Legal Aid in 1974, I represented migrants and farm workers in unemployment, disability and Social Security hearings. TRLA was my second job on Northeastern Law School’s co-op program.

My first was with the Boston civil rights and criminal defense law firm of (Norman) Zalkind and (Harvey) Silverglate. There I worked mostly on a second-degree murder case, which meant that when I arrived in Edinburg, a homicide defense was the only kind of case I knew how to prepare.

That actually was all to the good. My work on the Southern border in 1974 cemented a crucial legal lesson. Every case against the government should be prepared as if someone’s life is at stake. That’s what gives you a chance to win.

Let’s return to the border via Northampton.

Fifteen months ago, the ACLU of Massachusetts initiated the Immigrant Protection Project of Western Massachusetts (IPP). IPP-associated lawyers represent detainees at bond hearings in Immigration Court and in some cases continue their representation — all pro bono.

IPP provides rights trainings at the ICE pod at the Franklin County jail, coordinates with a bond fund, and arranges for individual consultations with immigration lawyers. The project, in addition, trains community groups on family protection documents, assists with DACA and Temporary Protective Status (TPS) renewals, offers a translation service for pro bono attorneys working on asylum cases, and assists on religious sanctuary matters.

A crucial part of the IPP is its resource and referral network that connects immigrants to legal services. IPP works closely with over 30 community partner organizations from New Haven, Connecticut, to Turners Falls. The project depends on dozens of volunteer lawyers, bilingual paralegals and non-lawyers, and an indefatigable ACLUM staffer, the IPP coordinator, Javier Luengo-Garrido, himself an immigrant.

In June, IPP began a new project to help secure the release of asylum seekers detained by ICE on the Southern border. Twenty local IPP-affiliated lawyers and law students prepared parole petitions to end ICE’s detention of 20 transgender women seeking asylum. Those petitions, filed by the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, were prepared with skill and devotion — as if someone’s life depended on it.

All these women detainees have complied fully with American law. They reported to ICE when they arrived at the border. ICE determined that all have credible fear of persecution in their home country — El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala — because of their transgender status. All have been victims of horrifying crimes and threats. That is why they fled.

These women, if given a chance, will present a compelling case for asylum. Sadly and unnecessarily all these women have been held behind bars in New Mexico based on ICE’s recently instituted practice of locking up all asylum seekers even when, as here, they meet all the criteria for release. Why? To scare off other victims of persecution from seeking asylum.

But take heart. On July 2, Washington, D.C. federal court judge James Boasberg, in a case brought by three human rights groups including the ACLU, issued an injunction striking down ICE’s policy of categorical denials of release for asylum seekers. The injunction requires instead an individual hearing. That should help IPP’s transgender women clients, whose petitions remain pending before ICE.

In 1974 the odds were stacked against immigrants and farmworkers. Today the situation for people crossing the border is far more dire and the legal landscape far more treacherous. As we prepared the New Mexico petitions, we knew we were sailing against a strong wind. But now, given the injunction, combined with the quality of the petitions, we have reason for guarded optimism.

My faith in the lessons I learned long ago on the Southern border has been affirmed: Be strategic. Be relentless. Hold hope close to your heart.

Bill Newman, a Northampton lawyer, writes a column published the first Saturday of the month. He is host of a radio station WHMP weekday program and director of the western Massachusetts Office of ACLU of Massachusetts, which founded and is the parent organization of the Immigrant Protection Project. He can be reached at

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