Back in the Trump era, when every day brought new official policies designed to make the lives of would-be-immigrants hell, Luis Guerra, a dual-national who is currently strategic capacity officer for the Tijuana-based Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc (CLINIC), was finding it nearly impossible to keep up. Guerra, a tall, hefty man with cropped hair and bloodshot eyes, wearing a mauve T-shirt, jeans, and blue sneakers initially got involved in immigrant rights work a decade ago after seeing families with children incarcerated at the Dilley Family Detention Center in Texas. By the middle of the Trump presidency, tens of thousands of migrants had cooped up in Mexico in what were effectively refugee camps, as a result of the Orwellian-sounding Migrant Protection Protocols. Migrants were fleeing a brutal combination of poverty, government corruption, gang violence, and environmental collapse.
One of those who fled north was Honduran asylum-seeker Douglas Oviedo. Now 38 years old, he is a muscular man with a trim beard. Oviedo says that he worked as a pastor in his home country’s capital, Tegucigalpa, counseling young people who had turned to drugs and gangs, helping them plan strategies to exit from the street life, and organizing protests in which he and others urged the government to beef up security to counter gang violence. This, he says, ultimately put him on the wrong side of some violent groups, and in mid-2018, fearing for his life, he joined a migrants’ caravan leaving from the town of San Pedro Sula. On his first attempt to reach the United States, Mexican authorities detained him en route and sent him back to Honduras. He tried again, and one more time after that. That last time, with Oviedo taking a leadership role in the caravan and preaching to the destitute migrants as they walked north, they eventually reached Tijuana. “It was very difficult, complicated. We had to sleep out in the open, but with the security of being together, that was enough for us. But it’s difficult to see women whose feet were covered with blisters.”
In Tijuana, Oviedo says, desperate to reach the relative safety of the United States, he thought of trying to jump the border fence. Instead, he took the advice of a fellow caravaner and decided to claim asylum. He went to the border crossing, put his name down for the metering system that, at that point, was being used to limit the numbers of asylum seekers who could enter the US each day, and then headed to a migrant-assistance center to receive legal advice. A few weeks later, he headed to a border crossing slightly further east to claim asylum. Instead, he ran into Donald Trump’s newly implemented Protocols—which mandated that would-be asylees wait in Mexico while their cases were being decided—and was promptly sent back.
But then Oviedo’s luck began to change. By this time, Dr. Guerra’s group had started using sophisticated software, developed by the Portland, Ore.–based Innovation Law Lab, to recruit an army of volunteer attorneys to help DACA applicants and asylum seekers. “In Tijuana, I was helping lead volunteer efforts where I’d get 50-to-100 volunteers a day coming into our project, providing legal services to asylum seekers stuck at the border,” Guerra recalls. Volunteers from around the country would come to the border to study the legal assistance methods being pioneered by groups using ILL technology; and then they would adapt those methods and implement them in their own communities both in the US and in Mexico. “Right now, you have about a dozen or so projects trying to serve asylum-seekers on the southern side of the border,” Guerra estimates. During a six-month period spanning 2018–19, he continues, in Tijuana alone, those groups provided legal assistance to more than 10,000 asylum-seekers from at least 50 different countries.
Soon afterwards, Oviedo was asked to join a lawsuit challenging the Protocols, and, at the same time, his asylum case began its slow march toward a decision. With help from the Innovation Law Lab (ILL), he was able to access an attorney, who spent hours with him helping him prepare his case. And in late 2019, as a result of the attorney’s work, his asylum status was secured. He moved to Houston and reinvented himself as a house painter. The erstwhile pastor knew, however, that he was among the fortunate few, his claim validated only because of the ILL’s tireless work on his behalf. “I was very happy, but also sad, because there were 60 other migrants there that day,” he explains. “All those others were sent back across the border. Every single one—because they didn’t have attorneys.”
The Innovation Law Lab was established by attorney Stephen Manning in 2014, using a combination of private philanthropy dollars and state grants. At the time, during the Obama presidency, Manning and his colleagues realized that huge numbers of immigrants were being deported at least in part because they lacked ready access to legal representation; and that many others were unable to enter the country in the first place because of the metering system that the administration had begun enforcing on the southern border that year.
“The situation as it relates to the population of migrants in the borderlands, US immigration policy in the borderlands, the treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers in the borderlands, the goals and operations of the Department of Homeland Security continue to be abhorrent,” says San Diego–based Ian Philabaum, director of border programs at the ILL. “Our goal is to restore access to asylum for all people who wish to seek it, as is available to them under the US law code.”
Manning’s team, which has no central office and is spread out around the country, started looking for ways to efficiently coordinate the large numbers of attorneys, paralegals, law students, and others around the country who wanted to help but didn’t know how, and to rush resources, either in person or virtually, to where they were needed. It began developing networks in border towns throughout the southwest, and started cultivating funding relationships with more organizations, including with the University of San Diego’s Neighborhood and Community Engaged Partnerships program, which began channeling significant resources to the group to work on asylum issues in the Tijuana–San Diego corridor.
The strategy, says Allegra Love, an immigration attorney with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which works closely with Manning, is one of “massive collaborative representation…turning five fingers into a fist.”
Out of Manning’s insight about the need for easy-to-use tools that could link attorneys from around the country into a web of activism was born a fascinating high-tech experiment. It is one that has adapted its methods during the pandemic and that currently employs roughly two dozen people involved in generating a slew of software innovations, allowing secure but diffuse access to immigrants’ files to volunteers around the country, that immigrant rights attorneys and groups nationwide have been quick to utilize to better link in-need immigrants with attorneys. As a result, the ILL has become something of national clearing house for immigration attorneys.
In El Paso, Tex., for example, where there are five separate immigrant detention facilities and where conservative judges have worked to create what advocates decry as an “asylum-free zone,” the Immigration Collaborative and the El Paso Immigration Collaborative started using the ILL’s Border X platform, allowing lawyers to help clients from a distance and to track detainees as ICE moved them from one facility to another in the region, and found that the amount of time and work it took to get someone released from detention was reduced by 75 percent.
“It’s changing what is going to happen with your immigration case as you process it through the system,” says Nicole Ramos, the director of Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project, as she sits on a puffy pink swivel chair surrounded by her five pet dogs and a cat, in her Tijuana apartment. “The Innovation Law Lab enables us to leverage the volunteer force we have to handle the needs of thousands of people a year. It increases our capacity significantly.”
For Yanina, a Honduran asylum-seeker in her mid-20s, who says that she was kidnapped and tortured by gang members in 2019, this meant that when she arrived in Tijuana in mid-2020 after months of walking and hitchhiking north, trying to avoid both the cartels and Mexico’s police, she was rapidly linked up with advocates from Al Otro Lado. It was the height of the pandemic, and when she and her fellow asylum-seekers approached the border crossing at Chapparal, they were told that the border had been sealed off. “From that very first day we got there, we never left. We just stayed in the encampment, where we lived. It was horrible. Conditions were bad. It was cold. We were sleeping on the sidewalk,” she recalls. “Smugglers would show up and take people every day.”
Then, Yanina remembers, someone from Al Otro Lado came to the camps and gave her a flyer, and asked her to fill in a questionnaire about her situation. A few weeks later, they began helping her, and early in May, 2021, after more than a year of waiting, she and her nephew, who was traveling with her, were finally allowed into the US.
“We’ve been here for 10 days,” Yanina told me in late May. “I feel good, more calm. I don’t feel afraid like I did in the encampment. I’m grateful to be here.”
Jose Cruz, a graphic designer and software developer for the ILL, talks about one application he has worked on, a “case manager” that “allows attorneys to be able to do mass representation.” It enables lawyers around the country to quickly identify problem areas—detention centers with particularly brutal practices, methods of deportation that violate US law, breakdowns in health care access and so on—and to then come in quickly with legal representation for the would-be immigrants in those particular regions. Cruz’s colleague, 33-year-old computer coder Chris Kuttruff, calls this approach a “mass collaborative framework for immigration defense.” He continues that the ILL is a “force multiplier,” using mass production principles to create a conveyor-belt system that brings lawyers and advocates together to each work on one specific part of an immigration case and to easily synthesize their work under ILL technology portals.
“This technology, this tool, allowed people from all over the country to make an impact,” says Guerra, of the ILL’s software , which zooms in on individual detention centers and works out who has and who doesn’t have legal representation. “It’s a portal. You have to have credentials to log in. Depending on the project you’re working on, they’ll give you a specific link. On the portal, you’ll be able to create a file for the person you’re serving.” Those files allow for two things: They create a secure, but easy-to-access repository for thousands of asylum-seekers’ and immigrants’ vital documents (passports, visas, birth certificates, medical records and so on)—thus negating the risk that ICE or the border patrol will “misplace” these vital paper records; and at the same time they make it extremely easy for the ILL and its partner groups around the country and especially in border towns in the United States and in Mexico to efficiently crowd-source legal responses and assistance.
It’s all about “trying to serve massive amounts of people in really precarious situations, and do it quickly,” says Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles. The IDLC provides legal representation to hundreds of unaccompanied children spread out across 13 detention sites, and for the past three years has been using Innovation Law Lab software to help capture and store data needed in asylum cases, as well as collating information from volunteer courtroom monitors about summary deportations.
Growing out of their early successes built around deploying their new software, the ILL has partnered with a variety of groups, ranging from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU to CLINIC, to sue federal agencies and departments, and attempt to force a broader overhaul of the country’s immigration systems. “Stephen give people hope,” argues Katherine McDowell of the Oregon chapter of the ACLU. “His strategies and understanding of the way you can apply pressure to certain points and have a major impact balance the scales in some way. He thinks very creatively and strategically about how it’s a David and Goliath thing. Stephen understands the landscape of the immigration system as well as anybody in the country right now.”
When, in the spring of 2018, the federal government suddenly brought 125 immigration detainees to the Bureau of Prisons–run facility at Sheridan, 75 miles outside of Portland, ILL attorneys descended on the prison. They were turned away at the gates. A week later, the ACLU and the ILL jointly filed a lawsuit asking that the prison be required to guarantee access to attorneys; shortly afterward, a judge granted that request, and also ordered that all detainees, wherever they might be, be provided that right—so that ICE couldn’t simply shuffle the detainees off to another facility to get around the right-to-an-attorney ruling at Sheridan. “At the end of the day,” recalls McDowell, “every single one of those detainees who got counsel was released on bond into the community.”
During the Trump era, with the bottleneck in Mexico and the government keeping shoddy records at best, this rapid-response system became particularly vital. “It was horrific,” Toczylowski recalls. “A degradation of due process on a scale none of us ever thought we’d see in a US courtroom. We worked really closely with the Innovation Law Lab identifying the first people sent back into Mexico.”
Today, in ways large and small, due process is being restored—although it is still very much a work in progress, as seen in the brutal response to Haitian asylum-seekers in Texas in September. And yet, the sheer scale of the challenge on the southern border means that many thousands of migrants remain cooped up in detention centers waiting for their day in court, or at risk of summary deportation under Title 42, ostensibly as an emergency response to the pandemic.
On the border bridge at San Ysidro, just south of San Diego, I meet up with 32-year-old Alex Mensing, in old brown shoes with orange laces, brown khakis, and a short-sleeved blue shirt, his N95 mask adorned with a Mexican flag. During the Trump era, Mensing, who is a citizen-journalist and an immigrant rights advocate and communications worker with the ILL, was, during the Trump years, placed on a Customs and Border Patrol blacklist as a result of his work with immigrant caravans, and for several years was subjected to extensive secondary inspections or interrogations by terrorism task force members every time he crossed the border from Mexico, where he now lives, to the US.
Nowadays, he is able once again to cross the border more easily. Yet the asylum-seekers he works with are still being stopped from entering the country, and the need for ILL technology providing them access to attorneys remains extreme. “There’s this continuum of increasing blocks of people claiming asylum,” he explains. “Just six years ago, anybody could walk up and tell CBP they were here to claim asylum. It’s crazy to think how far we’ve gone.” In Tijuana, where he lives, he says, “the shelters are overflowing. There are slums with extra rooms built into their rooms, and even those are expensive. There’s a huge buildup of asylum-seekers.”
Today, under Biden, sadism may no longer be a motivating force in immigration policy, but many of the Trump-era obstacles to migration, especially those marketed as emergency public health responses to the pandemic, remain in place. Increasingly, immigrant rights groups are realizing that their responses have to be tailored for the long haul; there will likely be no quick fixes.
For Maria Silva, who works closely with the ILL in her capacity as director of USD’s Neighborhood and Community Engaged Partnerships program, the current reality is “horrible,” but the work of the ILL and others along the border gives her some optimism that change is possible. “Their capacity to increase legal support has made a significant change,” she says. “Their work around policy change, their lawsuits against the government, their reporting and advocacy, that’s a huge contribution to the field in general.”