For the past decade, Morgan Weibel has had to ask people she’s just met to tell her the worst things that have ever happened to them. The stories she’s heard involve some of the more brutal acts we, as human beings, commit against one another: She’s spoken to children who have been forced into sexual slavery, women who have survived rape used as a weapon of war.
Weibel normally asks her questions in a nondescript office park just south of San Francisco, on a foggy hillside above the Bay. After inviting clients into her office, she’ll introduce herself—if they’re with their children, she might offer them markers and paper, so the kids can draw on her desk. She then explains her job as an asylum attorney, describing the complicated legal process that could turn her clients into refugees in the United States.
Weibel is conscious that many of the asylum seekers she meets live with serious trauma. She works hard to respond to their emotional state: She observes when someone begins talking faster, and she notices if they suddenly glance out the window, where one can see a cemetery across the road. Eventually, she has to ask: What happened to you?
“It’s certainly an incredibly difficult moment,” Weibel said. “It’s incredibly difficult for someone whose trust has been violated over and over again to then open up to a complete stranger.”
While the legal asylum process features frequently in the news, asylum attorneys like Weibel say that the public often doesn’t understand how much of their vocation resembles social work, or even therapy. Building a case is like setting a broken bone: Attorneys have to be gentle, but also forceful and quick. It’s a heavy and delicate art—and it’s all been blown apart by the Trump administration’s ongoing crackdown on the asylum process.
“All of these additional barriers and new policies are putting incredible hurdles in front of people who have already had great difficulty to have to share and open up,” Weibel says.
Where once Weibel could meet with clients in her office, the centerpiece of Trump’s immigration policy now means that tens of thousands of asylum seekers remain stuck far from attorneys who once could have represented them. This means that, for attorneys like Weibel, the intense and personal conversations that once took place in their offices now happen over scratchy phone connections, in Mexico’s migrant shelters, or even on the streets of some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the hemisphere.
The administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy, known officially as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), has forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Latin America to stay in Mexico as they await their court proceedings. While the vast majority of these people remain unrepresented—unlike US citizens charged with crimes, asylum seekers are not guaranteed the right to a lawyer—the few who have connected with attorneys are now forced to prepare much of their cases remotely.
I spoke to six asylum attorneys around the country who come from a variety of backgrounds. Some represent people who already reside in the United States, while others specialize in representing people who are in US detention. After our conversations, the Supreme Court upheld another Trump administration policy that fundamentally threatens their work and, most importantly, potential refugees’ futures: a near-total ban on asylum claims. While the full effects of the new policy have not yet been seen, the news throws the future of asylum attorneys’ work into question. And already, all of the lawyers I interviewed said their work has changed fundamentally under the MPP.
The attorneys stressed the humiliation and hardship their clients face as they’re forced to share intimate details with strangers over the phone. But the MPP has also led to increased trauma for the asylum attorneys themselves. Lawyers who could once represent clients in places like New York or San Francisco are now compelled to constantly travel across the border. Some of the attorneys I spoke to were exhausted from recent flights—even getting an important document signed by a client can mean a trip to Mexico. But they also spoke of another kind of exhaustion: a burnout driven by staggering workloads, and a looming hopelessness.
This all means that for someone like Weibel, the current asylum crisis is not just measured by enormous court backlogs: There’s also a human breaking point, reached when attorneys and clients alike can no longer withstand the new levels of indignity and ordeal forced upon them.
At the heart of the problem is that first interaction between an attorney and an asylum seeker.
“We have to sit down with them as strangers and basically say, ‘Tell me your whole life story, including these intensely personal or traumatic moments,’” said Robyn Barnard, a staff attorney in Los Angeles with the advocacy organization Human Rights First.
For asylum attorneys, every case begins with this interpersonal moment. Weibel, who serves as the executive director of the San Francisco office of Tahirih Justice Center (a nonprofit organization that supports women and children who seek asylum), often trains new pro-bono lawyers to handle asylum cases. To help the new attorneys empathize with what the experience is like for asylum seekers, Weibel tries asking them a question: “How would you feel if I told you to turn to the stranger next to you and explain the details of your last gynecological exam?”
“That’s what we’re essentially asking people to share with us as we prepare a case for an asylum seeker who has survived rape, or female genital mutilation,” Weibel explained.
Refugee law is complex: Winning an asylum trial means more than simply proving that your life is in danger. Asylum seekers have to prove that they fled a specific kind of “persecution” in their home country, so attorneys will try to help clients show that the violence they fled was motivated by something like race, religion, or gender. This often means asking for desperately personal details. Weibel has had to ask questions like: Did the man say any racist slurs as he killed your mother? When the police refused to help you after your rape, did they tell you that you should have known your place as a woman?
With questions like these, attorneys say the risk of retraumatizing clients is very real, and they must weigh their need to start building the details of a case with their clients’ own emotional capacities. “It’s a pretty fine balance,” Barnard said.
The stakes can often feel, quite literally, like life or death. An unsuccessful case means an asylum seeker will be deported back to the same country they fled. This makes the interaction an intense experience for people on both sides of the conversation. For asylum seekers, it means trusting a stranger, often after having the institutions they were supposed to trust most betray them.
“I did not trust so many people. I did not trust anyone at that time when I first met them,” Aicha, a refugee from Niger, said about her first meeting with an asylum attorney. Aicha had been starved by her family for trying to refuse female genital mutilation, and she had been forcibly married to an abusive man in his 50s when she just 17. “Everyone was trying to get me from all sides; my husband was trying to get me, my community was after me.”
Aicha fled from Niger to Togo when she was 19 and made it to the United States not long after. After several years in New York and Texas, where she endured rape and human trafficking, she eventually found her way to Tahirih Justice Center, Weibel’s organization. Having experienced a decade of intimate betrayal, Aicha was deeply anxious when she first went into Tahirih’s Baltimore office. She worried about feeling misunderstood or judged. “But because I was so desperate, I did not even think about the confidence of it,” she said.
When Aicha first walked into the office, every aspect of the space helped her feel safe. The woman working reception brought her tea, and Lindsay, the lawyer she met with, had pictures on her wall of smiling clients and their children next to handwritten thank-you notes.
“Lindsay was so welcoming,” Aicha recalled. “Even just the way she carried herself—she didn’t carry herself like she was above me, or was here to judge me. She made me comfortable, she helped me share my story with her—she told me I wasn’t alone. She told me it wasn’t my fault.”
Aicha spent almost an entire year going into the Tahirih office once a week and telling them her story. It was an emotional experience for participants on both sides of the conversation: Once, when Aicha described her first night alone with her husband, a Tahirih staff member became overwhelmed and had to leave the room. But the organization eventually won her case: Aicha gained a green card in 2017.
Today, Aicha is horrified to think that asylum seekers might be forced to have the sorts of conversations she had at Tahirih over the phone, or during rushed meetings in Mexico.
“I can’t even imagine. I could never ask for asylum if I was staying in a place that’s not safe, I could never have been in a normal mindset,” she said. “I lose sleep thinking about this: I wonder what I can do to help. No one can be in a place of persecution and still apply for asylum.”
With thousands of asylum seekers fending for themselves on the streets of Mexican border towns, some attorneys from non-border states have begun trying to represent clients remotely. The work has been challenging: Christina Brown, an asylum attorney in Colorado, said her ability to help her clients feel safe has been severely damaged now that she can’t meet with them in her office.
“The clients I have talked with over the phone, they had never met me before,” Brown said. “Talking to them about their case, even to just get basics—to know if I was going to take it, or figure out what my first steps would be in court—was extremely difficult. They were extremely timid, unwilling to share a lot of details. They were very distrustful—which is fair.”
Brown has managed to travel to Tijuana to meet with some of her clients, but the conditions provided a laughably poor substitute for her office. She had to sit with clients in crowded shelters, often on the floor. At times, the power went out, and Brown sat in the heat and the dark, trying to help her clients build a legal case.
Even lawyers who are used to working with clients in detention centers say that the “Remain in Mexico” policy has brought tremendous new challenges. For one, it’s become challenging just to remain in contact with clients. As we talked, Brown wondered aloud: “My client hasn’t called back in 24 hours—does that mean they’ve been kidnapped?” Rebecca Press, an attorney in New York, said she was experiencing serious anxiety because her client in Tijuana hadn’t opened a WhatsApp message yet. Press kept checking her phone to see if the message had been marked “read,” trying not to assume the worst.
But perhaps the most significant new stressor for attorneys is the constant travel across the border: Besides the drain on already scarce money, energy, and time, it means constantly crossing into dangerous neighborhoods, where criminal syndicates target asylum seekers. Gang lookouts called halcones—the Spanish word for “hawks”—surveil the border crossings, and Brown worries that her presence might put her clients in danger by identifying them as asylum seekers. But she also worries for her own safety: Though lawyers can afford to stay in safe neighborhoods in Mexico or in hotels on the US side of the border, they have few protections other than their US citizenship.
“Juárez is one of the most dangerous places in the world for women. I shouldn’t have to go there and put my own life at risk,” Brown said. “It’s extremely unfair for the US government to require and expect [this travel] from us.”
All of these new challenges align so that asylum attorneys aren’t just contending with their clients’ trauma—they’re also contending with their own.
The constancy with which asylum attorneys hear true stories of brutality means that they’re already at high risk for a condition psychologists diagnose as “vicarious trauma.” Also called secondary trauma, vicarious trauma is a condition caused by exposure to other peoples’ traumatization. It brings on symptoms not dissimilar to direct PTSD: flashbacks, panic attacks, and hopelessness.
Weibel said that vicarious trauma is not just a risk for asylum attorneys but an inevitability.
“Secondary trauma is real, and expected, and it’s coming. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when,” Weibel said. “And so it becomes a matter of how do we overcome it. How do we handle it, and how do we deal with it.”
Anecdotally, the profession has extremely high levels of burnout. Barnard said in law school she volunteered for an organization where most attorneys left direct representation after just two years, unable to continue metabolizing the stories they were hearing.
Most of the attorneys I spoke to talked at length about the need for coping strategies, but they all had to pause when I asked them what some of their own strategies were. They’ve tried yoga, meditation. More than a couple of them mention “good wine.” But there’s no secret strategy. All of them, without exception, say they’re still trying to figure out how to best take care of themselves, that it’s still hard. “We [were] never taught in law school how to manage natural emotional responses and reactions,” Weibel said.
Now, with the added anxiety of the “Remain in Mexico” system, attorneys say they’re struggling just to maintain. When I asked Brown if she’s found successful coping strategies to deal with the anxieties of representing clients in Mexico, she was blunt: “No,” she told me. “I haven’t.”
“We talk about self-care a lot, and do I do those things? Sure,” Brown continued. “I meditate, and I do yoga, I take weekends off—all the things we’re supposed to do to enjoy life. But every single thing happening to asylum seekers in this country involves constitutional and human rights violations—and there’s no ‘self-care’ that protects you from knowing that. So I haven’t found a way to make any of this meaningful to me. It’s all life or death.”
“Taking care of ourselves also means doing the work. The work is so hard right now, but the only thing worse would be not doing it. Because then we wouldn’t be in the fight anymore,” said Press, who recently started representing a family stuck in Mexico, though she remains based in New York.
Asylum attorneys say that this, perhaps as much as anything else, keeps them able to come into work, even when it’s painful: The belief that they can make a difference. Researchers at Syracuse University have found that asylum seekers who secure an attorney are five times more likely to gain asylum. For this reason, attorneys say it can feel impossible to say no to new cases, even when they’re overworked. Taking on a new client can mean saving a life.
This makes the Remain in Mexico plan all the more daunting: A shockingly small proportion of asylum seekers forced to stay in Mexico have found lawyers. According to another Syracuse report, by June 2019, only 1.2 percent of asylum seekers who had already had their cases decided had been represented attorney. In comparison, over 80 percent of asylum seekers had representation in 2018, the year before the new policy went into effect.
Some organizations have tried to fight back. In February, Tahirih joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights organizations to sue the Trump administration over the Remain in Mexico plan. Though a federal judge in San Francisco initially granted a preliminary injunction blocking the policy, an appeals court soon lifted the injunction—a major blow to the asylum attorneys. The policy remains in place as the Ninth Circuit continues to decide on its legality.
On September 11, the Supreme Court lifted a similar injunction on what some call the administration’s “asylum ban.” The rule means that anyone who traveled through another country on their way to the United States is ineligible for asylum—and it casts major doubt on pending MPP cases. While it seems that current MPP cases will continue, some attorneys are worried that the restriction could turn into a blanket denial of asylum for those who have been forced to remain in Mexico, rendering all their waiting—and all their attorneys’ work—worthless.
“This is a death sentence for most of our clients,” tweeted the official account for Al Otro Lado, a prominent organization of attorneys and activists in Tijuana and Southern California. “Our hearts are broken [and] we’re exhausted.”
Despite the hardship, many of the attorneys spoke of a consistent source of endurance: their clients. The simple fact that an asylum seeker is talking to a lawyer means that they have persisted—that they’ve left their home country, often with children, with the hope that they can still have a chance at life. Though there’s no official diagnosis, psychologists have given this sense among asylum attorneys—the feeling that they are somehow imbued with their clients’ own hopefulness—a name: “vicarious resilience.”
“I feel that I also get exposed to the best of humanity, rather than just all of the devastating factors,” Press said. “There is no doubt that we are so privileged to receive the strength of our clients.”