Central American Migrants Going North in De Los Doctores, Ixtepec, Oaxaca, Mexico.(Peter Haden, Flickr)

Getting Asylum in New Mexico Is Harder Than Anywhere Else in the Country

A lack of access to legal services means asylum-seekers detained in New Mexico have significantly lower chances of being granted asylum in the U.S.

Alena Maschke
New Mexico’s removal rate from detention facilities is the highest in the country. 88% of individuals detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New Mexico are eventually removed, meaning they are deported back to their home country and barred from re-entering for several years. The American Southwest is where most of those seeking asylum after crossing the Southern border are picked up by border patrol and kept in local detention centers, in many cases until their case has been decided upon.

Several studies have shown the immense impact that access to legal representation has on the outcome of a person’s asylum case. A 2011 study by the Katzmann Immigrant Representation Study Group and the Vera Institute of Justice in New York found that those detained and without legal representation had a three percent chance of winning their case, compared to eighteen percent of those detained but under the representation of a lawyer. The Southwestern States have a far higher rate of removals than any other states. They also have less lawyers per square mile.

New Mexico is an especially extreme case in both regards. It has the highest removal rate in the country, and also one of the lowest density of lawyers. This means that those crossing the Southern border in this state, rather than Arizona, Texas or California, have less lawyers available to them. It is challenging enough for detainees to retain an attorney to represent them, the lack of lawyers in the state makes this incredibly challenging.

Texas also has a comparably low density of lawyers, and a fairly high removal rate. Here, however, pro bono lawyers have prominently stepped in. The detention center in Dilley, Texas, has seen an unprecedented amount of “emergency lawyering”, organized by the CARA Pro Bono project. Jason Parkin, director of the Immigrant Law Clinic at Columbia University sends a group of law school students to Dilley every year. “The presence of lawyers there to do that has a great impact on the outcome,” says Parkin. Dilley is a family detention center, meaning it is populated by mothers and children who arrived together.

In New Mexico, pro bono immigration lawyers are few and far between. Even though there is no official data on the number of immigration lawyers per state, or a comprehensive databank of pro bono projects such as CARA, the American Bar Association only lists seven such programs and organizations statewide. For asylum seekers who are already in detention, reaching out to such organizations is incredibly challenging. Those who do not claim “credible fear” of prosecution in their home country right away are not granted legal counsel at all. Recent border crossers who do not express the intent to claim asylum are subject to expedited removal. “Expedited removal strips away all those protections: there is no judge, there is no appeal, there is no lawyer,” says Parkin.

But even those who do, and are placed in detention rather than deported on the spot, are in desperate need of legal counsel to assure that they are adequately prepared to make their case. “In the beginning, there were no lawyers. And women who had just crossed the border walked into these interviews had literally no idea what they were walking into,” Parkins says, describing the situation in Dilley before the arrival of pro bono lawyers. “Many, many of the women who are coming are fleeing really terrible things,” he says. In New Mexico, they have much less of a chance at escaping for good.

Fence in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Brad Bridgewater, Flickr)