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Virtual bridge offers aid to asylum-seekers

Nicolas Palazzo, staff attorney with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, talked to a husband and wife from Cuba at a video teleconferencing center in Ciudad Juarez.(Angela Kocherga/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

CIUDAD JUÁREZ – Thousands of asylum-seekers sent to this border city in Mexico to wait for a decision on their cases will now have access to U.S. attorneys through a “virtual bridge.”

A pilot program – “Free Bridges,” or “Puentes Libres” in Spanish – will use videoconferencing to link asylum-seekers who remain in Mexico with attorneys in the United States providing pro bono legal advice.

“As this administration, the Trump administration, promotes policies that endanger refugees, this border community continues to respond on both sides of the border with compassion, commitment and now innovation driven by an unbreakable bond that transcends our barriers,” said Texas state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso.

Rodriguez spearheaded the program in partnership with the nonprofit Hispanic Federation, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the city of Juárez.

“This program will bring migrants closer to reaching their dream, their American dream. With this program, we are providing migrants with legal help,” Juárez Mayor Armando Cabada told a news conference Tuesday when the program was unveiled.

About 16,000 asylum-seekers remain in Juárez, including migrants who arrived at the border in New Mexico.

Borderwide, nearly 60,000 migrants seeking asylum are waiting in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocol, according to immigrant advocacy organizations. Fewer than 2% of migrants in the program are represented by counsel.

Nicolas Palazzo, staff attorney for Las Americas, said the program will help “bridge the digital and physical divide between attorneys willing to help and individuals who need help.”

Palazzo is based in El Paso and is among the few attorneys who travel across the border regularly to meet with migrants in Juárez.

He said he hopes the program will give asylum-seekers who are in Mexico a voice and help attorneys across the United States understand conditions for migrants from other countries who must wait in Mexico.

“It’s rare when I come across a client of mine who hasn’t been a victim of some

Mirta Matilde Alvarez, 57 and her husband Ramon Piero Alvarez,67, were the first asylum seekers to sign up for the “free bridges” pilot program in Ciudad Juarez providing legal counsel via video teleconferencing with attorneys in the United States.(Angela Kocherga/Journal)

form of crime – extortion, kidnapping. This is a very particularly vulnerable group of people,” Palazzo said.

The nonprofit Hispanic Federation donated 50 laptop computers so asylum-seekers in Juárez can speak with attorneys in the U.S. through a secure internet connection.

“There are many attorneys that want to help out. They want to give their time, but they’re coming from all over the States. It’s hard for them to make the time to come down to the border,” said Stephanie Gomez, director of immigrant initiatives for the Hispanic Federation. “So the idea is to connect them virtually.”

The goal is to expand the pilot program to border cities across Mexico.

A couple from Cuba were the first to make an appointment for legal advice at the videoconferencing center set up at City Hall in Juárez.

“This program will make it easier for us to get in touch with lawyers to resolve our case and ask questions,” said Mirta Matilde Alvarez, a 57-year-old nurse.

She and her husband have been waiting in Juárez for nine months, and this was their first chance to speak to an attorney, she said. They said they are fleeing political persecution in Cuba.

“I hope they give us asylum,” said Ramon Piñero Alvarez, 67, his voice cracking.

The carpenter said returning to Cuba would be like “going back to prison.”

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