Judge Adela Fernandez was curious about the new lawyer in her courtroom. It wasn’t what he said, or the high school Spanish she overheard from the bench. No, that didn’t impress her.
It was what he didn’t say. The way he listened to his client, the young man at his side with caramel skin several shades lighter than her own. How he leaned in and his client didn’t back away. There was trust between them, that rarest of resources at the border these days.
Adela had never seen this kind of trust in the eyes of an asylum seeker. More common were the blank, numb stares, or terrified eyes searching for answers. Those were the eyes she saw every day in her courtroom, and every night as she closed her eyes and tried to sleep.
It took time to build trust, time that the “Remain in Mexico” policy did not allow. This policy effectively ended legal representation for asylum seekers by forcing them to wait in Mexican border towns as their cases crawled through the U.S. legal system. Tens of thousands of migrants from all over the world were stuck in makeshift refugee camps, preyed upon by local cartels. Lawyers stayed away. Except this one, apparently.
“DHS Docket Number 19-24231.” The clerk’s announcement drew Adela out of her thoughts.
“Thank you, Gabe,” Adela said, glancing at the case file.
The lawyer’s name was Paul Carter, and he was the attorney of record for Adela’s first asylum case that afternoon. His client was Jorge Sanchez, a twenty-six year old asylum seeker from El Salvador. His collared shirt was way too loose and clearly borrowed for the occasion. Adela’s eyes lingered on the backpack at his feet. It held everything Jorge would carry with him into his new life, if she granted his asylum claim.
Adela felt a wave of relief that Jorge was not alone. It made her job much easier when both sides had lawyers—Jorge had Paul, and the U.S. government had Harold, the ICE attorney sitting to Paul’s left, picking his fingernails.
Most days Harold’s job was easy. About a quarter of the asylum seekers on Adela’s docket didn’t make it to court; the rest came without a lawyer. It was child’s play for Harold to go up against an unrepresented asylum seeker. Few of them knew the law or the language and many were still suffering from the trauma that led them to leave everything behind in the first place. All it took was a single inconsistent detail or missing document for Harold to claim victory and send them back to the place of their persecution.
Today, Harold would have to work. Jorge had a lawyer, and as Adela was about to learn, not just any lawyer.
“Your Honor, may I approach the bench?” Paul asked.
Adela found his voice confident yet kind, like her father’s. It wasn’t the false confidence too common in the halls of the San Diego courthouse where she worked.
“You may,” Adela said.
Paul rose and walked towards her, a stack of documents in his hand.
Adela felt a rush as she saw the rest of him. Tall and lean, his body would have fit in well with the surfer crowd a few miles away. Overdue for a haircut, his sandy hair curled up at the edges. His skin was sun-kissed but still reddish in spots. The sunburn cast a boyish charm over his otherwise professional demeanor.
Adela could not recall seeing him before today. She would have remembered. The sunburn suggested he was not a local. Where was he from? What was he doing here? As Paul handed her a set of papers, Adela noticed there was no ring. Was it wrong for her to look? A betrayal of judicial propriety?
Oh please, she thought. She was still a woman under the robe, after all.
“Your Honor, I’d like to enter these documents into the record,” Paul said. “We had them authenticated at the Salvadoran Consulate, and just received them back yesterday.”
Adela saw Harold shift in his seat. Authenticated documents could not be discredited. It was a form of verification used abroad, similar to notarization in the U.S. Whatever documents Paul had authenticated would carry much more weight now, and help Jorge’s case.
Paul handed Harold an extra copy of the stack. He was comfortable in the courtroom, and wasn’t going to waste her time. Adela liked that.
“I’m going to need time to look these over,” Harold said with a grunt.
Adela raised her eyebrows at him, and he cowered.
“Ten minutes?” Harold asked.
“You have five,” Adela said. “These aren’t new documents. They’ve just been authenticated. We can’t fall behind today, not with the current backlog.” Adela delighted in using Harold’s favorite line against him. For Harold, the infamous immigration court backlog had become an excuse to deny asylum seekers extra time, or shut down Adela’s attempts to explain the process to the unrepresented.
The hint of a smile crossed Paul’s lips. Adela tried to ignore the flicker this set off inside her. She lowered her eyes to study Jorge’s file. His case began seven months ago at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on the San Diego and Tijuana border. San Ysidro was the busiest land port in the Western Hemisphere, and where most of Adela’s cases began.
Jorge was in court for his Merit Hearing, the final stage in the asylum process. His file was thick from rescheduled hearings, affidavits, declarations and evidence. Adela braced herself for what was to come. She had only been on the bench for six months, but that was long enough to know Jorge’s story would haunt her like the others.
Asylum cases are unique in immigration law. Asylum seekers do not come for economic opportunity or reunification with family members in the U.S. They come for safety. In order to win asylum, petitioners must prove they fled persecution either committed or permitted by their home government. This type of persecution has no solution other than to flee. Asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable and desperate people alive. They are armed with little else than their internationally recognized right of asylum, the same right that landed them in Adela’s courtroom.
Adela often questioned if she was the best one for the job, given the way she was raised. Her parents knew she was a judge, but not an immigration judge. Judge was a title they could brag about to their wealthy Mexican-American friends. An immigration judge would be a disgrace.
Harold grimaced and said, “I’m ready.”
“Same here,” Paul was quick to reply.
As he said it, Paul stared into Adela’s eyes, deep into all of her hidden places. The flicker was now growing into a flame. Adela knew it would be more than Jorge’s story burned into her memory this time. It would be his lawyer’s eyes, and this feeling she had to get under control, and fast.
“Very well,” Adela said, finding her breath and swallowing hard. “Counsel for the petitioner, you may begin.”