By Edith Sangueza, J.D. ’18

Seen from the outside, the Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC) is a cheerful coral color, with an asymmetrical glass front. Palm trees and bougainvillea flowers line the well-kept grounds. A short distance away, spring breakers enjoy the beaches and beers on South Padre Island.

ProBAR

On the inside, though, the detention center is chilly, sterile, and unmistakably prison-like. To the more than one thousand people detained inside, it might as well be prison. Detainees, often fleeing extreme violence in their home countries in Central America, eastern Africa, and South Asia, have no right to counsel in navigating the U.S.’s byzantine immigration laws. ProBAR, a legal aid organization based in nearby Harlingen, steps in to fill the gaps, helping detainees prepare for their cases. Because of strictures from its funding model, ProBAR chiefly provides legal education and helps people prepare their applications so they are better prepared to represent themselves pro se.

We arrived at ProBAR on Monday and received a brief orientation from Edgar Gaucín, the office manager, whose own life has spanned the border from Matamoros, Mexico, to Brownsville, TX. Once oriented, we headed out to PIDC where we split up and were able to interview several people seeking asylum. We helped them prepare English-language versions of their I-589 forms, the form potential asylees must prepare in order to apply for either asylum or for withholding of removal. We talked to people with a wide range of ages, experiences, and motivations for leaving their home countries, including some whose past criminal records could be serious obstacles to their asylum applications.

For me, the experience was incredibly valuable as a way to see what the asylum process is like in practice, especially within the expedited removal context. It was also re-centering and motivating as a way to put my legal education into practice.