Lawyers say border agents keep writing false addresses on migrant papers, undermining asylum cases

Lawyers for migrants are filing a Supreme Court brief saying El Paso border agents are undermining asylum cases by using false addresses on migrant papers.
Image: Migrants who returned to Mexico from the U.S. under the Migrant Protection Protocols program line up for food at a migrant shelter in Ciudad Juarez on Sept. 26, 2019.
Migrants who were returned to Mexico from the United States under the Migrant Protection Protocols program line up for food at a migrant shelter in Ciudad Juarez on Sept. 26, 2019.Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

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By Julia Ainsley

WASHINGTON — Lawyers representing migrants seeking asylum at the border say U.S. border agents are systematically writing the same wrong address on the migrants' papers, leaving hundreds with no way to receive communications from the government about their cases and undermining their ability to win asylum in the United States.

Eighteen examples of migrants whose forms note their address as Casa del Migrante, a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, that they have never visited, are included in an amicus brief the lawyers plan to file to the Supreme Court next week, NBC News has learned. One lawyer told NBC News that he knew of hundreds of migrants who had that address on their papers and that few had ever been to the shelter.

The brief will urge the justices to consider the legality of the Trump administration policy known as "Remain in Mexico," which has left over 60,000 Central Americans in dangerous conditions as they wait in Mexico for what could become years for entrance to the United States.

"Consistent with these international law obligations, federal law recognizes that, at a minimum, asylum seekers must be notified of the charges against them and have rights to a fair hearing," said the brief, to be filed by the Justice Action Center and the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley.

The form, known as a Notice to Appear, or NTA, is given to migrants to tell them when and where to arrive in immigration court for their next asylum hearings and how the government will reach them with notifications about their cases. The agents are supposed to give the migrants NTAs based on information provided by the migrants and the court.

If the migrants fail to appear in court, they could be deemed in absentia by a judge and ordered to be deported to their home countries without making their cases for asylum. Under the Remain in Mexico policy, many immigrants have been ordered deported for failing to show up to their proceedings, and the false addresses could be one reason they don't appear.

One of the immigrants referred to in the brief is Angelina, a 42-year-old Cuban who uses a pseudonym to protect her identity, who told NBC News that she fled persecution at the hands of police and others in Havana for being lesbian. She arrived at the border in El Paso, Texas, in July hoping to be given asylum so she could live in Florida with her partner, a doctor who once worked at the same hospital in Havana where Angelina was a nurse.

Asked for an address of a U.S. contact, Angelina provided agents with her partner's information. It was not until later, when she met with a lawyer, that she realized that the agents had not included the Florida address on her paperwork. Instead, they wrote down the address for Casa del Migrante, a shelter she had never been to or heard of.

"I have no idea if I missed court dates or if anything was sent to me," Angelina said in a phone interview from Ciudad Juarez, where she lives in an apartment with four other Cubans.

She has never tried to find Casa del Migrante because she rarely leaves the apartment, except when needed for food, because she fears for her life.

"There's a lot of violence. Every single morning when we wake up, we see and hear on TV about the number of dead overnight. They're killing women. They're killing people from the LGBT community," Angelina said about life in Ciudad Juarez, where she has been living since July.

Her attorney, Nicolas Palazzo, who works with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said that he has met with hundreds of asylum seekers awaiting their next asylum hearings in Ciudad Juarez and that all of them were given paperwork that included the Casa del Migrante shelter as their contact address.

Even though many give Border Patrol other contact addresses, including the addresses of relatives or friends they're in contact with in the United States, the agents in El Paso continue to use only the Casa del Migrante address, according to Palazzo and the lawyers filing the amicus brief.

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Palazzo said many of the migrants are not aware of the mistake and are shocked and surprised when he tells them what has happened. While immigrants can call a hotline for updates on their cases, many of the cases have not been updated, he said.

The lawyers filing the brief hope the justices will see from the examples in Ciudad Juarez that the Remain in Mexico policy has inconsistencies and creates an emergency and that arguments against it should be heard in full.

"The risk is not only that the U.S. violates its own procedures under due process, but also the risk of sending back asylum seekers to places they could be tortured or killed," said Karen Tumlin, the founder and director of the Justice Action Center.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that immigrants must provide U.S. addresses to receive correspondence on their legal cases. Tumlin said that decision will have "massive consequences" for asylum seekers who are subject to Remain in Mexico.

But even when immigrants give U.S. addresses, such as the one Angelina provided, border agents in El Paso are ignoring them and including the address for the shelter in Ciudad Juarez, according to Tumlin and Palazzo.

Reports from earlier this year alleged that agents in other sectors along the border were simply writing "Facebook" as an address for immigrants. Tumlin said she has seen cases in which agents write a Spanish term that translates to "known address."

Angelina continues to wait for her next court date, scheduled for February, from Ciudad Juarez. And she is hopeful she will eventually be granted asylum.

"Hope is the last thing to die," she said.

Palazzo is personally making sure that Angelina knows of her court dates and the status of her case. But he said the majority of immigrants waiting in Mexico for their asylum hearings in the United States are not lucky enough to have found a lawyer and are left navigating a very confusing process.

Christine Romo contributed.