Interview with Charlene D'Cruz of Lawyers for Good Government

Charlene D’Cruz is an attorney and Border Fellow with Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG). In October, she set up a full-time office in the Resource Center for Asylum Seekers in Matamoros, Tamaulipas as part of Project Corazon: Matamoros Legal Assistance Program. D’Cruz and attorneys working remotely help prepare thousands of refugees to self-represent their asylum cases in the tent court system in Brownsville, TX.

D’Cruz also assists a team of doctors at Global Response Management (GRM) when critically ill asylum seekers need to cross into the United States to access medical care. GRM is currently the only medical NGO with a permanent presence along the U.S./Mexico border. Working in tandem with the Resource Center, D’Cruz and GRM staff collect patients’ medical records to argue cases for parole at the Gateway International Bridge.

Under the language of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, ‘Remain in Mexico’ program), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is supposed to grant asylum seekers with known mental or physical health issues exceptions from the program. D’Cruz is working to establish precedent to ensure that asylum seekers are properly granted these vulnerability exceptions.

“The list is large and it’s getting longer. If someone needs to be crossed, GRM calls me and I make sure their legal stuff is in order. I take the client and a physician from GRM to the bridge. We’ve had lots of cases. 

For example, there was a young epileptic woman who actually had a few attacks in my office. We had a young man with sickle cell anemia. One woman had ovarian cancer. A little boy’s appendix ruptured. 

We had a Salvadoran man with an infected feeding tube. Yesterday, there was a young boy with cerebral palsy and an open trach. I’ve crossed deaf people, too. I crossed two today and one a couple of weeks ago. 

In any event, we prepare the documentation and we take it with us. We get to the bridge and ask them to call the supervisor. I present the paperwork to whoever the supervisor is at that time. Usually, we get some pushback.

This last batch of people I did was a group of nine. Today, the last three people got through. I get them up there, I make the legal arguments, and when it’s time for the doctors to share their input, they do that. 

About a month and a half ago – it was one of the first cases I did with GRM – we had a little girl, 2 years old. She looked more like she was 8 months old. She had sepsis. I walked the kid and the family to the bridge.

It was a very cold day – 44 degrees and raining. We stood on the bridge and we waited, and waited, and waited. The supervisor kept saying, “We’re not taking them.” 

So we tried to call her supervisor, and she told us that we couldn’t. Eventually, the woman said, “Ok, our medics are going to come.” I asked, “They’re going to come up here to the bridge where it’s cold and raining and there’s a small child who is sick and almost dying?”

She said, “Yep”. I noted that the CBP building down there at the checkpoint was empty and there weren’t people crossing anymore. Asylum seekers can’t get past the international line. She still said she couldn’t come in. 

CBP finally brought the nurse practitioner up to the bridge. She and the doctor from GRM talked for literally 40 seconds. They looked at what the major sepsis manifestation was, and she confirmed, “Yes, this kid has to get in.”

The supervisor still wouldn’t let us in after the NP walked away. We asked her to explain exactly why we weren’t getting in. And she told us, “We’re talking to the Mexican hospitals to see if they’ll come pick her up.”

I said, “Do you not know that so many children have died of sepsis in ICE custody? Is that what you want, for this child to die on the bridge? It’s not going to be good for you.” 

At this point, I started calling people and asking everybody to call their representatives and the port director. We were now 2 hours and 10 minutes into this. We had to wait 3 hours and 37 minutes.

It was only after the phone calls that we were successful. I told one or two people to tweet it out. In maybe 10-15 minutes, 1,000 people had called the port director. They let us in. The entire process was completely and absolutely unnecessary. 

With Yánet – a woman with ovarian cancer – I took her multiple times before she crossed recently. Once, I took her and another woman with Toxoplamosis. We also had young girl, 7 years old, who had a fistula – that’s a hole in the colon. We took them up on the bridge and presented all three of them.

The supervisor came and took them in. CBP took them down for processing, took them to the emergency room, and sent them right back to Mexico five hours later. 

These people need long-term care. CBP took them to the emergency room. The child with the fistula – they literally cleaned her up, put a new diaper on her, and sent her right back. She had fecal matter all over her from us waiting on the bridge. 

Yánet – they gave her the equivalent of ibuprofen and sent her back across. They did the same thing with the other woman. I was livid. CBP either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care to understand. 

GRM called me recently and they said, “Yánet is getting really bad, we need to move her.” I ran over to the camp and got her stuff together. And while we were waiting, another family called. 

This was a five person family – three children, parents. The little boy has Pierre Robin Syndrome, an an open trach, and cerebral palsy. I was like, “Ok, we’re bringing them too.” I also brought a group of deaf people. I took all nine of them up in the bridge.

CBP said, “Ok, we’ll take Yánet and we’ll take the boy, but we won’t take the deaf people.” I explained that the deaf people qualify to be exempt from MPP under the vulnerability clause. 

They said, “Well, we have no space.” I argued that they’ve come up to the bridge three times already. The supervisor said, “Why don’t you bring them the next day?” That was New Year’s Day. 

They took the others – they made them wait all night and began processing them at four in the morning.

Now, let me go back to the child with the fistula. They sent the 7-year-old girl back. This child could become septic. I called Helen Perry at GRM and I asked her to explain this to me. 

She said, “Right now she’s draining through her skin. But that could change in a matter of minutes. If she drains into her abdomen, she’ll die.”

The girl needed a pediatric surgeon. There are no pediatric surgeons in Matamoros or in Brownsville. The closest is in Corpus Christi. The emergency room staff probably even told CBP that she needs to see a pediatric surgeon. We knew that already. 

I tried to reason with CBP and they wouldn’t give in. So, we called the media and asked people to call the port director. Again, there was a big firestorm of calls. Then they called us and said, “Bring her over.” But it took two lawyers to even get to this point.

When we took her on Dec. 11, they said that her mom had a hearing scheduled in the tent courts – they both had the hearing that Monday. So they would be reviewed then. I stood on the bridge another day with her for 3.5 hours. CBP did nothing. That time, the child hadn’t eaten in like 14 hours. 

The family ended up going to the court hearing. My colleague told the judge that we want them released. The judge said, “I have no jurisdiction.” Instead, he urged CBP to work with us. CBP didn’t say anything. 

My colleague waited three hours in the tent court for nothing. That’s when I said, “Forget it, we’re calling.” The next day, we walked her. Only then did CBP let her into the country.

This took two lawyers, at least 10 hours on the bridge and in court, and a whole slew of doctors. It’s just ridiculous. This is what it took to cross child who is in danger of dying. That’s what we’re seeing. It’s not easy. It’s a fight. But, I try to strategize. Certain people I will walk at certain times, others I won’t until the timing is right.

With Yánet, there were several times that I thought I would take her, but it just wasn’t right. I always move on what the doctors tell me. We have a system in place with GRM. The doctors say that the severity is a 1, 2, or 3. 

1 is an emergency – we’ve got to move. That’s a case like the young man with the sickle cell anemia. He would come to the office every day and he looked bad, but one day he came and his blood oxygen level was so bad that if we hadn’t taken him to the hospital, he would have died. That’s when I walked him.

A 20-year-old woman who had epileptic seizures came into the office every day and GRM managed to maintain the condition. One day, she came in and had three seizures back to back. That was scary. They didn’t teach me this in law school. I walked her right over. They took her quickly, because she looked like she could start seizing immediately on the bridge.

We had an 8-year-old boy. His mom took him to the Mexican hospital a couple of days before. He had a stomach ache, it got worse, and the hospital in Mexico did nothing.

GRM had volunteer doctors from Temple University. They had a little ultrasound machine attached to their smart phones. When they did the ultrasound, they realized that his appendix was 9mm bigger than it was supposed to be and that he was going to rupture. 

We put him in one of the little pull wagons people use to bring supplies and we rushed him to the bridge. Guess what? They made us wait an hour. GRM’s doctor said, “Don’t do this. We know it’s going to rupture. Get your physician assistant, get somebody up here.” 

CBP’s answer was “Nope, nope, nope.” An hour later, we went down to the building and then they took the kid. The doctor showed the PA the ultrasound. The PA said to get the kid into an ambulance. 

The boy either ruptured in the ambulance or right when he got to the ER. This isn’t something to play with. Same thing with the sepsis kid. We rushed her to the hospital. There are certain ones that are emergent like that, and some that are chronically emergent. 

1 is, “They have to go.” That’s sepsis, epilepsy, the infected feeding tube – that one was horrible. A man showed up with his feeding tube completely infected. He would lift his shirt and I would have to fight back nausea. They still wouldn’t take him. They fought us on that one. 

Then, there’s 2. That number can either go up to 1 or down to 3, which is chronic. It’s like a ladder. That’s how the doctors have explained to me how it’s going to work.

As far as where CBP stands on this, I haven’t seen, heard, or talked to Tater Ortiz, the port director, in the last few weeks. When I first started doing this, he didn’t like it and he would push back at all times. 

Then, he stopped working with us directly. Only the supervisors show up. We are never given access to a higher supervisor. We can’t escalate our concerns. I do talk to Erik Drootman every once in a while. He’s CBP’s attorney. His standard thing is, for example, with the 7-year-old with a fistula, he said, “You present her at the port and they’ll make a decision.” 

I said, “Well Erik, you’re the attorney. You can tell them what to do, really.” That’s our job. We tell our clients how not to violate the law. He said, “I can’t make that call.”

I tell them, “We’re going to be forced to use the public, because this is ridiculous.” I figure that all of my releases here had to have been approved by the port director. They see me coming on the bridge from miles away.

There are many reasons they deny us entry. The reason they wouldn’t take the deaf people was because their processing centers were too crowded. And I got this statement from them: “It would be inhumane to overcrowd the holding cells.” 

I said, “Did you just put ‘humane’ and ‘hieleras’ in the same sentence?” They have an option. They don’t have to hold them. I said, “Release them, and I will take them to the hospital.”

The process is a dance and I’m getting a little bit better at it. It’s about keeping my wits about me, not flying off the handle, yet being forceful. That is what I did with the deaf people. 

I said, “This is the fourth time that they’ve come to the bridge. And you’re telling me that every single time, your people have not let them in. You shouldn’t have even turned them away. They’re deaf. By definition, they’re under the vulnerability exception.”

I crossed one deaf person before. It was a fight. That was back in September. I presented a deaf woman and her family. CBP agreed that she shouldn’t be in MPP. But, because she entered in McAllen, they said she would have to go back to Reynosa and present at Hidalgo. 

I said, “That’s ridiculous. She’s here. I’m presenting her to you right now. I don’t care what McAllen did.”

“Oh, but we’re Port and McAllen is CBP.” I said, “Don’t give me that.” Port or CBP are the same thing. I told them, “Your CBP officer is half a mile from us. Go call him.”

“No, we’re too crowded.”

At that point, I had to travel out of state. While I was there, Julian Castro showed up. He tried to walk a bunch of LGBTQ asylum seekers – as well as my client – across the bridge. 

CBP took them all in and gave them what’s called an NRI – a non-refoulement interview. Ok, yes – everybody is afraid to be in Mexico. But the reason this woman should be able to cross is because she’s deaf. She doesn’t need an NRI. She shouldn’t even be here. Everybody that Julian Castro took over was sent back the same night.

I worked with Texas Civil Rights Project and we basically threatened to sue them. We said, “You’re violating the Rehab Act and you can’t do this.” They caved pretty fast and moved that first deaf person over. I’ve established a little bit of precedent for this.

I have a list of people that I’ve slowly moved through. And yeah, it’s kind of crazy that we have to do this. It’s crazy that this is how cruel and sad this thing is. The government could care less. 

Basically, MPP says that there’s a vulnerability exception. It has to be a case-by-case analysis. The definition of vulnerability is anybody who is medically fragile, psychologically fragile. 

I have background in disability law. When you deal with vulnerability, you have to look at, for example – things that are encapsulated within the Rehab Act, which deals with disabilities. Anyone with a disability is going to be vulnerable, whether it’s impact is mental or physical. 

I was pushing to get these people psychological evaluations. Now, Physicians for Human Rights has been coming down to do psych and forensic evals. We’re hoping that will better prepare clients for NRI interviews and for me to cross them when necessary.

Slowly, the work is building. It’s hard to get sick people exempt from MPP when it looks like there’s nothing physically wrong with them. 

For example, ovarian cancer. It’s an emergency, but you wouldn’t know. The problem is, that’s not the legal standard – that somebody looks sick.

What’s really stupid about this whole thing is that MPP is a stupid policy. We have an exception in a stupid law that stupid people do not know how to enforce. We’re left with this capriciousness that is just unbelievable.

I’m going to use every angle to try to get different people in. And I’m doing it strategically. I started on the border in Arizona when I was maybe 22, 23 years old. Back then, we could talk to CBP. They used to call and release people to me all the time, around Nogales and elsewhere.

I have a degree in special education and have done lots of assessments and research on disabilities, so I use some of that in immigration law. Whenever we have someone with a disability whose parent is being deported, I look at how we can create an exceptional hardship defense. 

Last year, I was at the border in Tijuana. There was a young woman who was on the spectrum. I talked to the mom, she said the girl hardly speaks. I got a friend of mine to do an evaluation over Skype. 

The big issue was that I was going to walk the family, but they would have separated the family. The 19-year-old would have been all by herself in detention. That would have been devastating for her.

We produced a 25-page report after a two hour evaluation with this kid. I presented that and CBP took one look at the paperwork and let her in. 

But you know, the level of cruelty that we’re currently seeing – it’s worse than I’ve seen in 32 years. It’s gotten worse and worse, from the 80s on. Through the 90s, things also got worse. We saw the changes in how CBP handles cases, ICE raids, all of that.

Once 9/11 happened, everything spiraled. It’s symptomatic of what has been going on for a long time. I mean, kids in cages? That was Obama. High deportation levels, kids in cages, the raids – we had those under Obama. But it has also taken a very sharp turn in the last three years. 

Right now in Matamoros, I deal with trying to get the asylum applications done. I created a remote program where I send applications after I intake folks, review their cases, and see if they’re legally sound.

If they have a decent case or if they qualify, I send the cases out to a network of remote immigration lawyers in the U.S. I hook up the client and the lawyer via Whatsapp. The lawyer does a full interview and prepares the I-589. I’ve gone through various versions of how to do this. 

Right now, I run it like the rural doctor’s office. First come, first serve. If they’re new, I give them an idea of what I do and then I hand them a Spanish version of the I-589 – if they can read and write – and explain asylum law in a nutshell.

I teach them how to write their testimony. I send them off and tell them to come back with that done. When I have that and all of the other documentation, I send it off to another attorney who will then call the client and do another in-depth interview to prepare the application and send it to me. Once I get it, I print it, and they sign it, and then they go and file it in court.

My colleague looks at how the tent court system is working. We’re looking at how we can get things like bond and habeas corpus. Basically, whatever we need in order to re-introduce due process, which has been completely eviscerated. 

It’s true that people aren’t being granted bond hearings. The government won’t accept payment. There is actually a page that pops up when you to try to pay the bond. It says, “No jurisdiction to pay bond.” 

It’s out of control. It’s not legal. We’ve got to keep figuring that out. But, judges are taking the stance that they have no jurisdiction. It’s all fiction about who entered illegally and who “arrived”. 

The other asinine thing going on is that, recently, immigration judges have started demanding that asylum seekers comply with the 15-day rule. They have to submit every single document no less than 15 days prior to their final hearing. How are these people going to mail everything to Harlingen, Texas? I have never seen a mailman in that camp.

The 15-day rule says that if you’re a regular litigator, you have to turn everything in by that deadline. In these cases, they’re making the clients do it. I saw about six people last week who came to me and said, “We’re supposed to do this.” 

So, guess what? I’m setting up a second remote program where I’m going to recruit lawyers. I’m going to take all the evidence, scan it, send it out to a law firm, and then tell them to mail it in to the court in time to meet the 15-day rule. That’s where people can help. Tabulate, do exhibits, do proof of service, then mail the documents in the clients’ names. 

In total, I have a remote I-589 program, a remote court filing program, and a remote translation program. That’s the only way we’re going to deal with this. My philosophy is this: class action lawsuits are great. But at the end of the day, one needs to go one case at a time. It’s only when we’ve hit at the wall that many times that we’re going to make a dent. 

30 years ago, I would stand in the courts and ask for bond. This was during the wars across Central America when the government was deporting people left, right, and center. After doing that for a solid year, over and over again, CBP started relenting and letting people out and sending them to me. But, it took that long. I would stand in every single hearing. I would ask for bond and ask for a change of venue. It was like a broken record. 

This is a mess. The only way to undo the mess is to do each single thing over and over again until we make a dent. And really, we have to pull out all the stops. We’re getting hit with everything in the government’s arsenal. We’re such few lawyers.

We’re going to involve lawyers all over the nation. In your fuzzy slippers, do an asylum application. You can spend eight hours doing one. If we can get 500 lawyers, we have 500 decent I-589s in the system. One of my volunteers is going to be running a clinic on Jan. 16. We’re recruiting non-immigration lawyers to get training in immigration law, just to do the asylum applications. 

If the applications are done well, if there’s any hope, those can all be appealed or re-opened down the road. But without a good record, we’re never going to get there. And we need help. I’m totally buried.”