NOEL KING, HOST:
All this week, I've been reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. I'm looking into a Trump administration policy called Migrant Protection Protocols, or Remain in Mexico. What the policy means is that people who cross into the U.S. seeking asylum are sent to Mexico to wait for their day in U.S. immigration court.
Now, there are thousands of people anxiously waiting on their dates. Some of them told us that date is the only thing keeping them from giving up and just going home. But then this week, we went to the immigration court in El Paso, and it made us wonder if their hope is misplaced because what we saw looked a lot like a legal crisis.
I'm standing outside of the El Paso Immigration Court. So this is a building that we've been hearing about all week because so many of the people that we've been talking to are looking to have their asylum cases heard in this court.
One of them is a family from Honduras - Tania (ph), her husband, Joseph (ph), and their three little kids. Tania is one of those people who smiles all of the time, even when she's stressed out. And right now, she is very stressed out. I met her and her family in a shelter in Ciudad Juarez. That's the city just across the border from El Paso. They were sent there after they crossed into the U.S. They're among the thousands of people who are waiting in Mexico until their court date.
The only time that Tania's smile fades is when she talks about what brought her family to the border. This is the story she told us earlier this week when we first met her. She says that back in Honduras, her mom, like a lot of people, was targeted by the MS-13 gang. Tania's lawyer asked us not to say exactly why because it could affect Tania's court case. But eventually, MS-13 got to Tania's mother.
TANIA: (Through interpreter) My mom was shot nine times. And even after the murder, they weren't satisfied with having killed her. Her body was slumped on the ground, and they ran over her with a motorcycle.
KING: Tania watched all of this, completely helpless.
TANIA: (Through interpreter) It's very hard to watch your mother get killed right before your eyes and not do anything about it.
KING: So she decided to do something about it. She went to court. She testified against the gang members. She says she tried to hide her identity, but the gang found out who she was. Tania's sister-in-law was a witness in that same case. The gang kidnapped, tortured and killed her and then left her infant daughter in a dumpster. After that, they came for Tania.
TANIA: (Speaking Spanish).
KING: They told her, basically, you're next. She says they left a note on her front door. It said, you have 45 minutes to leave. Sincerely, MS-13.
That family has an awful story, but they also have something that a lot of people don't. They have a lawyer who heard that story and said, I'm going to take your case. So on the day of the court hearing, the lawyer, Linda Rivas, leads Tania and her family into the courtroom. I'm not allowed to record while I'm in there. But Linda walks in looking like she knows what's up. The judge jokes with her. He says, hey, it's been a while. And the other migrants look at them. And to me, it looks like they're thinking, oh, that family gets to go first because they have a lawyer. They get to sit in chairs in front of the judge. He's going to talk directly to them.
Linda, the lawyer, tries to get Tania's family out of Mexico. She tells the judge - and this is a true story - Tania's 3-year-old daughter has a heart condition. She's had a heart attack. The judge's eyebrows shoot way up. He says, the child? Yes. This is what having a lawyer gets you, a chance to tell your story.
But then after the hearing, outside of the courtroom, Linda Rivas, this confident lawyer, lets her guard down, and she tells us that she has been wondering...
LINDA RIVAS: How much longer can we do this? And are we really making a difference?
KING: The problem in El Paso is this. There are too few immigration lawyers, too few Linda Rivases, for 9,000 migrants who are stuck in Ciudad Juarez alone. She is so overwhelmed right now. This is what makes it so bizarre to then run into another lawyer, who's buzzing around the courthouse openly saying, hey, I'm here to help for free.
It's a woman named Taylor Levy. She knows this courthouse really well. Taylor used to be part of something called the Know Your Rights program. She would walk in here and talk to migrants before their court hearings and make sure that, at the very least, they knew their basic rights. But she says, recently, she was told to stop doing this. The Justice Department ended this court's Know Your Rights program.
TAYLOR LEVY: It's ridiculous. I'm here to help people for free. They're going to be here all day. There's a free attorney willing to talk to them, wanting to help orient people. And we are being told that we are not allowed to speak to them.
KING: So instead of legal advice, she's now bringing crayons and coloring books. In fact, I watched as a security guard told her she couldn't come into the courtroom. We asked the Justice Department why they ended Know Your Rights in that El Paso courtroom, and they told us in a statement that they want to make sure migrants aren't being misled or confused about their proceedings or otherwise taken advantage of.
But it is not just that program that's ending. Linda Rivas, Tania's lawyer, said, for some reason, she is also being given less access in this court, even to her own clients.
RIVAS: Today, they didn't even let me into the waiting room. There were guards that were physically standing at the waiting room. And I was not even allowed into the waiting room of a court - an immigration court that I've been practicing before for five years.
KING: The people without lawyers, which is mostly everyone, look confused or bored or anxious or all three. They're given forms in English even though everyone has said Espanol when asked what language they speak. One man raises his hand and says to the judge, I can't find a lawyer. And the judge seems sympathetic. His advice appears to be, you should keep trying.
At the end of the hearing, every migrant in that room is in the same boat, including Tania and her family. They will likely be held by immigration authorities for a few days, and then they'll be sent back to Mexico to wait some more. The judge tells them, I will see all of you again on August 15 for a second hearing.
By that date, Linda Rivas, the lawyer, says she will have an asylum application prepared for Tania and her family. But everyone else in this room who hasn't found a lawyer - and most of them probably won't - they will sit in that courtroom on that day with no one at their side making a case for them.
On today's show, we also talk to an immigration judge about what this legal crisis is like for her and her colleagues on the bench.