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American Bar Association President Meets Asylum Seekers In Rio Grande Valley

Judy Perry Martinez
Courtesy of the American Bar Association
Judy Perry Martinez

The new president of the American Bar Association recently completed a tour of the Rio Grande Valley. 

Judy Perry Martinez visited detention facilities, spoke with asylum seekers across the border in Mexico, and observed immigration court proceedings. Texas Public Radio’s Reynaldo Leaños Jr. sat down with her at an immigration office in Harlingen, where she talked about her second visit to the border in the last two years.

Leaños: This isn't your first time you know coming down to the border. You were here last year as well. Do things look different to you being down here this second time around compared to last year? And if so, what are those differences that you’ve seen? 

Perry Martinez: What we're seeing I think is a significant influx of individuals. We're also continuing to see the issue of separation of families in the Rio Grande Valley, and I know that there's been court orders with regard to the separation of families. But we're still seeing cases in fact just this week when I was at immigration court I sat in the courtroom and observed a very young tender age young man who sat in his shirt and tie with his coloring book and crayons and he had counsel with him but he in his proceedings are the result of the fact that he even separated from his father.

Leaños: One of the reasons why you're down here is because you've been going to the Port Isabel facility there. Talk to me a little bit about what that has been like this time around.

Perry Martinez: So I've actually been also going to El Valle as well as we went to court today at Port Isabel because that's where the immigration courts are held for the facilities. And what you see is individuals who are striving to come into this country who believe they have valid asylum claims and are trying to pursue those claims and we are trying to make sure that they have access to counsel, which is an integral part of due process in our country. And what we know is that there are so many in numbers that they are not being seen by counsel. We are doing our best at the American Bar Association to bring down pro bono counsel. But at the same time the need is so great not only here in the valley but across the country. And we will never be able to no matter how hard we strive no matter how many pro bono hours are put in we'll never be able to address the need for counsel in this country unless we have government paid, government afforded counsel in immigration proceedings.

Leaños: Talk to me a bit about why ABA has been and is continuing to push for the immigration court system, you know, to be independent from the Department of Justice.

Perry Martinez: So there are two core foundational principles of our justice system. Number one that the justice system the courts are independent and that they are a fair and impartial. And secondly that they are perceived to be fair and impartial. In the case of the immigration courts we have a situation in our country right now where those judges who sit in the immigration courts are not sitting independently they are in fact reporting to the Attorney General of the United States. And as a consequence they shouldn't be setting sitting separately as tax courts do and as bankruptcy courts do in our country.

Leaños: As the new president of the ABA, what are some of the main things that are on your agenda, or that you really want to tackle, or raise more awareness about? 

Perry Martinez: There is no more issue that is core to advancing the rule of law than addressing the immigration crisis in our country today because this is an issue for all of us. We do not want to be the country that is turning their backs on immigrants coming in to our borders. We do not want to become the country that we are seeing unfold because of the fact that there's been an ongoing dismantling of the asylum process in this country. And we have to do all we can as individual lawyers as individual people in this country, as well as the American Bar Association to make sure that the rights that are afforded under our Constitution and due process to fair and impartial hearings and that everything is done in our power to make sure that these individuals who are coming into our country for a safer and better life in fact are given every opportunity they have to come make a life like all of us have here.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at reynaldo@tpr.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos