Fried Frank Helps Free Asylum Seeker From Detention 'Prison'

By Aebra Coe | August 25, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

When 19-year-old Manuel told Fried Frank attorneys he'd fled police beatings and threats on his life in Honduras, they thought he had a strong case for seeking asylum in the U.S. But when they went back to the detention center to find him, he was gone.

Or so they were told. In their efforts to help Manuel, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, the attorneys were led on a wild goose chase through the U.S. immigration system, as he disappeared from the roster without explanation and didn't show up anywhere else.

The young man had hoped to find refuge from the violence in his home country, which he says has already taken the lives of friends and relatives.

"Manuel's case reflects the frustrating lack of transparency, and often seeming randomness, of ICE's detention decisions," said lead attorney Gail Weinstein, a senior counsel at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP.

Weinstein traveled to two different adult immigration detention centers in Texas along with seven other attorneys from her law firm in July. The group were able to offer legal advice to detainees applying for asylum in the U.S. like Manuel with the assistance of more than 80 other Fried Frank attorneys and staff who offered their help to the group remotely.

The law firm partnered with ProBar, an American Bar Association project, on the trip.

Fried Frank is one of several firms and organizations that have devoted resources to representing people who are being held in detention centers on the border in recent years. And yet there is still a massive unmet legal need, Weinstein said.

Only a handful of people get legal representation of any type, and without legal representation, people from Central America applying for asylum in the U.S. right now have little to no chance of being granted asylum, she said.

"The obstacles that have been established through the current policies and legal interpretation by the current administration are creating a situation where it's almost impossible to succeed legally," Weinstein said. "Lawyer involvement does raise the chances [of success] above zero."

That's what she believes helped secure Manuel's release as he pursues his asylum claim.

According to the attorney, Manuel said he was targeted by police in his Honduras after he refused to work for drug traffickers. He said he was beaten and his life, as well as the lives of his family members, were threatened for his lack of cooperation. He said he'd seen friends and relatives brutally murdered for refusing the traffickers' demands.

And yet when the attorneys returned to the center to see Manuel on their second day, he was gone, and they were told he'd been transferred to another detention center. The lawyers repeatedly tried to find him, but to no avail. They checked the government's online detainee locator and asked officials in Port Isabel where they could find him.

Finally, the day before they were leaving Texas, they asked the center again for the man's location were told that he'd never been transferred and had been there all along.

"No one would discuss with us why we were told that he had been transferred when he had not been. We then persevered in making pleas to the detention office for his release," she said.

Soon afterward he was released, but the whole case illustrates how the detention program at the border is not functioning in a transparent and fair manner, Weinstein said.

"We have no idea why Manuel was held so long, nor why we were told he was transferred, nor why he was thereafter suddenly released. Presumably, the presence of counsel and our persistence even after being told that he had been transferred, plus his having a strong asylum claim, made a difference," Weinstein said.

Not being detained while pursuing an asylum claim can be vitally important for asylum seekers, she said.

"It's very trying being in detention, especially in an adult facility like that," Weinstein said. "In appearance, in feel, it is a prison facility."

Fried Frank continues to help Manuel with his legal case as he works to gain asylum while living in the home of a sponsor.

Weinstein said many of the people being detained told similar stories of why they were applying for asylum.

More and more people have fled violence related to organized crime in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico since 2009 to seek asylum in the U.S., according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"In most cases, the gangs or narcos in Central America have been systematically killing off people in the families of these men we met with and have specifically threatened, targeted and or injured these people," she said. "They were fleeing after staying in the country as long as they could."

The gangs often keep track of who leaves and who comes back into their home countries, and so their lives are "really incredibly vulnerable" if they go back, Weinstein said.

"The gangs make an example of people who try to escape," she said. "There is no escaping the gangs there. They work with the police. You can't just go to a different part of the country to be safe."

Now that the team is back home again, it's continuing to work for some of the clients the attorneys met in Texas, including following up with two appeals of asylum denials and writing up legal briefs to support other asylum cases.

And while much of the work they did has not yet yielded results, and with the policies of the current presidential administration they may not yield results in many cases, the attorney says she believes the work they are doing is still vital.

"People know there are people who have some level of authority within our system who are paying attention to what's going on," Weinstein said. "I think there's a dual purpose for lawyers' involvement. To help people with their individual cases, but also to give a voice to these people who otherwise are voiceless within our system."

--Additional reporting by Nicole Narea. Editing by Brian Baresch.