BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Our courts are hard enough to navigate for those of us who live here. They are nearly impossible, advocates say, for asylum seekers who don’t understand the system, may not speak English and may not know how many times they are expected to show up for their case.
HIAS, a nonprofit that works worldwide to protect refugees, is working to change that. It started Proyecto Compañeros in March, pairing a volunteer with a migrant placed in the Migrant Protection Protocol, also known as MPP, where asylum seekers wait for their U.S. court date in Mexico.
“The goal is to provide support, friendship and information about the program that they're under,” said Karina Stiles-Cox, a Proyecto Compañeros volunteer in Brownsville.
“We have to be extremely careful and be very clear with our compañero that we cannot provide any kind of legal advice,” Stiles-Cox said. “More than anything, it's to give them support, a friendship, to make sure they understand maybe what the steps are or what the guidelines are.”
HIAS told KENS 5 migrants are expected to present their asylum application in English. Proyecto Compañeros volunteers like Stiles-Cox help them translate it.
The volunteers are also one of the first people to hear migrants’ persecution stories.
“You can imagine you're an asylum seeker, you placed an MPP, 2.0, you don't want the first time you share your persecution story to be with the judge,” said Martha Mercado, field associate for HIAS Border Asylum Network in Brownsville. “People go through years of therapy to process what these asylum seekers have gone through. And they're expected to, you know, present their case in a court hearing without any of that mental health help.”
“We give the asylum seekers a chance to, what we call, ‘own their stories,’” Mercado added. “To share the facts and kind of help them understand what the most relevant parts of the story are.”
Since the twice-monthly meetings take place over Zoom, where volunteers live doesn’t matter. Mercado said they just have to be 80% Spanish-proficient, and training is offered on how to work with people in this program.
Stiles-Cox is paired up with an asylum seeker for three months. She’s one of 13 trained volunteers.
HIAS ran a pilot of this program in late 2021. It was so successful that the nonprofit jump-started it again in March.