January 9, 20195:25 AM ET
In recent months, thousands of migrants have gathered in Tijuana, hoping for asylum in the United States. Some will be deported before ever stepping foot in the U.S. Others will be detained by U.S. immigration authorities as they wait for their hearings.
But some will be allowed to live in the U.S. while their cases wind through the system. Legal experts say if they stay in California, they’ll be lucky to be there. The state has a cadre of pro bono attorneys eager to help them navigate the complicated asylum process.
In 2017, California lawmakers approved a state budget that included $45 million in funding for immigrant legal services. With that increased funding, the state’s Department of Social Services has contracted dozens of nonprofits to offer legal help to thousands of immigrants every year.
The state money is spread to organizations throughout California. But regional breakdowns show that nonprofits in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area have received the largest chunks of money. These areas may be expensive for migrants, but the data show that having access to legal aid makes a huge difference in asylum cases.
Still California’s high cost of living continues to push families out of the very places offering the most help.
“A lot of our immigrant community are finding themselves having to move outside of Los Angeles so that they can afford to live,” said Patricia Ortiz, a lawyer with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project.
“But once they’re there, there is not quite the same amount of resources or support that they would have here,” she said.
One of Ortiz’s clients, Rosa, has been in Los Angeles for about two months. She fled gang violence in El Salvador with her two children.
Before Rosa arrived, she pictured Los Angeles as a place full of luxury and natural beauty. Some areas of the city are like that, Rosa said. But her corner of the city looks and feels more familiar.
“I sometimes feel as if I were in the capital of El Salvador,” said Rosa, who requested that her last name be withheld because her asylum case is ongoing.
She was surprised by how much housing costs here. During their first month in Los Angeles, Rosa and her family lived in cramped quarters with another family sleeping right next to the bathroom.
“We chose to move because we could not access the bathroom,” she said. “We did not feel comfortable entering it.”
Since then, Rosa has found a studio apartment near downtown LA that rents for $800 per month. But even coming up with that amount will be a struggle. Asylum-seekers are not eligible for a work permit until at least six months into their cases. Many work under the table to get by.
Despite these hurdles, Rosa said California provides what she didn’t have in El Salvador: Safety, and the chance of a better life for her kids.
“There is opportunity here,” she said. “Here, you can realize any dream you want.”
Ortiz said even though it is an expensive place to live, asylum-seekers in Los Angeles have access to people who want to help. For instance, she said, “Getting our clients connected to mental health resources outside of the LA region is very difficult. It’s something that we are always struggling with.”
Jenna Gilbert, a pro bono asylum attorney at Human Rights First, said it’s heartbreaking to get calls from clients who plan to leave California months into their case, because they can’t afford to stay.
She tells them they’re not just losing their lawyer. They’re leaving behind California’s Ninth Circuit for courts that may be more likely to deny asylum claims.
“If you move to a small town in Texas, housing is going to be much cheaper,” Gilbert said. “But you probably won’t have the legal resources. And you also will be in a circuit that is much less favorable to asylum-seekers.”