SALT LAKE CITY — Steven Burt, Engels Tejeda and Austin Baird are three Utah attorneys in their late 30s who recently traveled to south Texas to represent people who couldn’t afford them.
For a week, they met with women seeking asylum for themselves and their families in the United States. They heard their stories, their rationale, their reasons, for fleeing their homelands and landing at the U.S. doorstep.
Most of the women they met came from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the violent Northern Triangle countries in Central America where drug cartels and gangs make daily life difficult if not downright unbearable. All had children with them. A majority were married, but their husbands were in another facility. Only women and children are allowed at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.
It was the extensive publicity early last summer about migrant families being separated at the Mexican border that got Burt, Tejada and Baird to Texas.
Burt, a University of Utah law school graduate who is in-house counsel for Vivint Solar in Lehi, saw the news reports of the thousands of people seeking asylum at the border and wondered if there was something he could do besides just worry about it.
He did a Google search and found out about the Dilley Pro Bono Project, a nonprofit group that solicits volunteer lawyers to come to the Dilley facility for a week at a time, drop their rates to "free," and represent asylum-seekers as they make their way through the system.
This is the project's recruiting pitch as stated on the American Immigration Council website (immigrationjustice.us):
"DPBP is only able to uphold its promise to provide legal counsel with the help of volunteers who are flexible, willing to step outside their comfort zone, and dedicated to working long and difficult hours (12-15-hour days, full of physically and emotionally exhausting work).”
When Steve Burt read that, he thought, “perfect."
He called his friend from law school, Engels Tejeda, an attorney at the Salt Lake law firm of Holland & Hart, and asked him to join him. The two spent the week between Christmas and New Years at a place Tejeda described as “this giant trailer in the middle of a field in south Texas.” Their emotional Facebook posts about the experience inspired their friend, Austin Baird, who works with Burt at Vivint Solar, to do a volunteer week of his own in early February.
They all three came away discouraged … and encouraged.
Discouraged by what they heard: horrific stories about cruelty and abuse spelled out in the women’s Credible Fear Interviews that made it hard to fall asleep at night.
Encouraged by what they saw: women by the hundreds who didn’t come across as people looking for a handout, but as people trying to find a better way of life for them and their children.
“These women who hitchhiked three weeks with their kids to get here; I can’t think of anyone who I’d rather hire to work for me,” said Baird. “You just know someone like that is going to roll with the punches.”
“Bringing them in (to America) would be an injection of resilience, an injection of perseverance and hard work,” said Burt. “Apart from seeing these women and their kids as great kids who I’d love to have in my house and play with my kids, I would love to have those kids be in a classroom and tell their stories so other kids could realize how lucky they have it.”
These kinds of statements, and more, they were able to say directly to the immigration judges considering the women’s appeals for asylum.
Will they all get in? That’s not for the three good-hearted lawyers from Utah to say. But they did their bit, at least for a week, and in the future they’d like to do more.
“It’s a crisis situation where you need folks to come and step up,” said Tejada. “People forget that behind all the headlines, all the discussions, certainly behind all the politics, that these are real human beings here.”