EL PASO — The first time immigration attorney John Moore represented an asylum-seeker staying in Ciudad Juárez, his client disappeared. Now, he believes she’s dead.

The 19-year-old Honduran woman attended an initial court hearing for her asylum case in May, but Moore never heard from her again after she was sent back to Mexico to await her next court date.

Her phone remained off, she didn’t return to her shelter in Juárez and Moore has been unable to contact her family members and sponsor in the U.S., even after he hired a private investigator.

“That tells me she was extorted and they likely killed her anyway,” the attorney said outside immigration court last week. “Cartels can abduct people as soon as the deportation bus arrives.”

The danger migrants face in Juárez is only one of the challenges — albeit the most harrowing one — for El Paso lawyers representing people who are part of Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, a U.S. government program that requires many asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico while awaiting their immigration court hearings.

Attorneys also have to deal with shifting U.S. policies around the program, the logistical and liability challenges of meeting with clients in Juárez, and the severe shortage of lawyers to handle the huge volume of asylum-seekers. All of this has created a situation in which very few asylum-seekers actually get attorneys, and most are left to navigate complex immigration court proceedings without representation.

“We’re grasping for straws in terms of what we’re able to even accomplish with the amount of need that there is right now,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an El Paso nonprofit that offers legal services to asylum-seekers. “Because the situation is so incredibly desperate for people who are in Ciudad Juárez, we find ourselves shifting resources to help people in Juárez because they’re in direct danger and they’re so much less likely to find legal help.”

The difficulties migrants experience in immigration court — replete with misunderstandings, paradoxes and grief — were on display last week at El Paso hearings attended by The New Mexican.

Dozens of Central American migrants, mostly families with young children, were shuffled into a waiting room on the seventh floor of a downtown federal building, where they were fed, escorted to restrooms and finally brought into courtrooms one group at a time.

As they waited inside the courtroom, mothers sat on benches holding babies in their arms while their children climbed around on the floor, playing with the wooden bench legs. One mother was escorted out of the room to change her child’s diaper.

When the judge entered, many of the migrants didn’t understand the command, “All rise,” which was given in English, and a guard had to motion for them to stand.

“Have you been able to look for an attorney?” Judge Nathan Herbert asked asylum-seeker Esdras Gravesis at the start of his proceedings.

“I looked for one and so did my family, but we couldn’t find one,” responded Gravesis in Spanish.

“Would you like more time to look for one?” Herbert asked.

“It’s very difficult to find an attorney to take our case because the case is here and I’m in Juárez,” Gravesis said.

“Would you like more time or do you want to represent yourself?” the judge asked again.

“If you give me more time, I’ll try. But I don’t think I’ll find one because it’s really hard,” Gravesis responded.

“I understand,” Herbert countered. “But if you want more time, I’ll give it to you.”

“Where would I look for one?” Gravesis asked.

“I recommend you look on the legal aid list we gave you.”

“I did call those numbers but they didn’t answer.”

The interaction, which amounts to a Catch-22 for many migrants, was repeated in numerous hearings throughout the day. Judges were courteous in offering more time, but respondents insisted it wouldn’t help because local attorneys didn’t pick up the phone or had declined their cases. Judges usually gave more time anyway, setting a new court date several weeks out. That meant several more weeks in Juárez for the migrants and likely no attorneys to be found.

“It’s a pretty empty gesture to give them that list [of local attorneys],” said Michael Breen, president of New York-based Human Rights First, who recently attended immigration court hearings in El Paso. “The issue is, when they’re in Juárez, most attorneys won’t represent them.”

Gravesis, listening to Herbert through an interpreter, had been through this routine before and decided to represent himself. But when Herbert read the allegations against him — in essence, he is accused of entering the U.S. illegally — Gravesis didn’t understand a number of them, which slowed down the hearing considerably.

Other migrants sobbed through their entire hearings, pleading they couldn’t afford attorneys and drying their eyes with Kleenex while judges continued their steady drone of administrative questions.

One young migrant, Karen Beatriz Soriano, asked Herbert where her parents were.

“I came over with my parents,” she said in Spanish. “They crossed and I was separated from them. Will we be part of the same case?”

“I don’t have anyone attached to your case,” Herbert responded.

Afterward, Soriano retreated to a bench in the back of the courtroom, bawling quietly but profusely. It was unclear whether she was an adult or a minor, and court officials declined to say.

Immigration judges also are feeling overwhelmed. They are working under new performance quotas set by the government in a bid to reduce an unprecedented backlog, which has reached more than 900,000 cases, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Judges are currently expected to handle 50 cases per session, which lasts about three hours, said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

“The judges feel there’s an inordinate amount of cases they’re expected to handle per session,” Tabaddor said. “This makes it very difficult for judges to be mindful and faithful to their oath of office and at the same time try to meet these arbitrary numbers.”

The lack of attorneys also contributes to the backlog because it can take longer for judges to explain the nature of the proceedings and make sure people understand when they are not represented, Tabaddor said.

Indeed, very few migrants in MPP retain attorneys. According to a Syracuse University report released this week, 1,155 cases had been decided nationwide as of the end of June, but only 1.2 percent had representation. Only 1.3 percent of the 12,997 pending MPP cases had an attorney, according to the report from the university’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

It’s difficult for Spanish-speaking migrants to prepare and present an asylum case without an attorney, given that applications need to be filed in English with supporting evidence. And though there’s a court interpreter, some of what is said in court gets lost in translation when there’s no attorney.

For instance, one migrant had traveled to the U.S. to accompany her underage nephews, who had been threatened in Guatemala, so they could request asylum. After her comments were translated, however, Herbert believed she had crossed into the U.S. only to visit her nephews.

Additionally, a significant number of migrants aren’t showing up for their hearings, Tabaddor said. For instance, there were 82 people on the docket for a morning session at El Paso Immigration Court last week, yet only 11 people were present.

“If they don’t show up, they don’t show up,” a guard at the court remarked.

Rivas of Las Americas said her organization was one of only two nonprofits consistently crossing into Juárez to provide legal aid to asylum-seekers living there. Some private attorneys like Moore take cases as well, but they don’t take many compared to the thousands in need.

Those who are taking cases are overwhelmed. Last week, Rivas said she had a choice between going through 450 unread emails or trying to get a deaf asylum-seeker out of the MPP program, which is also known as “Remain in Mexico.” She chose the latter and succeeded in helping the woman enter the U.S., where she can now stay with her brother in Miami while awaiting her court dates.

There are also plenty of logistical challenges that slow Rivas down, such as long lines at the border crossing, as well as safety issues given the high level of violence in Juárez.

Rivas has taken about 50 MPP cases and has succeeded in getting 22 of them released from the program, which has allowed around 35 people to wait for their hearings in the U.S. instead of Mexico.

The cases include three women who were the victims of rape over the course of several days by multiple men in Juárez, two men who were kidnapped while grocery shopping for their families, as well as pregnant women, a disabled girl and several people who identify as LGBT.

However, Rivas was unable to get clients out of Mexico in 12 of her cases, though some of them were persecuted in Juárez. One was kidnapped three times. Another was the victim of attempted sexual assault in front of her 3-year-old. Still another involved a single mother and three children who were kidnapped and escaped. Rivas believes they were likely kidnapped again later, after they were refused entry into the U.S.

Rivas is hopeful that there will soon be more legal aid for migrants. The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, a nonprofit that has been working with asylum-seekers in the Tijuana area, will soon begin operating in Juárez, she said. The group Las Americas and others plan to start offering workshops to help migrants learn how to fill out asylum applications.

But with more than 11,000 migrants returned to the Juárez area as part of MPP, many are still unlikely to get assistance.

“There is help coming, but it’s only going to make a dent,” Rivas said. “The reality is that 11,000 people is unheard of.”

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Jens Erik Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

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