Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies force hundreds of asylum seekers into detention in the Central Valley, one of the most rural parts of California. In March 2015, ICE contracted with GEO Group, a private prison company, to re-open the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield, California. Although ICE contracts with other jails throughout the state for bed space to house a limited number of immigrant detainees, Mesa Verde is a former prison that is now an immigrant-only detention center holding 400 individuals at any given time, the majority of them asylum-seekers. Mesa Verde is five hours away from the San Francisco immigration court, which has jurisdiction over all of the detainees’ cases. According to the San Francisco Immigration Court Administrator, the detained immigration court docket in San Francisco has nearly doubled since the opening of Mesa Verde.

Shortly after opening the detention center, ICE began transferring recently arrived asylum seekers there from the border. These asylum seekers are from countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America and speak dozens of languages, including Spanish, English, French, and Haitian Creole.

ICE’s decision to open Mesa Verde has created a crisis of representation. Prior to its opening, Bay Area legal service providers were already overwhelmed by the needs of immigrant detainees housed in the three other local jails with which ICE contracts. There are no nonprofit attorneys located in Bakersfield or anywhere in the Central Valley who provide removal defense representation and the local private immigration bar is small and already overburdened.

In July 2015, in response to this crisis, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) Northern California Chapter, Centro Legal de La Raza (Centro Legal), and Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto (CLSEPA) launched a pilot pro bono project focused on training and recruiting AILA attorneys to take on asylum cases for individuals detained exclusively at Mesa Verde. Today, it is an established project that provides representation to many detainees, as well as technical support for volunteers through the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

Through the Mesa Verde Pro Bono Project, Centro Legal and CLSEPA now conduct bimonthly “Know Your Rights” presentations via video teleconference to detainees.  These presentations are followed by monthly in-person legal screenings staffed by volunteers from Northern and Southern California non-profits, law school clinics and AILA members.   To date, he Mesa Verde Pro Bono Project has conducted consultations with over 1000 individuals.

The Mesa Verde Pro Bono Project also places asylum cases with AILA members throughout the state of California for pro bono representation. Since the beginning of the program, more than 92 individuals have been released from detention, and more than 30 cases have been placed with pro bono attorneys for full scope representation. The cases placed for pro bono representation include dozens of women who were victims of domestic violence, rape, female genital mutilation, and drug cartel and gang violence.

This summer, the Mesa Verde Pro Bono Project received national recognition when it was awarded the 2016 AILA National Michael Maggio Pro Bono Award for its innovation in leveraging extremely limited resources to provide legal services to an underserved and isolated population. We have seen a direct positive impact on cases in removal proceedings as detainees are granted continuances to attend a Know Your Rights training or to complete pro se applications for relief with the assistance of project attorneys. Prior to the launch of the project, many detainees – unaware of their rights or the possibility of pro bono representation – would have taken a removal order at their first immigration court appearance. For many detainees at Mesa Verde, this assistance means the difference between safely remaining in the United States and being deported to a country where they have no ties or would face certain persecution. A recent report from the Stanford Immigrants’ Rights Clinic found that detained immigrants with lawyers are three times more likely to win their cases than those who are forced to represent themselves.

Clients who have been represented through the Mesa Verde Pro Bono Project include: Marie, Alma, and Esperanza. (All names have been changed.) Marie fled the Ivory Coast because her father tried to force her into a polygamous marriage and her entire family threatened to kill her for not complying with her father’s demand. Alma fled Guatemala to escape rape, physical abuse and threats of captivity by her longtime partner. Esperanza fled Mexico at the age of 18 with her family, but while her mother and siblings were allowed into the United States and placed in removal proceedings as a family unit, Esperanza and her father were separated and placed in different remote detention centers. With the assistance of the Mesa Verde Project, all three women were represented in their bond proceedings and successfully released from custody.

We cannot turn away from the needs of these vulnerable detainees. Despite ICE’s attempt to place them far from any representation, we are committed to offering our legal expertise. U.S. laws require that those seeking asylum have a meaningful chance to seek protection; without immigration attorneys, they won’t get their fair day in court.

Coauthored by Barbara Pinto, AILA NorCal Chapter Media Liaison, and the team of Centro Legal de la Raza Immigration Staff Attorneys


As asylum seekers continue to come to the United States fleeing horrific persecution in their home country, we need help to meet the needs of the vulnerable detainee population that is being housed at Mesa Verde.  If you are interested in learning more about the Mesa Verde Pro Bono Project or in taking on a case pro bono, please contact