Advancing Racial and Economic Justice for Asylum-Seekers

I’ll never forget the day that Alberto (name changed) came into our office seeking immigration help.  Only a teenager, Alberto fled his native Guatemala alone—leaving behind his loved ones and traversing Mexico through the unrelenting summer’s heat—to seek safety in central Mississippi, where his uncle lived.  As a Guatemalan Maya from the country’s western highlands, Alberto faced a lifetime of severe poverty, lack of opportunity, and possible death in his native country—solely because of his ethnicity.

Before Alberto was born, Guatemalan soldiers murdered several members of his family during the country’s decades-long civil war, in which the government committed over 600 massacres against its indigenous citizens.  Even though the Peace Accords officially ended the war before Alberto’s birth, its legacies—along with the weight of generations of state-sanctioned racism, oppression, and genocide against the Maya—suffocated Alberto in his home country.  Born into extreme poverty, Alberto, his parents, and three siblings depended on a small subsistence farm in order to survive, unable to find economic opportunities in other parts of the country.  He dropped out of school in the third grade in order to work on the farm.

When Alberto was around fourteen, the Guatemalan government approved the installation of a mine site in a neighboring town, despite strong opposition and protests by local indigenous groups, including Alberto and his family.  Alberto, his family, and neighbors protested the mine because they were afraid that the government would take their land, on which they depended for survival, and give it to the mining company.  Even if they did not lose their land, they also feared that the mining would contaminate their crops and water supply.  Unfortunately, many of these protests turned violent, with private mine security and state forces violently repelling protesters.  In one of these skirmishes, a miner slashed Alberto’s arm with a machete.

Fearing for his life, Alberto fled his homeland for safety in the United States.  After the exhausted and dehydrated young man reached the U.S./Mexico border and requested protection, U.S. Border Patrol officers arrested Alberto, moved him to a children’s shelter, and released him into the care of his uncle in Central Mississippi.  Alberto’s fight for his life was far from over, however.  Upon his release, U.S. officials handed him a Notice to Appear, which advised him in English that he would have to appear before an Immigration Judge in Memphis to navigate the complicated asylum process in order to remain in the country.  He would face a prosecutor from the Department of Homeland Security, but would have no government-appointed attorney to represent him.  He would have to file all applications for protection and documents in English.  And if he mis-stepped even once, the U.S. government would forcibly remove Alberto to the country that nearly killed him.

Thankfully, Alberto did not have to face this daunting system alone.  With the support of law students from the Mississippi College School of Law Immigration Clinic, with whom MCJ has partnered, Alberto won his asylum case and continues to reside in central Mississippi, where he is studying for his GED, learning English, and healing from the trauma he suffered.

Given recent attacks on asylum, asylum-seekers like Alberto need your support.  To learn more about the asylum process and ways that you can advocate for stronger legal protections for asylum-seekers like Alberto, you can visit:

National Immigration Forum:

American Immigration Lawyers Association:

Catholic Legal Immigration Network:

To learn how you can support Mississippi asylum-seekers like Alberto, please email

Amelia McGowan is Testing Coordinator – Fair Housing/Immigration for the Mississippi Center for Justice.