Lisa Brodyaga, the leading defender of refugees’ rights in U.S. courts for the past 40 years, died Thursday at her home, the Refugio del Río Grande, near San Benito, Texas. She was 81. Her death was confirmed by her longtime friend, Pio Celestino.
An attorney of fierce determination, yet a farm girl at heart, Brodyaga founded the first pro bono law office to represent refugees in U.S. immigration prisons. Her death was universally mourned by defenders of refugees’ and immigrants’ rights.
“That’s terrible news. I’m so sorry for Lisa and for the countless people she has helped over decades of selfless advocacy,” said Carlos César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, professor of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at Ohio State University College of Law, and author of “Crimmigration,” a legal textbook and blog.
“There are few people as committed and ferocious as Lisa Brodyaga,” García Hernández said, upon learning she was in hospice. “Whether we know her name or not, immigration lawyers across the United States walk in her shadow and benefit from her creative, brilliant litigation.”
“Lisa was loved by all: prisoners and peasants,” said Patrick Hughes, who worked with her in Proyecto’s early days, and for years thereafter, including in El Salvador’s notorious Mariona prison, where thousands of students, political opponents and suspected guerrillas were detained, tortured and murdered in the 1980s, under a series of U.S.-backed Salvadoran governments.
Lisa founded Proyecto Libertad in 1981, to represent refugees imprisoned at the blandly named Bayview Service and Processing Center, the enormous immigration prison outside Los Fresnos, Texas, commonly known as the corralón, or big corral.
Hughes helped Lisa establish Proyecto Libertad even before he got out of law school.
“Lisa was co-counsel in the U.S. v Jack Elder case, a criminal trial in Houston in 1984 that exonerated the Catholic activists involved in providing comfort and shelter to refugees,” Hughes told Courthouse News.
He continued: “Lisa Brodyaga was the intellectual author of the Salvadoran asylum movement in the 1980s . She was invited to El Salvador in 1986 to work with the leftist FMLN movement and she spent many months there interviewing political prisoners and assisting in the effort to document the torture