Lisa Brodyaga, Crusading Lawyer for Immigrants’ Rights, Dies at 81

She became a folk hero representing asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America, setting up shop in the Rio Grande Valley and building a refuge camp.

She became a folk hero representing asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America, setting up shop in the Rio Grande Valley and building a refuge camp.

As leftist revolution and U.S.-backed counter-insurgencies spread through El Salvador and Guatemala in the early 1980s, Central America became awash in bloodshed, sending refugees fleeing to the United States border in hopes of a new life.

When they got there, a combative immigration lawyernamed Lisa Brodyaga, who had only recently passed the Texas bar exam, was waiting.

She was running Proyecto Libertad, a pro bono legal initiative in Texas representing asylum seekers, and by the decade’s end she had helped defend thousands in court. She went on to earn a reputation as a litigious thorn in the side of federal border enforcement agencies for the next 40 years.

“Lisa was a leader in a whole movement of lawyers who decided to approach the representation of immigrants with a civil rights consciousness,” said, Susan Gzesh, an immigrant rights expert who teaches at the University of Chicago. “She helped firmly establish that undocumented asylum seekers have rights under our Bill of Rights. She taught immigration lawyers to not be afraid to go into federal courts.”

Ms. Brodyaga (pronounced brod-YA-ga) died on Oct. 28 at her home at a refuge camp she founded near San Benito, Texas. She was 81. The cause was lung cancer, her son, Paul Mockett Jr., said. Her death was not widely reported at the time.

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Ms. Brodyaga with Pio Celestino, an immigration rights activist, at their refuge camp. “I like to have people think, ‘She’s just a hick lawyer,'” she once said. “Go ahead, I dare you. Dismiss me.”Credit…via Jan Underwood

Wearing her hair in a long single braid down her back, Ms. Brodyaga was known to show up at court wearing sandals or cowboy boots. If the federal prosecutors she faced smirked, it was because they were uninitiated. By lunch break they were often stepping outside to collect themselves after the verbal barrage Ms. Brodyaga had directed at them in defense of her client.

“I like to be underestimated,” she once told law students at the University of Miami. “I like to have people think, ‘She’s just a hick lawyer.'” She added: “Go ahead, I dare you. Dismiss me.”

In the mid-1980s, as war raged in El Salvador, members of the independent Human Rights Commission of El Salvador were imprisoned by the country’s government, and Ms. Brodyaga traveled there to check on their condition.

During her stay she assisted them with a report they were writing about the torture of political prisoners at the prison, and she helped smuggle it back to the United States. Then she passed it off to the journalist Ron Ridenhour, who as a serviceman had exposed the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. He published the findings in The San Francisco Examiner.

Ms. Brodyaga opened her camp, the Refugio del Rio Grande, in 1986. She had bought the land — a 45-acre parcel in the Rio Grande Valley — and transformed it into a self-sustaining community, with its own medical clinic, legal clinic and dormitories. Refugees grew fruits and vegetables while she worked on their casesin her cluttered trailer.

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Ms. Brodyaga’s refuge offered legal and medical help, as well as classrooms and dormitories.Credit…via Jan Underwood

“It is a refugee camp which frequently has no refugees,” she wrote in 1998. “It is an act of permanent, peaceful resistance which is studiously ignored by the very powers we resist. Its importance lies primarily in its very existence.”

Ms. Brodyaga became something of a folk hero in the Valley’s legal community for taking on pro bono cases for the entirety of her career, earning money from occasional paying cases. But before she became a crusading immigration lawyer, she was a young woman trying to make sense of America’s responsibility to the world, and of her own.

“Lisa had a social justice perspective from the beginning,” said Mary Howell, a civil rights lawyer and a longtime friend. “She came of age during the Vietnam War era. She wondered, ‘What does it mean to be an American?’ She questioned our government and our democracy.”

“I think that’s what sent her down a path different from the one of traditional lawyering,” Ms. Howell added. “Lisa was an activist lawyer, and proudly so.”

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Central American migrants at Ms. Brodyaga’s Refugio del Rio Grande in the late 1980s. Credit…via Jan Underwood

Gail Elisabeth Smith was born on Sept. 21, 1940, in Urbana, Ill., to Guy and Jean (Randall) Smith. Her father was a noted soil scientist, her mother a homemaker. Calling herself Lisa, from her middle name, she grew up on a farm and often fell into mischief.

“When my mother was12 or so, she saw a Norman Rockwell drawing in The Saturday Evening Post that she loved for the rest of her life,” her son said. “It’s a picture of a girl with a black eye at school sitting on a bench near the principal’s office. She got into a fight, probably with a boy, and the principal is talking with her teacher.

“But this girl has a big smile on her face. She doesn’t care that she’s in trouble because she knows that she was in the right. My mother always saw herself in that girl.”

In her youth, Ms. Brodyaga threw herself into the countercultural tides of the 1960s and ’70s.

She helped support the Black Panthers in New York and lived in a commune in California. During a stay in Czechoslovakia, when she was dragged into an anti-Soviet street protest, someone put a flag into her hand, and an image of her brandishing it appeared all over the news. She also changed her last name to Brodyaga, which means “wanderer” in Russian.

After graduating with a B.A. from George Washington University in 1968, she earned her law degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington in 1974. She took up a career in immigration law in the late 1970s, moving to Texas after growing incensed about the migrant situation developing at the border. A few years later she met Pio Celestino, an immigration activist who later became her romantic partner, and they started running the Refugio together.

In addition to her son, Ms. Brodyaga is survived by a sister, Ann Degler; three brothers, Randall, Guy Jr.and Arthur; and five grandchildren. A marriage to Paul Mockett ended in divorce in 1962. In the mid-1970s, Ms. Brodyaga adopted a Vietnamese child, whom she named Lynn and who went missing in about 2000.

Ms. Brodyaga grew old on the Refugio, kept company by dogs, llamas and an emu named Jorge. Law students who made pilgrimages to the camp received her teachings as she planted trees and fed chickens.

She was diagnosed with cancer in 2020 but continued to maintain a heavy caseload.

“She was writing briefs until the very end,” Paul Mockett Jr. said. “I would say it was personal for her. She believed in every case she worked on.” He added, “She wanted to see justice served.”

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