It has been nine weeks since the Trump administration sparked a national crisis by forcibly separating more than 2,500 migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Most were seeking asylum from violence in their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Instead, the parents were charged in federal court with a crime for illegally crossing the border, then held in jail and detention. The children, some still breastfeeding, were sent to shelters around the country. Today is the deadline federal District Judge Dana Sabraw set to reunite these families. But the process has been chaotic, and the government admits at least 900 children have yet to be reunited, and some 463 separated parents have been deported – even as their children remain in U.S. detention centers. Officials say the parents voluntarily agreed to leave their children behind. But in court papers filed Wednesday, the ACLU argued many parents say they were coerced or misled into signing forms they could not read, and were confused about what they were agreeing to. We speak to two immigration lawyers, Ofelia Calderón and Carlos García. They are both representing and providing pro bono assistance to parents separated from their children, some of whom have still not been reunited by today’s court-imposed deadline.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s been nine weeks since the Trump administration sparked a national crisis by forcibly separating more than 2,500 migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Most were seeking asylum from violence in their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Instead, the parents were charged in federal court with a crime for illegally crossing the border, then held in jail and detention. The children, some still breastfeeding, were taken away from their parents, sent to shelters around the country.
Today is the deadline federal District Judge Dana Sabraw set to reunite these families. But the process has been chaotic, and the government admits that still at least 900 children have yet to be reunited, and some 463 separated parents have been deported, even as their children remain in U.S. detention centers. Officials say the parents voluntarily agreed to leave their children behind. But in court papers filed Wednesday, the ACLU argued many parents say they were coerced or misled into signing forms they could not read, and were confused about what they were agreeing to.
Most of the parents are held at the Port Isabel Detention Center in South Texas as they wait to reunite with their children. Many have their requests for asylum heard by an immigration judge at a court inside the jail. On Wednesday, CNN published audio of a mother pleading with Judge Robert Powell. This is an excerpt.
ASYLUM SEEKER: [translated] To please give me an opportunity to remain here in this country. I want – I need to save my life and the life of my son. I cannot go back to my country, because over there the police, when I went to the police, they did nothing to help me.
JUDGE ROBERT POWELL: Having considered all the evidence, court finds you have not established a significant possibility that you could establish eligibility for asylum or withholding of removal under the immigration laws of the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two immigration lawyers who have been representing and providing pro bono assistance to parents separated from their children, some of whom still have not been reunited by today’s court-imposed deadline. In Washington, D.C., Ofelia Calderón is with us. She has a client who was reunited with her daughter, but they’re now being held in family detention. She is on the advisory council of Legal Aid Justice Center and on the board of the Dulles Justice Coalition. And in McAllen, Texas, we’re joined by Carlos García. Of his two clients, one was reunited with her 6-year-old son earlier this month, the other reunited Wednesday at Port Isabel just hours ahead of the deadline. As we speak, a march of immigrant children and families is on its way to the U.S. Capitol, where they plan to hold a sit-in to demand all the families be reunited and released.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Carlos García, can you give us an update on your client, Brenda, and her daughter? Tell us who they are.
CARLOS GARCÍA: Brenda is from Guatemala, and she was fleeing. Her 13-year-old daughter has been detained in Arizona. They’ve been detained collectively for over a month and two weeks. Yesterday afternoon, when I found out that Brenda’s daughter was on a flight from Arizona to South Texas to meet her mom, I drove out to the Port Isabel Detention Center hoping that I actually wouldn’t be able to see Brenda, because I wanted her to be on the way out of the detention center. Unfortunately, I was able to see her, but, actually, that gave me hope, because I talked to her, and she felt positive.
I came home, and, at night, I got a phone call from a person who was sharing a cell inside the detention center with Brenda, at about 7:30 p.m. last night, indicating that the government had taken Brenda out of the detention center. And that’s as far as I’ve heard. I’m hoping that this morning, when I go check at the shelter here, where a lot of people are being dropped off and being housed, Catholic Charities, that I’ll find her there.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you tell us how these reunifications happen? They happen in the parking lot?
CARLOS GARCÍA: Right. Yesterday, when I was leaving the Port Isabel Detention Center, actually, I walked out, and to my right there was a big bus. And I saw families, moms and dads, walking into the bus, and presumably they were headed down to the shelter where they’re staying. And it was occurring right outside in the parking lot.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Ofelia Calderón into the conversation in Washington, D.C. Can you tell us the people that you’re representing? Can you tell us the stories of kids who were reunited with their parents and then some of whom still have not been reunited?
OFELIA CALDERÓN: Well, I can. Thank you for asking that question. Most of my information right now is very up to date, to the extent that my own client, Betty, for example, was also detained at Port Isabel. She was then transferred to the South Texas detention center in Pearsalll, which is also an adult facility. And I have to say that a number of other mothers and fathers from Port Isabel were transferred up to that San Antonio facility, I believe, because their children must have been in shelters or foster care situations nearby. After a few days, they were then transferred to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and that is where my client was reunited with her daughter. So, her daughter was actually not in a shelter. She was in a foster care situation. They brought her to Dilley, and that is when they reunited. My understanding is that that happened for a large number. There are still people that we are in contact with, parents who we’re in contact with at both Pearsall and also at Port Isabel, who are still awaiting reunification, sadly. And, I mean, obviously this is a situation that we’re all monitoring to figure out when and how the reunifications are going to occur.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your client Betty? You say she was pressured by ICE. To do what?
OFELIA CALDERÓN: I mean, it did appear, for some period of time, that Betty was being pressured to sign a document that would authorize her deportation. Let me say this, that Betty is not the only person who brought this piece of paper to my attention and to the attention, I think, of other media outlets, as well. There was a period of time where many parents were being shown a piece of paper and asked to sign it. So their options were basically, one – and I think this is where the confusion lies, is because most of them said to me – and, of course, I didn’t see this piece of paper, it was – they were telling me this from the jails. Option one was
“Do you agree to be deported and reunited with your child outside?” Option two was “Do you agree to be deported but reunited with your child before?” And option three was “Do you want to speak to your lawyer?” So, this is how it was explained to me.
And, obviously, like, the questions that arose from that, for the parents, were: “OK, so if I sign this piece that says I agree, will I be reunited with my child or not?” And it seemed to be the only option for reunification, some form of deportation, either before or after. And that was very confusing for them. And in some ways, for example, with Betty, it was somewhat coercive, to the extent that officers would return to her – she obviously would check off the box that said, “I want to speak to my lawyer.” And when an officer would return to her, that officer would say, “Don’t you want to be with your child? Don’t you want to be reunified with your child?” Of course Betty wants to be reunified with her child. But at the same time, she also didn’t understand what choosing one of these options would mean. And frankly, neither did I.
AMY GOODMAN: Carlos García, what does it mean when the government says hundreds of people are not eligible to reunite with their children?
CARLOS GARCÍA: Right. There is so much confusion about that. We don’t know. As of Friday, I had—I was in touch with a couple of lawyers who are litigating these lawsuits, and they had indicated that perhaps my client had been identified as a person not eligible for unification. So I was very worried. But the reality is that – who knows if that was true or not, based on any kind of definition? Because we are not getting any kind of information as to what that means. I wish we knew, so that there was a way that we could address that, so that there was a way that we could advocate for our clients, if indeed they were identified as not eligible for reunification. But that’s a definition that the government has not provided to us.
AMY GOODMAN: Carlos, can you talk about your client Lucy, who you successfully got released earlier this month and has been reunited with her 6-year-old son, the personal impact this crisis has had on you, your mother inviting Lucy to her house after she was released earlier this month, cooking her dinner? You’re at ground zero of this, really, what many are calling an immigrant kidnapping crisis, and the kidnapper, the U.S. government.
CARLOS GARCÍA: Yeah, I don’t think that’s a far stretch of what it is. I talked to Lucy just yesterday afternoon, and she was with her son. They’re in the Dallas area. They were coloring, doing some reading of work. It was – when you ask me to talk about what I felt, what it felt like to be able to share this moment with my mom, it’s just – it’s very touching, because the stories that Lucy was telling us were horrific. The treatment that she received when she entered the United States was just devastating. She had just fled from a country with her son, seeking some good opportunities from a country which she felt was going to afford that. And, unfortunately, our government ended up taking her child away from her, and she wasn’t able to see him for approximately a month. She wasn’t able to talk to him for about 20 days, which was also devastating to her. And so, it’s just very – it’s very exhausting emotionally. And we’re lucky and we were fortunate to have been able to help her.
AMY GOODMAN: And what has Lucy told you about her son adapting now, her child? I mean, so many stories we’ve heard, psychologists putting out brochures on the effect of the trauma of separation.
CARLOS GARCÍA: You know, when I met this little boy, 6-year-old boy, and he exited the shelter where he was detained, he was really strong, he was very optimistic. He asked if we could go eat some pizza, and so we did. And then he was just – he was very upbeat. But I’ve talked to Lucy since then. She said that he’s been talking now about his experience of being in a detention center, and he’s remembering some of the things that – excuse me – he’s remembering some of the things that occurred while he was in there, especially missing his mom and not being able to communicate very well with his mom, and that’s been extremely sad for him. She’s glad he’s getting it off his shoulder – excuse me, off his chest. But it just – you can tell, her voice changes when she starts talking about that, because it’s very sad.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the audio CNN published Wednesday of a mother detained at Port Isabel pleading with an immigration judge, Robert Powell, at a court inside the jail. She requested asylum but was denied. Data shows Judge Powell denies nearly 80 percent of asylum claims he hears, well above the national average of about 50 percent denials. This is an except of the mother explaining to the judge she was distracted during her interview about her request for asylum.
ASYLUM SEEKER: [translated] I want to say also that when I had the interview, some questions I did understand, and others I did not. At that time, I was feeling very desperate, because the officers first asked me about my son. I was separated from him. My son remained back at the icebox. He was left on the floor. I did not know anything about my son when they interviewed me.
AMY GOODMAN: In that case, Judge Powell denied the mother’s asylum request and ordered her to be deported. Ofelia Calderón, can you elaborate on this, as we wrap up, on what parents face?
OFELIA CALDERÓN: On the process, I mean, you know, this is something that I think is– that we need to be aware of, in terms of how that process works. That’s exactly right. I mean, the process when you come to the United States is that you go through what’s called a credible fear interview, and you demonstrate that there’s a significant possibility that you’re going to be subject to persecution. And I want to put that in context, because once you pass that interview, you then go on to apply for asylum, for which the standard is, essentially, when you break it down into sort of layman’s terms, is that you need to demonstrate that there’s a 10 percent possibility, at least a 10 percent possibility, that you’re going to be persecuted on one of the five grounds. So, I mean, when you’re at the CFI level, you know, honestly, the fact that you’re able to articulate that persecution and a reason why should be sufficient to pass.
A lot – there did seem to be, in Port Isabel, during this time period, a blanket negative across the board. And that was really shocking. I have to say that also happened to my own client, Betty, who has a significant set of facts with a good claim. Subsequently, if you don’t pass that interview, you have the opportunity to have your case reviewed by an immigration judge. And that’s what we just heard. We heard an immigration judge not really, you know, thinking about what that really meant. And that’s what I saw when I was in Port Isabel. That’s what I saw with the cases where – that I represented people on at the IJ review level. I didn’t see real review. I didn’t see real process. And that’s terrifying for our system as a whole.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Ofelia Calderón and Carlos García, immigration lawyers representing and providing pro bono assistance to parents separated from their children, some of whom still have not been reunited, more than 900 children still separated from their families. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Freedom Is Free” by Chicano Batman, here in our Democracy Now! studios.