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“It’s a Humanitarian Crisis”: Texas Lawyer Describes Chaos, Terror of Family Separation at Border

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At least 2,000 migrant children remain separated from their parents, after the families were forcibly separated by immigration officials under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. A federal judge has ordered all these children must be reunited with their parents within 30 days—but immigration advocates say the administration does not have a clear plan for how to reunite the families. In McAllen, Texas, immigration lawyers are scrambling to help their clients find and reunite with their children. Attorney Efrén Olivares is director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program for the Texas Civil Rights Project.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We just returned from the U.S.-Mexico border, where we went to Brownsville and nearby McAllen, Texas, ground zero for “zero tolerance.” We went to a community meeting and, afterwards, spoke with one of the lawyers who had spoken at the meeting. He has been monitoring the mass trials and interviewing parents at the courthouse there who have been separated from their children. The U.S. government has separated more than 2,000 migrant children from their parents. Attorney Efrén Olivares is director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program for the Texas Civil Rights Project. I asked him to describe the impact of Trump’s “zero tolerance.”

EFRÉN OLIVARES: It’s a humanitarian crisis. There is no other way to describe it. We have had now, you know, hundreds or 2,000 families separated. And now we’re getting to confirm that many of these parents are being deported without their children. The government has started to plant this narrative that a lot of the parents choose to leave without their children. And I’m concerned that that is because in a couple of weeks we will be able to confirm that hundreds of parents have been deported without their children. We interviewed, here in McAllen, 381 parents. Only one of them, and it was an aunt traveling with a nephew, and she told me, “If I get deported, my nephew should stay behind, because his mom lives here.” Other than her, every single one of the people we interviewed said, “If I get deported, I want my child to come with me.”

AMY GOODMAN: And how many, do you know—how many children have been deported with their parents?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: I know two children have been deported without the parent they were separated from. And five parents have been deported, and their children are still in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: What happens when a child is deported alone back to their country?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: They are turned over to the equivalent of ORR in their home country. And then it’s up to that agency to determine what is in the best interest of the child—I imagine it’s similar to the United States—figure out—

AMY GOODMAN: ORR being the Office of Refugee—

EFRÉN OLIVARES: The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is in charge of taking custody of unaccompanied minors. And then, the counterpart in Mexico or the Central American countries would have to determine what’s in the best interest of the child, deliver them to a relative or something like that.

AMY GOODMAN: The government, the Trump administration, says that they have reunited 500 children with their parents. Do you know where this number is coming from? Do you believe them?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: I don’t believe they have been reunited. And here’s why. Because that fact sheet that they released late on Saturday night is ambiguous as to whether that includes children turned over, released to a relative in the United States, or reunited with their parents. They have admitted—the secretary of health and human services confirmed that it will be very difficult to reunite children with parents if the parent is in detention. So that leads me to believe that those 522 children—I hope they are with their parents, but I think it’s very likely that the vast majority of them have been released to a relative, not the parent they were separated from.

AMY GOODMAN: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that the kids can Skype with, talk on the phone to their parents easily. Is this true?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: One of our clients has been detained for two weeks, has not spoken to her son once, we know from interviews with her. Another one has had one phone call with her 6-year-old since she was separated on June 5th. And this is—now we’re starting to be able to find these parents and get them immigration attorneys who can meet with them, and we’re confirming. One of our clients, who is detained outside of Texas, has not been able to talk to his son, who is at a shelter in Texas, for over a month now. I understand that the government is telling us that the children are at shelters and that there’s a number, but I’m concerned if that information is getting to the parents. They are the ones who need that information to communicate with their children.

AMY GOODMAN: When the children are taken from their parents, how does the government keep track of who is connected to who?


AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I just came here from New York, and when they took my bag at the airport, at the gate, they give me a receipt. This is for a ripped-up, old rolly bag. What happens with a child?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: We don’t know. That’s the problem. The government has not specified if they are keeping track of who the child belongs to, who is the parent, who’s the child. I hope they have a better system. The information we have gleaned here in McAllen is the Border Patrol agents take a family picture, a picture of the family unit, they call it, so a picture of the child and the parent, to then keep track of who belongs with who. If that is the system, it’s full of problems. It’s highly fallible. Forget the problems with cross-racial identification. Just forget about that. Just taking a picture of a 5-year-old and then trying to match him or her with his mom, it’s going to be a disaster. And then, how is that—I imagine, if that is the case, that’s entered into the file of the parent and the child. And then, how do you then go to a shelter with 200, 500, a thousand children and find the one in the picture? I hope they have a better system.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened when President Trump signed the executive order saying they were no longer going to separate children from their parents?


AMY GOODMAN: What changed?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: That happened on a Wednesday afternoon. We went to court the next day to interview, to see if there were any parents who had been separated from their children. That was over 12 hours after the executive order had been signed. We get to court that morning, and when the question is asked of the group, “How many of you were traveling with children and were separated from them?” 17 people stood up, all handcuffed, shackled around their ankles and chains around their waist. And we were notified, first thing in the morning, that those 17 parents were not going to be prosecuted. They said their cases were dismissed. The prosecution chose not to file criminal charges against them. That was the immediate result of the executive order. Very confusing. So why were they brought to court, if they’re not going to be prosecuted?

AMY GOODMAN: So, then, where are their kids?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: So, they were sent back. And the government said on Saturday night that 16 of them were reunited with their children, or 16 children were reunited with their parents on June 22nd. As best we can tell, they—it was them. The 17 from Thursday morning were reunited with their children on Friday, or the vast majority of them. There’s a discrepancy there with the numbers, but we’re trying to look into that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Efrén, can you talk about what’s going to happen now that the San Diego judge has ruled, a federal judge has ruled, that all of these children must be reunited with their parents within the next 30 days, and if they’re younger than, what, 5 years old—


AMY GOODMAN: —they must be reunited within 14 days? How is this going to happen?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: You know, I was very relieved when I got the news of that injunction this morning, because what started happening this week—we keep track of these parents and what detention facility they’re at, the 381 that we’ve interviewed. And we had a few of them that had been at a detention facility here in South Texas for days, for over a week, and then there were no longer in the system. What that means is that they are either deported or released to a family member, the parents. And then we were able to confirm that one of them had been deported. So that’s when it hit me that they are deporting them faster than we can find immigration attorneys to represent them. So we started moving very quickly to try to find attorneys to represent the 167 here in South Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say 167, parents or children?



EFRÉN OLIVARES: Parents in South Texas. And luckily, that injunction prohibits the government from deporting parents without their children, because that’s the most concerning. What we hope is that everyone gets a fair shake, an attorney for their immigration case. If it turns out that they don’t qualify for asylum, then so be it. But at least they should be deported with their child, not without their child. So, that was the urgent thing.

Now that the judge in California has issued this nationwide injunction, separations are going to stop. Deportations of parents without children should stop. And now the reunification is the biggest question, because the government wants to keep detaining families. The easiest way to reunite a child with his or her parent is to release them, give them a court date. There was a family case management program that had 99.6 percent rate of compliance. People show up to their court hearings. If you provide them the guidance and the orientation, they will come to court for their hearings. Now, the Trump administration ended that program, because they opted for caging children instead.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by “caging children.”

EFRÉN OLIVARES: Literally, putting children in detention facilities where they are separated by age groups with hurricane fence cages. There’s no other way to describe it.

AMY GOODMAN: Efrén, can you describe what you do each day in court here in McAllen, Texas?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: We interview the parents who have been separated from their children. We get their information—their names, dates of birth, country of origin—so that we can then track them in the system, try to locate the parents and the children, and try to reunite them.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the scene of the courtroom?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: Seventy or 80 people are brought in. In handcuffs, in shackles, they walk in. I was talking about the racial element. It’s very visual. They all are brown-skinned. And not everyone in the courtroom is brown-skinned. So the racial component is very visual. And then we meet with the ones who had children taken from them. And—

AMY GOODMAN: They shackled?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: Yes, they’re shackled. I give them my business card. When they sign the documents that we—the interview documents, they struggle, because they’re handcuffed.

AMY GOODMAN: Are these criminals?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: Not in my view. They’re accused of the misdemeanor of illegal entry, and they are all sentenced to time served. They don’t even get a sentence. They’re sentenced to time served, meaning the three days that they have been in detention, that’s their sentence. So when they exit the courtroom, they have completed their criminal sentence, and then they’re turned over to immigration detention.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s your final message for people to understand about what’s happening here in Texas and along the border in the United States?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: It’s a humanitarian crisis. And if you have children, think about your 5-year-old, your 6-year-old, when you don’t see them for a few days. Or think back to when you were a child, when you were 5, 6, 7, what it was like to not be with your parents, to go sleep without your parents. We’ve had many moms tell us that they took away their daughter, but she was crying so much at night that they had to bring her back, so that mom could console her and put her to sleep, and then they would take them away again.

AMY GOODMAN: Are parents being threatened with their children being adopted if they don’t self-deport, if they don’t say they’ll be deported?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: We’ve had at least two clients reach out, through their relatives, to us to report that they were told that if they wanted to see their children again, they had to sign their voluntary departure and renounce to their asylum claims.

AMY GOODMAN: Do the vast majority of people sign those voluntary departures to get their kids back?

EFRÉN OLIVARES: We’ve had clients who have done that. If I were in that situation, if I was desperate to see my child, I would do anything I had to do to see my child.

AMY GOODMAN: Efrén Olivares, lawyer and director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program for the Texas Civil Rights Project.

That does it for our show. Happy birthday to Isis Phillips!

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