- Efrén Olivaresdeputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project.
About 400 children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy have been reunited with their parents by a Biden administration task force. At least 1,000 families of at least 5,000 who were impacted remain separated. In an in-depth interview, attorney Efrén Olivares discusses some of the families he represented who were separated at the height of the crisis, when he was an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project in McAllen, Texas. He is now deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. His new book is My Boy Will Die of Sorrow: A Memoir of Immigration from the Front Lines. Olivares also describes immigrating to the U.S. as a teenager and being apart from his father in that process, and the long history of U.S. immigration policy and family separation.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our interview with Efrén Olivares, now deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, its Immigrant Justice Project. We want to talk about his new book, My Boy Will Die of Sorrow: A Memoir of Immigration from the Front Lines
Efrén, congratulations on the publication of the book. Why don’t we start right there with the title, My Boy Will Die of Sorrow? Talk about what’s behind this.
EFRÉN OLIVARES: Thank you, Amy.
Yeah, that phrase is something that one of the separated fathers told me the first day we went to court, to that Bentsen Tower, to interview parents who had been separated, in late May. I still couldn’t believe that his son, in his case, had been taken away from him, and he hadn’t been told where he was going and who was going to care for him or when he might see him again. So I asked him —
AMY GOODMAN: 2018?
EFRÉN OLIVARES: In 2018, yes, in May of 2018. So I asked him what he thought would happen if he, the father, was deported and his son stayed in the U.S. And he sort of paused and looked down. And then he looked up at me and said, ”No, pues, mi niño se muere de tristeza,” “My boy will die of sorrow.” And that is where the title of my book comes from. And it’s important to me that the voices of the impacted families have made it to the title and are uplifted, because this is both a story of myself and the work we did at the Texas Civil Rights Project that summer, but it’s also the stories of these families and the suffering that our government subjected them to.
AMY GOODMAN: And let’s go back to that scene in 2018, the packed courtroom, and what the parents were told when their children were taken from them.
EFRÉN OLIVARES: The vast majority of the parents had crossed the border a day or two before, and many of them hadn’t been separated until that very morning. You know, they were woken up at 4:00, 5:00 in the morning and were told that they had to come to court for their hearing and that their children were going to be waiting for them at the Border Patrol station when they returned. So, when we woke up to that fact, it fell upon us to break the news to the parents that, in fact, their children were likely not going to be at the Border Patrol station.
And, you know, their first reaction was, “OK, then when am I going to see him again? When am I going to see her again?” And those were some extremely difficult conversations, that I talk about in the book, having to explain to them, with very little information, because the truth was we did not know when or even whether they would be reunited with their children. So, some of those were the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had in my life as a lawyer and an advocate with clients and immigrants. It was something that I still struggle to process, frankly.
AMY GOODMAN: If you can tell us specifically about some of the families that you represented? I mean, now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, enormous sympathy for the Ukrainian refugees, their families, the children with their bunny ear hats in the middle of winter, the sympathy around the world, because we see them, and people identify with them. That is not so much true with what’s happening, what has happened in the past over the border. You write about Mario and his daughter Oralia, Viviana and her son Sandro, Patricia, her son Alessandro, and many others. Can you share some of their stories, how this impacted them and where they are now?
EFRÉN OLIVARES: As you say, I’m glad that we, as the United States, have welcomed as many, you know, Russian and Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers. But it’s telling that we haven’t welcomed Haitian asylum seekers, and, in fact, you know, Border Patrol agents were whipping them on horseback. So, why is that? And that is one of the things that I talk about in the book, trying to push us all to grapple with why we feel empathy and compassion for certain asylum seekers and immigrants, and not others.
I think the story of Mario is one that singularly encapsulates all the problems with not only the “zero tolerance” policy, but our entire immigration system and agencies and laws. So, Mario crossed with his daughter, who was not even 3 years old, after the family separation policy had supposedly ended, right? President Trump had signed that executive order at the end of June, and they crossed in early July and were separated, even though he had a birth certificate of his daughter with him. He is Indigenous from Guatemala and spoke only very little Spanish, but he wasn’t provided an interpreter. The Border Patrol agent spoke Spanish and tried to do the intake or the processing interview in Spanish. And Mario couldn’t explain that this was in fact his daughter, that he had a birth certificate. So they were separated, and he was accused of trafficking her. He was accused that she wasn’t his, and he was trafficking her. So, he was, you know, sent to a detention facility, his daughter sent over to El Paso with a temporary foster family. And he was threatened with human smuggling charges, and he was facing up to 10 years in prison.
So, we mobilized as quickly as we could, contacting the Guatemalan Consulate, which, by the way, Border Patrol could have done. They have a direct access to the consulate. They didn’t do that. We contacted the consulate to confirm that the birth certificate was in fact authentic. And it was. So, then, his initial, you know, misdemeanor charges were dismissed, but he was still facing the smuggling charges. And he was required to have a DNA test of him and his daughter to confirm that the daughter was in fact his. Now, the irony of that is that they didn’t do any DNA test to separate them, right? And now they completely pushed the burden on him to prove that Oralia was in fact his daughter. We contacted his family back in Guatemala, his relatives in the U.S., to try to secure that DNA test. It was, ironically — the irony was painful that some labs were refusing to work with the federal government at the time, as, you know, they were boycotting because of the family separation crisis. So that made it more difficult to get the DNA test and took longer. Finally, we secured an interpreter for Mario who spoke Mam, his Indigenous language, so that he could consent to his own DNA test, as well as his daughter’s.
And I don’t know if you want me to spoil how that story ended, but it’s in the book. I talk about it at length. It’s a complete chapter, that just the — how easy it was for a single agent to decide that “she’s not your daughter, I’m going to take her away,” and then to bring them back together, it took a team of lawyers, a ton of bureaucracy, all the agencies were putting roadblocks at every step of the way. And it was extremely frustrating. And it was — I think that case is one that encapsulates the entire idiosyncrasies and failures of our immigration laws and systems.
AMY GOODMAN: Efrén, I wanted to ask you about how earlier this month NBC News reported a Biden administration task force has now reunited 400 children with their parents, after they were separated at the border under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. More than 5,000 families were separated starting in 2017. And it’s believed something like a thousand families remain separated today, as many of the parents were deported without their children, and the Trump administration didn’t keep records where many of the children were sent.
Now there have been several lawsuits filed on behalf of separated parents and their children, who say they continue to suffer from emotional distress, trauma, psychological harm. The Biden administration initially considered paying monetary damages, is now fighting these families in court and apparently has walked away from the negotiations. In July, three mothers and a father who were separated from their children by the Trump administration sued the U.S. government, seeking damages for the trauma. The four parents previously sought a settlement with Biden’s Justice Department.
The court filing said, “Each of the four plaintiff families were separated with no notice, no information, and no plan for reunification. For weeks, the parents and children were detained separately, sometimes thousands of miles apart. For weeks, the parents and children begged to be reunited. For weeks, the government — due to a combination of ineptitude and cruelty — refused to provide information on their loved ones’ whereabouts, well-being or whether they would ever see each other again,” unquote.
Efrén, talk about the state of these suits and where the Biden administration stands now.
EFRÉN OLIVARES: You know, it’s remarkable that the Biden administration and the Biden Department of Justice is defending this policy and the officials who carried it out in court. And they are defending it aggressively, you know, forcing parents and children to submit themselves to psychological evaluations to determine whether they suffered trauma or suffered emotional distress, in a way retraumatizing them by forcing them to do that. And it is incomprehensible to some of us that the Biden administration is defending this policy after — at the same time as it created a task force and it is, you know, doing some efforts to reunite families and, as you mentioned, has reunited hundreds of them that were still separated. In court, it is very aggressively fighting these families and opposing their request for relief. So, it is something that is hard to wrap my mind around, why the government would do this instead of trying to provide some semblance of justice.
And these families, in many ways, will never be made whole, right? What these children and the parents were subjected to has scarred them for life and, in many, many cases, has caused irreparable damage and trauma for the children. No amount of money is going to undo that. And yet, the Biden administration is refusing to cooperate, is defending this policy, as I said, very aggressively. So, the statements, the political pontification about, you know, reunification task force and doing this all on behalf of the families and to support the separated families, does not match what we are seeing in the courtroom.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, the criminalization of immigrants certainly didn’t begin with Trump. Can you talk about what happened under the Obama administration, and then the trajectory from Obama, and, of course, before that, through Trump, and now through to the Biden administration?
EFRÉN OLIVARES: Yeah, it’s — sometimes it’s too easy and too tempting just to put the entire blame on the Trump administration. And certainly the “zero tolerance” policy was the creation of the Trump administration. But it’s critical to keep in mind that the immigration laws and agencies and systems that enabled the family separation policy to happen had been there for decades.
So, during the Obama administration, a couple of things happened that were critical. So, first, we had the coup in Honduras in 2009, that the Obama administration supported. And that coup led to an authoritarian government in Honduras, which then was the main cause of the exodus of children in 2014. And the first, quote-unquote, “humanitarian crisis” at the border for unaccompanied children coming, that was the direct result of the coup a couple of — a few years earlier in Honduras.
And then, the Obama administration had the first instance of family detention, right? They launched family detention centers. They called them, euphemistically, “family residential centers,” but they were, you know, jails for immigrant families, in Texas in particular. And that was created during the Obama administration and expanded to unprecedented levels. So, then, the system was already in place for the Trump administration, with its anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-immigrant impetus, to simply get it to the next phase, which was family separation.
It’s also critical to keep in mind that the agents who were carrying out family separation, Border Patrol agents, are still there. We had a change in the White House, but the line agents are still the same ones. So it’s the same agency, the same agents, the same laws that are in place. And we’re treating immigrants the same.
And it also didn’t begin with the Obama administration. The Obama administration was certainly — is certainly to blame for the expansion of family detention. But even before that, during the Bush administration, we’ve seen a buildup of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that are put in place, and then the next administration takes that as the starting point and expands it.
Take the budget of Border Patrol and ICE, for example. Those budgets have continued to grow and balloon year after year after year. Even if the number of migrants coming across the border drops down, like it happened in 2008 and 2009 — number of people coming to the U.S. dropped significantly, and yet the budgets of those agencies kept growing and growing and becoming more and more militarized, which is — you know, is an important context for how these policies come into place, and what getting rid of these policies and these agencies will take.
AMY GOODMAN: Efrén, you write about your own life experience in My Boy Will Die of Sorrow. Can you talk about being separated from your father? How did you end up coming to this country?
EFRÉN OLIVARES: Certainly. I grew up in a small town in the state of Nuevo León called Allende in Mexico, about three-and-a-half hours from the Texas border. And, you know, growing up, I never thought that I would immigrate to the U.S. When I was 9 years old and in fourth grade, my father moved to the U.S. looking for work. And my grandfather had been born in the U.S., so my father had U.S. citizenship and was able to move, and he found a job as a bus driver. So, for four years, he was in Texas, and the rest of my family — my siblings, my mother and I — were in Mexico. And he would visit us for, you know, a weekend a month or so, every time he could, but we couldn’t visit him because we didn’t have the paperwork to come. So he was gone from our daily lives.
And at the time, you know, I didn’t realize — I didn’t think of that as a family separation of sorts. It was only many, many years later, when, you know, reflecting back upon that experience and what it meant not to have my father around for, you know, a medical emergency when my brother fell and had to be rushed to the emergency room, and my mother had to figure that out all on her own, not to have my father around for significant school milestones, and how that shapes the immigrant experience, and how common it is in immigrant families to have some sort of family separation. I cannot tell you how many people have reached out to me after the book came out — colleagues, friends. It’s like, “You know what? I was also separated from my mother. We thought we were going to be apart for a week, and then that week turned into five years.” It’s extremely common to see that happen.
And it does shape you. It does leave something in you that is gone forever, right? I will never have those four years back, between the ages of 9 and 13, of having my father around. So, any child who has their father around every day at the dinner table, I’m very happy for them. It’s a privilege and a blessing. I didn’t have that. But it now has also shaped how I am a father with my own children, now that I have two children. And it’s something that I talk about in the book, as well, that in the summer of 2018, our son was a year and a half, and having him around and seeing him every night, putting him to bed every night, and then the next morning going into the Bentsen Tower and talking to parents who had had their own children ripped from their arms, was something that I will never forget.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about what happened in your hometown of Allende after you had left, after you had come to the United States in 2011?
EFRÉN OLIVARES: So, we stayed back, my younger brother and I, in particular, with my mother. And my father, as I said, was working in South Texas. He found a job. Four years later, we were able to join my father. And that was when, you know, the experience of moving to a new country, where you don’t speak the language, where you don’t know the culture, where you don’t have friends or family, when that really, you know, makes the immigrant experience become real and you know what it means. You know, growing up in Allende after my father had left, my brother and I would often talk about how wonderful it’s going to be when we’re together with our father and we’re all under one roof again. And then, once we moved, to a small apartment with no backyard, where we didn’t know anybody, the situation became very real, that in many ways life had become harder for us.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, if you can talk about your work from the Texas Civil Rights Project, where you were trying to reunite families on the border with the United States and Mexico, to now moving on to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, what you’re doing now — what you did then and what you’re doing now?
EFRÉN OLIVARES: Yeah. So, at the Texas Civil Rights Project, I was there for seven years, including the entirety of the Trump administration, where we worked on multiple issues related to, of course, family separation, and then “Remain in Mexico.” We represented land owners whose land was seized to try to build a border wall. I’m very proud of that work and our ability to return the land to all the landowners we represented and who refused to voluntarily sell their land to the government.
Now at the Southern Poverty Law Center, I direct the Immigrant Justice Project, where we focus our work on combating immigration detention. Why do we incarcerate people because of their immigration status? Why does that make sense? What is the point of putting somebody behind bars simply because of their immigration status, because they’re seeking asylum or they came here to work? There’s no public policy that would justify that. It’s not rehabilitation. It’s not to prevent recidivism. It’s not to keep the community safe. We only do it because it’s a money-making machine. You know, private prison companies that administer these immigration prisons are paid per bed per night. So there’s a perverse incentive to detain as many immigrants for as long as possible. So we do that work representing detained immigrants in Georgia and Louisiana and doing advocacy and litigation to challenge immigration detention.
We also represent immigrant workers, and in Florida, Georgia and the rest of the South, farmworkers, you know, hospitality workers. We have a big case that arose out of a raid during the Trump administration of a poultry plant in Tennessee, where ICE, IRS and state police agents raided the plant and pretty much arrested only the Latino and Latina workers. And we have a lawsuit, a class action on behalf of those workers, and a multitude of others in which we represent low-income and immigrant workers in the South.
AMY GOODMAN: We did a lot on the Irwin immigration detention center in Georgia, where you are now, the place where women who were suffering from reproductive problems, a number of them had hysterectomies without even their knowledge.
EFRÉN OLIVARES: Yes, that scandal, that broke out in the fall of 2020 and led to the rescission of the contract, so that ICE is no longer detaining immigrants at the Irwin County Detention Center, is — you know, it sparked widespread outrage, and rightly so. What I think is important to keep in mind is that, unfortunately, that was not an isolated incident. What ICE did after that is it transferred the women from the Irwin County Detention Center to the Stewart Detention Center. And it’s no longer detaining them at that facility, but it is detaining them at other facilities, and there are widespread abuses that are endemic to the immigration detention system.
So, while we are pleased that that particular facility is no longer being used to detain immigrants, no facility should be used to detain immigrants. And we recently filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Division regarding allegations of sexual assault against women detained at the Stewart Detention Center. So these problems continue, unfortunately, and the solution is not to transfer them, is to end immigration detention.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Efrén Olivares, I want to thank you so much for being with us, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, formerly with the Texas Civil Rights Project. His new book, My Boy Will Die of Sorrow: A Memoir of Immigration from the Front Lines. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.