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Watching Immigrant Families Torn Apart in a Texas Courtroom

"They ask them if anyone was traveling with children and had them taken away from them. And then those people stand up. Sometimes it's five people, sometimes it's 12 people. Yesterday, it was 64. "

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On May 7th, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced federal plans to prosecute every single person who crosses the border illegally, effectively enacting a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration. Though that policy, which enables prosecutors and judges to criminally charge as many people who cross the border as possible, does not outright stipulate that parents will be separated from their children at the border, it might as well. Under new guidelines, any individual who crosses the border with a child and gets caught is detained for prosecution. That detention results in separation and is occurs without in the absence of any plan to reunite families.

Efren Olivares, of McAllen, Texas, is a lawyer and father to a 16-month-old son. Born in Mexico, Olivares immigrated to the United States at the age of 13 and attended Yale Law School. Today, he works for the Texas Civil Rights Project, a program that offers legal aid to those facing legally sanctioned discrimination. Olivares has spent much of the last month in courtrooms taking down information about parents separated from their children with the purpose of helping families reconnect — in effect creating a much-needed database that the government has made no effort to build. Olivares’s goal is not to help people stay in America, but to help families reunite. 

Olivares told Fatherly about his work.

Originally, I didn’t think of my work on the family separation issue as directly related to me and my son. I have a son who is almost 16 months. He’s walking and starting to talk a little bit. But after spending Memorial Day Weekend working on a human rights violation petition to get it filed as soon as possible, the thought crossed my mind a couple of times. The third day I was working on it, I thought, I can’t imagine if someone took my child away from me and I didn’t know where he was, I didn’t know when I was gonna see him again, I didn’t know in what condition he was being detained.

As the days have gone by, I have gone to court as often as possible, nearly every day, to talk to families. It’s really hard to hear their stories. Many parents left their countries because of threats, because of violence, to try to save their children. When they get here and the first thing that happens to them is that their children are taken away, and they don’t know when they’re going to see them again. Or if they’re going to see them again.

You go into the courtroom, and it’s packed. The benches, any public seats are typically packed to the max with men. They bring in the men first. They’re typically between 20 and 30 years old. They are handcuffed. They have shackles around their ankles and they have a chain around their waist. Their handcuffs and shackles are also tied to that chain in the waist. They’re sitting there. Then they bring in the women later, and again, the courtroom is packed. Then the public defenders come in, who are the government attorneys appointed to represent people who can not afford a lawyer. They explain to all of them as a group what to expect — what the process is like, that they are going to hear from a judge; that this is not their immigration judge, this is the judge who is going decide the criminal charges they are facing, which is illegal entry and misdemeanor; that the public defenders are going to be their attorneys, to represent them in that proceeding.

Many parents left their countries because of threats, because of violence, to try to save their children. When they get here and the first thing that happens to them is that their children are taken away.

They ask them if anyone was traveling with children and had them taken away from them. And then those people stand up. Sometimes it’s five people, sometimes it’s 12 people. Yesterday, it was 64. Those people are then told, “You’re going to talk to a lawyer and his paralegal about your children.” So we take them to the side in a corner of the courthouse — sometimes there aren’t rooms, or tables, or enough chairs. We’re not always sitting down when we talk to them. We have a notepad and a template for intake. We’ll start getting as much information as we can. First and most importantly: name, date of birth, name of children, their date of birth, country of origin. And then we get as much information as we can about what happened. Who took your kids away? Did they tell you why? Did they tell you when you’re going to see him again? Why did you leave your country of origin? Is your child doing well or is he or she sick?

We talk to each one of them for five to ten minutes each, depending on the number of people there are. Of course if there are more, we need to talk to them for a shorter amount of time. We really need to move through this quickly. It’s imperfect, but it’s the best we can do right now.

The goal is to get all the identifying information for every single parent who had his or her children taken away. That’s the goal for the day. On the case, the goal is to have all of these families reunited as soon as possible. Whether that be in detention, or outside, in the community, if they’re released or if they must be deported. At the very least, they should be deported together, if that’s what the parents wants. Some parents would prefer that their son or daughter stays, if they have a claim to stay. The parent may choose to leave their child with an uncle or a brother. That’s up to the parents.

Some stories are really hard. Some of the things you hear. And even just saying it’s 64 people and, but it’s not just a number — I hate talking about numbers like this. These are families. Children. Children that don’t know where their parents are. And from their perspective…

The government is doing mass trials, mass plea agreements, to the extent that I highly doubt that the defendants are understanding what they are pleading to and what the repercussions of that could be. Ideally, you would want an immigration attorney to be involved so that he or she can determine that the criminal plea would have consequences for their immigration release. But there’s just no time for that, and that’s what’s happening. That’s a function of the number of people they are processing through the system.

I don’t know if there’s any real noticeable difference in the numbers of people being deported under this administration versus the last. The big change is that there’s now an official, deliberate and systematic policy of separating families. That wasn’t there before. Before, families used to either be released as a family unit, or if they had some relatives, they would be released to them, then come back for their immigration court hearing. Or if they had to be detained, the government would put them in family detention centers. Now they’re separating everybody with really no system in place to reunite them. I have not confirmed a reunification yet.

The separation is traumatic for the entire family — but it’s particularly hard on the children. Especially the really young children. I’ve heard of five year olds. The government is punishing them. Punishing these five year olds for something that their parents did. And maybe what the parents did is not something even that deserves punishment — because some of them were seeking asylum. They’re looking for protection. They’re trying to apply for asylum. And because of that, the government is punishing their children.

I have not confirmed a reunification yet.

Some days it’s really hard to keep going into that courthouse. But I keep thinking that if I don’t, then I’m not gonna know the identifying information, the names of those people who are separated that day. Then I think of my own son and that makes me head into that courtroom.

It’s been hard for my wife, hearing about this. But my son is too young. And even if he was three and four and could talk more, I probably wouldn’t want to talk to him about this just yet. I would prefer for him to be a little older to understand a little better. I think a young child would have a lot of why questions that I either wouldn’t have the answers to or that the answers might be too painful. Why is the government doing this? Why are they not letting the children be with their moms and dads? I have answers to that, but they’re too hard to hear.