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May 10, 2021

As the U.S. Government Finally Reunifies Some Families it Separated at the Border, We Must Carry Forth the Lessons Learned on Access to Counsel and Trauma-Informed Advocacy

Image courtesy of Shutterstock Images

Image courtesy of Shutterstock Images

Last week, the U.S. government’s Family Reunification Task Force completed its first reunifications of four parents and their children whom the government separated from the fall of 2017 into the summer of 2018. The few families reunited in the last week are among more than 5,500 children who were separated and isolated from their parents during  the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

The zero tolerance policy that began in 2017 and expanded in 2018 has been well documented through media coverage and litigation. Under the policy, criminal charges were filed against adults crossing into the United States without proper authorization. If they entered with their children, they were separated. Despite this alleged justification, families who entered the U.S. through legal ports of entry were also separated. Even today, the government’s reunification task force estimates that more than 1,000 families remain separated, and hundreds of family reunifications are still to come.

In February 2021, the Biden administration launched a task force aimed at reuniting separated families and preventing future family separations except where based on the best interest of the child. Even as we celebrate the initial reunifications the task force has orchestrated in the last week, to truly learn from the crisis, we cannot forget the truth of what happened, the depth of the traumas inflicted, and the life-altering importance of legal representation.

Under the “zero tolerance” immigration policy, families were unjustly ripped apart with minimal or no contact with one another following their separation. Images of crying children being pulled from their parents at the border, only to be detained – sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away – flooded the media and led to national outrage. The prior administration’s aggressive restrictionist immigration policy was a bomb left to detonate, and it would be years later after intense public scrutiny and immediate action from immigration advocates for our nation to fully understand its extensive implications.  

The American Bar Association’s South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR), operating at the South Texas border, experienced firsthand the impact of the zero tolerance policy and resulting family separations. During the height of the 2018 family separations, the U.S. government detained separated parents at the Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC), a facility in Los Fresnos, Texas, where ProBAR has provided services for over 30 years.  

Faced with an emotionally charged and urgent crisis, ProBAR staff sprang into action.

As the list of separated parents at PIDC grew to dozens and eventually hundreds, so grew the need for advocacy. To identify and serve detained, separated parents as quickly as possible, ProBAR collaborated with a network of organizations over an intense 11-week period. Local and regional partners each played a role together with ProBAR. The Texas Civil Rights Project identified and referred separated parents. Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) dispatched staff to ProBAR's office to mentor volunteer attorneys. RAICES strategized with ProBAR and made its bond fund available to separated parents. ProBAR’s outreach team welcomed volunteers - handling logistics and providing ongoing coordination to maximize the volunteers’ impact on the immediate need in South Texas. Plus, the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, HIAS, CARECEN, law firms and bar associations sent attorneys to volunteer with ProBAR for a week at a time. The drive to assist was inspiring and resulted in an outpouring of support. While the momentum of support pushed forward advocacy efforts, the real difference was made through strong collaboration.

The machination of the immigration enforcement and removal system is complicated, and the quick and critical collaboration of volunteers and on-the-ground providers like ProBAR mitigated in critical ways the severity of harm to some separated families.

For example, the expedited removal process which is designed to quickly deport a person without seeing a judge meant that parents could be swiftly deported without their children if they were unsuccessful in the credible fear process, the first step toward seeking asylum for those in expedited removal proceedings. The response of legal services providers and volunteers was critical in preparing as many parents as possible for their credible fear interviews.

Even under circumstances without a “zero tolerance” policy, very few  migrants detained by the government are able to secure legal counsel. In the context of the acute trauma of family separation, parents’ ability to engage with the legal system was further impacted. Who could focus on the complex court process ahead of you when you do not know where your child is or if he or she is safe?

Under these incredibly difficult circumstances, access to counsel for separated families was a critical component of the legal community’s response to the crisis. Over 11 weeks, ProBAR collaborated with 95 attorneys and 13 support staff from around the country who met with and provided legal assistance to about 380 detained adults, many of whom were separated parents. Meanwhile, ProBAR staff met with separated children detained in the Rio Grande Valley, explaining their legal rights and conducting legal screenings to understand how our attorneys could assist. Later, as families reunited or children were released to sponsors, ProBAR provided legal referrals to 63 separated children in collaboration with Kids in Need of Defense. For separated families, as with other migrants, legal representation remained crucial to the ultimate outcomes as their cases played out in immigration court.

At ProBAR, we saw the trauma inflicted on parents and children firsthand. ProBAR staff working in shelters for unaccompanied migrant children are skilled in addressing the trauma that compels unaccompanied minors to arrive to the U.S. without a parent. During the 2018 family separation crisis, our staff saw separated children in those same shelters, who were experiencing much higher levels of present trauma. For ProBAR’s Shelter Services Director Jorge Quintanilla, bearing witness to this trauma “took away a piece of your soul.”

As advocates on the frontlines of the family separation crisis, we experienced the magnifying impacts of an array of restrictive policies and practices installed by the last administration. There were many more obstacles imposed for separated children and parents to gain legal relief.  In addition, the separation trauma experienced by migrant families heightened the secondary trauma experienced by advocates. At ProBAR, that meant that our leaders worked closely with frontlines staff to acknowledge secondary trauma and implement supportive strategies. This made it possible for staff to be on the frontlines and bear witness to what was happening in an act of solidarity and as legal advocates. It made it possible for advocates to “be an example of good people in the U.S. that care and validate their story,” my colleague Charlotte Weiss recalled.

By Fall of 2019, family separation no longer dominated the news headlines, but the crisis and its human toll did not disappear. Some families have been able to reunify, but only after litigation. Yet some parents remained in government detention through the winter of 2018 and needed legal counsel. And even now, hundreds of children have yet to be reunified with their parents.

The Biden administration is taking important steps to address the harm inflicted by the former administration’s family separation policy. As its task force begins the critical work to reunite separated families,  reunification should not be the end of our work to repair the harm. We must not forget the traumas endured, and the ongoing harm to the children of an estimated 1,000 families still separated because a parent had been deported under the zero tolerance policy, even as the task force continues to search for the estimated 445 parents who have not yet been located.

This is the destruction left behind from this cruel policy, and the heart of the issue – the separated families – have been left scattered across the country for the current administration to pick up and piece back together. As the family separation task force addresses the moral imperative to reunite families, we must also examine the critical need for legal representation for immigrants so that every migrant – adult, child, or family – understands what is happening and what their rights and options are in a complicated system.

We must remember that the need for advocacy for a fair and just immigration system with due process for all should remain at the heart of policy decisions by the current and future administrations. Perhaps, then, we can use the pieces left behind by this terrible chapter in U.S. history to shape a more just future for all immigrants.

About the Author

Briza Robles is a Harlingen, Texas native and Grant Writer at the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR). She graduated from the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley with a Master’s degree in Public Affairs – completing the track of Public Administration. She began her journey with ProBAR in 2016 as an Unaccompanied Children Legal Services Specialist and discovered a passion for grant writing while pursuing her graduate degree. She is proud to call herself a “ProBARian” and spends her free time with her husband and Shih-Tzu, Mocha.