ABA President Hilarie Bass repeated a promise she made in June that American lawyers will not rest until every immigrant child who was separated from his or her parents by immigration authorities is reunited with family.
Bass made that declaration Aug. 4 at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago, before a panel of immigration lawyers gathered to discuss the border crisis. The meeting was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Immigration.
“There is nothing more important for American lawyers to be focused on than standing up for the rule of law and saying we will not tolerate 3-year-olds being brought into immigration court without lawyers,” Bass said. “We will not tolerate children being sent to foster care in a state thousands of miles away from their parents without any real possibility that they’ll be reunited.
“I make my personal commitment to you on behalf of this association: We will not rest until we help you fix this.”
Bass visited the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in June. She sat in on a court hearing where 75 detained adult immigrants pleaded guilty en masse to misdemeanor charges of illegal entry into the country. Each was given about two minutes to meet with a lawyer. She also visited a detention center near Brownsville, Texas, where she met with 10 immigrant mothers who had been separated from their children. It brought her to tears.
During that trip, Bass promised the mothers that American lawyers would stay on their cases and ensure they are reunited with their children. She repeated that promise at the immigration program at the Annual Meeting. “Our work is nowhere close to being done,” she said.
Bass expressed horror at the government’s action of separating children from parents.
“The crisis on the border is something that I think will be a line of demarcation in so many of our lives,” she said. “We will look at this as an example of the worst of what this country has become. The idea of taking children away from their parents without any reasonable ability to reunite them” is horrible.
She praised the work of immigration advocates and volunteer lawyers who have worked to reunite families. She singled out the ABA’s ProBAR program in Harlingen, Texas – the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project – for its tireless work on the Texas border with children and adults.
ProBAR Director Kimi Jackson said the project has served about 600 youth separated from their parents, plus about 400 parents separated from their children. More than 40 children separated from their parents remain in detention centers served by ProBAR, she said.
Jackson told the story of one parent who was told by immigration authorities that his child had already been sent back to their home country, so he agreed to be deported. In reality, she said, the child was still in the United States and remains so today.
Both Bass and Jackson expressed shock that the federal government has suggested that nonprofit groups, especially the ACLU, be responsible for reuniting families instead of the government itself.
“The government seems to be taking no responsibility for this,” Jackson said. “They’re saying, oh, it’s up to the nonprofits to deal with this. Well, we don’t have offices in Central America.” Nevertheless, Jackson said, “In the coming weeks, we’re going to be figuring out what to do with all these cases.”
Thanks to new funding from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, ProBAR will soon hire more lawyers in both entry-level positions and senior jobs, Jackson said. Spanish proficiency is required.
Volunteer attorneys also are needed throughout the country, not just on the Mexican border. Volunteers need not speak Spanish or have experience in immigration law.
For more information, visit www.ambar.org/immigrantchild.