A Public Defender On Immigration Cases And Separations NPR's David Greene talks with federal public defender Erik Hanshew of El Paso, Texas about the difficulties of representing immigrant clients who have been separated from their children.


A Public Defender On Immigration Cases And Separations

A Public Defender On Immigration Cases And Separations

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NPR's David Greene talks with federal public defender Erik Hanshew of El Paso, Texas about the difficulties of representing immigrant clients who have been separated from their children.


Let's zoom in as close as we can now on that situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. Under the Trump administration's zero tolerance immigration policy, adults suspected of crossing into the U.S. illegally are sent to jails and detention centers to await prosecution, and in some cases, their children have been taken away. NPR's John Burnett is reporting that 2,300 children have been removed from their parents in the first five weeks of this new procedure. Erik Hanshew is an assistant federal public defender in El Paso, Texas, and he currently has several clients who have had their kids taken away. And he joins us this morning.

Mr. Hanshew, welcome.

ERIK HANSHEW: Good morning, David. Thank you for having me.

GREENE: Well, thank you for taking the time. I really want to get a picture of the families who are going through this, if you can help us. Maybe you could tell me about one or two of your cases.

HANSHEW: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, and there's a common theme. I have six cases as of yesterday, and then three more came in, so now I have nine cases. And the - while the individual stories are - you know, each have a different life story, there is a commonality. Most all of the clients we have are Central Americans, predominantly from Honduras and Guatemala. They are mothers and fathers that came here to the United States. They were all arrested along the U.S.-Mexico border down here in West Texas between Juarez and El Paso. They were apprehended out in what we call the field, meaning not a port of entry - official port of entry - but somewhere else, attempting to come into the United States. Along with them were their children. They have age ranges as young as 4 years old and as old as 17 years old.

GREENE: Four to 17 - wow; that's quite a range. When - what happens when the kids are taken? Like, at what point are the kids actually removed from their parents?

HANSHEW: And that's where, you know, the lack of a policy and/or a cogent plan appears to be coming to full force here. We've had different experiences for these clients. Some - the recent arrests starting about three or four weeks ago - there were individuals who were immediately separated from their children, and then we started seeing a progression of later on in that process. So instead, we'd have clients that were taken in for what they called processing with immigration officials, and at some point in that process, their child would be taken away. And then cases as recently as yesterday, there appeared to be a new - at least, for a lack of better words - procedure, where these - they were all fathers. These fathers were all allowed to essentially sleep the night on metal benches there at Immigration with their child and had their child taken away in the morning.

GREENE: Wow. I - and when the children are taken away from these fathers or these parents - I mean, we're talking about kids, as you said, as young as 4 years old. Like, does anyone tell them where their kids are going?

HANSHEW: There - and there's the truly horrific part of this. There is little to no information being provided to our clients. And I'll give a little more detail and backdrop to that. You know, not only are these people coming from impoverished and violent home countries, but they have a background themselves that is, you know, beyond, frankly, our paradigm here in the United States. These are individuals that are illiterate, and, you know, they don't read or write Spanish, let alone English. They've had no formal education. You know, their education was being sent to the fields as little kids themselves to learn how to grow crops and live off the land for crop growing.

So here they are, and they're not being provided paperwork. They're not being provided information. And the best you'll hear - I think the best I've heard in all my cases was they were told, here's a phone number. You know, I had an individual who explained to me that, you know, he was told, here is your - talk to your little boy; let them know it's going to be OK; let him know it's going to be OK when we take him away and that, you know, you're going to see him soon. But that was all just to basically try to make the boy feel better. But he was then thereafter provided no substantive information.

GREENE: The government is telling parents, tell your kids it's going to be OK. Then they take the kids away and, at best, give them a phone number - what? - like, a hotline saying, you'll be able to call and get information at some point.

HANSHEW: Right. Exactly. And it's a hotline that now, we, as the federal public defender office, have learned ourselves in trying to get through to it - it's a bureaucratic morass. It's a toll-free number for calling the ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement. And I - that process itself has been daunting for lawyers. You know, we have our office now with investigators, paralegals, administrative staff, and even the interns and lawyers trying to call this number to get information. And...

GREENE: And even you with all those resources can't get any information.


GREENE: What - how are your clients holding up? I guess they're in detention, not knowing where their kids are. How are they doing?

HANSHEW: They're traumatized, David. You know, when you - I've been a federal defender for many years. And, you know, when you go meet a client for the first time, it's - you know, they're usually in jail, and they are obviously concerned about the status of their case and where they're at and what's happening. This is a whole new world. These clients, frankly, could care less about what is happening in their case. The usual discussions of, you know - what's my charges? - and - what am I looking at? Is my judge nice? When do I get out? - those aren't the questions. These are questions from parents about their children. That's all they care about. They want to know, where is my child? Who's taking care of my child? Who's protecting my child? How will I find them? Are they going to send me back to Guatemala or Honduras with them? Am I going to be sent back without them? And the really difficult part about that, from the lawyer perspective, is, we don't have answers to (inaudible). It's horrendous.

GREENE: We've been talking to Erik Hanshew, who is an assistant federal public defender in El Paso, Texas. Some of his clients who he's representing have had their children taken away from them as part of the Trump administration zero tolerance policy. Mr. Hanshew, thanks a lot for your time. We really appreciate it.

HANSHEW: Thank you. And thank you giving an opportunity for our clients' voices to be heard.


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