Representing Detained Migrants NPR's Scott Simon speaks with immigration lawyer Erika Pinheiro about representing detained migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Representing Detained Migrants

Representing Detained Migrants

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NPR's Scott Simon speaks with immigration lawyer Erika Pinheiro about representing detained migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.


The opposition and outrage over families seeking asylum being separated from their children at the border of the United States broke open this week. Laura Bush said, our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores. President Trump did what he said he couldn't - sign an executive order to stop separations. But how long will that hold, and what will happen with those families who've already been separated?

Erika Pinheiro is an immigration lawyer with a group called Al Otro Lado, the other side. She joins us from Tijuana. Thanks for being with us.

ERIKA PINHEIRO: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Have you seen a case where parents have been reunited in the United States?

PINHEIRO: Yes, I have, actually - Olivia, who was able to be reunited with her child. Her infant son - 15 months old - was separated from his father when they sought - turned themselves in to seek asylum in the United States. And it took us three months to get him out of a foster care placement. The agency running that foster care placement was recently shut down for allegations of abuse and neglect against children.

And when my client got her son back, it looked like he hadn't been bathed in months, and he was infested with fleas. With this family separation, these parents did not have any ability to have a say in how and where their child was going to be cared for.

For example, I have another client whose son was killed in El Salvador. He fled with his other son to seek asylum in the United States, and they were separated by the border. There, the Salvadoran consulate has also offered to circumvent the immigration court process to deport the child back to El Salvador, and the father absolutely does not want that. And so this issue of family separation has essentially resulted in parents being divested of their parental rights.

SIMON: And to make this plain, people like your client don't want their children deported back to their home countries because they left because it was unsafe.

PINHEIRO: In some cases, they absolutely do want their children back. And it's great for us to have an expedited process there. In other cases, for example, in the other case I mentioned, the man's other child had already been murdered. And this man told me, even if I'm sent back and I'm killed, at least I know my child will be safe here.

And that's really a decision - a calculus that a lot of these families are making as they seek asylum in the United States. Even if the parent gets deported, they just want to give their children a chance to survive.

SIMON: How do you feel this week? Do you think the president's executive order improves prospects for parents and children?

PINHEIRO: It actually makes things a lot worse. I mean, first of all, that order will not stop family separations. It has so many loopholes in it. And what the president's order does is really try to force Congress to strip the very meager protections that children have when they are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Health and Human Services Agency.

What the president's trying to do is mandate indefinite family detention. And we've already seen these tent cities springing up on the Texas border, and I can only assume that this is where they're wanting to send families, along with military bases and other installments that were actually mentioned in the executive order. So I think, actually, it's going to do a lot more harm than good.

SIMON: I have to ask you, Ms. Pinheiro, you're a lawyer. With all sympathy for what so many of your clients have been through, breaking the law to enter the United States is breaking the law.

PINHEIRO: It's actually not breaking the law if you are seeking asylum. Title 8 U.S. Code Section 1158 gives people the right to seek asylum, whether it's at a designated port of entry or not. I believe that these prosecutions of asylum-seekers are illegal. They certainly violate international law, and, I would argue, federal law as well.

The problem is that these parents are not going to fight against these prosecutions because they've been separated from their children. So we're not really giving people the chance to even fight against what I would argue is an illegal practice - the prosecution of asylum-seekers.

SIMON: Have you seen children in court with no lawyer?

PINHEIRO: So children who are released from detention do not have the right to a government-paid attorney. So there was government funding to cover about a quarter of the cases. The Department of Justice has actually cut that funding and instructed legal service providers not to accept any new cases.

And then, about three-quarters of the children either have to represent themselves in court or pay a private attorney, which can cost thousands of dollars. So absolutely, I've seen unrepresented children in court, and I think that we're going to see a whole lot more of them.

SIMON: Unrepresented - I mean, is a 6-year-old supposed to represent him or herself?

PINHEIRO: Yes, and infants. So my 15-month-old client has his own court case. And, you know, had he not been reunited with his parents, he would have no one to speak for him.

SIMON: Do you have confidence that the over-2,000 youngsters whose plight we've gotten to know a little bit about this week will be reunited in good order?

PINHEIRO: I am ecstatic about the people who've been supporting RAICES, which is one of the largest legal organizations in Texas. They've received an enormous amount of support, and I believe have pledged to identify and locate the children that have already been separated from their parents.

I can say from experience, it's not always easy to place those children with pro bono attorneys who can then, you know, go through this Byzantine process of trying to get them released to another relative. The problem is that a lot of the parents remain detained, and then we face the challenge of trying to find attorneys to help them.

SIMON: Erika Pinheiro is an immigration lawyer with a group called Al Otro Lado in Tijuana. Thanks so much.

PINHEIRO: Thank you.


Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.