The Challenges Facing Immigration Attorneys As Deadline To Reunite Families Looms
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
And now we're going to check in with a lawyer who's been at the center of the family reunification process. Efren Olivares is an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, and he joins us now from McAllen, Texas. Welcome.
EFREN OLIVARES: Thank you. Good to be with you.
CHANG: So you're there right now, seeing all of this firsthand. What does the reunification process look like? Does there seem to be a system in place?
OLIVARES: No. There's no system in place. It's a very slow and tedious process, and very frustrating process because every parent we talk to - every mother, every father - the first thing they ask us is, when am I going to see my son again? When am I going to see my daughter again? And we still don't have those answers for them.
CHANG: Do you think the government should even have been asking for more time to reunify these families?
OLIVARES: You know, when I first heard that they might ask for time, I thought, maybe that's reasonable because what's the point of pushing them - holding them to a deadline that they're not going to be able to meet?
But then that same day, I spoke to three moms who are in detention. And hearing them cry and plead to see their children right away because they can't even talk to them. When they talk to them on the phone, the children can't have a conversation. They're just crying and asking, Mom, when are you going to come and get me? Why did you leave me? Because, you know, a 5-year-old, a 6-year-old doesn't understand. That changed my mind immediately.
CHANG: I know that the Texas Civil Rights Project has been making extensive records of all the families that you're meeting. Tell me how you're documenting all of this.
OLIVARES: So we go to the federal courthouse in McAllen. And there, we interview, every morning, the parents on some days, and now, more often, siblings or cousins who have been separated from their under-age relatives. And we get their basic identifying information - names, dates of birth, country of origin.
And then, with that information, we put it in our database and start making contacts to try to locate them, inquire as to whether they have been able to communicate with their child, and find them an immigration attorney that can help them in their asylum claim and then work on the reunification process, which is slow and then very time-consuming.
CHANG: And why have these records - these independent records you've been compiling - been necessary?
OLIVARES: Right. Because if we didn't collect that information, then no one other than the U.S. government has that information. No one knows that John Doe was separated from his son or his daughter. Hundreds of parents were separated. Now we're hearing close to 3,000.
And we don't know their names. No one is trying to help them get reunited unless they are fortunate enough to land with an immigration agency or an organization that provides immigration representation. And then they help them.
But everyone else, if you're not so fortunate, only the government knows that you were traveling with a child and that they took that child away from you. So that's why it's so critical that we have been able to document these separations and are actively working on trying to reunite them.
CHANG: Of the 400-some people your organization has spoken with, is there a particular family whose case has stuck with you?
OLIVARES: The - one of the ones that impacted me the most was a mother with a 6-year-old with brain damage. And she was separated from him. She came from Honduras. And as of Friday, she had spoken to him once on the phone.
There was also a case of a father who told me how he had to make up a story for his 7-year-old daughter once he realized that the Border Patrol agents were going to take her away. Because he didn't want his daughter to cry when they were going to separate her from him, he told her that she was going to go off on summer camp. So he described to me she was all excited - how she was very excited, left with a big smile on her face and walked away with a Border Patrol agent.
We've spoken to her father, and he's at the Port Isabel Detention Center, but we have not been able to reach the girl.
CHANG: That's Efren Olivares. He's an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. Thank you very much for joining us.
OLIVARES: Thank you. I appreciate it.
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