The idea that Trump administration could so carelessly and deviously separate children from their parents was difficult to believe until I saw it for myself.
The Port Isabel Detention Center is located off a rural, desolate road 30 miles northeast of Brownsville, Texas. I spent several days there this month meeting with asylum-seekers who were separated from their children. While at Port Isabel, I witnessed firsthand the challenges detainees face in making their asylum claims and reuniting with their children.
I am a Spanish-speaking immigration attorney and was at Port Isabel to meet with two clients my firm is representing pro bono. One client I met with was a man from Honduras who was separated from his wife and 9-year-old, special-needs son. The family fled Honduras because of death threats from corrupt politicians due to his knowledge of a fraud scheme. The other case involved a woman, also from Honduras, who was sexually assaulted numerous times by the same man, and the police would not help her. She was a single mother who had been separated from her 10-year-old son.
On top of the stress of being detained, these asylum-seekers wondered if they would ever see their children again. They had both been able to talk with their children briefly on the phone but noticed that they did not sound the same — they sounded depressed and asked for their parents to come get them.
Almost all the detainees at Port Isabel were given negative determinations in their “credible fear” interviews, which is the first step to establish an asylum claim in the United States. The approval rate at Port Isabel is so low it is hard to believe the claims are being fairly assessed. According to detainees at Port Isabel, in a group of about 100 women only two were given positive determinations.
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The two clients my firm represents were both issued negative decisions in their credible-fear interviews despite having strong claims. My female client was given a hearing in front of a judge last week to review the asylum officer’s decision without prior notice. She called me after the hearing to tell me the judge denied her claim and would not give her more time to have me, her attorney, present on the phone. Most detainees are given a day notice before their hearings. Attorneys cannot file the form necessary to represent a client until a hearing is set, so by setting hearings so quickly the court is making it impossible for asylum-seekers to have their attorneys present.
My other client was also scheduled for a review hearing without notice, but because it was rescheduled and delayed five days, it gave me the opportunity to actually represent him. The immigration judge called me on the morning of the hearing, and I was present on the phone. The judge questioned my client about his evidence and his fear of returning to Honduras for several minutes. After questioning him, the judge told him that he understood that he was afraid but that his case was not the kind that qualified for asylum, without explaining why.
I immediately asked the judge if he could address my client’s Convention Against Torture claim, which is a specific protection for people who fear torture by their home governments. The judge completely ignored me and simply replied, “OK, thanks, bye!” and ended the hearing and the call. I was stunned that a judge would fail to address the most important issue in the case and so rudely disregard an attorney.
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The court-ordered reunification process for these families is going to be long and complicated and will extend far beyond the July 26 deadline. The Trump administration is clearly more concerned with deporting asylum-seekers quickly and without due process than it is with reuniting families and fairly considering their cases.
The idea that the government could so carelessly and deviously separate children from their parents was difficult to believe until I saw it for myself. I am still shocked that the government, on top of everything it has already put these families through, would not afford them the minimal dignity of due process in their asylum claims.