Pro bono at the border: Lawyer assists separated immigrant families

July 11, 2018
Sarah Burrow rallies against family separation in Indianapolis. (IL Photo/Katie Stancombe)

As a 30-year-old Honduran woman seeking asylum with her two sons prepared for her credible fear interview scheduled for July 4, she thought that maybe, just maybe, being interviewed on Independence Day would mean her family would be free.

Indianapolis immigration attorney Sarah Burrow hoped so too. She couldn’t stop thinking about her own kids since first hearing about hundreds of children being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

When U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy toward migrants who illegally cross the border, federal prosecutions and the number of families separated upon arrival soared.

As of last week, U.S. Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar told reporters “under 3,000” kids have been separated from their parents, according to the Los Angeles Times. At the end of June, a San Diego federal judge ordered immigration agents to stop separating families at the border immediately and reunite those currently split up.

Just days before its July 10 deadline, the Trump Administration said it needed more time to reunite some minor children with their parents. Less than half of those younger than 5 years old have been reunited with their parents, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Although the administration is grappling to reunite those minors, the July 26 deadline remains for those over the age of five.

‘What can I do?’

Deciding she had to do something, Burrow flew to the border and spent a week assisting detained mothers seeking asylum by preparing them for their credible fear interviews. The Lewis Kappes director joined a group of attorneys and other volunteers, who arrived at the nation’s largest detention facility in Dilley, Texas.

The South Texas Family Residential Center can hold 2,500 women and children detained for illegally crossing the border or seeking asylum. Burrow partnered with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, where volunteers interviewed mothers and children in holding, accompanied them to their interviews and represented them in court. Volunteer attorneys like Burrow began trickling in at the facility’s opening in 2014. Now they won’t stop coming.

“Organizations like CARA and (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Eduation and Legal Services) started getting pro bono attorneys in there so the families in detention could have access to legal representation,” Burrow explained. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s a fairly new concept.”

But it’s a concept Burrow said she wanted to be a part of. As she boarded the plane, Burrows felt as ready she could be. She said those who live in the Midwest don’t really see what’s truly going on at the border. She believes she’s the first Indiana attorney to venture to the border in response to the “zero tolerance” policy.

Back at home, another Hoosier attorney is working diligently behind the scenes to recruit others in joining Lawyers for Good Government, a rapid response organization that sends out attorneys to places in need of legal assistance.

David Ziemba, an Indianapolis criminal defense lawyer, has served as the organization’s Indiana chair since its inception in 2016. He said he always receives a good response from Hoosier attorneys. Ziemba thinks it’s because most lawyers want to help others.

“When you see individuals put in jeopardy by what’s going on, I think that instinct is to say, ‘Okay what can I do? Because that’s just not right,’” he said. “Especially after our training and our experience of how important the rule of law and due process is.”

Due process, backlog, confusion

Immediately after Independence Day, President Donald Trump said in a tweet that any person crossing the border illegally, with or without children, must be told to leave so that the country is not forced to endure long and costly trials. He added, “Tell the people ‘OUT,’ and they must leave, just as they would if they were standing on your front lawn.”

But Ziemba is concerned that due process rights owed to families who cross the border are being squashed, emphasizing the need for more legal assistance as the numbers keep growing.

Rachel Van Tyle of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic in Indianapolis agrees, noting backlogs in immigration courts is already about three years. She said if families can’t stay together when they reach the bench, the backlog will get even more complicated.

“Practically, this may mean that when I could help mom, dad and two kids — if the two kids are here in Indiana, I won’t be able to assist with mom and dad’s case even if all of the information is the same,” Van Tyle said.

Although family separations are not entirely new, the number of parents criminally prosecuted for illegal entry skyrocketed under the zero tolerance policy, according to Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services for the National Immigration Justice Center.

Koop said the justification for separating families was that in order to criminally prosecute parents, they had to be placed in federal custody apart from their children.

“But people who are crossing the bridge and presenting themselves to an immigration official and saying, ‘I’m here to apply for asylum,’ in those cases we also saw the government separating parents and children,” she said. “And there was really no justification for that.”

Koop is representing three mothers whose children were sent to holding facilities in New York and California.

“They’re extremely traumatized and anxious and struggling with depression, struggling with difficulty sleeping as I think any parent would who has had their child forcibly removed from them,” she said. “The first thing that they’ll mention is the concern for the well-being of their children.”

By the end of her week in Dilley, Burrow had spent more than 75 hours working with mothers in a place she said had no due process. As she prepped the Honduran woman for her interview to seek asylum from her severely abusive husband, Burrow thought about how far the woman had come.

“She’s journeyed 1800 miles, and yet, the last two feet are the most arduous, the most anxiety-inducing, the most critical,” Burrows wrote in a blog post. “We look at her, looking out that window, feeling light years away from freedom.”•


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