CLINIC’s Response to Family Separation Makes a Difference

In the eyes of many, the zero tolerance policy and the family separation crisis came and went as one of the darkest times in U.S. policy toward families, children and asylum seekers. The latest news reviving the issue, particularly Judge Sabraw’s decision to expand the class in Ms. L v. ICE to include thousands beyond the 2,800 separations previously acknowledged, reminds us that our work to bring justice to these families is far from over. CLINIC, along with partners and affiliates, has built a multi-faceted response to the family separation crisis that supports hundreds of families and stands to help thousands.

Under the leadership of Defending Vulnerable Populations, or DVP, Program Director Michelle Mendez, the program created new resources for practitioners, strengthened important collaborations, created innovative partnerships and established multiple strategic initiatives. DVP published a Frequently Asked Questions on Family Separation Litigation resource and a template motion to rescind in absentia removal orders and reopen removal proceedings for formerly separated families, along with supporting materials. One important collaboration is underway in Central and North Florida. Noting a dearth of resources for separated families in this area, we secured funds to hire, mentor and train four legal service positions, two based at Jacksonville Legal Aid and two based at Catholic Charities of Central Florida. One example of a recently established innovative partnership is our collaboration with Lyft to provide families transportation to legal appointments and ICE check-ins.

CLINIC’s DVP staff oversee different strategic initiatives. CLINIC, along with the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, or ASAP, and the Innovation Law Lab, are leading the National Reunited Families Assistance Project. The Project will allow us to assess where the families are located and support coordination among nationwide partners to secure legal representation for as many families as possible. DVP staff attorney Ann Garcia is CLINIC’s point person on this initiative.

Attorney Katy Lewis provides mentorship and technical assistance to pro bono attorneys who have stepped up to represent these families. In addition, she is creating resources for pro bono attorneys, including: an outline of the tasks and issues to consider upon accepting a family separation case, and a resource on declaration drafting, an important skill for these cases. In addition, Katy assists with DVP’s Freedom of Information Act requests and appeal efforts on behalf of the families.

I assist families with pro se, i.e., on behalf of themselves, changes of venue to prevent in absentia orders, and monitor our closed Facebook group. The group is a tool with growing functions for direct communication with separated families. With over 80 family members, we use this platform to assess needs for legal and social support and to distribute self-help materials so reunited families can better understand their case, rights and responsibilities. We also share information on intake clinics, reputable lawyers and health service providers, in addition to coordinating requests for transportation to appointments and accompaniment. Importantly, the Facebook group also offers the families a space where they can safely process their shared traumatic experience, talk about their fears and uncertainties, and celebrate victories.

Benito and Daniel’s* story highlights how CLINIC’s work makes a difference. Benito and Daniel are a Guatemalan Achi-speaking father and son who were separated by the U.S. government for six weeks. They were reunited and finally released in El Paso. The Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, initiated removal proceedings, venuing their cases at the El Paso Immigration Court even though Benito and Daniel never intended to stay in El Paso and had communicated this to DHS. DHS did not file changes of venue for reunited families like Benito and Daniel’s; instead, the families had to file changes of venue on their own or travel back to El Paso to attend their court hearings. CLINIC has assisted reunited families like Benito and Daniel’s file pro se changes of venue. Placing these cases with pro or low bono counsel is very difficult if the case is not already before the local court. Moreover, attorneys who are willing to assist with changes of venue often charge fees the families cannot afford.

DVP acted quickly to change venue in Benito and Daniel’s cases, in effect preventing an in absentia order of removal, but we could not have done it alone. An Achi-speaking mom who survived family detention volunteered her Achi language skills to help us prepare a pro se motion to change venue on Benito’s behalf. Taylor Levy at Annunciation House in El Paso personally inquired with the El Paso Immigration Court on Benito’s behalf to obtain a timely ruling on the motion to change venue and connected us with attorney Shelley Wittevrongel. Shelley volunteered to appear as a friend of the court the day of Benito’s hearing to explain why it was impossible for him to attend. Luckily, the motion was granted. Without this collaboration, it is likely that this father and son would have received an in absentia removal order.

Please consider supporting the DVP Program’s work on behalf of formerly separated cases by donating here.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.