As Family Separation Crisis Intensifies, Lawyers Step Up to Offer Legal Help

By Anna Stolley Persky

July 11, 2018

The Trump administration announced in April a zero-tolerance immigration policy at the border, calling for the prosecution of all individuals who illegally enter the United States. This policy has the effect of separating parents from their children when they enter the country.

When parents enter the United States, they are referred for prosecution and their children are placed in the custody of a sponsor — in many cases, friends, relatives, or foster homes — or held in a shelter. To date, more than 2,000 children have been separated from their parents.

In response, attorneys throughout the Washington, D.C., area are looking for ways to help reunify families separated at the border. In June, for example, volunteer lawyers from the D.C. area visited the Port Isabel Service Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas. The facility, officially called Port Isabel Service Processing Center, is the primary “family reunification and removal center for adults in their custody,” according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The group met with more than 100 parents who had been detained after crossing the border into the United States. Most of the parents “had not yet had contact with their children yet,” says Sirine Shebaya, senior staff attorney at Muslim Advocates and a board member of the Dulles Justice Coalition.

“Many of them did not even know where their children were. They were fleeing horrible circumstances only to be further traumatized by having their children taken from them,” Shebaya says.

In some cases, parents did not know their children would be taken from them. They left for a court hearing and when they returned, their children were gone, Shebaya says. “They did not have a chance to prepare their children and give them identifying information,” she adds.

Lawyers in the D.C. area won’t lack for ways to volunteer on the issue of family reunification. The Dulles Justice Coalition, for example, is partnering with leading organizations on the ground in Texas to recruit and train volunteer attorneys to assist in Texas.

D.C. lawyers also can directly contact immigration advocacy groups such as the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR), and the Texas Civil Rights Project.

“If you are a trained attorney, by virtue of your education and experience, you are already well suited to engage on this issue,” says Natalie Roisman, co-captain of the Virginia chapter of Lawyer Moms of America and a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP. “There are lots of different ways you can plug in and help. All you need to do is to make it a priority.”

Trump signed an executive order on June 20 to end family separation at the border. In addition, a judge in California has ordered that separated families be reunited within 30 days, or within 14 days if the child is under five years old. Nevertheless, many parents in detention remain separated from their children, according to immigration advocates.

In late June, an army of lawyers from Lawyer Moms of America, along with their families and friends, hand-delivered letters to members of Congress demanding a just and humane solution to the separation of families seeking asylum. The group delivered more than 326 letters to representatives in 49 states and the District of Columbia.

Lawyer Moms of America was formed and organized in a few weeks, mostly thanks to social media.

“The women who founded Lawyer Moms of America heard first-hand accounts from lawyers who knew what was happening with these families at the border,” Roisman says. “The immediate response was, ‘We have to do something.’ The next step was to think about how we — as lawyer moms — could uniquely contribute and do something fast and effective.”

It became clear, Roisman says, that a congressional solution was needed. “We know that what drives home the point most clearly for Congress is when they hear from their constituents.”

Looking for ways to help? Here are a few organizations seeking lawyer volunteers on this issue:

Dulles Justice Coalition
The Dulles Justice Coalition, which is sponsored by Muslim Advocates, is working on recruiting and training volunteer attorneys in the D.C. area who can be deployed to assist with legal orientation and to conduct intake interviews with persons detained at border facilities as the need arises.

ProBar is a national effort to provide pro bono legal services to asylum seekers detained in South Texas by the U.S. government.

RAICES provides free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees in Texas.

Texas Civil Rights Project
The Texas Civil Rights Project is reuniting the families it represents, in addition to monitoring and protecting against the Trump administration’s ever-changing policies.

Lawyer Moms of America
Lawyer Moms of America, a group founded by lawyer moms and open to everyone, is a nonpartisan, nationwide organization that includes chapters in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Lawyer Moms of America delivered an open letter to members of Congress and launched a national congressional day of action on June 29 demanding the swift reunification of separated migrant children with their families.

Know of any additional ways lawyers can get involved? Email [email protected].

Anna Stolley Persky is a regular D.C. Bar contributor.