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Immigration Lawyer On Family Separations At The Border

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Immigration is shaping up to be, yet again, one of the main themes of the 2020 election. President Trump signed an executive order last year to end his own zero tolerance policy that allowed children in migrant families to be separated from their parents at the border. But families are still being separated under some circumstances. Efren Olivares is an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, and he joins me now from McAllen, Texas.

Welcome to the program.

EFREN OLIVARES: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've been at the frontline of representing families who've been separated at the border. Explain what that means. Give us an example of what you do.

OLIVARES: So every day of the week, we interview separated adults. Most of them happen to be parents, but others are siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles. We interview them early in the morning, right before their criminal prosecution hearings under the zero tolerance policy. And before the hearing begins, we go into court and ask the crowd of adults who among them has been separated from an underage relative. And on any given day, three to five of them raise their hand.

And then we talk to them to try to identify why they were separated and then help them find their children, be reunited. And when it happens to be an unlawful separation that is in violation of the executive order, then we take action - and sometimes legal action - to get those families reunited. We've had to go to court in a few instances. But in most of the cases, we interact with any family members in the U.S. so that that child can be released to that relative and then be reunited with the adult that they were separated from.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The administration, as you mentioned, has supposedly stopped the policy of family separation. So why is it still happening?

OLIVARES: The parent-child separations, which are the ones that were supposed to have ended last summer, are still happening in three scenarios - first, if the parent has any criminal history. For example, last week, I interviewed a father from Guatemala who had been in the United States years ago, and he once got a citation - a traffic ticket in Colorado for driving with an expired driver's license. And for that, now he was separated from his son. And the government takes the position that that criminal history prevents him from getting his child back.

Secondly, we also see separations when the government alleges gang affiliation or criminal activity. And those cases are extremely frustrating and difficult to fight against because the government won't provide any evidence.

And the third instance is when the government alleges that the father is not really the father. And what's really frustrating about that - in addition to the separation itself, which, you know, is frustrating enough - is that it's so easy for the Border Patrol agent processing the family to say, you know what? I don't believe that's your daughter - and take them away, separate them. And then to get them back together, it's a nightmare.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Congress has passed a bill last week that will give billions in emergency aid for migrant children, and President Trump is expected to sign it. Do you think that that will help the situation where you are?

OLIVARES: Maybe it will be a temporary assistance, it will make things a little better for a few months. But if the policies don't change, in six months DHS and CBP are going to be asking for additional funds. And in fact, this almost seems like the agencies are being rewarded for the way they have been treating children and immigrants by giving them additional funding.

So I think I was disappointed in that - or at least in the fact that additional funding is coming to those agencies without any changes to their policies and practices as a condition of receiving the additional funding - because that's the core of the problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Trump administration and their supporters would say the people crossing the border are doing something illegal. They are coming into the United States, those that come into the United States illegally, and not waiting at a port of entry to ask for asylum. And, you know, the United States can't have this many people coming without a formal process. I mean, what would be your response to that?

OLIVARES: That argument, Lulu, has been raised throughout history every time there has been an influx of immigrants. We can't take that many Irish immigrants. We can't take that many Italian immigrants. We can't take that many Jews. And every single time, the United States of America has seen the light, turned around and become one of the only places in the world that is a beacon of hope for people seeking refuge and protection.

So I'm still hopeful that we'll make a turn, and we will continue to be that. But that argument, you know, I just - it's not something that is a policy-making issue because it's been made before and, unfortunately, always with xenophobic and racist undertones.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Efren Olivares is an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project in McAllen, Texas. Thank you very much.

OLIVARES: My pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.