When news broke about families being detained and separated at the Texas-Mexico border, 29 lawyers from five different Hogan Lovells offices traveled to the state for a week in July to offer pro bono legal services at one of the family residential centers.
Our days were long and exhausting, both physically and emotionally. We walked through the metal detectors each morning at 7 a.m., wary of what the day would bring. Over the course of a 13-hour shift, we listened to a seemingly unending stream of stories recounting shockingly graphic violence. And we listened again the next day, and the next. The days went on, but the room never cleared. There were always women and children sitting in chairs, looking up as we walked by, hoping we’d call their names.
It was in Texas that we came to appreciate first-hand the circumstances of many individuals who are housed in migrant detention facilities across this country. Almost all of the women we met had fled their home countries because they or their families were targeted by gangs and subjected to unspeakable acts of violence—in many cases perpetrated against young children.
They endured arduous and perilous conditions to seek refuge in the United States. Many stood in long lines at the border, only to be repeatedly turned away despite explaining that they were afraid to return home. Some were detained at the border by U.S. immigration authorities, some were apprehended after they crossed the border. But nearly all were fleeing from a home they did not believe was safe for them or their children.
As has been widely reported, U.S. immigration authorities separated many of the apprehended families, sending the children to remote locations with no assurance whether or when they would be reunited with their parents. Many of the parents were then forced to go through so-called “credible fear” interviews, which they failed because they were distraught from the combined effect of the persecution they’d suffered at home, the ordeal they went through to get here, and their separation from their children. Unsurprisingly, many were unable to effectively articulate their “credible fear” and so are now subject to expedited removal orders.
While we were in Texas, we heard rumors that U.S. immigration authorities planned to remove both these parents and their children as soon as possible after they were reunited. When those rumors were confirmed in mid-July, we rushed to file a complaint in federal court, alleging that our clients—all children who had been separated from their parents—were being denied their individual statutory and constitutional due process rights.
Specifically, those apprehended in the United States who express a fear of being returned to their home country have a legal right to be considered for asylum. This right applies equally to children who, due to the trauma they’ve suffered and sometimes their young age, have to depend on their parents to help them articulate their fear. Before they can be repatriated, these children must be given a fair opportunity to present their cases. Not everyone is entitled to asylum, but everyone who expresses a fear of persecution in their home country has the right to be considered for asylum. The case we filed is about making sure that children are given their right to be heard.
Three of the four claims in our lawsuit, M.M.M. v. Sessions, have been transferred to U.S. District Judge Dana Makoto Sabraw of the Southern District of California’s docket, but it’s important to note that our claims are different from those that were already pending in an earlier case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the government. The ACLU’s case is on behalf of the parents and focuses specifically on family reunification. Our lawsuit is on behalf of the children and focuses on what happens following reunification; it seeks to ensure that reunified families are not removed from the country before children are given their independent due process rights to seek asylum in the United States.
Over the course of our two weeks in Texas, we and the other volunteers working with us impacted the lives of more than 2,000 people. During that time, we heard gruesome stories from mothers who had endured unimaginable pain. Women who were fleeing the only home they’ve ever known in order to prevent their sons from being kidnapped and forced into gangs. To protect their daughters from being raped and killed. Oftentimes, women suffered violence for years—but made the difficult decision to flee when the lives of their children were threatened.
To suggest that most migrants are coming to the United States for economic reasons is both uninformed and dangerous. Many have endured horrific tragedies that drove them to make the long and treacherous journey to the United States, where their children were ripped from their arms. Where they were detained like criminals rather than treated with dignity and compassion, simply because they weren’t born on U.S. soil.
We and our colleagues will continue to do our best for these children, many of whom face violence, rape, torture, or even death if they return to their home countries. And in doing so, we hope to shine a light on the way in which they’ve been treated while in the custody of the United States.
T. Clark Weymouth is the pro bono partner at Hogan Lovells. He and co-author Amy Roma, a partner in the energy practice, were among those on the ground in Texas.