No one trained me for this

Photo by REUTERS/Mike Blake

No one trained me for what I am doing as an immigration attorney in the family separation crisis: talking about horrific crimes against humanity in Central America and then learning the details of my own government’s purposeful actions to traumatize asylum-seekers.

As a mother of five- and seven-year-old children, I felt compelled to volunteer my knowledge of asylum and immigration court, and my ability to speak Spanish. I became a first-responder attorney on the front lines at Port Isabel detention center, 45 minutes from Harlingen. Through a series of texts, faith and hustle, I landed with two days’ notice thinking I was ready to take on what I would find.

On June 26-27, I met with a dozen separated parents, listening to their stories, giving legal advice and preparing them for what was next in the asylum process. Upon entry, one mother’s five-month-old baby was taken from her while breastfeeding as she pled with the officer not to separate them.

In the country they were fleeing, these asylum-seekers had to endure horrendous circumstances. A mother was raped by a criminal group and forced to be silent after she witnessed a crime; she had told no one, not even her husband, but knew her life was in danger. Another mother witnessed an assassin flee after murdering a full-term pregnant woman. She reported it to the police, and they told her they already knew about it but wouldn’t pursue the killer and were surprised she even dared report it. One mother was raped by her home country’s police after reporting a crime. In some cases, I was the first person to hear these personal traumatic details, but in other cases, they had already had credible-fear interviews with asylum officers and were awaiting the fateful results.

But these were no ordinary interviews. Speaking with asylum officers on the phone, separated parents were forced to recount their stories while detained and terrified. Some had spoken with their children on the phone; others still had no idea if their children were okay. The trauma of separation compounded the trauma they had already survived in their home country, crippling their ability to make their cases to asylum officers. Many could not elaborate their fear of persecution, and a majority, I later learned, failed their asylum interviews. To make matters worse, the immigration judges rarely reversed the asylum officers’ findings. The families are on a path to deportation with every step going against them.

But at least they would soon be reunited with their children. Not because the administration changed course, but because the judiciary ruled; due to the American Civil Liberties Union’s efforts in the case Ms. L. v ICE, the government was required to reunify children under five years old in two weeks and all others in four weeks. While you get a receipt for your car from a valet, no such system is in place to return the nearly 3,000 children. Mass chaos has ensued in meeting reunification deadlines. Neither deadline was met.

We are experiencing a tsunami of collateral damage with a myriad of burdens each step of the way. Non-profits and other organizations are overwhelmed. Without volunteers, public outcry and litigation, the administration would have succeeded in this despicable crime against humanity.

Although we might not have been trained for moments like this, we have the skills, knowledge and drive to act and make a difference if we choose.

I urge you, if any of this moves you, please accept a call to action. Donate money, time or goods for these families, take a pro bono case if you are an attorney, call your U.S. senators and representatives and don’t let this topic fade from the public conversation. Last but not least, register to vote, and vote. This tragedy will not be over this week.

Ruby Powers