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Immigrant families face ‘life-and-death’ stakes in Texas


Inside America’s largest immigration jail in Dilley, Texas — where women and children can take yoga and Zumba classes while fighting speedy expulsion from the U.S.

— the fuzzy outline of a black-robed judge appeared on a giant plasma TV.

“Let’s bring the ladies out,” immigration Judge Robert Powell ordered from the screen like a reality-show host, sitting 270 miles away in a courtroom at a detention center in Los Fresnos, Texas.

Nobody could find a Mam interpreter for a Guatemalan woman who spoke that Mayan language. So Powell’s docket dwindled to Mirian, a mother from El Salvador who lost her asylum bid during the frenzied weeks after the Trump administration separated her from her daughter and was seeking another chance.


But she couldn’t see Powell’s face. “It’s blurry,” said her lawyer, Shalyn Fluharty, who asked that her client’s last name not be used for her safety.

“I’m afraid that there’s nothing we can do on this end,” Powell said.

After President Donald Trump’s experiment in criminally prosecuting all adults who crossed the border illegally, triggering the separation of more than 2,500 children from their parents, the fate of hundr of reunified families has come to this.

Parents who were ordered deported are pleading for a day in immigration court, saying they did not qualify for one in their initial asylum interviews because they were too distraught over their missing sons or daughters.

Several lawsuits are pending in federal courts over the separated families, and U.

S. District Judge Dana Sabraw — who ordered them reunited — has imposed a temporary ban on their deportations, which he reaffirmed Thursday.

But much uncertainty remains.

As the lawsuits proceed, parents and children are pondering what to do if deportations resume.

If the parent has a deportation order and the child does not, should they agree to be separated again?

“The stakes are life-and-death for many of these families,” said Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who is leading the main lawsuit in the case. “These are not just ordinary immigration cases.

Majority reunited

The majority of children taken from their parents as a result of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy have been reunited with family members, and hundr have been freed in the United States to await hearings in immigration court. About 500 to 600 children remain in Health and Human Services custody, in many cases because their parents were deported and officials are now trying to locate them in their homelands.

But 700 to 800 parents and children are being held together in U.S.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s family detention centers, including this compound south of San Antonio.

Last week officials guided reporters on a tour of Dilley’s South Texas Family Residential Center, a sprawling 2,400-bed campus.

Children attend school here, building solar ovens or taking trips to the zoo. They have an infirmary, a library and a cafeteria.

“We just want everyone to be happy,” said Michael Sheridan, an ICE official.

But many parents have final deportation orders, the judge said Thursday, often after little more than an interview with an asylum officer.

Federal officials say the fast-track deportations are designed to swiftly dispense with asylum cases that the government suspects are a ploy to smuggle people into the U.S.

“Just because you don’t see a judge doesn’t mean you aren’t receiving due process,” press secretary Sarah Sanders said in June, after Trump issued an executive order effectively halting separations.

But migrants’ lawyers say families traumatized by the separations should be given full hearings, especially children, to determine if they truly are in fear for their lives.

Many fled violence, poverty or abuse and endured harsh conditions traveling to the U.S.

After they crossed the border, the Trump administration filed criminal charges against the adults and sent their children to HHS shelters.

The parents went through criminal trials — typically quick affairs where they pleaded guilty to crossing the border illegally and were sentenced to time served.

They then were sent to immigration detention, where they had an opportunity to seek asylum.

Many parents failed these initial interviews and were not granted a hearing.

As Mirian did the other day, these parents could ask an immigration judge to review the asylum officer’s decision. But they could not bring witnesses, as they would be able to do in a full-fledged proceeding, and their lawyers often weren’t allowed to speak.

“That’s what we’re fighting for: For every family to have a fair day in court,” said Katy Murdza, advocacy coordinator for the Dilley Pro-Bono Project, which offers legal aid to migrant parents and children, including some whose fates will be determined by the cases before Sabraw. “How can someone, in an hour, be sure that they made the right decision?” she said.

About 150 of Dilley’s 1,500 residents are reunited families. Another 630 reunited fathers and sons are at a family detention center in Karnes County, also in Texas.

While employees at Dilley said they do not notice a difference between the reunited families and the much larger group of migrants who were never separated, Pro Bono Project volunteers said the reunited women and children are reluctant to be apart and had to be prodded to accept legal help. Many suffer headaches, nightmares and depression.

“I know you don’t trust anyone, but you can trust us,” volunteer Marissa Ornelas, 20, told the reunited families.

Only 122 of the 25,000 migrants who have passed through Dilley this fiscal year have been deported, federal officials said.

Most were released in the U.S.

to pursue their immigration claims.

In some cases, parents waive the 20-day limit a federal consent decree established for how long minors can be in ICE custody, so they can keep their children with them at Dilley while they wait for their cases to be resolved.

The Trump administration, which spends more than $200 million a year detaining families at centers in Dilley and Karnes, is deeply frustrated with the rise in asylum-seeking families crossing the border and the various rules and court protections that often mandate their release.

On the same day that reporters toured Dilley last week, officials there tried to deport a Salvadoran woman and her daughter who are part of the Washington lawsuit challenging the new asylum criteria.

An outraged U.S.

District Judge Emmet Sullivan scolded government lawyers and ordered the pair brought back.

“Turn that plane around,” he said.


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