Three attorneys from the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project were sitting around a conference table on a recent Thursday afternoon in a small room on the first floor of what used to be The Tidings headquarters, a brick building across James M. Wood Boulevard from Catholic Charities of Los Angeles. A faded portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe was about the only thing on the whitewashed walls.

The trio talked to Angelus News about the cases they would soon be representing involving the children and their parents ordered detained, then reunited but still prosecuted under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

These cases wouldn’t be all that different from the unaccompanied minor ones Esperanza had successfully taken on during the last few years. But staff attorneys Joel Frost, Anuj Nadadur and Patricia Ortiz, program director of the local Catholic Charities project, still had concerns.

There were serious unknowns. What would happen to children whose parents had already been deported? How would the government find and reunite children with their parents who had been released in the United States? 

Would they come forward or hide in the country’s 12 million undocumented underground? And would “zero tolerance” continue to be the immigration law of the land, but in a different form?

All agreed it was a good idea for U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw, who ordered the government in June to reunite families split apart at the southern border, to temporarily block the deportations of these recently reunified families.

That ruling came about after American Civil Liberties Union attorneys had asked the judge to mandate a seven-day waiting period between family reunification and removal.

That would give parents more time to make a profound decision: Should their children stay in the United States to pursue their separate immigration cases or return with them to their troubled home country?

Despite the ruling, the Esperanza staff attorneys still had serious reservations.

“I have concerns about ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] actually following the judge’s orders,” Frost told Angelus News.

Frost recalled a recent client whose court-ordered removal was supposed to allow him 30 days to appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).

“His notice of appeal was received by the BIA three days before the deadline, but he was still removed back to Mexico. And it clearly was not lawful for ICE to remove my client as long as he had a pending appeal filed in time. So that doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that ICE is going to insure that they comply with this judge’s order.”

Fellow staff attorney Nadadur nodded in agreement.

“And then that raises the issue of the enforcement of the injunction and how it gets enforced,” he said. “So it’s the court in San Diego that issues that injunction. But this may be happening elsewhere, let’s say in Texas. Which court do we go running to?

“It looks really good when you have an injunction publicly. But then on the ground, when day-to-day things are happening, things change. To what extent does enforcement really happen with that injunction is an open question that we don’t know. And I think that’s a big concern.”

Much success

Program director Ortiz pointed out that Esperanza lawyers have been successful in the majority of “unaccompanied minor” cases they’ve handled in the last few years. 

It’s been rare where any minor has been denied asylum — and those cases that have are currently at the appeal stage.

So to date, not one of their clients has been removed from the U.S. And they’ve found sponsors — parents, other relatives and family friends — for them to be released to.

She said most have made successful transitions into American society. Many have found jobs or are going to college. In short, they’ve adapted.

The three attorneys believe this experience will be helpful in representing the most recent wave of young immigrants and their parents in getting asylum.

But they’re also aware that it’ll be a challenge with Attorney General Jeff Sessions declaring in June that nongovernment violence — the very kind of violence most of these immigrants were fleeing — no longer qualifies individuals and families for asylum in America. 

Sessions specifically cited gang violence and domestic abuse as outside the range. Still, the Esperanza lawyers were not deterred.

“Those aren’t the arguments we’ve been putting forth for our unaccompanied minor cases,” said Ortiz. “For asylum, you must show that you were a victim or will be a victim of persecution by the government or someone the government is unable or unwilling to control on account of your race, religion, ethnicity or particular social status.”

Ortiz said most of her cases involve persecution on account of belonging to particular “social groups.”

“Any particular social group can’t be defined by the persecution itself,” Ortiz explained. “So it can’t be defined by the domestic abuse or gang violence.”

Instead, the legal point her lawyers try to make is a simple one: that the countries where domestic abuse or gang violence is occurring aren’t doing enough to protect a “particular social group” from persecution.

The most prominent example is El Salvador, whose government has been criticized for not doing enough to prevent deadly gangs like MS-13 from kidnapping and killing innocent citizens.

The lawyers stressed that amid all the publicity the president’s words have gotten, it’s important to remember that asylum law comes from Congress, not the White House.

“What Sessions is essentially doing is creating his own board of appeal for making decisions,” noted Frost. “And he can do that because the board of appeal is under the Department of Justice. It’s an administrative court.”

Still, “Sessions can overrule immigration precedent,” he conceded. And since the Department of Justice can’t overrule court decisions, immigration advocates such as Frost are hopeful that taking these cases to higher courts will undo some of the administration’s decisions.

The lawyers explained that under past presidential administrations, it was very common for children, including unaccompanied minors fleeing their home countries, to obtain asylum after reaching the U.S. border. Many children were also eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which expedited their cases through the maze of immigration laws.

Challenging cases

“But who knows now?” admitted Ortiz. The caseloads of the advocate attorneys at Esperanza keep growing, while their cases become more challenging. 

The lawyers readily admit the plight of immigrant clients — who are really refugees — being denied asylum often gets to them emotionally.

So why do they keep representing these families and individuals?

The lawyers looked around at one another with grins and then laughs.

Nadadur said he’s thought about that lately, how practicing in private law tends to remove a lawyer from the big societal issues that make the evening news.

“It feels like we as lawyers have something of a responsibility, especially to represent vulnerable people, and I think that often doesn’t happen enough,” he explained. “Of course, real-world things happen. We get married. We have children. We think about supporting them and other things.

“But I always wanted to get back into serving some of these principles you hear about in law school. It’s very difficult to do. I’ve admired people working in this field from a distance, and now I admire them up close,” he added with a chuckle. “So it’s really a special opportunity to do what we’re doing.”

Frost credited the fact that both his parents had social-work backgrounds for his desire to work with such difficult cases.

 “I always knew that I wanted to do direct service … and the outcome of the work was very important to me,” he said.

“So I wanted to do something where I felt like I was making a difference in people’s lives. And I think I am now.”

Their program director agreed.

“I grew up in a rural area in an immigrant community,” said Ortiz, herself the daughter of immigrants.

“I always knew I wanted to go into public-interest law. Not specifically immigration. But once I was in law school, I did an internship working with asylum seekers. And I just loved it. I felt like, ‘Gosh, this is what I want to be doing.’ ”

Before finishing, the lawyers emphasized that despite the media attention it’s gotten, family separation is not “the only way immigrants are being undermined.”

“There’s a lot of things floating under the radar, including the asylum changes, detention, increasing deportation — some even unlawful deportations,” Frost noted.

That got Ortiz nodding. “There’s so many other stories about things that, unfortunately, are happening right now, too, that really make it more difficult for immigrants,” she said.

The Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project has put out an urgent call for pro bono attorneys to handle immigrant cases as well as new family-separation cases. Interested lawyers can contact Kimberley Plotnik at [email protected] or call 213-251-3505.

SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $25! For less than 50 cents a week, get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus the practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!