Over the weekend, dozens of immigrant parents who were held in a federal detention center in Aurora after being separated from their children at the border under Trump's “zero tolerance” policy were transferred to Texas. They were presumably transferred to the coastal town along the U.S.-Mexico boarder called Port Isabel to meet a July 26 deadline for family reunification, which was set by a federal judge in San Diego. Children are also reportedly being flown to Port Isabel from around the country to meet the deadline.
But the sudden move has caught immigration lawyers in Colorado by surprise. Their transferred clients are still being expected to participate in court hearings even though they aren't in the state.
Laura Lunn, an attorney associated with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), discovered just days before her client's bond hearing today, July 23, that her client was among those transferred.
“I was calling the court clerk at 8 a.m. to find out if the judge still intended to hold the hearing, because my client is no longer [in Colorado],” Lunn says.
Lunn's client has a six-year-old son and has been separated from him for two months. Like many attorneys who volunteer for RMIAN, Lunn is working for her immigrant client pro bono and is trying to get asylum status for the woman and her son, who's been held for the past two months in a facility for children in Arizona. Lunn says that during her client's initial interview for asylum status, she was found to have a credible fear of returning to her home country, allowing the asylum application process to continue.
This morning, the court clerk told Lunn that the hearing was still on. Lunn even told a witness to show up at court in order to testify that her client and her son would have a place to stay in Colorado if they were released on bond.
But when Lunn went to court, government lawyers with the Department of Homeland Security said they were not able to contact the immigrant mother at the center of the case.
Since her client's transfer on July 20, Lunn had also been unable to reach her. She has tried calling the detention center at Port Isabel but has been stonewalled. Lunn has friends with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Georgia who have told her they have clients who have been transferred to Texas who are in similar situations.
"So I said to the judge, 'The whole purported purpose of detaining people is to ensure that they show up to court, and so I find it absolutely befuddling that the department has prevented my client from [participating],'" Lunn says.
The judge agreed that DHS needed to get Lunn's client on the phone from Texas, putting the hearing on recess and asking DHS to fulfill that request at a resumed hearing at 1 p.m. today.
DHS was still not able to deliver.
"They said they had emailed somebody and that person would attempt to facilitate my client's appearance, but that they hadn't received a response by the time we were back in court," Lunn says. “Then the department asked for a continuance in the case so they could find additional evidence to file against my client. The judge said she wasn't inclined to grant a continuance because the department itself created these circumstances."
DHS admitted to the judge that it had sent the entire case file to Texas along with Lunn's client, without making copies to use in continuing court hearings in Colorado.
According to Lunn, the sudden transfer puts clients such as hers in a catch-22. They may be a little closer to being reunified with their children, but they have also been transferred away from lawyers who know their cases and are fighting for them to stay in the United States.
"There is a DHS transfer memo from 2012 that's still in place that says if somebody has counsel, they shouldn't be transferred [to other detention facilities]," Lunn explains. “And what makes this particularly important is [RMIAN] has found pro bono attorneys for almost all of the people impacted by this weekend's transfer out of Colorado.”
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It's still unclear how many parents were transferred, though Lunn says RMIAN is estimating the number to be around thirty.
After DHS couldn't get Lunn's client on the phone from Texas, the judge approved the minimum bond amount, which will allow her to pay to be released from the detention facility in Port Isabel if she can come up with the money. DHS may still appeal that decision.
Lunn is the first attorney with a transferred client to have a hearing in immigration court this week, but she says there are more. Even lawyers with the government are trying to figure out what to do, since those individuals are no longer in the state to be present in court.
"I've had to stop trying to use logic, because it doesn't make sense," she says. "I just can't anticipate what the next thing is going to be, because I have never experienced anything like this before."