Lawsuit challenges government’s failure to provide reunited families with their documents
Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. and the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, known as ASAP, have filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court in Maryland seeking to compel the federal government to release the immigration records of formerly separated families.
CLINIC and ASAP have been longtime partners in representing vulnerable immigrants who are facing deportation. The latest effort focuses on providing emergency legal aid and secure long-term representation for families separated as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
The lawsuit, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. and Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center v. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services argues that the government has not been giving formerly separated families timely access to critical records in their immigration files.
When federal agents in the Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement apprehended and separated families at the border, many parents had a credible fear interview to determine whether they had a right to stay in the United States and seek asylum. If not, the Department of Homeland Security would summarily remove them.
Understandably, after enduring the trauma of having the U.S. government forcibly take their children, many parents were reluctant to share detailed, personal information with federal employees and did not pass their credible fear interviews.
CLINIC and ASAP have filed more than a dozen Freedom of Information Act requests on behalf of formerly separated families, to obtain their own immigration records. The government has refused to produce the records. The lawsuit seeks to force the government to comply with the law.
One man, Javier, a father represented by CLINIC and ASAP in the FOIA lawsuit, said: “I thank God I was reunited with my daughter after immigration officers separated us, and kept us apart for 33 days before we were freed. I also know that my case will be complicated and difficult, but with the help I am receiving from [my] attorneys, I will be able to overcome the obstacles in front of me one step at a time.”
The government is already under court order from the case, Dora v. Sessions, to provide notice to formerly separated families who did not pass their initial credible fear interview that they have a right to request a second interview. At least some of the families who should be getting such notices have told us they are not receiving them.
For families separated at the border, reunification was only the first step towards safety and justice. Obtaining their legal records is critical for the legal representatives working to understand what has happened already in their cases and to examine the evidence the government may introduce at immigration court hearings.
CLINIC and ASAP are also seeking long-term pro bono or “low bono” representation for the families in their asylum cases. Many formerly separated families have settled in remote locations where there are no experienced nonprofit immigration legal services providers. CLINIC offers training and mentoring to attorneys who are new to this complicated area of law.
Already, some families have missed court dates and received in absentia removal orders. Between the chaos at the border and lack of communication by the government people were never informed of their court dates, placing them at immediate risk of deportation. CLINIC and ASAP collaborated on a Template Motion to Rescind In Absentia Removal Order and Reopen Removal Proceedings for Formerly Separated Families. In cases where CLINIC is unable to find local counsel, CLINIC will directly represent these families in motions to rescind and reopen.
CLINIC has also been able to offer formerly separated families transportation to their legal appointments, helping to overcome a substantial barrier for many people.
Another aspect of the CLINIC and ASAP support for the families, is ongoing communication through a private Facebook group. Communications efforts cover a range of topics including:
- ensuring the families do not inadvertently miss an immigration court hearing;
- identifying families who need a change of venue or a motion to rescind or reopen;
- providing referrals to whatever assistance they need,
- posting Know Your Rights videos;
- creating a support community;
- sending Christmas gifts.
The lawsuit has already resulted in families receiving copies of their immigration documents, including the results of their initial interviews. Unfortunately, the government’s responses are heavily redacted. The government leaves out information that is generally available to other asylum seekers, including the rationale behind the interviewer’s decision and other details about the asylum seekers’ time in detention. With all of this information kept secret, the families and their attorneys face more obstacles than other asylum seekers in presenting their asylum cases.