AP NEWS

New Hampshire lawyer helps reunite families seeking asylum

July 11, 2018

HANOVER, N.H. (AP) — While paraders marched and fireworks lit the sky this Fourth of July, attorney Peter Holman Jr. and some of his colleagues at the Boston-based law firm Ropes & Gray participated in nontraditional holiday activities.

They arrived in Texas on Sunday night and spent two full days working to reunite families that have been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This was the most patriotic thing I could do,” said Holman, who lives in Hanover with his wife, Silvia, a Spanish teacher at the Ray School who originally is from Peru, and two children, ages 6 and 4. He spoke in phone and in-person interviews after he returned to Hanover late Wednesday.

Working with the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project, Holman and three colleagues went to a detention facility where they met with adults who came to the United States with their children from Central American countries — such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — seeking asylum. In total, the four attorneys took on six of the 160 families Holman said the Civil Rights Project has identified as the most urgent. They split up into teams of two. Each team met with three clients.

The firm and its attorneys focus some time each year on pro bono efforts like this one, said Holman, who otherwise works on legal issues in health care. Ropes & Gray has a team of about 540 attorneys who provide pro bono immigration assistance, according to Aaron Kellogg, a firm spokesman.

In this case, “there was a recognition — I think the firm should get some credit — this is a human catastrophe and there is just not, it does not appear that there’s enough capacity locally for folks at the border that can handle this,” he said.

For his own part, as reports of family separations at the border have surfaced, Holman had been trying to figure out a way to help.

He has the Spanish laguage skills necessary to help and has worked pro bono immigration cases in the past, including as a member of a team helping about 70 Indonesian families who have been living in the Seacoast region of New Hampshire and whose immigration cases still are pending.

“To have this opportunity to actually be there on the front line participating in actually helping these people meant a lot to me personally,” he said.

As a parent, “when things like this happen it’s a much more visceral reaction for me,” he said. “I just can’t imagine what these individuals are going through.”

Upon arrival at the Port Isabel Service Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, which is outside of Brownsville, Holman and his colleagues had to show several forms of identification, and relinquish their cellphones and other belongings.

“Basically you can bring in a pad of paper and a pen,” he said.

Then, they waited. It can take between 30 minutes and three hours to get in to see a client, he said.

During the wait, they noticed signs on the walls that said, “Please do not leave your child unattended.”

“Pretty incredible,” he said.

They met with their clients in one of about 20 interview rooms, which Holman said were “almost always full” while he was there.

In listening to his clients’ stories, Holman said he was particularly struck by the way in which they were separated from their children, which he described as “gut wrenching.”

Under the current “zero-tolerance” policy toward immigrants entering the country, adults are charged with a criminal misdemeanor and detained when they enter the country anywhere other than an official port of entry, Holman said.

Often when adults arrive at court to answer to the charge, Holman said, they are told that their children may not enter the courtroom. Then, when they leave, they find that their children have been taken away, he said.

The parents Holman spoke with have now been separated from their children — as young as 5 — for weeks and some as long as a month. During the separation, parents are allowed to speak with their children by phone twice a week for five to 10 minutes.

And many questions remain. Despite an executive order President Donald Trump signed last month ending the separation of families, Holman said, it remains unclear how those reunifications will take place.

“The most important thing that is on everybody’s mind: What is the path to reunification?” he said. “More than anything that’s what these individuals want. You can just see the emotional toll that it’s taking on them.”

The detention center where the parents are being held is not appropriate for children, he said. So it is unclear where the families will be reunited.

Next steps for Holman and his colleagues include reaching out to the children’s case workers. The children, who are in the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, are being held in facilities and, in some cases, in foster homes in Texas and elsewhere, Holman said. Aside from the twice-a-week phone calls, the parents have little access to information about what is happening with their children, Holman said.

He and his colleagues hope to fill in the information void and to help their clients learn more about reunification.

Though a court order issued last month required that families with children aged 5 and under be reunified by July 10 and families with older children be reunified by July 26, the details are still unclear, Holman said.

One of his clients is the mother of a 5-year-old and she had not yet gotten any information about reunification, he said.

On Friday, the administration an extension to their court-ordered July 10 deadline.

Holman’s clients also want to know what their chances are for being able to stay in the U.S. It will be up to attorneys like Holman to try to make the case for them to receive asylum.

“These are individuals who are fleeing pretty horrible violence in their home countries,” Holman said. They “came here because of their fear of what would happen to them if they stayed.”

But, he said, pointing to an order issued by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month, making a case for asylum has become more difficult. In particular, the order indicates that people coming to the United States to escape domestic violence or gang violence will have a harder time getting asylum.

“The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes — such as domestic violence or gang violence — or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim,” Sessions wrote.

Even before Sessions’ order, it wasn’t easy to get asylum, Holman said.

To qualify, people have to prove that they fear persecution if they return to their home country, he said. The fear has to be personal, directed at them specifically and cannot be some sort of generalized fear. People have to be able to describe specific acts or threats of violence, and to demonstrate that the violence stems from the government or that the government is unable to intervene to prevent it. The threat of violence must be based on certain classes such as race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or holding a certain political opinion.

Overall, Holman said he and his colleagues “wished there was more that we could do quickly.”

Holman and other attorneys from Ropes & Gray plan to return to Texas over the coming weeks.

___

Online: https://bit.ly/2NFsAVx

___

Information from: Lebanon Valley News, http://www.vnews.com

AP RADIO
Update hourly