DLA Piper secures return of Honduran children separated at US border

Central American refugees in McAllen, Texas (Credit: iStock/vichinterlang)

DLA Piper has worked pro bono alongside Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston to achieve the reunification of two Honduran families that were separated five months ago at the US border.

Kenia Gálvez, 16, was reunited with her father Jose Héctor on 4 October, while a six-year-old boy was returned to his father, Carlos Alexis Hernández, on 21 September. Both families, now living in Honduras, were detained and separated at the US border in May. The fathers were deported shortly after surrendering to border police, but the children remained in US detention.

DLA Piper, led by partner Robert Sherman, sent former Attorney General Jeff Sessions an official request to release and repatriate the children on 27 August. It also sought to speed up the process by working with counsel on the Ms L vs ICE and M M M vs Sessions class action cases.

Ms L vs ICE is a lawsuit filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking to reunite an asylum-seeking mother and her seven-year-old daughter fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. M M M v Sessions is a similar case, where six immigrant children aged between six and 13 were forcibly separated from their parents after entering the US. The parents and children in question were reunited, but the class actions continue.

The Ms L class action exclusively represents the interests of the parents, while the M M M class focuses on the interests of the child.

The largescale separation of children from their parents is a direct result of President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance migration policy. Under the initiative, all adult migrants that cross the US border illegally are criminally prosecuted. They are then held in federal jails before undergoing deportation proceedings. Meanwhile, their children, who are not referred for prosecution, are placed in “tender age shelters” overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Under previous administrations, adults travelling with children were rarely prosecuted, although there were still cases of families being separated.

Bowing to widespread condemnation, Trump signed an executive order on 20 June that means families are now incarcerated together. However, hundreds of children remain separated, despite a federal judge ruling on 26 June that families that have been split up must be reunited within 30 days.

There are several reasons for children remaining separated from their parents. CNN reported there was no clear procedure for reuniting parents with their children, who are sometimes held in facilities thousands of miles apart. This has resulted in many parents and children being deported alone.

Another reason the reunification process is taking so long is because the attorneys acting on behalf of children often struggle to contact their deported parents. One report found lawyers have found parents’ contact information is “inoperable or ineffective,” significantly contributing to delays.

According to reports by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), 430 – mostly Central American­ –­ children remained without their parents in federal custody as of September. This is down from the 2,654 minors that were in detention when the policy ended in June, but means hundreds of families are still separated.

The GAO also discovered that several US government agencies were unprepared for the influx of children that followed the implementation of Trump’s zero tolerance policy. Officials working in the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments told the GAO that they were unaware of the measure in advance of its public release.

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