ABA President Calls on Lawyers to Help Immigrant Families

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The American Bar Association has put out a call to U.S. lawyers urging them to advocate for families separated at the southern border under the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance policy.”

ABA president Hilarie Bass traveled to the Port Isabel Detention Center in south Texas last month, where she spoke with 10 women who had been separated from their children. In a video posted online last week, Bass described the visit and directed lawyers to several volunteer opportunities via the ABA.

“I told these women, as they were sobbing in my company, that the lawyers of America would not rest until every one of them was reunited with their children,” Bass said in the video.

Bass told Bloomberg Law in an interview that her visit to the detention center was “very disturbing.”

“So many of these women were so concerned,” said Bass, who is also co-president of Greenberg Traurig. “Many of them didn’t know where their children were. Those who did had gotten two or three minute phone calls and had spoke with children who were very upset. One woman was crying hysterically, ‘How could I have done this to my daughter?’”

The separation of families at the border by the Trump administration has received intense criticism from across the legal industry. At the end of June, a group of Big Law leaders characterized the separations as “lawless,” arguing that it violates due process and other fundamental legal rights.

“There’s clearly case law out there that says you cannot use children in an effort to deter their parents behavior, and so there are many lawyers who think aspects of the zero tolerance policy violated law, because it was an effort to use the separation of children to pressure parents to not pursue asylum claims,” Bass told Bloomberg Law.

On July 20, the Trump administration said it had reunited 450 of 2,551 children with their families ahead of a July 26 deadline set by the court, according to Bloomberg News. Another 954 have been cleared for reunification, prompting a U.S. district judge in San Diego to remark that he was “very impressed” with the government’s effort to roll back the separations.

Bass insisted that the ABA’s stance against the policy is legal, not political.

“We have thousands of people in our country in detention who have no lawyers,” she said. “This is purely due process and legal protection. This country does not supply lawyers to asylum seekers.”  

“Informing people of their legal rights, good or bad, whether you agree they should exercise them or not, should not be viewed as a political issue,” she added.

Bass took a similar position last year, when the ABA launched a legal fact-checking website following a Tweet by then-President-elect Donald Trump suggesting that flag-burning should be punished with loss of citizenship or jail time. The Supreme Court has ruled that flag-burning is legal.

Since then, the website, ABALegalFactCheck.com, has taken aim at several subjects addressed by the President’s Twitter feed, including rights for non-citizens and the limits of attorney-client privilege.

“The ABA is a nonpartisan organization, but these are not partisan issues,” Bass said of the site when it launched.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Russell-Kraft in New York at srussellkraft@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com