Disability Rights Law Clinic’s Adrian Alvarez Volunteers at Border Detention Center

July 19, 2018


On July 12, 2018, Adrian Alvarez, a practitioner-in-residence with the Disability Rights Law Clinic, arrived at Casa Padre, a facility on the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas, that the nonprofit Southwest Key operates under a U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) contract to detain unaccompanied immigrant boys.   His task: spend two days interviewing six boys—ranging in age from 13 to 17—from Guatemala and Honduras regarding their conditions of confinement.

Alvarez carried out this work along with 24 other attorneys and mental health professionals that the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law selected to support their work as class counsel in Flores v. Sessions. Flores is a class action lawsuit that was filed in 1985 on behalf of youth held in immigration detention. The lawsuit challenged the way that immigration authorities detained, processed, and released unaccompanied minors. The lawsuit culminated in a Settlement signed in 1997 that is still active. Among other things, the Settlement grants class counsel access to all licensed facilities where unaccompanied immigrant minors are detained to ensure that immigration authorities are complying with the terms of the settlement.

We took the opportunity to ask Professor Alvarez a few questions about his experience.

AUWCL News: Where the boys you interviewed separated from their parents under the Administration’s separation policy?

Alvarez: The majority of the boys at the facility had traveled across Central America and Mexico on their own, arriving in the United States without their parents, however, a handful became “unaccompanied,” after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel forcibly separated them from their parents at ICE processing facilities  prior to their transfer to Casa Padre. As part of these site visits, volunteer attorneys tour the facilities and speak one-on-one with class members (the youth living in these facilities) and/or their parents in order to obtain declarations that are later filed with the U.S. federal court overseeing the Settlement.

Q: How did they describe the conditions of their detention?

A: Due to attorney client privilege, I’m not at liberty to discuss the specific details of the individual clients that I represented while at Casa Padre. However, yesterday (July 18, 2018), Reuters published a piece called Life in the ‘dog pound’ drawing heavily from the declarations that volunteer attorneys like me obtained. Many of the conditions describing immigration processing centers in large part tracks with what my fellow volunteers and I heard at Casa Padre. In addition, on Saturday, July 14, 2018, as I was returning from Brownsville, the New York Times published a story entitled, Cleaning Toilets, Following Rules: A Migrant Child’s Days in Detention, which is also consistent with what I learned from Casa Padre class members—particularly as it relates to rules.

Q: Can you give us an example of how the rules affected the children?

A: Many children we spoke to said that staff members would tell them that if they broke the rules, they would be written up. These write ups, according to the youth, could delay their stay in detention. As a child in the New York Times article says: “If you do something bad, they report you . . . [a]nd you have to stay longer.”

This troubles me as a disability rights attorney because some children struggle to follow rules because of a disability and could therefore be punished by prolonging their stay in detention for conduct that is outside of their hands. In addition, it wasn’t clear to me that ORR was systematically identifying children with disabilities and then providing them with special education services and other accommodations that these children are entitled to under federal law. I worry that many of these kids might be held longer in custody than children who do not have disabilities, but would lack the services and supports they need to adjust to life in detention. Finally, I worry that many of the kids in these facilities with meritorious immigration claims will not have access to attorneys to represent them and fight for them to stay in the country.