The Attorney Brokering the Border Standoff
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he sees the human side of Washington's border debates.
Each day began the same. Efren Olivares, armed with a notepad and pen, would show up at 7:45 a.m. at the McAllen, Texas, courthouse and get ready for the emotional lift of a lifetime. Inside, dozens of immigrant parents awaited their day in court. It was the Texas Civil Rights Project lawyer’s job to get their names, birthdays and countries of origin, as well as their children’s information, usually in less than five minutes. It was also often his job to deliver the tragic news: that they may not see their kids for weeks, if not months.
“During the interviews, the parents would break down,” he remembers. “And sadly, I became numb about it over time, desensitized. All clear signs of secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, burnout.”
That was the height of the separations crisis in the summer of 2018, when the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy led to the eventual splitting of more than 5,400 immigrant children. And the 37-year-old, whose daily work helped build one of the few databases used to reunite hundreds of families, says the work is far from done. Despite U.S. officials ending the practice of separating families, many asylum-seekers are being forced to send their children to the border alone to keep them safe from dangerous border camps created by the administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.
When you hear the children crying, but you don’t see the color of their skin, you don’t ‘other’ them.
“In a Machiavellian way they have stopped legal immigration without changing the law. The process is just radically different,” Olivares says, noting that immigrants are sometimes given as little as half an hour to get legal representation while making calls from detention centers. “Separations are still happening, and it’s the direct consequence of American policies.”
And this week President Donald Trump added a new twist by signing a fresh executive order restricting immigration during the pandemic, ending new green cards but stopping short of eliminating work visas entirely. “It certainly sounds unconstitutional, and it is not clear at all how this is related to the pandemic in any way,” Olivares said after the president’s tweet announcing the order.
Olivares has been sheltering in place since early March, when stay-at-home orders forced him and his colleagues to stop visiting the courthouse daily to take down the details of apprehended immigrants. Olivares is also representing a number of South Texas landowners as they fight Uncle Sam’s efforts to seize their properties to build Trump’s border wall. And amid coronavirus concerns, the group has also pushed for safeguards to help make sure immigrants waiting in Mexico receive medical attention.
“The Texas Civil Rights Project is always at the forefront of the issues of the day,” says Thelma Garcia, an immigration lawyer who has worked in the Rio Grande Valley region for four decades. “[Olivares] is quite smart, very quick, very analytical.”
Olivares knows better than most the emotional toll of separations. As a 9-year-old in Allende, Mexico, he watched his truck driver father leave for the U.S. in search of work. For four years, Olivares saw his dad only every other weekend. A good student, Olivares would save his progress reports for those special moments. “I remember longing to have him around,” Olivares says of those four years.
By 1996, his dad was able to bring Olivares, his brother and their mother to McAllen. Even though he was just a teenager, Olivares worked hard to learn English, becoming his high school valedictorian. He chose the University of Pennsylvania because it offered the best financial aid package, and taking philosophy, politics and economics classes gave him his “social justice awakening.” He went on to Yale Law School; after graduating, he spent four years at a law firm, Fulbright & Jaworski, to make money. “I felt a bit of a duty to support my family financially,” Olivares says, particularly because his dad had died. Soon after, he took a yearlong fellowship at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, moving to the Texas Civil Rights Project in 2013 to work on issues that more directly moved him.
A father of two who plays guitar, Olivares had expected his job to become more difficult when Trump was elected in 2016. Stepped-up immigration raids and travel bans were one thing, but he couldn’t have predicted the child separations policy that roiled the nation, couldn’t have imagined compiling the stories of parents who had to tell their children lies — “you’re going to summer camp,” one father said — as they were taken away.
He was thankful when an audiotape emerged of an immigrant daughter tearfully pleading to call her aunt, which captured the country’s imagination and led to the policy’s end. “I remember thinking, ‘There has to be somebody in the detention centers with a conscience, who is going to leak what is going on.’ I hadn’t considered that audio would be it — but it was so powerful that it was audio. Because when you hear the children crying, but you don’t see the color of their skin, you don’t ‘other’ them. All children sound the same. You think: ‘That could be my children.'”
A former senior Trump administration official, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, tells OZY that reports describing child detention centers as cages were sensationalized. In the administration’s view, lawyers like Olivares are hopelessly biased in their advocacy for asylum-seekers and other immigrants, while the government’s policies are working. Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan reported that daily apprehensions at the border had dropped from 4,600 in May 2019 to 1,300 in December. “This seven-month decline is a direct result of President Trump’s network of policy initiatives,” Morgan said in January.
But while Olivares knows he’s fighting a losing legal battle, he insists his team is not being unreasonable. “Our approach is to make the government, when implementing its policy, comply with its own laws,” he says. As a reelection-minded president seeks to escalate his immigration agenda, Olivares will be pushing back, pen in hand, at the border.