Astrid Lockwood, senior associate at the Federal Practice Group, a Washington D.C.–based law firm, was about to walk into a Buffalo Wild Wings with her husband and two young boys when her cell phone rang. She recognized the number; the call was coming from inside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Aurora. Lockwood told her family to go ahead and get started without her. She then took a notebook and pen she’d been carrying for moments like this out of her purse, sat on a nearby bench, and answered the phone.
It was a Saturday afternoon in June, near the height of the chaos surrounding the Trump administration’s new “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. First implemented about six months ago in early April, the directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions empowered federal officials to break up families seeking asylum at the southern border, detaining kids and their parents and holding them at different facilities across the country. According to government reports, 2,654 children were separated as a result of the policy, which was eventually disbanded after extensive media coverage and public outcry. Recent reports, however, have indicated the administration is considering renewing some version of the family separation policy. What’s more, a caravan of several thousand migrants walking north from Central America has, in recent days, attracted the attention of the media and the president, who tweeted unsubstantiated claims about the travelers and said he U.S. would “turn away” the asylum seekers at the border.
As of early October, the government reported in court filings that it had discharged 2,363 children from the care of the office of Refugee Resettlement (OR). This included reuniting 2,070 children with separated parents, and releasing 293 more under “appropriate circumstances” (such as the child turning 18 or being discharged to a sponsor if a parent is not eligible for reunification).
Lockwood says around 75 parents who were detained at the border (mostly in Arizona) were transferred to Colorado, and held for several weeks at the ICE processing center in Aurora. Most of the individuals were women who fled the violent “Northern Triangle” region of Central America—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. But as distressing as the past few months have been for these asylum seekers—having had their children taken, and not knowing anything about their health, well-being, or even location for several weeks—they’ve only just begun what will surely be a long, uncertain path through the U.S. immigration system.
Lockwood is handling about 20 of the Aurora cases. She took numerous calls during the summer like the one outside Buffalo Wild Wings. Knowing it might be a while before whoever was on the other end of the line got another opportunity to use a phone, Lockwood was prepared to conduct impromptu consultations whenever the calls came in. Although she typically practices immigration law in the D.C.-area, Lockwood got involved at the Aurora facility because one of her clients in Maryland had a sister-in-law who’d been detained in Colorado. When Lockwood heard, she caught a plane to Denver—the first of what would be multiple trips—and helped secure the woman’s release at a bond hearing. After that, Lockwood’s name and number were passed around among other women inside the jail. They called whenever they could.
By September, all of Lockwood’s clients had been released on bond and reunited with their children. The bail fees, Lockwood said, ranged anywhere from $1,500 to $7,500—a figure that can be difficult to come up with, especially on short notice. A local organization known as Casa De Paz, which houses and assists undocumented families entangled in the Aurora detention center, raised enough money to pay bond for 13 people. The group, which was founded six years ago by a Colorado woman named Sarah Jackson, also helped purchase flights for 27 parents after they were released and handed out 29 prepaid calling cards. “I was thinking maybe we could come up with enough money to bond out one person,” Jackson says. “People just started asking what they could do to help.”
Lockwood says each of her clients are now staying with extended relatives across the country, in New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Alabama, Arizona, Texas, and California, to name a few locations. None of Lockwood’s clients, nor any of the other Aurora detainees remained in Colorado. “Although it feels like we’ve been going at it for so long, that was step one,” she says. “We haven’t even gotten into the meat of the cases.”
After filing to transfer each case to the local jurisdiction that corresponded with where her clients had moved, Lockwood is now preparing individual asylum applications and waiting for scheduled court appearances. That could take a while. The federal immigration system is so over-burdened that Lockwood says some of her clients’ first appearances won’t happen until 2021. “We’re so horribly backlogged just for the initial hearing,” she says. When it comes to pursuing asylum, long waits are common. According to statistics from the nonprofit advocacy group American Immigration Council, 690,000 asylum cases remained open as of March 2018; the cases have been pending 718 days on average.
Meanwhile, having been greeted with hostility at the border, and now facing a lengthy wait for asylum, Lockwood says her first client to come through Colorado decided to return home to El Salvador—a place where the omnipresent violence and danger had chased her away only a few months prior—instead of continuing to fight a legal battle to remain in the U.S. “The trauma these women endured is atrocious,” Lockwood says. “When this woman was reunited with her children, it was covered by the media. She made the mistake of reading comments on articles and was taken aback at the ugliness of what people were saying. A lot of my clients said ‘I didn’t realize I was risking my life for this; I didn’t realize I was going to be treated this way.’”
The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), a Westminster-based nonprofit that offers immigration legal services to children and adults, also helped many of the individuals who were held at the Aurora detention center. Staff attorneys at RMIAN represented eight women directly and secured pro-bono counsel for another 37 cases. “These families were all seeking asylum, which means they all have some kind of significant trauma they are fleeing,” says Laura Lunn, a managing attorney at RMIAN. “The additional layers of trauma that have resulted from the family separation policy will last the rest of their lives. It’s been months since the moment they realized their child was being taken away from them, and I just don’t know if that pain is ever going to go away.”
It’s hard to synthesize all the problems that resulted from the family separation policy, but Lunn says she felt one particularly harmful misconception proliferated the media this past summer. “I think there was a huge misunderstanding in the media that these families all entered the country unlawfully and that the zero-tolerance policy was a result of them coming into the country without permission,” Lunn says. “A lot of them came through ports of entry and said ‘I’m afraid, I’m seeking asylum, please help me and protect me.’” Pursuant to the Immigration and Nationality Act, refugees who arrive at the border or are already in the country can request asylum. They then must demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their home country to be granted protection by the U.S government.
Lockwood says all of her clients turned themselves in at the border and asked for help. They had few other choices. “Every single client came with whatever clothes they had on them, maybe a small bag,” Lockwood says. “The majority came with no money—all their money was used to get there.”
When I spoke with Lockwood recently about these cases, the moment she took that call in front of Buffalo Wild Wings still stood out in her mind, a powerful memory that had refused to blur with the passage of time. Lockwood recalled how when she was on the phone, she could see her family in the restaurant through the window. She didn’t take lightly the fact that she knew she was about to walk back inside and eat with her loved ones, and that the women in the Aurora detention center didn’t even know where their children were sleeping.
“I’m an immigrant myself,” says Lockwood, who came to U.S. from Mexico in 1987 and eventually became a citizen. “Being an immigrant and a mother, these cases felt so personal…. I didn’t want to look back and think I could have done something and didn’t.”