No One Knew Where Her Daughter Was: Reunification Story from Our Pro Bono Team

January 16, 2019

It was the summer of 2018, and like so many of us, I was deeply troubled by news reports and images of asylum-seeking parents separated from their children along our southern border. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the trauma experienced by these families and the lasting emotional and psychological impact that these separations would have on so many young children. I wanted to help in some tangible way but wasn’t sure how best to do so. I am a tax attorney in Boston and know very little about immigration law. What could I possibly do to assist? Well, with the tremendous support and resources of our firm, I soon learned that I could indeed make a difference. And, without a doubt, my work on this matter has been the most rewarding experience of my career.

In early July, Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights reached out to Morgan Lewis, asking for help with a reunification case involving a 5-year old girl. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to assist. The case involved an asylum-seeking Brazilian mother and her young daughter who arrived in the United States in May 2018. The mother presented herself to border officials in Texas and passed a credible fear interview. Eventually, she was transferred to a family detention center with her daughter, where she remained for about a week.

About a week later, an immigration officer arrived and informed the mother that her child was being transferred to a children’s shelter. The officer told the mother not to worry and assured her that she would have plenty of contact with her child. He told her that they would only be separated for a week and that the shelter was a mere two-and-a-half hours away. The mother demanded to know exactly where her daughter was being taken. The immigration officer gave her the address of a children’s facility. The terrified little girl was then taken from her mother’s arms; that was the last time she saw her mother for nearly two months.

It turns out, the immigration officer lied. The daughter was never taken to the address he provided. She was flown to Chicago and wasn’t able to speak with her mother for weeks. When the mother tried to contact her daughter at the children’s facility, she learned that her daughter was never there. The mother couldn’t get any answers as to the whereabouts of her child, so her family in Brazil contacted the consulate. With the help of the consulate, they finally located the child at a shelter in Chicago.

As the mother soon learned, her young daughter was not doing well. She stopped eating and was noncommunicative. Even her caretakers expressed concern about her condition.

As a mother myself, I imagined the agony of not being able to see my child, of not knowing her whereabouts, of not being able to comfort or protect her. These thoughts overwhelmed me, and I knew that I couldn’t rest until this beautiful girl was back in the arms of her mother.

After three weeks of letters, paperwork, and countless phone calls by us, it was clear to me that no progress was being made. There was plenty of chaos, confusion, and misinformation on the part of the government, but absolutely no sign that reunification was imminent. At that point, we decided that if the family wasn’t reunified within the next three days, we would file an emergency motion in Chicago federal court.

Now remember, I am a transactional tax attorney with no experience filing a motion of this sort. But I had the support of the firm behind me. Within minutes, attorneys and paralegals from across the country rapidly mobilized, offering invaluable support and assistance. A top-notch team of litigators and paralegals based in Chicago worked over the weekend to draft a complaint, while I travelled to Texas to meet with the mother and help her prepare a declaration. A Portuguese-speaking associate in our Washington, DC office offered to assist as a translator and hopped on a flight that very same afternoon. 

Late on a Sunday night—while I was on a flight back from Texas—mother and daughter were reunified. There was a great deal of confusion that evening, as no one in Texas knew that the daughter was arriving—not the mother, not us, not the facility. Since the detention center couldn’t accommodate a family, mother and daughter were released at night, in the middle of Texas, with nowhere to go. But they were together. Catholic Charities got the pair a hotel room, where the mom stayed awake all night watching her daughter sleep. They then flew to Boston, where they have settled with family.

Without question, this was the most rewarding experience I’ve had as a lawyer. I was—and still am—so overwhelmed by the generous spirit of the people at Morgan Lewis and so proud of what we can achieve when we work together.