Monday, November 26, 2018

Schell Alumni Spotlight: Efrén Olivares ’08

Efrén Olivares ’08 at the Bernstein Symposium at Yale Law School on April 13, 2018. Photo by Harold Shapiro.

Efrén Olivares ’08 is the Racial and Economic Justice Program Director at the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), which has spent the last several months fighting the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy and working to reunite migrant families who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. At TCRP, Olivares also handles human and civil rights cases on disability rights, wage theft, and a number of other issues. In 2015, Efrén worked as a Bernstein Fellow at the Inter-American Commission on cases, petitions and requests for precautionary measures relating to indigenous peoples’ rights, in the context of large infrastructure projects affecting their territories. At Yale Law School, he was a Student Director of the Schell Center, a member of the Lowenstein Clinic and the Criminal Defense Clinic, and an Articles Editor of the Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal.  After graduation, he worked at Fulbright & Jaworski LLP. in Houston. Efrén earned a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 2005, where he graduated summa cum laude. In an interview with the Schell Center, Olivares discussed his work at TCRP and the challenges he has faced.

What is the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) doing about family separation? How does that compare to what other groups have been doing?

Between May 24 and June 21, 2018, the Texas Civil Rights Project interviewed and represented 382 parents who had entered through McAllen, TX, and were then separated from their children. In the height of the crisis, we filed a request for precautionary measures on the parents’ behalf with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in which we argued that the parents be immediately reunited with their children. The request was granted in August. By that time, an executive order and the injunction had been issued regarding family separations.

We have not able to find around 120 of the 382 parents that we had talked to after our initial interview. And of the rest, about 13 parents were deported while their children remained in the U.S., and eight remained detained and separated from their children as of October. We’re working to try and help reunite them as soon as possible. These tend to be somewhat more complicated cases — some of the parents have some criminal history, although it’s nothing violent, and that doesn’t in and of itself mean that they’re not fit to be a parent. But the government is taking the position that they are not entitled to reunification due to their criminal history.  

What would you want people to know about what is going on right now?

There are around 200 individuals still detained, separated from their children. Zero tolerance is still in place, and families are still being separated. For the most part, the government is not separating parents and children — rather, children are being separated from their siblings, cousins, or uncles, whom the government does not consider to be “legal guardians.” But in many cases, that adult is the child’s only caretaker. They are the child’s parent in practice.

There are also cases in which parents are still being separated. In two cases, the government did not believe that the men in question were the fathers of the children they were traveling with, and separated them from their children. In other cases, the government separates parents from their kids if the parents have prior deportation or criminal history. Once the parent completes any criminal sentence they might receive, the government is supposed to reunite them, but that often doesn’t happen unless you’re right there, everyday, pushing for it.

What do you feel are the best ways for individuals to respond or contribute to the work that you are doing and continue to be involved?

We need to realize that the issue has not been resolved — families are still being broken up. Refugees and asylum-seekers are still being criminalized, charged with illegal entry, and then have to go through the criminal process. On top of that, a lot of the separated families have not been reunited. To get involved, there’s always the possibility of donating your time and energy to organizations doing this work by volunteering, interning. But I realize not everyone has the time or ability to do that. In the meantime, we can all get the word out and vote, demand that the people who were responsible for this policy are held accountable.

What are some of the challenges do you encounter in your work?

Staffing is always a challenge. We wish we had more resources to hire more staff, but even when we have the resources to hire someone, it’s challenging to find a qualified, Spanish-speaking attorney who wants to move to a small town on the border. I’m hoping that it will be easier to recruit going forward, now that people can see the work that we’re doing and that working on the border has the most impact.

Do you think Mexico could potentially be an actor to uphold migrant rights going forward, or are you concerned that the U.S.’s influence on Mexico could prevent this from occurring? 

I’m concerned that both sides are not protecting migrants’ rights. The National Institute for Migration [the Mexican government agency that controls migration] has a documented history of mistreating immigrants, both at the Southern Border and throughout Mexico. The Inter-American Commission issued a report about that in 2016. On the bridge between the U.S and Mexico, even people who have legal permanent residency in Mexico and who are trying to seek asylum in the U.S. are being stopped by Mexican immigration officials and prevented from entering the U.S.

Given that some of the parents are in Mexico, or might have returned to their home countries and spread across the region, how is TCRP seeking to collaborate with shelters, networks, elsewhere to reunify families?

We’ve been in close contact with organizations for that purpose, such as Justice in Motion, which is based in the U.S. and does amazing work with organizations, lawyers, and human rights defenders in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador to locate deported immigrants, typically for the purpose of pursuing litigation in the U.S. In this crisis, they found dozens of parents who had been deported without their children. And there’s an organization called Al Otro Lado in San Diego that works in Mexico and Central America, which has also been involved in the family reunification efforts.

Are you able to think about addressing the root causes of migration outflows as part of your work?

The conditions of violence and crime in Central America, specifically the Northern Triangle, are connected to U.S. policies that date back decades, including military interventions and coups supported by financial, business, and even political interests in the United States. MS-13 and other gangs were started in Los Angeles, and when gang members were deported, the gang problem was quite literally transplanted to Central America. Now, years later, it is very ironic for some in the United States to say, “No, you’re not going to get asylum if you’re being persecuted by gangs.”

But, I’ve learned over the years that sometimes there isn’t much we can do about the bigger problems, so we try to focus on what we can do — reunifying families who were separated. Using family separation or any other “tough” immigration policy as a deterrent is completely misguided and cruel, because people in Guatemala and Honduras are not checking to see what the current immigration policy is. They’re escaping, they’re fleeing to save their lives and their children’s lives. The U.S.’s deterrence efforts only address the pull factors and do nothing to address the push factors — the things that really drive people to flee these countries and emigrate. No matter what the immigration policy is in the U.S., if people are facing violence, death threats, extreme poverty, they’re going to continue to flee.

How is your current work informed by the human rights work you did at Yale Law School and after you graduated?

My experiences at the Lowenstein Clinic, at the Law School, and as a Bernstein Human Rights Fellow at the Inter-American Commission all came together in this family separation crisis and the reunification efforts. Human rights became a legal and advocacy tool we could use to push back against the family separation policy. It became very useful and effective to frame the issue in human rights terms, both in our legal efforts as well as in the public advocacy and media. And of course, during my Bernstein Fellowship with the Inter-American Commission, I had become familiar with the process of the Commission, so that also prepared me to then litigate in front of it.

Do you have any closing words to share, thoughts, advice, anything else you’d like to share?

I’m glad I was able to use the human rights training I received at Yale and afterwards to work on this issue, and to lead our team to help as many families as possible over the 2018 summer.