During the second week of June, attorney Joe Veith '08 went to meet a client at the Otero County Prison Facility, a private federal prison near El Paso, Texas. His client, Alberto*, is a 29-year-old man from Guatemala charged with unlawful entry, a misdemeanor, who was detained after trying to cross the border from Mexico.
The visit was routine for Veith, a private practice defense attorney who often represents indigent immigrant clients referred to him by federal district court. But Alberto's first question was anything but routine: “Where is my son?”
Alberto had been traveling with his 7-year-old son, Diego*. The two had fled Guatemala, where Alberto faced persecution based on his political beliefs, with plans to later reunite with Diego's mother. Three days after border patrol agents detained them, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents suddenly took away Diego, who was sick with chickenpox. Alberto hadn't seen him since.
“It caught me off guard, because I'd never seen a situation like that before,” Veith says. “As a parent, I was troubled by not only the way they were separated but also the absence of information: not having any way to speak with your child, not knowing where he is or what his health is like.”
Veith was one of the attorney's on the front lines in recent months as law enforcement began separating parents and children at the border, the result of the Trump administration's April announcement that it would criminally prosecute all immigrants entering the country illegally. On June 20, President Trump signed an executive order saying criminal prosecutions of parents and separations would stop in most cases. In the meantime, more than 2,000 children have been detained separately from their parents. Veith, who represented two other clients separated from minors, has watched the separation policy play out in person.
Most disturbing to Veith was that, when he and his clients appeared in court, not even the judge knew where their children were or how to reach them. “It shows that there was no forethought given to this process by the administration,” Veith says. “In fact, there was no process.”
On June 26, a federal judge in California ordered that separated families be reunified within 30 days. But parents like Alberto still haven't been able to talk to their children, let alone see them. Veith, who is now representing Alberto pro bono in his immigration case, says he called the Office of Refugee Resettlement twice and was told he would get a call back in five days with information about Diego's whereabouts. But 15 days later, he still hasn't received a call. Diego has been able briefly phone his mother in Guatemala once and his aunt in the U.S. twice. But Alberto can't talk to him because he can't receive incoming calls while detained.
“The window for the 'zero tolerance' policy was narrow, but the fallout is significant,” Veith says. “Weeks later, we still don't have answers about when reunification will happen.”
Even if Alberto does reconnect with his son, there's a good chance they'll both remain behind bars. The Trump administration has said it would detain families together instead of releasing them, reversing a decades-long policy of not holding children for more than 20 days. Veith plans to continue fighting to reunite Alberto with his son and then help him apply for asylum.
Before going into private practice, Veith worked as an assistant district attorney in El Paso and a trial lawyer for FreyBuck in Seattle. At UC Hastings, he participated in the social justice clinic and completed a summer internship at Texas Riogrande Legal Aid, a public interest firm. “UC Hastings does a great job of having students focus on the importance of public service and pro bono work,” Veith says.
*Note: Alberto and Diego are pseudonyms used to protect the client's privacy.