Immigration lawyer recounts a conversation with Obama over the border crisis that ‘shook him to his core’

zero tolerance family separation
US Customs and Border Protection agents take Central American asylum-seekers into custody on June 12 near McAllen, Texas.
 John Moore/Getty Images
  • A lawyer who works with immigrant communities in the southern US argued on Monday that the fallout from the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy was an extension of practices implemented by the Obama administration.
  • R. Andrew Free recounted on Twitter a 2015 exchange with President Barack Obama, during which Free said he implored Obama to close two detention centers in southern Texas out of concern for the women and children being held there.
  • “It’s wrong. And it’s going to be a stain on your legacy,” Free recalled telling Obama.
  • The lawyer said Obama’s response, as he remembered it, “shook me to my core.”

An immigration lawyer on Monday sought to add some context to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy drawing criticism over its practice of separating children from adults they’re traveling with who are caught crossing the US-Mexico border illegally.

Free argued on Twitter that the fallout from the sounds and images from locations along the southern US border and detention centers where migrants are being held were an extension of practices that began under President Barack Obama.

The lawyer recounted a 2015 exchange with Obama, during which Free said he implored the president to close two detention centers in southern Texas out of concern for the women and children being held there.

Those detention centers, in Dilley and Karnes City, were opened as part of the Obama administration’s effort to house the migrants who had reached the US seeking asylum from the ongoing violence in Central America.

Free recalled the conditions he witnessed at the detention centers where some of the women and children were held.

“I remember hearing the constant, violent coughing and sickness of small children, and the worry of their mothers who stood in the sun outside the clinic all day only to be told their kids should ‘drink water,'” Free tweeted. “I remember nearly doubling over when I saw the line of strollers.”

Migrants wait for access to request asylum in the US, at the El Chaparral port of Entry in Tijuana, Mexico, Monday, April 30, 2018.
Migrants at the El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, on April 30.
 Associated Press

Free said he brought up those centers during his brief face-to-face with Obama in 2015.

“It’s wrong. And it’s going to be a stain on your legacy,” Free recalled telling the president. The lawyer said Obama’s response, as he remembered it, “shook me to my core.”

“He stopped moving on to the next person in the rope line and looked back at me. I’d gotten his attention,” Free said. “He turned back, looked at me and [asked,] ‘Are you an immigration lawyer?’ ‘Yes.'”

Free reasoned that Obama believed that basically only immigration attorneys cared about the practice of holding asylum-seekers in the detention centers, an apparent byproduct of a deal struck between the Obama administration and the Corrections Corporation of America, which had received a four-year, $1 billion government contractto build facilities to hold women and children seeking refuge in the US, The Washington Post reported in 2016.

The lawyer also argued that Obama saw the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children to seek authorization to live and work in the country without fear of deportation, as a big enough win that the detention centers wouldn’t be a blip on his political radar.

The part that Free said ‘shook me to my core’

In his tweets, Free recalled Obama’s response to his suggestion that the detention centers would tarnish the president’s legacy.

“I’ll tell you what we can’t have,” Obama said, according to Free. “It’s these parents sending their kids here on a dangerous journey and putting their lives at risk.”

Free said he interpreted the president’s remarks as an argument for treating the migrant holding facilities as a deterrent to illegal immigration.

Members of the Trump administration in recent days have avoided that characterization of its zero-tolerance policy, but some officials, including the White House chief staff, John Kelly, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have acknowledged that goal.

Free said the logic of detention as a deterrent to illegal immigration ignores the reality that many US-bound migrants are fleeing violence in Central America because they believe they have no other options.

As Free put it, the deterrence argument “assumes a parent would rationally choose to watch her daughter raped or murdered in Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras instead of helping her flee to seek the domestic and international legal protections of US law.”

He continued: “People in the Northern Triangle were (and are) fleeing for their lives. They’re looking to what we’ve held out as a shining city on a hill and following the beacon to safety.

“To convince them not to flee, you must convince them a worse fate awaits at the end of the journey.”