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Immigration Law

Meet Carlos Holguín, Father of the Flores Case

Lorelei Laird, ABA Journal, Feb. 2016 - "At first, Carlos Holguín was skeptical. A well-known actor in Hollywood called seeking help for his housekeeper’s daughter after immigration authorities arrested and detained the girl for being in the country illegally.

That wasn’t unusual. Holguín represented such people often as an attorney at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, a public interest firm in Los Angeles. And it was 1984, a time when migrants from El Salvador, like this 15-year-old girl, were coming to the U.S. in droves to escape their country’s brutal civil war.

What was unusual was the caller’s concern: The Immigration and Naturalization Service (a precursor to today’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement) wouldn’t release the girl to anyone but a parent or guardian, a policy created for children’s safety. The problem was that parents without legal status, like the girl’s mother, would be arrested and deported if they came for their children. Civil rights attorneys were starting to believe the policy’s real purpose was to use the kids as bait.

Holguín wasn’t sure it was a good idea to challenge a policy intended to protect minors. But then he saw where they were being kept. In the Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, authorities had taken over a 1950s-style motel. Though it was surrounded by single-family homes, the motel had been an eyesore and was frequented by prostitutes and drug users. The INS contractor Behavioral Systems Southwest had drained the swimming pool, covered the front of the property with chain-link fence and strung up concertina wire.

“Visually, it was the worst facility I’ve ever seen,” says Holguín, still general counsel at the center. “It was an extremely makeshift situation for a facility, especially to be holding children.”

It wasn’t much better inside. The detainees had no right to visitation, no recreation, no education for the minors and little to do. Unaccom-panied minors were often informally adopted by older women who shared their rooms, Holguín says. But during the day, kids mixed freely with adults of both sexes, with no evident concern about safety.

“That treatment and those conditions were completely inconsistent with any real concern for their welfare,” says Holguín. “It certainly persuaded me, and I think it ultimately persuaded the court, that the ostensible concern that the agency had for the well-being of the minors was not sincere.”

“It was horrifying, coming from the child welfare and even the juvenile justice world, to see how these kids were treated,” recalls Alice Bussiere, who eventually became Holguín’s co-counsel on the matter. Then an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, she works today for the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.

Children also were subject to arbitrary strip searches. John Hagar, who was then an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, recalls that staff at one big INS facility would bring minors into the gym every morning, erect a screen between boys and girls, and search everyone. Hagar, now a solo attorney in Sacramento, says authorities never found anything in body cavities, though they found broken mirrors on two girls.

In an effort to keep children from living in such conditions, Holguín and his co-counsel sued—and changed the legal landscape surrounding the rights of immigrant minors. The 1985 class action lawsuit they filed to strike down the parents-only release policy became Flores v. Meese (for Edwin Meese, the U.S. attorney general at the time, and lead plaintiff Jenny Lisette Flores, a 15-year-old detainee). The suit ended in a settlement that’s still among the most powerful legal tools available to immigrant children’s advocates.

“The Flores case overall is a crucial landmark case in U.S. immigration history and, frankly, in the treatment of children under U.S. law generally,” says Denise Gilman, director of the University of Texas School of Law’s Immigration Clinic and current vice-chair of the Committee on Rights of Immigrants in the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

“The difference today, where the [federal government] is putting people in foster care and looking at other avenues to house these kids, as opposed to putting them in detention centers, is really remarkable,” says Steve Schulman, leader of the pro bono practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C., and another former co-counsel.

The Flores settlement has been invoked in at least four enforcement actions and numerous individual petitions, and it continues to make a difference today. Last year, the settlement formed the basis for a strongly worded federal court order stopping Immigration and Customs Enforcement from detaining all immigrant mothers with children. Now styled Flores v. Lynch—the case has outlasted eight attorneys general—it’s currently pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco."