In 2014, Holly Cooper received a phone call from an unnamed source warning her about the conditions of the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Center.
The Sacramento-area facility was originally built to house youth convicted of crimes, but was now also receiving federal dollars to serve as an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelter for undocumented, unaccompanied minors.
“Invisible children,” the source told Cooper, were locked up in this prison-like setting, treated as criminals without any opportunity to defend themselves in court or even a way to know their fate. Knowing Cooper’s reputation as a long-time immigrant children’s advocate, the caller pleaded with her to visit the facility and intervene.
Cooper had stopped representing unaccompanied immigrant children directly in 2006, after spending six years in Arizona advocating for youth who had made harrowing border crossings to reach the United States, often as a result of horrific abuse, neglect and rape. When she got the call, she was spending her time training young lawyers to take on complex immigration law cases.
But after visiting the Yolo County facility and seeing children in shackles, fights between youth, kids screaming and crying alone in their cells, sometimes resulting in self-mutilation or suicide attempts, Cooper could not ignore their situation. She knew these children needed to be in more constructive environments, with parents or parent-appointed guardians.
“Kids were pounding the walls and yelling, ‘Libertad!’, having not seen their families in months and uncertain of their future,” Cooper said. “It’s a really inhumane system. Kids don’t receive visitors or family; they have no community support. Can you imagine spending Christmas alone in a detention facility?”
Now, almost three years after surveying the dozens of unaccompanied and incarcerated immigrant children at the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Center, Cooper is at the forefront of a battle with the federal government.
Earlier this month, the U.S. District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Cooper and her team representing the juveniles of Yolo County, and specifically that undocumented youth who enter the United States illegally cannot be held in detention facilities without a court hearing.
It is unclear if the federal government will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. With more than 33,000 unaccompanied immigrant children apprehended at the country’s borders since October 2016, Cooper anticipates that “we’re going to see more children in custody for longer periods.”
Flores Settlement Agreement
Over the last two weeks, the federal government has twice been found in violation of the 20-year-old Flores Settlement Agreement, a binding legal set of standards that has so far stymied efforts by the Trump administration to infringe on the rights of unaccompanied, undocumented minors.
Cooper is well steeped in the importance of the rights enshrined in the Flores Agreement.
“The first thing I read when I arrived [at the U.S.-Mexico border] was the Flores Agreement,” Cooper said about taking a position representing unaccompanied minors crossing the border into Arizona. “It has become the cornerstone of everything I do.”
The 1997 agreement set national standards regarding the detention, release, and treatment of all undocumented children in federal custody, including a provision that detained minors be placed “in the least restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs.” Historically, the least restrictive setting is considered to be a non-secure facility licensed to care for children.
The settlement also requires that juveniles be released from custody without unnecessary delay to a parent, legal guardian, adult relative or an individual designated by the parent.
In one case last week, United States District Court Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the “deplorable” conditions for children detained at the border must be improved within a year’s time.
Last week, with Cooper and Carlos Holguin as lead counsel, the court rejected the government’s argument that laws passed by Congress after the Flores Settlement Agreement gave a federal agency sole authority over the custody of undocumented unaccompanied youth.
“Without any kind of judicial or third-party oversight, ORR is both the jailer and the person who decides whether the kid is getting out,” Cooper said in 2016 in an interview with KQED, an NPR affiliate in San Francisco. “That’s a really dangerous power dynamic developing.”
In his ruling, Judge Stephen Reinhardt seemed to agree.
“Unaccompanied minors today face an impossible choice between what is, in effect, indefinite detention in prison,” Reinhardt wrote.
For Cooper, this is the just the latest in a career of legal battles focused on improving both the criminal justice and immigration systems.
Least Visible Sector of Society
Cooper began practicing law in 1998 after receiving her J.D. from the University of California, Davis.
“I had this hubristic notion that I was going to take on an unconstitutional system of incarceration and immigration policies,” Cooper said.
After volunteering as a pro-bono lawyer in the Bay Area with the Attorney of the Day Program, a service to assist undocumented immigrants facing deportation, Cooper was certain she wanted to practice immigration law. With no public defender system for undocumented immigrants who were in custody, Cooper witnessed first-hand the difficulties for those seeking asylum, freedom and opportunities in navigating a complex system.
“I remember going to the basement of [the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services building at] 630 Samson Street in San Francisco,” Cooper said. “I was taken aback by the sea of humanity. Men were chained together, waiting against the wall. Some were crying, begging me to take their cases.”
Cooper spent the day advocating for as many men as she could, noting the diversity of backgrounds, needs and stories.
“One man was from Vietnam, and chained next to him was a fellow from Mexico fleeing oppression experienced in his home country for being homosexual,” she said.
Cooper detailed a more insidious group in the courtroom that day as well, people claiming to be lawyers and preying upon the broken English and lack of legal know-how of these men and their families.
“These ‘lawyers’ would approach families present for the proceedings and convince them to pay for their services,” Cooper said. “Most of these families do not have much money. Their savings are spent on fake legal advice and false promises, while their loved one ends up being deported. I know that at least one of the lawyers I saw that day has been disbarred.”
Although her experience was often jarring, Cooper’s next position would expose her to “the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.”
Kids Crossing the Border
While riding on public transit in the Bay Area, Cooper found her next job opportunity. She spied an advertisement in the Interpreter Releases newsletter asking for immigration lawyers to represent undocumented children at the U.S.-Mexican border with The Florence Project, a nonprofit providing legal services to men, women and unaccompanied children in immigration custody.
Cooper spent the next six years working with detained immigrant youth and adults placed in facilities about 60 miles from the border in Arizona.
Unlike the adults that Cooper worked with, who were typically caught after having already crossed the border undetected, the children came to Cooper almost immediately from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Most were exhausted after a long journey and frightened by law enforcement, but still eager for opportunities that were out of reach in their origin countries, mostly due to poverty.
“I was interviewing 40 kids a week,” Cooper said. “Most of the kids I worked with had one thing in common: they came to this country in pursuit of higher education that they couldn’t get in their home countries. They wanted more access to learning, especially the girls.”
That was in the early 2000s. Reasons for fleeing many of Central American countries changed around 2013 when rampant violent crime skyrocketed. Cooper said that many of the undocumented unaccompanied minors she meets today are fleeing horrific gang violence, sexual assault and rape, especially from the “Northern Triangle”: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The Fight is Far From Over
Cooper joined the University of California, Davis, School of Law faculty as the co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic in 2006. In the role, she spent less time litigating but more time training new immigration lawyers looking to take the reins of the vast amounts of work to be done, a break that Cooper welcomed.
“It was quite traumatic working with kids in detention,” Cooper said. “There would be nights that I was up until 2:00 a.m. looking for a doctor for one of my kids. I needed to take a step back.”
Eight years later, after that unsolicited phone call and a trip to the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Center, Cooper knew she had to take the case. Cooper called Holguin, who she describes as the “Michael Jordan of kids’ rights” to assist her in suing the federal government under the Flores Agreement on behalf of the children detained at the ORR facility in Yolo County.
Cooper and Holguin used the court room to elevate the stories of detained youth, including that of a boy identified only as Hector, who was stopped near the Mexico-California border at the age of 15 and held for 480 days.
During his 16 months in U.S. custody, Hector was not given a lawyer or an explanation as to why he was being held or about the status of his case. In December, Hector was released suddenly to his mother, who had been advocating for his release from Los Angeles.
“The problem is that without a means for a child to self-advocate for legal defense, assuming they even know how, and without third-party oversight,” Cooper said, “the government could decide to lock up a 13- or 14-year-old until they are 18 and then deport them. The child will have spent their whole youth in what is essentially a prison.”
Although this was a victory for Cooper and her team, she believes that there is still a long way to go to guarantee the rights of children locked up in ORR facilities and it may even get worse.
“Literally, we’ve made no progress on our border policies,” Cooper said. “I would say that the progress we have made in immigration is having these highly visible and inspiring DREAMERs protesting and further conversations. But what is actually happening on the border is no better and, based on current immigration policies, conditions may worsen.”
She is also concerned that a new policy from the Trump administration targeting parents of undocumented children will also decrease the number of people who come forward to claim the children and remove them from ORR custody, compounding the issues that Cooper and her team are working hard to fight against.
“Parents have already been deemed several times over by the court as the most appropriate placement for children’s well-being,” said Cooper. “Punishing them for fighting for their children, for loving them, is just wrong. What choice do they have?”
Cooper then recited a few lines from the Somali-British writer Warsan Shire’s poem, “Home,” about the difficult decisions people, especially parents, must make in the face of escaping violence and doing what is best for their children.
“You have to understand
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.”