Meet the Columbia Law Professor Who’s Seen The Humanitarian Crisis at the Southern Border

By Brendan Kennedy

March 16, 2021

Meet the Columbia Law Professor Who’s Seen The Humanitarian Crisis at the Southern Border


By Brendan Kennedy

As the director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, Elora Mukhurjee has been to the U.S./Mexico border twice. Each time she provided legal services to asylum seekers but it was a trip in June 2019 to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) facility in Texas where she got a first-hand look at the appalling conditions endured by children.

“We saw children who were dirty, distressed and hungry,” Mukhurjee said on the most recent episode of the Miranda Warnings podcast. “They had been ripped apart from their familial caregivers, their adult caregivers and they were subject to overcrowding in cages, in very dirty conditions. It was appalling.”

Mukhurjee and other lawyers were at that border facility as court-approved monitors of the Flores Settlement Agreement, which requires children to spend no more than 72 hours in CBP custody.

After 72 hours, children should be shifted into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has a network of shelters where children can be cared for until they’re released to appropriate family members.

“We’ve seen egregious violations of the Flores Agreement,” Mukhurjee said. “There were no appropriate caregivers for these children and many kids had been held there significantly longer than the 72-hour limit. We found children who had been detained there for weeks and months.”

It is estimated that the family separation policy enacted by the Trump Administration in 2018 led to 4,300 children being separated from their parents. To make matters even worse, after the policy was rescinded by executive order it was reported that the government never had a plan to reunify families.

“The fact that the administration at the very highest level designed and implemented this policy without keeping records of which children belong to which parents is criminal,” Mukhurjee said.

To date, it is estimated that 500 children living with family members in the United States have not been able to locate their parents.

“There are groups on the ground in Central America trying to locate parents,” Mukhurjee said

As to how immigration issues and policies might change under a new administration, Mukhurjee hopes that legislation introduced by President Biden that would create a path to citizenship for roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S is approved by the House of Representatives and Senate.

“Our nation needs comprehensive immigration reform,” Mukhurjee said. “It’s not a sustainable way for our nation to be when there are so many people who are undocumented and living in the shadows but are always at the cusp of deportation.”

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