‘Growing up Irish’ helped me empathise with migrants to the US
Attorney Jonathan Ryan helps immigrants victims of the US ‘humanitarian crisis’
Cover story: the crying toddler, a superimposed Donald Trump towering over her, featured on the front of Time, under the headline “Welcome to America”. Photograph: Eric Baradateric/AFP/Getty
Six-year-old Meybelin, from El Salvador, is currently living in a detention centre in Arizona. Her father, Arnovis Guidos Portillo, was caught trying to cross the border into the United States from Mexico with her, and detained with no idea of her whereabouts.
Assured that he would be reunited with his child, Portillo signed his own deportation order. But last Thursday he was sent back to El Salvador without her, or any information about her location. They have been separated since May 27th.
It was only when his attorney, Jonathan Ryan, filed to represent Meybelin that Portillo learned where his daughter was, and was able to contact her.
He “was in a house with no electricity in the middle of El Salvador, with literally no idea if his child was alive or dead”, says Ryan, who represents immigrants in similar cases as executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Centre for Education and Legal Services, or Raices, in Texas, a nonprofit providing legal services and advocacy for immigrants.
More than 2,300 children like this young girl have been removed from parental care since the Trump administration introduced its “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal immigration, in early May. US law dictates that anyone found illegally crossing the border will be prosecuted.
Last week Donald Trump signed an executive order to cease such separation of families. Some viewed the move as a white flag from the Trump administration, but for others, Ryan included, the order was a hollow gesture to appease an enraged public.
In recent weeks audio recordings of children weeping and images of teenagers in “cage-like” detention facilities have emerged, causing widespread outrage. Ryan describes the situation as a “man-made humanitarian crisis”.
Previously the federal government, as a matter of discretion, had offered financial support to organisations like Raices to represent children in their immigration cases directly, but an official email sent on May 20th ordered all new work in these cases to cease.
Part of growing up Irish is a knowledge of the history of subjugation, persecution and slavery against the Irish people going back many hundreds of years
“The thin net of protection that had been afforded to many of these children was ripped off like a Band-Aid on a still-bleeding wound immediately before – or, in fact, as – this policy of family separation was embarked upon,” Ryan says.
Born in Canada to Irish parents, Ryan brings a personal perspective on immigration to his role with Raices. “It is a unique experience to grow up as an immigrant of white privilege in the United States, because you do have an experience of both sides of that existence,” he says.
“Part of growing up Irish, whether it be in the US or Ireland, is a knowledge of the history of subjugation, persecution and slavery against the Irish people going back many hundreds of years. This part of my identity has been a formative part of my worldview.”
Ryan was once arrested at the border in Mexico over an expired green card. In a podcast with Texas public radio last year he outlined the difference in privilege between himself and the other immigrants he was briefly detained with. “We were all up the same creek that day, but I had a paddle.”
Having lived in Dallas, Texas, since he was a year old, Ryan is clear he does not claim to be Irish, but he is still immensely proud of his heritage, having spent long summers as a child with his grandmother in Salthill, in Co Galway. He maintains a close connection with his Irish relatives.
Before becoming executive director of Raices, in 2008, he worked as a staff attorney at American Gateways, another nonprofit providing legal immigration services and education. Here, he helped create a legal orientation programme for adults in detention.
Raices is now the largest immigration legal-services provider in Texas, a nonprofit promoting justice by offering affordable legal care to immigrant and refugee families. In 2017 the organisation closed 51,000 cases without any cost to its clients.
Raices came to media attention last week after a couple in San Francisco, Charlotte and Dave Willner, launched a Facebook fundraiser in support of the organisation. The couple were inspired after seeing a photo on the internet of a crying toddler from Honduras looking up at her mother as she was detained at the US border. Their modest goal of $1,500 was quickly surpassed, amounting to $5 million in just three days. By Wednesday of this week the page had received donations of $20,374,756, making it the largest single fundraiser in Facebook’s history.
The same image of the toddler with a superimposed image of Donald Trump towering over her featured on Time magazine’s cover last week, under the headline “Welcome to America”.
Ryan is profoundly grateful for the influx of donations sparked by the Willners’ fundraiser. “Our government is spending many times over this amount of money to cause this crisis and execute these deportations . . . From the perspective of the White House, the negative press, the images and stories that make us all wince in pain is exactly the goal of this policy.”
The funds will be used by Raices to offer direct legal representation to every family separated since “zero tolerance” was implemented. Donations will also be used to pay the immigration bonds necessary to release detainees from custody, which can range from $1,500 to $10,000.
I want to send a direct and clear message, not just to my compatriots but to those around the world, that we do not want to see an end to the American dream
This week 17 states, including New York, Washington and California, filed law suits against Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. Led by Democratic attorneys general, the states hope the measure will force the Trump administration to reunite separated immigrant families. A US district-court judge, Dana Sabraw, ruled on Tuesday that immigration agents can no longer separate immigrant parents and children caught crossing the border from Mexico illegally, and must reunite families that had been split up in custody.
But Ryan’s outlook on the future of US immigration policy remains bleak. “When you hear the United States claim they have reunified x number of families, what you must read between those lines is that these are the families who have been deported back to countries that are the most dangerous places in our hemisphere,” he says.
“I want to send a direct and clear message, not just to my compatriots but to those around the world, that the American people do not want to lose our country. We do not want to see an end to the American dream.”