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Lawyer who leaked secret family detention proposal asks judge for mercy

Attorney Bryan Johnson accompanies child migrants who testified before Congress about humanitarian concerns on July 29, 2014. Washington, D.C.
Attorney Bryan Johnson accompanies child migrants who testified before Congress about humanitarian concerns on July 29, 2014. Washington, D.C. Aura Bogado

A lawyer facing contempt charges after leaking to McClatchy confidential documents on family detention admits he was wrong, but said he was overwhelmed by the federal government’s conduct against his clients and by his concern for their safety.

Bryan Johnson, a former consultant to immigration attorneys negotiating with government officials on behalf of the detained mothers and children, told a federal judge in California that he never should have agreed to a confidentiality agreement barring him from discussing the high-stakes negotiations. The New York immigration lawyer never considered that he’d be acquiring information that was relevant to his clients. He should have withdrawn as a consultant, he said.

“I allowed the emotionally charged circumstances of my clients to impede my judgment,” Johnson wrote in a response to the court. “I failed to be their advocate and possibly have compromised my ability to serve these clients in their future.”

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California ordered the New York lawyer to appear in her Los Angeles courtroom on Aug. 24 to answer why he should not be held in contempt or reported to the State Bar of New York. In June, Johnson released to McClatchy a copy of a secret proposed settlement drafted by lawyers for mothers detained by U.S. immigration officials. It was the second time he allegedly violated a signed confidentiality agreement.

I was wrong.

Bryan Johnson, immigration lawyer facing contempt charges

Johnson was fired from the unpaid consultancy role after he earlier leaked to McClatchy a copy of the court’s confidential draft ruling, which concluded that the Obama’s administration’s increased use of family detention violated parts of a 1997 settlement on migrant children. She issued her official ruling last month.

The Obama administration currently holds about 1,700 parents and children – most of whom fled Central America – in family detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, and in Berks County, Pa.

Johnson declined to discuss the court’s order, but he has said before that he was moved to protect his clients in family detention. He accused the government of intentionally delaying any resolution to avoid compliance with the 1997 settlement.

“At the time, I believed that publicizing the events and the actions of the government was the only way to help my clients and others similarly situated,” he wrote. “But I was wrong.”

The day after McClatchy published the draft ruling, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced he would travel to the Karnes County Residential Center to review its operations and to talk with locally based federal immigration and border protection officials. Around the same time, a half-dozen mothers, several of whom had been locked up for almost a year were released.

Less than two weeks later, Secretary Johnson would announce the administration was ending long-term detention.

He needs guidance, not punishment.

Matthew Guadagno, adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School

He said he lost all hope in the negotiations after his client, Lilian Oliva Bardales, 19, was deported after she attempted suicide. She told McClatchy she was isolated from her 4-year-old son in a medical unit for several days, blocked from meeting with an attorney and then hidden at a hotel before she was deported.

Immigration officials said she was deported back to Honduras after exhausting all her legal appeals before ICE, an immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals. They described her injury as minor and not life-threatening.

Several colleagues of Johnson have urged the court in letters not to hold him in contempt. They describe the 30-year-old lawyer, who was admitted to the bar in 2011, as a young, unyielding and at times overzealous advocate for his clients. They said holding him in contempt would damage his career, but also would hurt the many migrant mothers and children he represents at little or no cost.

Matthew Guadagno, adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School, said Johnson could be admonished, but should not sanctioned. He cited statistics that show how immigrants largely receive inadequate legal assistance.

“The New York Bar needs more immigration lawyers like Bryan,” he said. “… He needs guidance, not punishment.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released video footage for use by media in response to growing requests by media, activists and lawyer for accountability on what occurs inside ICE family detention facilities in Texas, Pennsylvania and

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