White House

Lawyer: I released judge’s words to protect my clients in family detention

Bryan Johnson signed a confidentiality agreement.

But the New York immigration lawyer, retained as a legal consultant for negotiators locked in high-level talks with Department of Justice officials over the fate of the Obama administration’s family detention program, now risks being found in contempt for violating a federal judge’s order after he released her tentative ruling against the government.

U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee’s April 24 tentative ruling, which has been kept secret for months, is a scathing rebuke of the Obama administration’s decision to significantly increase its use of family detention in response to a surge of mothers and children fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.

Johnson said the reason he’s releasing the draft ruling is because he feels ethically obligated to defend his clients’ rights under the law. McClatchy published the ruling Thursday. The ruling was not binding, he said, but it was very clear in what the judge believes is the interpretation of the law.

“And ‘You’re violating it here, here and here,’” Johnson said Thursday morning. “Even after that, (the Department of Homeland Security) has detained women for eight months, over a year. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for these women and children who have been there for such long periods of time.”

As an outside consultant to immigration attorneys negotiating with government officials, Johnson provided on-the-ground advice about the mothers detained inside the federal centers. He was terminated from the role shortly after McClatchy published the tentative ruling.

Still, having the ruling in the public light, he said, would allow him and other attorneys to better represent clients and negotiate the release on bail of migrant mothers and children.

The government, he said, therefore benefits by keeping the tentative ruling in the dark.

While family detention has remained largely under the radar over the past year, it’s been gaining attention in recent weeks. At a campaign stop last month, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made it an issue for the 2016 debates. She said she was “very worried” about the detention of children and called for more “humane treatment.” And more than 135 Democratic members of Congress called for the end of family detention, charging that the Department of Homeland Security “has not fully grasped the serious harm being inflicted upon mothers and children.”

Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law and a lead lawyer arguing on behalf of the women, warned against publishing the confidential ruling.

In an emailed response Thursday to questions from McClatchy, Natarajan said publishing the draft ruling would “violate the words and spirit of the court’s order and may also jeopardize ongoing settlement negotiations.” She would not answer questions about the case.

The judge’s tentative ruling should never have been kept confidential, said Johnson, who said he’s acting alone.

Johnson said he was pushed over the edge following the abrupt deportation of Lilian Oliva Bardales, 19, days after she attempted suicide. For several days after the attempt, she was kept from her 4-year-old son in a medical unit and blocked from meeting with an attorney until she was deported.

Johnson filed to represent Oliva because she had U.S. contacts in New York. He advised U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that he was pursuing a special immigrant juvenile status because Oliva and her son were under 21. But they were deported before he could submit the paperwork.

“I wanted to help her,” Johnson said. “I had the ability. But I wasn’t able to.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they couldn’t discuss the ongoing negotiations.

In Oliva’s case, officials said she was given phone access to her attorney.

Johnson said that what the administration is doing to women and children is a “federal crime,” and the only way to prevent this in the future is to face concrete penalties, including jail time or the threat of jail.

“This needs to stop,” he said. “And I feel this (releasing the agreement) is the only way that there is a chance that the government will be held accountable.”