THE EL PASO EXPERIMENT

THE EL PASO EXPERIMENT

A Public Defender’s Lonely Fight Against Family Separation

SERGIO GARCIA HEARD the rattling of their leg restraints before he caught sight of his clients being led by a U.S. marshal into the magistrate’s courtroom. The three women and two men, dressed in drab blue county jail uniforms, appeared dazed and frightened as they filed into the brightly lit, nearly empty courtroom.

Garcia, a federal public defender for the Western District of Texas in El Paso, sat down at the table reserved for defense counsel. At age 55, his short black hair was flecked with gray and thin lines of worry formed around his eyes as he placed the stack of case files next to him on the table. He worked in the criminal justice system. He wasn’t an immigration attorney, but here he was representing five families who had requested asylum, and now, he believed, the prosecutors were pressuring his clients to plead guilty.

Natividad Zavala, a 61-year-old grandmother from Honduras, looked like she might faint. Nearly five weeks earlier, a Border Patrol agent had taken her 7-year-old grandson, Alexander, away from her in the middle of the night as they’d slept. She’d heard nothing of him since. It was as if the boy didn’t exist, as far as the U.S. government was concerned.