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This judge hopes outrage over family separation is ‘last gasp’ of current immigration system

Judge Robert Brack of the U.S. District Court of New Mexico says he hopes the moral outrage over the separation of migrant families will be the catalyst to fix the immigration system. Amna Nawaz sits down with Brack to discuss what he sees as broken, his own sentencing record and the heartbreak of deporting undocumented immigrants who have made lives in the U.S. for decades.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, one judge's take on the immigration debate and how the Trump administration's family separation policy has been playing out in his courtroom.

    Amna Nawaz sat down earlier today with Judge Robert Brack. He's a federal district judge based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The vast majority of the work you do here, of the cases you see in your courtroom deal with immigration. You have a front-row seat to how the changes in policy affect what you do.

    You said it looks like we're in the death throes of a system that's been on life support way too long. What did you mean by that?

  • Robert Brack:

    So, I think we all agree and have for many years that our immigration system is broken.

    And as heartbreaking as this crisis along the border was this last couple of weeks, a guy that shows up here every day and does this every day has to find hope somewhere. And I'm thinking, I'm hoping that maybe the moral outrage associated with what's happened will be the thing that finally — the catalyst that finally makes us look hard at this immigration system that we all agree needs to be fixed.

    And if that's the case, then this was the last gasp, you know, of that system, and maybe we can replace it with something that makes sense, that's humane and compassionate, and still addresses our security needs and our labor needs.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Most federal judges, I think, don't speak out about these kinds of things, it's fair to say, but you have been writing letters over the years.

    You wrote one first in 2010 to President Obama. You have written many since then. Why? Why are you talking about this right now?

  • Robert Brack:

    I'm not comfortable doing it, and I never set out to be the spokesman for the federal judiciary on this issue.

    And the fact is, judges have a constitutional lane that they need to stay in, and I'm trying to be sensitive to that. I have been promised, we as a nation have been promised immigration reform ever since I have been here, 15 years.

    Fits and starts. Never has happened. In my view, I am just reporting back from the front lines about what I see and what I know and how I experience the immigration problem. And I'm hopeful that this information that I'm providing will inform a debate that will finally happen.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    No other federal judge comes close to your sentencing record, right? Over the last five years, I was reading that basically you sentenced nearly 6,000 defendants for felony immigration violations.

    And your critics will say you are then sending them back to the same system they were fleeing, which is not necessarily compassionate. They say that that will be your legacy.

    What do you say to that?

  • Robert Brack:

    Well, you know what? There's some truth in that.

    As a federal district judge, I'm the only one down here that can sentence the people that come before me. And I guess I could say, as some of my critics have recently said, if I'm conflicted in this way, I should quit.

    Well, maybe there's some credence to that thought, but here's the thing. If I'm not sitting here, somebody else is. And those people are going to be sentenced. This system is — it's a monster that has to be fed every day.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's been so much attention paid to the family separation policy. And there is also a lot of conversation now that the president has issued orders for that to end, that that crisis is now sort of behind us.

    Do you believe that it is, based on what you have seen in your courtroom?

  • Robert Brack:

    So, I have seen an uptick in cases involving families separated at the border in the last 30 days. And I hope that I don't see those anymore.

    Obviously, there's an issue of how to reunite the 2,000 kids and their families, you know, their parents, in the meantime.

    Do I think that's going to be the end of it? I have seen — as I said, we have had fits and starts with this immigration problem for a long time. And if it's not this, it's something else. The family separation I'm talking about — and it is most heartbreaking — is the folks that have been here for 10 years or 20 years.

    We had one today 30 years. They have lived here, you know, most of their lives. No criminal history. They have felt so comfortable under the prior system, the prior non-criminal prosecution system, that they put down roots here. And they have American citizen children and they have American citizen wives in many cases.

    And I preside over a process that tears them apart. I'm a husband and a father. And I'm saying to another husband and father just across the bench from me, you can't ever live with your family again.

    And I thought, what must it be like to hear those words? Because I can't imagine hearing — have someone else tell those words — say those words to me.

    And I just — it's heartbreaking. And if it doesn't break your heart, then, well, you don't get it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judge Brack, thank you so much for your time.

  • Robert Brack:

    My pleasure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amna joins us now from near the border.

    Amna, that was such a powerful interview with the judge.

    You were in his courtroom this morning. You spent some time watching him work. Tell us about what you saw.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, Judy, we spent about an hour-and-a-half with him earlier today.

    Just to give you a sense of how these things generally work, proceedings began at about 8:45. They wrapped up by 10:20. In that time, 13 cases were heard by Judge Brack, all men, except for one woman. That, by the way, is considered a light day here in the district court.

    To give you a sense of what it looks like, all the defendants were there in colorful jumpsuits. Those are — they have been issued in detention and in county jail, wherever they're being held. They're all handcuffed at the wrist. They're all shackled at the ankles.

    And what stood out to me really was what they had in common. None of the people presented before Judge Brack today had any kind of criminal history prior to the criminal conviction that led them to Judge Brack's courtroom today, that being an immigration-related case.

    But, of course, it's the details in all of these stories that really stick out to you that separate these stories from one another.

    I will share some of those with you right now. We're not allowed to report inside the courtroom. I did take extensive notes.

    But there was a 19-year-old young man from Guatemala. He had tried twice to enter the United States, both times unsuccessfully. He was apprehended held for 35 days, is now being deported to Guatemala.

    There was a young mother from Honduras. She left behind four children with her sister there to come to the States and work. And she was doing so for the last six years in Atlanta before she was apprehended, is now being sent back to Honduras.

    And there was also, finally, Judy, a 27-year-old man from Mexico who came to the U.S. when he was just 7 years old. He lived here for 20 years, went to school here, started working here, earning for his family.

    He went back to get married and then illegally with his wife, who is now four months pregnant. They are both now being prosecuted and will be deported back to Mexico.

    Judge Brack today said he is trying to do everything he can to make sure they're at least going to be both deported together — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Wow. One can understand how he's developed some strong views on this.

    So, Amna, we heard him refer to the fact that there's this unanswered question about how these children who have been separated from their parents are going to be pulled back together.

    And I should say, as I ask you this, we just have learned in the last hour or so that the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said in an interview today that it wasn't the intention of the Trump administration to separate families, to separate out the children.

    But what do we know at this point about how that process is going to happen?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, it may not have been the intention, but I guess anyone who is familiar with the law would tell you that that was sort of an inevitable consequence, that any parent or guardian who is being prosecuted would inevitably have the children they are caring for separated from them.

    I will share with you one story that came up in the final minutes of the docket here in Judge Brack's courtroom. It was a man named Federico. He's from Guatemala. He's 51 years old. He and his son came together.

    And when they were apprehended, his son was forcibly taken from him. He's been held for 38 days in government custody. The father has. And I had a chance to speak with his public defender.

    In all of that time, he has not had contact with his son once. Most of the time, he didn't even know where his son was. The lawyer was able to show me 60 pages — that is 6-0 pages — of e-mails in which she and other people on her staff, other immigration lawyers they're working with, have been trying to navigate the government system to figure out where the son is. Can they set up at least a phone call at the very least between the son and the father?

    So, I called around to some public defenders who tried to figure out, is this normal, is this kind of thing happening a lot? I asked one public defender in another region along the border, what's your success rate of reunification with parents and kids who are separate?

    And I was told that is right now zero percent. Another one said to me that this happens all the time, because here's the thing, Judy. There are still 2,300 children in government custody who were forcibly separated from their parents.

    And the children are now in a separate system. The parents are being moved through the criminal system at such a pace that they are being prosecuted and deported oftentimes before they have had any chance to make contact with their kids, and they don't know when or if they will be able to again — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amna Nawaz reporting from close to the border, every one a human story.

    Thank you, Amna.

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