In the 2022 Dolores Huerta keynote lecture, lawyer Efrén C. Olivares, Class of 2005, spoke on his personal and professional experience with immigration.
On a May morning in 2018, Efrén C. Olivares walked into the most crowded courtroom that he had ever seen. He was in McAllen, a Texas town about seven miles north of Mexico, and the room was wall-to-wall, “jam-packed with men and women, all ages, who had been shackled, looking tired and sleep deprived, wearing clothes that had been worn for too long,” he said. There were no children. Olivares’ first task was to determine if any of these adults, immigrants charged with the misdemeanor of crossing the border, had been separated from their children. Then he sought to reunite the families.
Olivares, who graduated from Penn in 2005, is now deputy legal director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. During the 2022 Dolores Huerta keynote lecture, “Zero Tolerance: Journeys Through Family Separation and U.S. Immigration Policy,” he spoke about his personal and professional immigration experiences.
The Dolores Huerta lecture is the signature program of Penn’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, said Krista Cortes, director of La Casa Latina, in her introduction. “This lecture is dedicated to the living political activist Dolores Huerta, who, in her 92 years of life, has given tirelessly of herself to improve the working conditions of farm workers and the civil rights of the working poor women and children.”
In that McAllen courtroom, everyone was confused, Olivares said. The people shackled and sitting on benches thought this was immigration court. But these were criminal proceedings. In 2018, the Trump administration initiated the zero-tolerance policy, which called for the prosecution of everyone that crossed the border.
That the immigrants were charged under a law that had been on the books since 1929, which said that crossing the border between ports of entry was a misdemeanor, with a maximum fine of $250 and as long as six months in prison. Immigrants are expected to plead “guilty” and get “time served,” Olivares said. They would then be transferred to immigration agencies and deported. But what about those traveling with children? What happened to them?