The attorney representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels in a lawsuit against President Trump visited clients in a Phoenix shelter for immigrant children on Thursday.
Outspoken attorney Michael Avenatti said he is representing "upwards of 60 families" who have been detained at the border and separated from their kids. Five of the families have children who are now detained in Phoenix, Avenatti said.
The Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border as a result of a new “zero tolerance” prosecution strategy has led to the government taking over 2,000 children from their families. Trump attempted to undo the damage with an executive order on Wednesday aimed at ending the separations. Families who cross the border will still be detained, albeit together.
Some of the children are now in shelters run by Austin-based Southwest Key, a nonprofit that contracts with the federal government to operate shelters for unaccompanied immigrant youth across the Southwest. The firm manages several shelters in the Phoenix metro area.
Because of the zero-tolerance prosecutions, Southwest Key has dealt with a new influx of kids who did not cross the border alone, but instead were physically separated from their parents. Last week, reporters toured an at-capacity Southwest Key facility in Brownsville, Texas, that makes use of a former Walmart Supercenter to hold nearly 1,500 kids.
The Phoenix Southwest Key shelter where Avenatti spoke to reporters is located on Campbell Avenue. Except for the security guards patrolling the grounds, the shelter resembles a private school.
At the shelter, Avenatti said he hand-delivered a letter to a 6-year-old boy named Samir. The boy and his mother, Levis, traveled to the U.S. from Honduras largely on foot to seek asylum, he said. The pair were detained after crossing the border near Laredo, Texas, and have been separated since June 2.
Avenatti met Levis around three days ago, he said — tracing her son to Phoenix took time and proved to be difficult.
Avenatti said that Samir reacted with shock when he learned the attorney was at the shelter to deliver a letter from his mother.
“He didn’t believe us for a significant period of time,” Avenatti told reporters. “He just kept saying no, no, it’s not true, it’s not true.”
On Twitter, the attorney shared a photo of the boy playing Jenga and a copy of the drawing that Samir wanted Avenatti to take back to his mom. Samir has been held at the Campbell Avenue shelter for at least 10 days, Avenatti said.
Meet Samir, Levis’s six yr old boy (pic taken after we read his mother’s letter to him). For the first hour, he kept saying “not true” when we would tell him his mami loved him and she sent us to him. He asked us to take this to his mami - he said it showed a princess like her. pic.twitter.com/4968nMIF74— Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) June 21, 2018
At this point, it’s unclear how Trump's new executive order will play out. Families who have been separated already may not be immediately reunited. The administration may be acting in defiance of a 1997 court decision which says the government cannot detain children — including those who crossed the border with their parents — for more than 20 days.
Democrats, immigrant-rights activists, faith leaders, and even some Republicans labeled the family separation policy as unspeakably cruel. Taking kids from their parents to put them in cages amounts to child abuse, they said.
Avenatti said that there are 128 children inside the Campbell Avenue shelter, with the vast majority of them having been separated from their parents. Avenatti called the shelter “well-maintained" and confirmed that the boy’s physical condition of the boy was fine.
“I thought the staff was very cooperative,” he said. “They’re doing their best to care for these children, but the fact remains that these children are better off with their parents, and certainly should not be over a thousand miles away in an unknown place.”
Samir’s mother remains in detention in Texas. Avenatti said that he is also representing two whistleblowers within Immigration and Customs Enforcement and one with a federal contractor, he said.
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“It’s inexcusable that these children have been transported around the nation, shipped like cargo, away from their parents,” Avenatti said. “In many cases, their parents are then moved even further away.”
Avenatti is representing Daniels, whose real name is Stefanie Clifford, in a lawsuit against Trump over the nondisclosure agreement that Daniels signed days before the 2016 election in exchange for a $130,000 payment. Daniels alleges she had an affair with Trump in 2006, which the president denies.
By visiting Phoenix, her brash attorney is now in the middle of the biggest story in the country, but Avenatti denies that he is seeking attention.
"You don't treat children like this," he told reporters outside the shelter.