Peter Schey, Tenacious Lawyer Who Defended Migrant Rights, Dies at 77

Peter Schey, a driven defender of the human rights of migrants crossing the Southern border, who won landmark legal cases requiring humane care for undocumented children and the right of migrants to attend school and receive health care in states that tried to bar those services, died in Los Angeles on April 2. He was 77.

His death, in a hospital, was caused by complications of lymphoma, said Melinda Bird, a former wife.

Mr. Schey (pronounced shay), an immigrant himself, from South Africa, ran his legal practice as a small nonprofit group in Los Angeles, making a major impact even as his workaholism and impatience drove away other public interest lawyers who tried to work for him. He took on both Democratic and Republican administrations in Washington.

He was a leader of the legal team that negotiated the seminal Flores Settlement Agreement, a 1997 government measure safeguarding detained, unaccompanied migrant children. He fought the Trump administration when it tried to tear up the deal 21 years later.

He also argued and won the case throwing out California’s Proposition 187, a voter-passed initiative to deny undocumented migrants social services; the victory was seen as a political watershed in the rise of Latino voting power.

“He dedicated his career to bringing legal representation to vulnerable groups who didn’t have another way to speak for themselves, who were at the mercy of the government,” said Hope Frye, an immigration lawyer who sometimes worked with Mr. Schey. “I don’t care how much the government pushed their hob-nailed boots in, he never backed down an inch.”

The Flores case led to one of the most sweeping changes in U.S. immigration policy of the past half-century. Mr. Schey and a colleague, Carlos Holguin, represented Jenny Flores, who fled El Salvador on her own at 15 at the height of a civil war there in the 1980s, only to be held by the U.S. authorities in a motel with adults of both sexes, subject to strip searches and without access to school or a playground.

In the Flores agreement, the government consented to hold unaccompanied child migrants in safe conditions and to release them to a family member, guardian or a licensed care center within 20 days.

Doris Meissner, the former Clinton administration official who signed the agreement with Mr. Schey, said in an interview, “He was very effective in holding the government accountable.”

Little did Mr. Schey and Mr. Holguin know that enforcing the Flores decision, through their pro bono practice, would keep them busy for decades.

In 2014, when the Obama administration built large detention centers to hold families fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, Mr. Schey and Mr. Holguin went back to court. In a significant broadening of the Flores deal, a federal judge ruled that the 20-day detention limit also applied to children accompanied by parents. Effectively, the government was forced to release adults and their children to await immigration hearings.

It was those strictures that drove officials in President Donald J. Trump’s administration to separate child migrants from parents in 2018, in an effort to detain adults long-term.

The policy created such an outcry that it was rescinded. Trump officials denounced the Flores deal as a “loophole” that drew waves of undocumented families.

“Treating children humanely and not detaining them indefinitely in often intolerable conditions is not a legal loophole, as the secretary of homeland security claims,” Mr. Schey told The New York Times in 2018. “It is the way civilized nations treat innocent children.”

In 2020, a federal appeals court ruled that the Trump administration could not hold families indefinitely, citing the Flores restrictions.

In another of Mr. Schey’s cases with far-reaching impact, he went to court days after California voters in 1994 passed Proposition 187, which barred undocumented immigrants from receiving nonemergency health care and other government services. The proposition, perhaps most notably, would have kept 270,000 children out of public schools.

As a result of Mr. Schey’s case, a federal court declared the law unconstitutional. Though nearly 60 percent of voters passed Proposition 187, and Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, made it the centerpiece of his re-election race, a majority of the state’s Latino voters shifted decisively toward Democrats, who opposed the measure, a lasting swing that is seen as turning California into a reliably blue state.

Part of the legal reasoning that voided Prop 187 was found in a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case that Mr. Schey and Mr. Holguin also argued, about a Texas law allowing public schools to exclude children who were in the U.S. without legal status.

In the 5-4 decision in the case, Plyler v. Doe, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote that by denying children an education, Texas promoted “the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare and crime.”

“It is difficult to identify many opinions in the Supreme Court’s entire history that have more profound consequences in more vital arenas,” Justin Driver, a Yale law professor, wrote of Plyler v. Doe in his book “The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court and the Battle for the American Mind.”

Peter Anthony Schey was born in Durbin, South Africa, on March 23, 1947. His father, Erwin Schey, was a secular Jew who fled Germany with his wife, Gertle (Schunzel) Schey, to escape Nazi persecution before the outbreak of World War II.

When Peter was 15, the family moved to San Francisco, where he graduated from Lowell High School. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1969, and later California Western School of Law in San Diego, graduating in 1973. For five years he worked for the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, serving low-income immigrant clients.

His former wife Ms. Bird said he had been motivated to defend immigrants because of his own immigrant status and his parents’ ordeal as refugees.

Mr. Schey is survived by a sister, Nicky Arden, and two children, Michael and Alyssa Schey, from his second marriage, which also ended in divorce. His and Ms. Bird’s daughter, Alexis Bird Schey, who was disabled, died in 2013 at age 28.

Mr. Schey’s concern for immigrant youth extended beyond the courtroom. In 2002, he opened Casa Libre, a group residence for homeless boys ages 12 to 17 in a mansion that the city of Los Angeles had donated, in the Westlake neighborhood.

But in trying to bridge his calling as a lawyer and a social worker, Mr. Schey appeared to fall short. In 2019, The Los Angeles Times documented that Casa Libre had been cited 33 times for violations of standards since 2017, more than any other group home in Los Angeles County.

“Is it perfect?” he responded. “No, it’s not perfect. Is it better than being homeless on the streets? No question.” He vowed to improve conditions.

Mr. Holguin, who worked alongside Mr. Schey beginning in 1977 — and who was the sole lawyer to stick with him for more than a few years — said Mr. Schey was creative, driven, demanding and difficult to be around.

“He would want people to work like he did, into all hours of the night,” he said. “He would get impatient if people didn’t see things his way.”

But Mr. Holguin said that Mr. Schey could also be remarkably kind. In the years before homelessness was common in most Los Angeles neighborhoods, a man with alcoholism would fall asleep periodically in front of their office.

“Peter would pick him up, bring him inside, feed him, clean him up, give him clothes,” Mr. Holguin said. “He did this again and again.”

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