Families Torn Asunder

U.S. officials continue separating children from their parents, as more immigrant families seek asylum

Maritza presented herself at the U.S.-Mexico border on May 4 with her four daughters. Fleeing violence in her home country in Central America, she traveled with the large group of migrants seeking asylum.

She did not expect to be forcibly separated from her eldest daughter, who is 18 and, in Maritza's view, still a child. Through tears, she tells anyone who will listen that she keeps calling the phone number that border officials gave her to get information on her daughter.

Usually no one answers, Maritza says. And when they do, no one will give her any information. Recently, a voice on the other end of the line told her she's not calling a hotel, and they will not be conveying any messages.

"They treat us like animals, like we carry a bacteria, and they don't want us to contaminate them," Maritza says in Spanish. "All us mothers and fathers are just looking for a way to protect our children and give them the best. This is all we're looking for. As immigrants, we come in search of a better opportunity ... for our children to live freely, where they can live in peace."

Maritza is in Chicago with her other three daughters, at the house of a friend. She awaits her day in court to make her case for asylum, a human right guaranteed by law, while she yearns for information on the whereabouts and wellbeing of her daughter. Maritza's daughter is 18, but there have also been reports of minor children being separated from their parents.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new policy of family separation on May 7, as a deterrent measure. The government was already separating children before Sessions' announcement. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which takes custody of migrant children who've been separated from their parents, said more than 700 children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents, since October, according to the New York Times. More than 100 of those children were under 4 years old.

"We're literally seeing children being taken away from their parents, crying out for their mothers and fathers, asking for help, begging, 'please don't let them take me; please help me, mommy'—really dramatic situations," says Michelle Brané, director of Migrant Rights & Justice, Women's Refugee Commission.

Under a United Nations treaty, adopted into U.S. law, a person has the right to present themselves at the U.S. border and petition for asylum due to fear of persecution. U.S. Custom officials are required to take their claim seriously and follow protocol to investigate its validity, which typically leads to the person awaiting an appearance before a judge who decides if the claim is valid.

According to the Arizona Daily Star, about 100 parents and their children recently waited days on end at the DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales for a chance to seek asylum. And there were 26 cases in the last week-and-a-half of May where judges in Tucson federal court recommended parents be reunited with their children.

Joanna Williams, who works with the Kino Border Initiative, a nonprofit that works for humane immigration policy, says she's seen a few parents in Nogales who had been separated from their children after being caught crossing the border without documentation. One father was deported separately from his 16-year-old son and was trying to find any information on his child's whereabouts.

"We're afraid we're going to start seeing more (separations), now that it is a blanket policy," Williams says. She works with migrants in Nogales who are getting ready to present themselves at a port of entry to legally seek asylum. These migrants are now afraid that their children will be taken from them, and Williams tells them it's a possibility.

Williams says that these people have an "impossible choice" to make. One mother with three children told Williams she has no more options; if she brings her children home, they will be killed.

Decades of civil war has left El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala vulnerable to increasing poverty, corruption, drug trafficking and gang violence, causing families to flee for their lives. In 2015, El Salvador was the world's most violent country not at war, according to the The National Forensics Institute. The country experienced a homicide rate of 103 per 100,000 people that year, a rate that has since fallen by a third.

The children being separated are going into a system that is already overburdened, and the ORR is going to have a very hard time finding placement for those kids, Brané says. And ironically, the first place the ORR would look to place children with while they await their chance to seek asylum in court would be with family.

"Once a parent is in ICE custody and a child is in the ORR system, it is very difficult for them to be reunified," Brané says. "Parents have a very difficult time locating exactly where their children are, and even if they do, having and maintaining communications with those children is very difficult."

Parents can end up on other side of the country than their children, and one or both parties may not have access to a telephone, resulting in very long-term or even permanent separation. Brané says parents being deported without their children and vice versa is not uncommon.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a case against Immigration and Customs Enforcement in February on behalf of a Congolese asylum-seeker who was separated from her 7-year-old daughter with very little communication for four months. They were only reunited after the ACLU's lawsuit, which argues that the government is legally required to give a valid reason for separating minor children from their parents under the due-process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which states that no one shall be "deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law."

Last week, the ACLU began releasing records, a portion of about 30,000 pages of government documents obtained through records requests, which detail repeated abuses of migrant children, many of whom were seeking asylum, by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, between 2009 and 2014 along the southern U.S. border. The report cites physical, sexual, verbal and psychological abuses.

"The documents reveal mistreatment that is neglectful at best and intentionally cruel and unlawful at worst," says Mitra Ebadolahi, a Border Litigation Project staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties.

The records include reports of agents calling the children in their custody "dogs" and "garbage," telling a pregnant minor that her child would contaminate this country, threatening children with rape and death, shooting underweight minors with tasers, causing serious injuries by running children over with patrol vehicles, sexual abuse and misconduct, coercing children to sign deportation forms they don't understand, and detaining them for longer than the maximum 72-hour period in frigid, crowded and unsanitary cells without adequate water, food, bedding or medical care.

Ebadolahi says the documents, which took the government four years to hand over, show the Department of Homeland Security Oversight Agency has known about the abuses for some time but never did a meaningfully investigation, and no one has been held accountable.

"If we are a country that values decency, law and order, U.S. immigration officials must be held accountable when they abuse their authority, especially at the expense of vulnerable children," she says. "This rampant abuse does not make us more secure. It reflects a moral bankruptcy that must be remedied."

The Trump administration has doubled down on calling migrants animals. Rev. William Barber, a prominent national figure in the social justice movement, says that comparing people to animals in order to dehumanize them is not a new tactic but one that's been used throughout U.S. history to sanction inhumane treatment and cruelty towards a group of people.

"What we're seeing now, we saw in the days of slavery, where children were separated and lost from their families," he says. "We saw what happened to the native, indigenous communities: The Apaches and the Cherokees and how their families and children were torn apart. We saw it in the way Chinese immigrants were treated in this country. It is a part of the DNA of America. But it doesn't have to be this way."