Trump separating migrant families at US-Mexico border | News Coverage from USA

Trump separating migrant families at US-Mexico border

From the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to the Southern California coast, the Trump administration carries on in separating migrant families at rates that alarm immigration attorneys and advocates, even though a federal judge has barred family separations as a systemic policy.

Separations have slowed significantly since a federal judge in San Diego ordered the administration to halt the practice in June 2018. But U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw allowed separations to persist in rare, specific circumstances, and the Trump administration has exploited those openings at a worrying clip, according to groups that work with migrants along the border. 

“We are alarmed,” said Jennifer Nagda, policy director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, a Chicago-based national human rights group. “In March and April, we again saw a notable increase.”

Some examples include:

  • Advocates at the Young Center’s Harlingen, Texas, office say one in every five families they see at local migrant shelters have been separated at the border for questionable reasons, with children ranging in age from 18 months to 15 years old.
  • Attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project say they’ve counted more than 40 separated families a month in the McAllen area in Texas alone since the June injunction, or more than 350 total separated families.
  • Officials at Al Otro Lado, which advocates for immigrants in California, say dozens of families are being separated each day throughout the San Diego metro area. 

The official government count is at 389 separated families since last summer’s injunction, according to data received by the American Civil Liberties Union in court filings. One-fifth of the newly-separated children are younger than 5 years old, according to the figures. 

But advocates said, border-wide, the number of separated children is much higher. 

Efrén Olivares, racial and economic justice director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said he started realizing that the government still intended to separate children at the border just days after the June 2018 injunction. Sitting in the federal courtroom in McAllen, he learned of multiple cases of families being separated. One man from Guatemala had his 2-year-old-daughter taken away from him despite having a birth certificate with both their names and no prior criminal record, Olivares said. It took them nearly a month to get them back together. 

“We knew then we couldn’t let our guard down,” Olivares said. “This was still happening every day.”

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told a congressional panel on Tuesday that his department is conducting “less than two” family separations per day, which he described as minor when compared to the 1,600 family units crossing the border each day.

“It’s being done very carefully in extraordinarily rare circumstances,” McAleenan testified before a House appropriations committee.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees all immigration enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which carries out the separations, refused to answer questions about the ongoing separations. They would not say how many separations have occurred since Sabraw’s order or what has happened to the separated minors.

The Department of Health and Human Services, charged with caring for the migrant children, also refused to comment on the number or status of separated migrants in its custody. “HHS is not a party to the child’s immigration proceedings,” the department said in a statement.

The separations are occurring amid the recent shakeup at Homeland Security, which led to the departure of its chief, Kristjen Nielsen, on April 7. Trump has said he wants the agency to take a firmer stance against illegal immigration as the number of Central American families requesting asylum has continued to skyrocket and holding facilities along the border are overflowing.

“Danger to child”: Despite ban, separating migrant families at the border continues in some cases

In March, Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 92,000 immigrants illegally crossing the border, a 12-year high, including 53,077 members of family units, an all-time high.

Nielsen’s replacement, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, said during an interview with NBC News that family separations are “not on the table” because the policy is “not worth it.” 

But border groups say those pronouncements from Washington do not reflect what they’re seeing on the ground.

‘Zero tolerance’ policy

Family separations ramped up in the summer of 2017 when the Trump administration started a pilot program in Texas to charge all illegal border-crossers with criminal violations, a change from previous administrations that treated first-time illegal crossings as mostly civil infractions.

Migrant parents were transferred to adult detention centers to await prosecution while their children were transferred to the care of HHS. That program was kept a secret but, in April 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that “zero tolerance” would be the new policy of the Justice Department. That quickly led to more than 2,800 family separations.

That led to an international outcry, with Republicans and Democrats alike calling the policy inhumane and declaring that the U.S. should not be tearing apart families and detaining children in “cages.” Facing that mounting pressure, Trump rescinded the policy in June 2018. 

A week later, Sabraw issued his ruling barring the government from having a policy of separation and ordering the administration to reunite all migrant families that were separated at the time. On April 25, Sabraw went a step further, ordering the administration to identify within six months all families that were separated under the Texas pilot program.

Sabraw’s orders 11 months ago should have ended mass separations. But he did provide a limited number of situations where Border Patrol could continue the practice on a case-by-case basis. 

Family separations persist

Border Patrol agents can separate a family if they decide that the alleged parent and child are not really related, and if the parent is deemed a danger to the child. But the agents are using everything from years-old DUIs on an immigrant’s record to old theft charges as reasons to separate — not typically offenses that merit a family separation, said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the ACLU. 

“They’re separating families for crimes that have no bearing on parents as a danger to the child,” he said. “If there’s some rhyme or reason to it, we don’t know.”

In Tijuana and across the bridge in San Diego, attorney Erika Pinheiro of Al Otro Lado said she is constantly meeting and hearing of families who have been separated because the parents have been previously deported – even if the children are U.S. citizens, she said. The separations are happening even for asylum-seekers arriving at legal ports of entry, Pinheiro said.

After being separated, adults are transferred to adult detention centers, often run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and children are transferred to shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.

In September, KPBS-TV in San Diego obtained county data showing that since July at least 54 U.S.-citizen children were transferred to county Child Welfare Services by law enforcement agencies after being removed from asylum-seeking parents at the border, including ports of entry. Pinheiro said the overall numbers of separated families are much higher.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “These parents will never be the same; the kids will never be the same. It’s such a deep trauma for them.” 

Olivares, of the Texas Civil Rights Project, and attorney Laura Peña, who worked with the group, released a report in February that identified 272 adults separated from a child family member, including 38 parents or legal guardians separated from their children. The youngest child was 8-½ months old at the time of separation from her mother, the study said. 

Separations have continued through the spring at the same pace, Olivares said. “It’s so easy for a Border Patrol agent to separate a family,” he said. “Then, it’s a nightmare to get them back together.”

Supporters of the policy, however, say increased separations are necessary to deal with the crush of migrants arriving at the border. 

Jessica Vaughn, of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit research institute that promotes stricter controls on immigration, said Border Patrol agents have no choice but to scrutinize every parent-child pair that crosses the border and err on the side of caution. 

Smugglers, knowing that migrants who cross the border with a child are often released until their asylum court hearing, are sending migrants with children who are often not their own, she said. 

“There’s an incentive for people to bring children to do this and hope that you don’t get caught bringing a child that’s not your own,” Vaughn said.

According to Border Patrol data, however, such cases account for fewer than 1.2% of all families that cross the southern border. 

From April 2018 through March 2019, Border Patrol apprehended 256,821 members of family units. About 3,100 of those were cases where Border Patrol identified some kind of fraud — either the “child” was actually over 18 years of age, or the child was not related to the adult.

Laura Belous, advocacy director for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, the only legal services provider for detained migrants in Arizona, said the number of separated families dropped significantly after the June injunction — but her office has noticed a steep rise in cases again this year.  

From January through Apr. 24, her group has recorded 21 cases of family separations, she said. In at least three of those cases, the parent or child was not given any reason for the separation. Attorneys are still struggling to learn what the criteria is for separating families and what recourse there is for challenging those decisions, Belous said. 

“It’s extremely alarming,” she said. “This is a huge trauma for both the parent and the children, and really it is in violation of the law.”


Bed wettings, sleeplessness and other impacts of separations

Child welfare advocates worry about the long-term damage the ongoing separations are having on the migrant children and their parents.

Officials at the Young Center, which receives federal funding to advocate for migrant children in government custody, have documented cases of children who suddenly lose potty-training skills, forget their native language, have trouble sleeping or regress in other ways after being separated from their parents, Nagda said. Some children believe their parents willingly left them. 

Another challenge is finding parent and child after they’re deemed to be reunited, said Nagda. Tracking systems are different for adults and children and are not interconnected. Advocates have taken up to a year to reunite children with their parents, Nagda said.   

“There’s no justification for perpetrating that type of harm on a child,” she said. 

Meanwhile, immigrant parents, distraught at losing their children, are failing their “credible fear” interviews because they can’t focus on their case, Pinheiro said. During that interview, which is conducted by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer and represents the first step in a lengthy legal process to win asylum, migrants must show that they have a “credible fear” of being persecuted if they return to their home country.

“It’s a nightmare,” Pinheiro said. “The point of our asylum system is not to put lifelong trauma on people asking for protection.”

Rafael Carranza of The Arizona Republic/USA TODAY Network contributed from Arizona. 

Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis; Gomez: @AlanGomez; and Carranza: @RafaelCarranza. 

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