[Pnews] The Government Has Taken At Least 1, 100 Children From Their Parents Since Family Separations Officially Ended

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Dec 9 16:19:02 EST 2019


  The Government Has Taken At Least 1,100 Children From Their Parents
  Since Family Separations Officially Ended

John Washington - December 9, 2019

_“You can’t imagine_ the pain,” Dennis said. “If you’re not a dad, you 
don’t know what it’s like.” I reached Dennis by phone in a small town in 
the Copán Department of Honduras, where he lives with his wife and three 
children. For five months this year, the family was fractured across 
borders. Sonia, age 11, had been separated from Dennis after they 
crossed into the United States and turned themselves in to the Border 
Patrol to ask for asylum. Dennis was deported from Texas, and Sonia sent 
to a shelter in New York.

The U.S. government is still taking children from their parents after 
they cross the border. Since the supposed end of family separation — in 
the summer of 2018, after a federal judge’s injunction and President 
Donald Trump’s executive order reversing the deeply controversial policy 
— more than 1,100 children have been taken from their parents, according 
to the government’s own data. There may be more, since that data has 
been plagued by bad record keeping and inconsistencies 
The government alleges that separations now only happen when a parent 
has a criminal history or is unfit to care for a child, but an ongoing 
lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union argues that the current 
policy still violates the rights of children and families. Border Patrol 
agents, untrained in child welfare, make decisions that some parents are 
unfit to stay with their children based solely on brief interactions 
with them while they are held in custody.

Dennis picks coffee during the harvest season and works other basic jobs 
when he can, but he struggles to put food on the table and pay for his 
kids’ school supplies. In April, unable to find steady work in the 
coffee fields and receiving regular threats from a creditor, he headed 
north, hoping to find safety and opportunity in the United States. “We 
were barely eating. I couldn’t give my kids a life,” Dennis told me. (He 
preferred that I only use first names for him and his family due to 
safety concerns.) Thinking that his two boys — ages 2 1/2 and 7 — were 
too young to travel, Dennis took Sonia and together they left Honduras. 
They trekked through Guatemala and Mexico by bus, train, and on foot. 
They were robbed once, terrified the whole way, and had to beg for food. 
They slept wherever they could — sometimes in the woods, along the 
tracks, or, when they could scrounge enough money together, in migrant 

After about a month of travel, Dennis and Sonia crossed the Rio Grande 
in a small raft outside of McAllen, Texas, on the morning of May 17. 
They walked for hours before they turned themselves in to a Border 
Patrol agent and were taken to a processing center, where they were 
locked up in one of the freezing-cold temporary holding centers known as 
/hieleras/, or iceboxes. Only a few hours later, a Border Patrol agent 
took Dennis and Sonia and locked them in separate rooms. It was the last 
time he would see his daughter for five months.

    Border Patrol agents, untrained in child welfare, make decisions
    that some parents are unfit to stay with their children based solely
    on brief interactions.

For the next 11 days, Dennis remained in the hielera, asking repeatedly 
to see his daughter. Border Patrol officers tried to get him to sign 
papers that were in English, which he couldn’t read. He refused. “You 
can’t see her,” a Border Patrol agent told him about his daughter. The 
agent said that she was fine, but wouldn’t tell him where she was. 
Border Patrol transferred Dennis to an Immigration and Customs 
Enforcement detention center in Port Isabel, Texas. They told him that 
because of a previous deportation and a felony — a 10-year-old charge 
for using false work authorization papers — he was ineligible for 
asylum. For the next 30 days of his detention, he knew nothing of his 
daughter or her whereabouts. Finally, an agent called him over and told 
him that she was on the phone. The call was brief. They both cried. He 
told her to be strong. He told her that they were going to send him 
away. Two weeks later, without talking to his daughter again, he was 
deported back to Honduras. “I’m a man, but I cried. I cried,” he told 
me. “Oh, it was so hard.”

Sonia was in New York in an Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, 
shelter, where she was living with a number of other children. In 
Honduras, after Dennis’s deportation, the rest of the family waited in 
agony for nearly 5 months, until October 9, when Sonia was released and 
then flown home. “My wife,” Dennis said, “she didn’t eat, didn’t sleep. 
You can’t imagine the suffering. And, don’t forget,” he reminded me, 
“she had two other kids to raise.”

_In 2018, much_ of the world looked on aghast as U.S. immigration agents 
separated thousands of children from their parents in an unprecedented 
anti-immigrant crackdown. In one notorious instance captured on audio 
Border Patrol agents laughed and joked at desperate children crying for 
their parents. The separations, part of a series of policy changes to 
limit total immigration and effectively shutter refugee and asylum 
programs, stemmed from the so-called zero-tolerance policy that began in 
El Paso in 2017 and was rolled out border-wide in the spring of 2018. 
The administration had announced that it would seek to prosecute all 
people who illegally crossed the border (despite the fact that, 
according to U.S. law, it is not illegal for an asylum-seeker to cross 
the border), but it later emerged that the government had specifically 
targeted families 
A strict zero tolerance policy — prosecuting every individual who was 
apprehended — was always beyond capacity. The focus on families was part 
of a distinct effort by the Department of Homeland Security and the 
White House to try and dissuade — by subjecting parents and children to 
the terror of separation — more people from coming to the United States.

After widespread uproar and international condemnation, Trump issued an 
executive order to halt the separations on June 20, 2018. Six days 
later, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw issued an injunction, demanding 
the reunification of parents with their children within 30 days. For 
children under the age of 5, the deadline was 14 days. For some, 
however, it was too late. Parents had already lost custody, been 
deported, or even lost track of their children. Even for those who were 
reunified, trauma had set in. In 2018, the number of publicly known 
separations was 2,800. In fact, as the government revealed this October 
after pressure from the ACLU lawsuit, that original count was over 1,500 
children short. Furthermore, the government has admitted that more than 
1,100 additional families have been separated since the executive order 
and injunction — bringing the total number of children impacted to at 
least 5,446. That number may still be an undercount and will continue to 
rise if immigration officials’ current practices continue.

    The government has admitted that 1,100 additional families have been
    separated — bringing the total number of children impacted to at
    least 5,446.

The grounds for the ongoing separations — the 1,100 new cases — stem 
from a carve-out in Sabraw’s injunction: that children should not be 
separated “absent a determination that the parent is unfit or presents a 
danger to the child.” That language, the ACLU and others allege in an 
ongoing lawsuit, is being interpreted too broadly by the government, 
resulting in unwarranted separations. ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, who has 
been litigating against the government on behalf of a class of separated 
families, called the ongoing separation policy “as shocking as it is 

The reason that Dennis and Sonia were separated, for example, goes back 
to 2008, when Dennis’s wife was pregnant with Sonia, and Dennis came to 
the U.S. to find work and support his family. He made it to Minnesota 
and was loaned false papers to get a job, but he was quickly picked up 
and charged with forgery. He spent three months in a federal prison 
before being deported. Eleven years later, that conviction led to Sonia 
being taken from him. “You could call any child expert from anywhere in 
the country, and they would tell you that these parents are not a danger 
to the child,” Gelernt said in a September 20 hearing. “The government 
is simply saying, ‘We are going to take away children because the court 
said we could.’”

In a brief filed to the court in July, ACLU attorneys pointed out 
cases in which children were taken from their parents for “the most 
minor or nonviolent criminal history.” The reasons for separation cited 
in those cases included marijuana possession convictions, a 27-year-old 
drug possession charge, and a charge of “malicious destruction of 
property value” over a total of $5. An 8-month-old was separated from 
his father for a “fictitious or fraudulent statement.” A mother who 
broke her leg at the border had her 5-year-old taken from her while she 
was in emergency surgery, and ORR did not release the child for 79 days.

In an example of a dubious determination made by the Border Patrol of a 
father being “unfit” to care for his 1-year-old daughter, an agent 
separated the two because the father left his daughter in a wet diaper 
while she was sleeping. She had been sick and, after caring for her and 
taking her to the hospital on two separate occasions for a high fever, 
the father “wanted to let her sleep instead of waking her to change her 
diaper,” according to the ACLU brief. Nonetheless, a female guard took 
his daughter from his arms, criticized him for not changing the diaper, 
and even called him a bad father. The government’s own documents show 
that the father has no other criminal history.

In another instance, a 3-year-old girl was separated from her father due 
to Customs and Border Protection’s allegation that he was not actually 
her parent. Although the father’s name does not appear on the child’s 
birth certificate, he presented other documentation showing parentage 
and requested a DNA test as proof. Officials ignored his request and 
separated the family. After an attorney intervened, the family took a 
DNA test and confirmed paternity. Meanwhile, the daughter was sexually 
abused while in ORR care and, according to the brief, “appears to be 
severely regressing in development.”

CBP did not respond to a request for comment.

_The ACLU’s brief_ received some coverage this summer, but many of the 
most egregious stories it collected went unmentioned. Overall, even as 
the separations have continued, media attention has flagged. From a high 
of 2,000 stories a month in the summer of 2018, this fall has seen an 
average of only 50 to 100 stories a month that mention family 
separation, according to an analysis by Pamela Mejia, head of research 
at Berkeley Media Studies Group. Mejia told me that the issue had 
“reached a saturation point” for many people: “The overwhelming number 
of stories that generate outrage has made it harder to keep anything in 
the headlines.”

    “At this point, no government official can plausibly claim that they
    are unaware of the damage these separations are doing to the
    children, yet they continue to do it.”

At first, the child victims of the government’s actions were easy to 
empathize with. There was no “crime frame,” as Mejia put it, to explain 
away the children’s suffering, in contrast to the way that immigration 
is often covered. Whether denominating migrants as “illegals,” seeing 
them as “hordes 
or “invaders 
or using a broad brush to associate them with crime or terrorism, 
politicians and the media alike often wield anti-immigrant or 
dehumanizing language when discussing immigration. Young children, 
however, are something different. The broad consensus in 2018 was that 
the family separation policy was an outrageous and unnecessary cruelty.

But, despite the outrage, the policy continued and now there’s a sense 
of “futility that this is going to keep happening,” Mejia said. Gelernt 
likewise attributed the lack of ongoing coverage to “media burnout,” 
noting especially that there are more than 200 kids under the age of 5 
who have been separated from their families. It’s hard to cover so many 
heartrending stories, Gelernt said. And now, simply, “People think it’s 

But it’s not. Sabraw, the southern California judge who issued the 
injunction in 2018, is expected to rule soon on the ACLU’s challenge to 
the continued separations. But even if he again orders the government to 
reunify families, or narrows immigration officials’ latitude in carrying 
out separations, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the government can, 
or will, comply. CBP, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, has already 
proven negligent in keeping track of the separated children — calling 
families who had undergone separation, for example, “deleted family 
Some children still remain unaccounted for.

“At this point, no government official can plausibly claim that they are 
unaware of the damage these separations are doing to the children,” 
Gelernt told me, “yet they continue to do it.”

In late November, back in Copán, Sonia graduated from sixth grade. One 
of her favorite things to do, Dennis told me, is to draw with her 
younger brothers. She is also teaching the older of the two boys to 
read, practicing his letters with him. She’ll go into seventh grade 
soon, but her father worries about her growing up in what he described 
as a gang-ridden town. Honduras has one of the highest incidence rates 
of violence against women 
in the world. He also doesn’t know how he’ll be able to pay for her high 
school. “I know it’s desperate,” he said, “but I’m thinking of heading 
north again. I can’t see how else to do it.”

Sonia doesn’t talk much about her time separated from her family, but 
Dennis notices that she’s changed, and he and his wife are worried: “She 
told me she didn’t feel good. She was just crying at first [while in the 
ORR facility]; that’s all she did.” Now when she goes quiet sometimes, 
her parents wonder if she’s still affected by the trauma. As Dennis 
contemplated aloud another potential trip north in search of personal 
and financial security, he reflected, “I just ask that we have enough 
food to eat every day. I just want my family to be safe.”

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