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Paper Cuts: Orphaned Parents

A mother and child are separated
(Illustration by POGO)

Paper Cuts is an occasional POGO feature examining and explaining primary sources relevant to current events connected to the federal government.

Here at POGO we care a lot about documents.

To properly monitor elected and career federal government leaders for fraudulent behavior, wasted tax money or abuse of privilege, POGO studies a lot of paper records.

Although it’s true that every picture tells a story, at POGO, every document tells a backstory.

The Department of Homeland Security is intentionally separating children as young as one year old from immigrant parents, including families fleeing persecution or torture seeking humanitarian asylum in the U.S. Although separation of families as a consequence of detaining adults for unauthorized crossing occurred under the Bush and Obama Administrations, due to this Administration’s policy decisions, family separation at the border has accelerated. Public outrage over the practice has grown in recent months as stories of young children being taken from parents are coming to light.

The declarations below, exhibits for a lawsuit claiming immigrants’ rights were violated by the practice, were made by a small sample of the hundreds of detained parents from whom children have been taken away and handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services for placement in foster or  group homes (shelters are at 95 percent capacity as of last week). These parents all sought asylum at ports of entry near U.S. border towns, according to court documents.

“Mrs. G” (full identities are redacted) declared that upon her March 1 arrival at Nogales, Arizona, with her preschool-aged son and blind 6-year-old daughter, she asked for asylum (pages 1-2). Her children were sent to a group home. Since then, Mrs. G has been held in an adult detention center. As of April 25, she was still there. Her asylum case had been assigned to an immigration judge. She and the children had not been reunited.

A migrant from El Salvador, “Mrs. JIL,” brought her two children, aged ten and four, with her to Roma, Texas, where the family was apprehended on March 13 (pages 3-7). Mrs. JIL and her sons were taken to the border station, where a female arrived to pick up her boys. Although her asylum interview did not find “credible fear” of facing persecution in El Salvador, JIL has asked an immigration judge for review. While she was sent to a detention center in Laredo, Mrs. JIL learned the children were taken to a shelter in San Antonio. At the time of her declaration on April 3, Mrs. JIL had not seen or spoken to them since the day they were all picked up.

A declaration by “Mirian,” a 29-year-old Honduran mother, at Hutto Detention Center describes her experience on February 20 at the Brownsville, Texas, port of entry with her 18-month old son (pages 8-11). They had been on the road for over a month. Mirian advised the Border Patrol officers they were applying for asylum and provided both their identity records. The documents were not returned. Instead, Mirian was told to place her baby in a car for transport. Before she could comfort her son, the officers “slammed the [car] door shut.” The last time she saw her little boy, he was crying in the back seat as the officials took him away. Though her asylum case is progressing toward resolution, and she has spoken to her toddler’s caseworker, as of the declaration date she had not seen him in over 7 weeks. She was finally reunited with him on May 2.

“Mr. A” had a similar history to Mirian’s at the Brownsville station although his asylum application was rejected and he was due to be deported (pages 12-14). His 3-year-old was taken to a facility near El Paso, and Mr. A is being held at a detention center in Pearsall, Texas, outside San Antonio. At the time of his declaration, they had not seen each other for two months.

Religious leaders across denominations have called for an end to the practice. Other critics include Republican Congressman Mark Meadows, Chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who finds the separation practice “horrible" and says there is “bipartisan support" for changing the policy. Democratic Senators requested in March that the Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog investigate, stating that detaining children of asylum-seekers separately from their parents is “an unacceptable breach of our legal and humanitarian obligations to innocents who are fleeing war and terrorism.” This week, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner asked the U.S. to “immediately halt” the practice.

But the White House is standing its ground. President Trump campaigned on “zero tolerance for criminal aliens,” and within weeks of his inauguration had taken steps to close off immigration along the Mexican border. The new Administration's idea to separate children from families first came to light in March 2017, when then-Homeland Security Secretary John L. Kelly argued on CNN that the policy is intended to “deter” other would-be immigrants from attempting to come in.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year announced even more rigorous prosecution standards, instituting a blanket policy to refer for federal prosecution all people who cross the border outside of designated points. They are arrested, charged, jailed, tried, and often convicted of criminal misdemeanors with a penalty of up to six months in prison or a fine of at least $5,000. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions remarked in San Diego last month.

By the end of April, the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement had confirmed to The New York Times that “more than 700 children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents since October 2017, including more than 100 children under the age of 4.” After Sessions’ hardline approach was implemented, those numbers began to rise even faster. A Homeland Security official testified to a House subcommittee on May 23 that in the two weeks between May 6 and May 19, 638 adults were referred for prosecution under the new policy, and 658 children were separated from them.

Despite such draconian deterrents, the number of undocumented Mexicans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, and other Central Americans entering Texas, Arizona, New Mexico or California is staggering and, to the president’s deep displeasure, the numbers are growing. Since this spring, The Washington Post reports, more than 50,000 would-be new residents a month have been apprehended or denied entry.

By: Bonnie Goldstein
Investigative Advisor, POGO

Bonnie Goldstein is an investigative advisor with the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Government Accountability

Related Content: Immigrant Detention, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection

Authors: Bonnie Goldstein

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