Orphans with Parents-how the US family separation policy traumatizes children

Family Sepraration Policy

Orphaned with Parents: A Look into the Trump’s Administration Zero-Tolerance Policy Monsura A. Sirajee, Farrah Qazi

For weeks, Elizabeth’s[1] dad had tried to cajole his eight-year-old daughter to attend school, something she used to love doing before, but Elizabeth would cry uncontrollably at the suggestion of leaving her dad’s side. This was not your typical case of back-to-school nerves.  If her father left her sight, Elizabethfeared she would never see her father again. Her dad struggled to find the words to comfort her, but he couldn’t be entirely sure he would see her again either.

Elizabeth is just one of more than 6000 children who were forcibly separated from their parents or guardians after they crossed the United States border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. For three agonizing months, Elizabeth spent every waking moment wondering when she would see her father. That extreme anxiety will not be undone overnight, if ever.

Trauma is the Purpose of the Policy

Collectively, we have represented over 50 families separated at the United States border under the Trump Administration’s infamous “zero tolerance” policy and the ongoing trauma Elizabeth lives with is not unique. The extraordinary trauma inflicted on parents and children alike was no incidental byproduct of the policy—it was the very point.

Curbing asylum has been a central focus of the Trump Administration’s immigration policy. In a December 16, 2017 memorandum exchanged between senior government officials aimed at curbing immigration, the officials proposed a policy of increased prosecution of “Family Unit Parents.”  Under the proposal, “parents would be prosecuted for illegal entry” and the minors present with them would be placed in custody. The memorandum asserted that “the increase in prosecutions would be reported by the media and it would have substantial deterrent effect.” President Trump himself had indicated that deterrence was the motivation behind his zero tolerance policy. When speaking with reporters, he said, “If they feel there will be separation, they don’t come.”  

Prior to the Trump administration, families were generally paroled into the country to await their immigration cases or detained together. On May 7, 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it had implemented a “zero tolerance” policy, mandating the prosecution of all persons who cross the United States border without permission, including those lawfully seeking asylum.  Undocumented asylum seekers were imprisoned, and any accompanying children under the age of 18 were shipped miles away from their parents and scattered them among several dozen shelters across the country. Hundreds of infants and toddlers under the age of 5 were among those who were separated.

To make matters worse, the government failed to take even the most basic steps to record which children belonged to which parents, highlighting the government’s indifference to the dire consequences of the policy to the separated families. As emphasized by one federal judge overseeing subsequent lawsuits, separated children were treated less carefully than property.  She noted:  

“The government readily keeps track of personal property of detainees in criminal and immigration proceedings.  Money, important documents, and automobiles, to name a few, are routinely catalogued, stored, tracked and produced upon a detainee’s release, at all levels—state and federal, citizen and alien.  Yet, the government has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children.  The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property. Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process.”

Policy Ends, But Reunification is Chaotic

Only after the family separation policy garnered widespread condemnation did President Trump sign an executive order on June 20, 2018 purporting to end it. The executive order, however, did not explain whether or how the federal government would reunify children who had been previously separated from their parents.  In fact, the government admitted that it had no reunification procedure in place.

 It was not until a federal judge ordered the government on June 26, 2018 to reunify families that the government began taking steps to do so. What followed was chaos. Because no single database with reliable information regarding parents separated from their children existed, the agencies were left to resort to a variety of inefficient and ineffective methods to reunify families. These methods included officers hand-sifting through agency data looking for any indication that a child in custody had been separated from his or her parent. The methods for determining which family units required reunification changed frequently, sometimes more than once a day, with staff at one shelter reporting that “there were times when [they] would be following one process in the morning but a different one in the afternoon.”

Hundreds of Parents Have Not Been Found

As of the writing of this article, the parents of at least 666 children cannot be found and many of the parents have been deported back to Central America, creating a situation where children have been forcibly orphaned with living parents

For the children who are lucky enough to be released to their family in the United States, the process of release is mired in bureaucracy and red tape. A family member who wishes to gain custody of the child must have legal status, which itself is a significant hurdle for most people. Without legal status, they run the risk of the government detaining them as soon as they present themselves on behalf of the child. Furthermore, the sponsoring family member must be able to provide tax documents, financial statements, a copy of a lease, several identifying documents, and a background check. If they earn below the required income, they cannot sponsor the child either. If by some chance, they complete all of these requirements, they must wait several months until the paperwork is processed. In the meantime, the child continues to languish in a detention center. In the case of one our clients, a two-year old named Nora[1], it took six months and a lawsuit filed on her behalf to finally force the government to release her into her uncle’s care. In total, Nora had spent ten months in a detention center designed for unaccompanied children, even though she had both parents and an extended family willing to take custody of her.

Nora: A Case Study

At two years old, Nora was still not the youngest detainee held in McAllen, Texas. Nora came to the U.S. from Honduras with her father, Ramon, after he refused to join a local gang. As a result of his refusal, his house was looted and the same gang members threatened to kidnap and kill Nora. Nora’s father grabbed his young daughter, collected as much cash as he could from friends and family and escaped the violence the gang promised him. Their trip lasted more than a month. Father and daughter hitched rides in the back of trucks, swam a river and walked thousands of miles until they reached the U.S. Border. Once there, Ramon followed the legal way to enter another country by presenting himself to border officials and asking for asylum. He pled with the officers that he was scared for his and his daughter’s lives. Ramon and Nora were sent to the “hielara” or the freezer for one week. This is a section of the detention center that is deliberately set to freezing temperatures for the immigrants who are kept inside. Ramon and Nora were given aluminum foil in lieu of blankets and slept on the hard concrete floor with little to eat or drink.

Nora developed an incessant cough which she had when she and her father appeared in court for their deportation proceeding. Since the family separation plan was enacted under this administration, immigrants, even those seeking asylum, are placed in detention centers and then forced to appear in court to defend themselves in deportation proceedings that are stacked against them. In immigration law, there is no legal right to an attorney nor is one appointed or paid for by the government. As a result, individuals must navigate the court process by themselves, in a foreign language, after enduring extreme trauma and being subjected to the cruelty of detention. Without a lawyer representing them, they are 10.5% more likely to be deported swiftly. In this case, Ramon and Nora did not have resources and so found themselves alone, and without a lawyer, at the first court date.

Once there, the guards told Ramon that Nora had to wait outside while he talked to the judge. Ramon balked at this and asked to stay with his daughter. The guards assured him she would be waiting for him when he came out. Ramon hugged Nora, went inside, tried to tell the judge about his issues with the gang but was promptly told that this hearing would not listen to those claims and that he was being sent to another detention center. When he exited the courtroom, Nora was gone. The guards told him she had been transferred to another facility designed for unaccompanied children who arrive in the U.S. without parents. This made little sense to Ramon but his attempts at answers were rebuffed and he was transported to a facility in Arizona, without being able to see or speak to his daughter again.

For three months, Ramon tried to find out where his daughter was but no one would give him any answers, until he hired my office. At the time, Ramon did not even know where Nora was. Three weeks later and countless phone calls, letters and demands for information, Qazi found Nora’s location but was initially unsuccessful in having her released. The rule under this cruel policy is that all children are sent to a center for unaccompanied minors whether they arrive with their parents or not. And the irony is that most arrive with their parents. At the border, families are separated so that mothers go to a different center, fathers to another and children are sent to a facility for minors or placed with foster families. Those minors are often treated like orphans even though they clearly have parents. Since the plan was so hastily drawn together, the government did not implement a method of tracking each family member so Ramon’s worry and stress are not uncommon as many parents do not know the whereabouts of their own children once they cross the border. Further, fingerprints and identification documents are not often taken so that reunification becomes next to impossible in many, many cases. This is especially true when the parents are abruptly deported, without notice, but the children are still sitting in the United States. Most recently, news broke that 545 children could not find their parents who had been deported back to their countries. This is in addition to the 5,400 children who have been separated from their parents. Add this number to the countless hundreds who have been lost in the system or the bus full of children who were being transported from one detention center to another and were never found, and you realize the extent of this incredible crisis.

Fear Pervades the System

Eight-year-old Elizabeth’s fear that her father will not be home when she returns home from school is well founded. As if the trauma of separation was not enough, another aspect of the zero-tolerance policy is the increased raids and deportations that have occurred under the Trump administration. Children go off to school and come back to empty homes because their parents have been deported. This occurred with one of our clients, a 19-year-old girl who was left to fend for herself and her 7-year-old sister when their home was raided and their parents were unceremoniously deported to Mexico. The young 19-year-old, a child herself, was suddenly left with the awesome responsibility of paying bills and caring for her sister. She was forced to leave college in order to work two full-time jobs. Despite her best efforts, she had been eating canned soup for weeks and had $20 in her account at the time she retained Qazi Law. Her sister had dropped out of school and was suffering from anxiety, depression and sleep terrors. After countless appeals, court dates, and lawsuits later, their mother has been reunited with them, but their father is still trapped in Mexico. Their case is ongoing and serves as an important reminder of the grave effects of these policies on our youngest members of society.

With the start of the COVID pandemic, this administration found another excuse to rapidly deport minors at the border. Citing health concerns, Immigration Customs Enforcement began to quickly catch and deport any minor who entered the United States. Within 48-72 hours, those same minors were unceremoniously returned to Ciudad Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities in Central America. Young childrenare sent back to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico even if they originally came from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras or some other country. No attempt has been made by our government to ensure the safety of these minors once they are deported. As a result, Ciudad Juarez has become a hotspot for traffickers and gang members as they eagerly await newly deported children, who are often completely alone and disoriented enough to trust anyone. This became painfully obvious in two cases that we advised on. In both, the clients originally went to other attorneys who then asked for my consultation in the matter. The first one involved a 6 -year-old girl who entered the U.S. with her mother, was separated from her and then deported within 3days. By the time the mom realized what was happening and had contacted a lawyer, the little girl had landed in Ciudad Juarez, where she was promptly kidnapped. Eyewitnesses reported that the girl went away with some men and has not been seen again. In the second instance, a 16 -year-old girl came with her father, from Guatemala. Again, she was separated from her parent and deported. In this case, the kidnappers held her for ransom of $20,000 and sent pictures to her mother, who had been frantically waiting for her daughter. Since the mother is a lawful permanent resident, she had the ability to contact lawyers and local state representatives without fearing for her own safety from deportation. To date, the daughter has still not been released by her captors.

How you can help

When the first photos of children being kept in cages in detention centers were released, there was an audible uproar. However, as months have progressed into years, most people have forgotten about the travesty committed against children on our soil. It’s time to take up the battle cry again. With a new President and administration, it is incumbent that the zero tolerance policy be eradicated and that family units are kept intact at all times. If you compelled to help, there are many ways to get involved. You can aid lawyers as we continue to represent these clients pro bono. You can donate to such not for profits as KIND, IMMIGRANT FAMILIES TOGETHER RAICES AND YOUNG CENTER. You can contact your state representatives and demand the release of minors from detention centers across the country. Above all, you can study, learn about this human rights violation and spread awareness about this tragic human rights violation.

Monsura Sirajee and Farrah Qazi are lawyers based in the United States.