By Sarah Abdel-Motaleb, Roberto Lopez, and Andy Udelsman
IN FEBRUARY 2019, JOSE AND HIS 10-YEAR-OLD SON FLED their home in Honduras, hoping to escape threats to their lives and seek asylum in the United States. They crossed the Rio Grande River after a month of dangerous travel. Soon after, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers apprehended and separated them. José was sent to jail because he had previously entered the United States without authorization, while his son was sent to a facility for unaccompanied children—even though it was the very actions of the federal government that rendered him “unaccompanied” to begin with. Four months later, the government released José’s son to his aunt in the United States. José was deported to Honduras and days later, he was brutally murdered by the very people that forced him to flee in the first place.
The tragedy the government inflicted upon José and his son is the direct result of the Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy, which called for the criminal prosecution of 100 percent of people who crossed the southern border without authorization. Prior to Zero Tolerance, families seeking asylum were typically permitted to pursue their asylum claims without being charged criminally, as international law stipulates. But on April 6, 2018, Zero Tolerance substituted that policy for mass prosecution, incarceration, and a hastily-built network of detention centers. The Trump administration began systematically separating children from their adult family-members. It held thousands of children within cages in military-style tents, in some cases thousands of miles from their parents.
Following public outrage after the release of an audio of caged children sobbing, President Trump purportedly ended child separations by executive order on June 20, 2018. More recently, in March 2020, the Administration paused Zero Tolerance prosecutions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the prosecutions entailed dozens of individuals sitting shoulder-to-shoulder for hours in courtroom benches every day. In a tacit admission that these prosecutions were unnecessary in the first place, the Department of Justice suspended many of these prosecutions.
Despite claiming to renounce the child separation policy in 2018 and dialing back Zero Tolerance in 2020, widespread child separations continue to this day.
As reported in 2019, six months after the child separation policy supposedly ended, TCRP identified 272 children who had been separated from their families over the course of Zero Tolerance prosecutions at the federal courthouse in McAllen, Texas. Having continued to monitor that courthouse, we can now report that, between June 22, 2018, and March 17, 2020, Texas Civil Rights Project identified 939 children who were separated from a family member in McAllen alone in the context of the Zero Tolerance prosecutions. McAllen is home to only one of 19 federal courthouses that routinely processes such prosecutions, so the separations TCRP identified are a small fraction of the total number that have occurred nationwide.
A post shared by Texas Civil Rights Project (@txcivilrights) on Jun 22, 2018 at 6:30am PDT
TCRP’s count estimates a vast discrepancy between actual separations and what the federal government has reported. This discrepancy is partly because the government only counts separations between parents and children, whereas TCRP includes children separated from any adult with whom the child has a familial relationship. This is because many children, particularly those fleeing violent and destabilized regions, are raised by step-parents, older siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or other family members. Therefore, we see no reason to distinguish between children separated from their biological parent and children separated from the grandparent who raised them.
Here is a breakdown of the separations TCRP identified in McAllen. Accompanying Adult’s Relationship with the Separated ChildNumber of Children Separated between 6/22/18 and 4/17/2020 Parent356 Adult Sibling235 Aunt/Uncle174 Cousin71 Grandparent49 Stepparent or Legal Guardian26 Distant Relative/Friend28 Total939
Of those 939 children separated from a family member, we know the actual or approximate ages of 779 children. Approximately 20 percent were of toddler or preschool age. Almost 60 percent were younger than 12 years old. The average age of the children was ten years. The youngest child was a mere 3-months-old when the government separated him from his father.
Through follow-up calls with family members, 78 families provided information about the duration of the child’s confinement in government custody. On average, the government held a separated child in custody for 2.3 months. One child was detained for a staggering 10 months. As reported by Physicians for Human Rights, any separation, regardless of time, can have harmful and lasting effects on children’s mental health. The longer the separation, the greater the suffering for both child and parent.
Based on follow-up calls, TCRP calculates that in 55 percent of child separation cases, the adult was deported alone while the child remained in the United States. As demonstrated by José’s tragic case, some children whose parents were deported will never see their parents again. In 28 percent of cases the adult and child are reunited in the United States. Even in those scenarios, the trauma of the separation causes many children to develop behavioral and emotional disabilities, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
TCRP’s data demonstrate that the Trump Administration has continued to torture migrants with family separation long after the June 20, 2018 Executive Order. Indeed, shortly after condemning child separations, the Administration began offering parents and custodians the “choice” of being deported to their countries of origin with their children—thus staying together but abandoning their asylum claims—or being deported without their children, leaving their children to pursue asylum alone and risking never seeing them again.
From the start of Zero Tolerance until its suspension during COVID-19, approximately 35,000 people were prosecuted for illegal entry in McAllen alone.
These prosecutions have wasted vast amounts of public resources, including thousands of hours spent by federal judges, magistrates, prosecutors, investigators, interpreters, and federal public defenders. Zero Tolerance has accomplished nothing except violate international law by criminalizing asylum seekers.
Unfortunately, the Trump Administration continues to separate migrant children from their parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. ICE currently detains families in over 200 detention centers, some of which are run by for-profit companies. A federal judge has described the facilities where children are detained as “on fire” due to the rapid rate that COVID-19 spreads in such crowded conditions. The government is again offering parents the “choice” of remaining together in a virus-infested detention detention facility, or agreeing to separate so the child can be released into the United States. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration is also using COVID-19 as a justification for immediately expelling unaccompanied children by the thousands at the southern border in violation of U.S. and international asylum laws. TCRP has sued the Administration to halt this blatantly unlawful policy.
We’re suing alongside @aclu, @CGRSHastings, & @OxfamAmerica on behalf of the mother of a 13-year-old girl who, after attempting to seek asylum in the U.S., was injured after being chased by @CBP, hospitalized, and then deported back to her country alone. https://t.co/CUCyTpS2su — CALL 866-OUR-VOTE IF YOU NEED HELP (@TXCivilRights) June 10, 2020
It is impossible to calculate the suffering that the United States government has caused by systematically separating migrant children from their families. What we do know is that the administration intended to inflict severe harm, no matter the age of the children involved. But this human cost far outweighs any benefit to be reaped by xenophobic politicians or profiteers of border militarization. TCRP and its allies will continue to fight until racist laws that criminalize immigration and allow policies like Zero Tolerance to exist are locked in the past, and until this country upholds its duties towards those who come here to seek asylum.
Andy Udeslman was a Racial & Economic Justice legal fellow. Roberto Lopez is the Racial & Economic Justice outreach coordinator. Sarah Abdel-Motaleb was a legal clerk.
Special thanks to the hundreds of families who trusted us and continue to trust us with your stories and cases. We are committed to fighting alongside you.