National News

Families Pay a High Price for Crossing Illegally

Posted May 11, 2018 9:35 p.m. EDT

Ramping up a promised “zero tolerance” immigration policy on the Southwest border, the Justice Department said that 11 members of a caravan of migrants from Central America were being criminally prosecuted for crossing the border illegally.

At least four of those facing criminal charges had children taken from them and placed into separate custody, lawyers for the migrants said, highlighting one of the most contentious aspects of the Trump administration’s new border policies: family separations.

Hundreds of immigrant children have been separated from their parents at the border since October, and the new policy calling for criminal prosecutions of all those who cross illegally promises to increase that number drastically.

President Donald Trump and his aides at the White House have pushed a family separation policy in order to deter Central American families from trying to cross the border illegally, according to administration officials. The number of families making the journey over land to the United States has soared in recent months after subsiding last year, infuriating the president, who had touted the initial decline as proof that his tough stance on immigration was succeeding.

The new policy on criminal prosecutions became official Monday when Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Arizona and California.

“If you cross the Southwest border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Sessions said. “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”

With few exceptions, the United States has historically treated immigration violations as civil, rather than criminal, offenses, and thus parents have not typically been separated from their children when they enter the legal system.

“This is an additional punitive measure the administration is imposing on parents in an effort to frighten Central Americans, to discourage them from seeking asylum,” said Reuben Cahn, executive director of the Federal Defenders of San Diego, who is representing several of the caravan migrants.

Here’s a look at what is happening to migrant families on the border, and what’s behind it.

— Is there a new policy to separate parents from their children at the border?

The administration did not announce a blanket policy to separate families.

Sessions said his department would criminally prosecute everyone who illegally enters the United States. If a mother or father is with a child when apprehended for the crime of illegal entry, the minor must be taken from the parent. The child cannot remain with a parent in the criminal court system.

— Is the administration deliberately breaking up families?

Administration officials say the aim is to protect the border and uphold the law through new measures to deter illegal immigration.

Other motivations: Sessions has said the asylum system is overwhelmed with people making frivolous claims, and Trump, according to administration officials, had been demanding that families be broken up to stanch the flow of Central Americans to the border. The majority of apprehended migrants hail from Honduras and El Salvador, two countries wracked by violence. Children are often targeted for recruitment by gangs, and their families seek a haven in the United States.

Nearly 80,000 people came as members of family units between October, the beginning of the current fiscal year, and April. About 14,000 came in March; about 15,000 in April.

— When did the separations begin?

Immigration lawyers and advocates who work at the border say family separations began after Trump took office pledging to crack down on illegal immigration, though a very small number occurred during previous administrations.

The practice gained momentum in the past two months, particularly in Texas, where many families from Central America seek to cross, they say.

“What we saw in El Paso was a massive increase in cases of families being separated at the border,” said Laura St. John, legal director of the Florence Project, a nonprofit that offers legal education to migrants in detention facilities.

In California, public defenders said they had not seen the practice until the recent caravan of Central Americans — the group shrank to 300 from 1,200 by the time it reached the border — grabbed headlines and drew Trump’s ire.

“We began to hear rumors that separations were happening a couple months ago, but hadn’t encountered any,” said Cahn, adding that the caravan members were the first manifestation of the new policy in his region.

— Is anyone challenging the policy?

The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking a nationwide injunction against the practice. The organization argues in its lawsuit that it is a violation of due process to separate parents and children simply as a means to deter illegal immigration. Only parents who are abusive or unfit to care for their children can legally have them taken away, the suit argues.

In the lawsuit, filed before the administration announced the new practice, the ACLU accused the Homeland Security Department of unlawfully separating a Congolese woman and her 7-year-old daughter who had sought asylum. The pair turned themselves in to agents at a port of entry. After about five days, the child was taken away “screaming and crying, pleading with guards not to take her from her mother,” according to the lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Diego. The child was sent to a shelter in Chicago.

They remained apart for four months. After the ACLU sued, authorities released the mother, performed a DNA test and reunited her with her child in March.

Another plaintiff — a Brazilian woman who crossed with her 14-year-old son and asked for asylum — was prosecuted for the misdemeanor of illegal entry. She received 25 days of jail time in Texas; her son was sent to the Chicago facility. They were not reunited even after the mother returned to immigration custody. They have been apart for seven months.

— Are there other reasons that families are being separated?

Logistics are a factor. The nation’s two family detention centers, where families can remain together while awaiting disposition of their cases, have a combined capacity of just 2,700 people.

The other option is to release parents and their children with orders to return to court for their immigration hearings. That has often been the practice until now.

— What is happening to the children?

The government says that once it decides to detain a parent, it cannot release a minor without providing a guardian for that child. As a result, it sends children to federal detention facilities while the parent remains in the criminal justice system.

A child can be released to another guardian, say, a family member, if one is available and can prove ties. But typically the child must first pass through a federal facility operated by the Health and Human Services Department.

— How long are they being separated for?

Since the practice is still relatively new, it is hard to know. Members of the caravan who were recently detained have been separated from their children for about 10 days.

Normally, a child is reunited with a parent once the parent has been released from detention.

Immigration lawyers report they have clients who have been kept apart from their children for four months or longer. — How many families have been separated so far?

The government has acknowledged that about 700 children have been separated from their parents since Oct. 1. But that number appears to be increasing.

— Are the children suffering adverse impacts?

Studies have shown that children who are separated from their parents can suffer from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as exhibit behavioral problems and poor educational outcomes.

In an affidavit attached to the ACLU lawsuit, the heads of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Child Welfare League of America, among others, strongly urged the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, not to break up families.

“Separation from family leaves children more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, no matter what the care setting. In addition, traumatic separation from parents creates toxic stress in children and adolescents that can profoundly impact their development,” they said.

— Are some adults using children who are not family members to win favorable treatment?

It is unclear how frequently that happens.

However, government officials say that there is a perception that migrants with children are more likely to be released into the United States than others who try to enter the country illegally. This, they say, acts as a “pull factor” that encourages illegal immigration and puts children at risk of exploitation.

Some abuses have been documented. Beginning in 2013, minors were fraudulently plucked from shelters by men who posed as friends or family, promised to provide them shelter and transport them to their immigration court hearings, then made them work on egg farms in Ohio.

They were forced to toil long hours, live in dilapidated trailers and use their earnings to pay for their passage to the United States. Six people were later sentenced to federal prison for their participation in the scheme.

Advocates have suggested that the government could identify potential smugglers by performing a DNA test on adults and any minors they claim to be their children, to verify whether they are related.