the ones that I’ve been working with are the ones that are actually being prosecuted for criminal entry, which is a pretty new thing for our country—to take first-time asylum seekers who are here seeking safe refuge, to turn around and charge them with a criminal offense. Those parents are finding themselves in adult detention centers and in a process known as expedited removal, where many are being deported. And their children, on the other hand, are put in a completely different legal structure. They are categorized as unaccompanied children and thus are being put in place in a federal agency not with the Department of Homeland Security but with Health and Human Services. And Health and Human Services has this complicated structure in place where they’re not viewed as a long-term foster care system—that’s for very limited numbers—but their general mandate is to safeguard these children in temporary shelters and then find family members with whom they can be placed. So they start with parents, and then they go to grandparents, and then they go to other immediate family members, and then they go to acquaintances, people who’ve known the children, and they’re in that system, but they can’t be released to their parents because their parents are behind bars.
.. And we may see more parents that get out of jail because they pass a “credible fear” interview, which is the screening done by the asylum office to see who should be deported quickly, within days or weeks of arrival, and who should stay here and have an opportunity to present their asylum case before an immigration judge of the Department of Justice.
.. So we have a lot of individuals who are in that credible fear process right now, but in Houston, once you have a credible fear interview (which will sometimes take two to three weeks to even set up), those results aren’t coming out for four to six weeks. Meanwhile, these parents are just kind of languishing in these detention centers because of the zero-tolerance policy. There’s no individual adjudication of whether the parents should be put on some form of alternative detention program so that they can be in a position to be reunited with their kid.
.. TM: So, just so I make sure I understand: the parents come in and say, “We’re persecuted” or give some reason for asylum. They come in. And then their child or children are taken away and they’re in lockup for at least six weeks away from the kids and often don’t know where the kids are. Is that what’s happening under zero tolerance?
.. AC: So the idea of zero tolerance under the stated policy is that we don’t care why you’re afraid. We don’t care if it’s religion, political, gangs, anything. For all asylum seekers, you are going to be put in jail, in a detention center, and you’re going to have your children taken away from you. That’s the policy. They’re not 100 percent able to implement that because of a lot of reasons, including just having enough judges on the border. And bed space. There’s a big logistical problem because this is a new policy. So the way they get to that policy of taking the kids away and keeping the adults in detention centers and the kids in a different federal facility is based on the legal rationale that we’re going to convict you, and since we’re going to convict you, you’re going to be in the custody of the U.S. Marshals, and when that happens, we’re taking your kid away. So they’re not able to convict everybody of illegal entry right now just because there aren’t enough judges on the border right now to hear the number of cases that come over, and then they say if you have religious persecution or political persecution or persecution on something that our asylum definition recognizes, you can fight that case behind bars at an immigration detention center. And those cases take two, three, four, five, six months. And what happens to your child isn’t really our concern. That is, you have made the choice to bring your child over illegally. And this is what’s going to happen.
TM: Even if they crossed at a legal entry point?
AC: Very few people come to the bridge. Border Patrol is saying the bridge is closed. When I was last out in McAllen, people were stacked on the bridge, sleeping there for three, four, ten nights. They’ve now cleared those individuals from sleeping on the bridge, but there are hundreds of accounts of asylum seekers, when they go to the bridge, who are told, “I’m sorry, we’re full today. We can’t process your case.” So the families go illegally on a raft—I don’t want to say illegally; they cross without a visa on a raft. Many of them then look for Border Patrol to turn themselves in, because they know they’re going to ask for asylum. And under this government theory—you know, in the past, we’ve had international treaties, right? Statutes which codified the right of asylum seekers to ask for asylum. Right? Article 31 of the Refugee Convention clearly says that it is improper for any state to use criminal laws that could deter asylum seekers as long as that asylum seeker is asking for asylum within a reasonable amount of time. But our administration is kind of ignoring this longstanding international and national jurisprudence of basic beliefs to make this distinction that, if you come to a bridge, we’re not going to prosecute you, but if you come over the river and then find immigration or are caught by immigration, we’re prosecuting you.
TM: So if you cross any other way besides the bridge, we’re prosecuting you. But . . . you can’t cross the bridge.
.. When I was in McAllen, the individuals that day who visited people on the bridge had been there four days. We’re talking infants; there were people breastfeeding on the bridge.
.. And so we saw about six hundred children who were taken away from October to May, then we saw an explosion of the numbers in May. It ramped up. The Office of Refugee Resettlement taking in all these kids says that they are our children, that they are unaccompanied. It’s a fabrication. They’re not unaccompanied children. They are children that came with their parents, and the idea that we’re creating this crisis—it’s a manufactured crisis where we’re going to let children suffer to somehow allow this draconian approach with families seeking shelter and safe refuge.
TM: So what is the process for separation?
.. AC: There is no one process. Judging from the mothers and fathers I’ve spoken to and those my staff has spoken to, there are several different processes. Sometimes they will tell the parent, “We’re taking your child away.” And when the parent asks, “When will we get them back?” they say, “We can’t tell you that.” Sometimes the officers will say, “because you’re going to be prosecuted” or “because you’re not welcome in this country” or “because we’re separating them,” without giving them a clear justification. In other cases, we see no communication that the parent knows that their child is to be taken away. Instead, the officers say, “I’m going to take your child to get bathed.” That’s one we see again and again. “Your child needs to come with me for a bath.” The child goes off, and in a half an hour, twenty minutes, the parent inquires, “Where is my five-year-old?” “Where’s my seven-year-old?” “This is a long bath.” And they say, “You won’t be seeing your child again.” Sometimes mothers—I was talking to one mother, and she said, “Don’t take my child away,” and the child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, “Can I at least have five minutes to console her?” They said no. In another case, the father said, “Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?” The officer said, “You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.” So, threats.
.. AC: In the shelters, they can’t even find the parents because the kids are just crying inconsolably. They often don’t know the full legal name of their parents or their date of birth. They’re not in a position to share a trauma story like what caused the migration. These kids and parents had no idea. None of the parents I talked to were expecting to be separated as they faced the process of asking for asylum.
.. The issue is that the Department of Homeland Security is not the one caring for the children. Jurisdiction of that child has moved over to Health and Human Services, and the Health and Human Services staff has to figure out, where is this parent? And that’s not easy. Sometimes the parents are deported. Kids are in New York and Miami, and we’ve got parents being sent to Tacoma, Washington, and California. Talk about a mess.
.. TM: What agency is in charge of physically separating the children and the adults?
AC: The Department of Homeland Security.
.. We saw the separation take place while they were in the care and custody of Customs and Border Protection. That’s where it was happening, at a center called the Ursula, which the immigrants called La Perrera, because it looked like a dog pound, a dog cage. It’s a chain-link fence area, long running areas that remind Central Americans of the way people treat dogs.
.. So now you’re creating two populations. One is your traditional unaccompanied kids who are just coming because their life is at risk right now in El Salvador and Honduras and parts of Guatemala, and they come with incredible trauma, complex stories, and need a lot of resources, and so they navigate this immigration system. And now we have this new population, which is totally different: the young kids who don’t hold their stories and aren’t here to self-navigate the system and are crying out for their parents.
.. So how long do the kids stay in the facility?
AC: It used to be, on average, thirty days. But that’s going up now.
.. DHS goes to those foster homes and arrests people and puts people in jail and deports them.