Yesterday, I met with a mother whose 5-year-old son was literally pulled out of her arms by a Border Patrol Offier while she and her son cried and begged for him not to be taken. She is an asylum seeker who fled death threats in her country. She has not seen or spoken to her son in weeks. This mother recounted the story of her son being taken, stone-faced, clearly unable to begin to access the emotions under the surface. It was the lowest, saddest, most distressing moment of my career as an immigration lawyer.
I chose to be an immigration attorney after my first experience as a law student in the immigration clinic. I was asked to do an intake with a family of Iraqi asylum seekers who were being detained with their 5-month-old daughter. The baby was wearing a prison-issued onesie. Her mother asked me to hold her, because I smelled like the outside world. All along, that moment has been my marker of the lowest moment, the catalyst for my career. Yet that was nothing compared to what is happening today.
I am writing to share with you what I am seeing so that you can be informed and take action. I want to help you know the background and combat the arguments that these parents chose this for their children, that they brought it on themselves. And to combat the lies coming from the Administration, claiming there is no choice in whether to enact the policy of separation.
There is a fundamental principal of international law which arose after World War II: the concept of a refugee – a person deserving of protection because she is unsafe in her country due to persecution in her country based on her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The United States Government has recognized its responsibility in protecting refugees for almost seventy years – in international treaties and in our own laws. Whatever your politics, it is an absolute and undeniable fact that the US must protect asylum seekers under its international treaty and internal legal obligations. (I am avoiding citations and legalese in this article because I want it to be readable, but I can easily provide citations for anything written here.)
In the last decade, the political situation in Central American has devolved. Gangs and drug cartels have taken power and the governments of Central America, particularly in the northern triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, are unable to protect their citizens. People are being extorted and required to make regular payments to gang members. If they refuse, they or their family members are murdered. Boys as young as eight years old are forced into the gangs. If they or their parents refuse, they are murdered. Young girls are forced to become the property of gang members and treated as sex slaves. If they or their families refuse, they are murdered. The police are unable to help, and in many cases have themselves been infiltrated with gang members, so that making a police report brings more danger. Parents are fleeing and bringing their children here to rescue them from rape and murder.
When an asylum seeker wants to come to the United States, she has two choices: come to the bridge to ask for asylum, or sneak into the country. Why sneak in? Well, because border patrol officers often don’t permit people to seek asylum. They tell them to turnaround, and that we aren’t accepting asylum seekers. In fact, now border patrol officers are patrolling the Mexican territory in front of the borders to keep asylum seekers from even crossing the bridge. This leaves option two: the only way to get in. Historically, asylum seekers who crossed over got immediately apprehended (we don’t have the porous borders the Administration claims we do), then were placed in family detention centers and put through the credible fear interview process. If they passed, they got out of detention and finished out the asylum process in court. If they failed, they were sent back. This was far from a tolerable solution, but it has “worked” this way for over a decade, with subtle shifts in policies and practices.
What changed? The Trump Administration decided in May to enact a “zero tolerance” policy against people crossing the border. This means everyone, regardless of cause or circumstance of entry, gets prosecuted for illegal entry. Parents of children, including infants, are being taken to federal court and their children are being placed in custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. There is NO agency responsible for facilitating communication or reunification of these families. Parents are getting deported without their kids, and shelters are filling up. These families are being transferred and taken all around the US depending on where there is space for them. Parents are not told where they are going, where their kids are, or whether they are okay. If this does not horrify you, check your pulse.
What can you do? Here is the hard part. And I promise to keep working on this. Immigration attorneys can help – that’s easy. You can travel to detention centers and help parents pass their credible fear interviews and get out on bond. A volunteer sheet will be circulating within the next week. Nonimmigration lawyers can partner with an immigration attorney or attend a training (Mark your calendars for an opportunity for Austin Bar Association members the afternoon of June 25.) Nonlawyers – there are the obvious options: contact your legislators and demand an end to family separation. Form mom groups, dad groups, psychologist groups, contact the media, and get loud. Give money. I personally think money is best spent on the RAICES bond fund where 100% of your donation will help pay to get a parent out of detention so they can claim their own child.
What you should not do, in my opinion: anything to support or legitimize what is happening. This includes offering to foster these kids and take them off the hands of the agency, donate supplies, or assist the Department of Homeland Security in any way. I know your hearts are in the right place, and you want to help the kids. But if the shelters are at capacity and no one is offering to take the kids, maybe the administration will stop taking them from their parents. Maybe they need to feel the pain of what it is to care for so many distraught babies, so they stop the horror show.
Thank you for reading this far, for letting me get this off my chest, and for caring. The only positive that comes out of moments like these is the groundswell of goodness.
Image credit to Kristen Gunn