ProPublica: “A Defendant Shows Up in Immigration Court by Himself. He’s 6.”

by Joseph McKeown

Wilder Hilario Maldonado Cabrera, a Salvadoran boy, was the youngest defendant on the juvenile docket in immigration court in San Antonio, Texas shortly before Thanksgiving this year. Wilder, six years old, was one of the last children affected by the administration’s zero-tolerance policy. He was separated from his father on June 6 after they crossed the US/Mexico border to seek asylum. Wilder’s father was detained separately, while Wilder’s mother remained in El Salvador.

Over 2,600 immigrant children—including more than 100 who were under the age of five—were separated from their parents earlier this year before a federal judge ordered the administration to end the policy and reunite the families affected. While many of the children have been reunited with their families, in California, attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union have said that, even though in certain cases where parents had designated sponsors to take their children in, there are still up to fifty-nine children who have been separated from their parents for months. “We are concerned that such a large number of children, who were, of course, already traumatized by the separation from their parents, are still awaiting placement more than two months after their parents identified a preferred sponsor," a court filing in a California federal court reads.

In June this year, US District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the government to reunite most of the families it had divided, arguing that 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 detainees' 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.” 

Even so, ProPublica reports as of the end of November, months after the zero-tolerance policy supposedly ended, families are still being separated at the border using vague or unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing or minor violations against the parents, according to Jodi Ziesemer, a supervising attorney at Catholic Charities who represents a four-year-old boy who was separated from his father at the border. She says: “It’s so disheartening. This was supposed to be a policy that ended.” 

According to a joint report filed by government and ACLU attorneys, 140 children who were separated from their parents remain in custody, thirty of whom the government says cannot be reunited because the government has deemed the parents “unfit” or “pose a danger to the children.” Indeed, though the zero-tolerance has been officially revoked, immigration courtrooms across the country continue to see minors who have been separated from their families at the border. The effect on the children and parents has been emotionally devastating. One Salvadoran father of a four-year-old who had been taken from him says: “I failed him. Everything I had done to be a good father was destroyed in an instant.”