Under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, federal courts across Texas have become flooded with undocumented immigrant mothers and fathers that have been separated from their children and criminally charged for illegally crossing the US border. This new policy shift has become an increasingly popular tactic for officials as a purported way to stop undocumented immigrants and their families from entering the US. “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions says. “If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring him across the border illegally.”
Charged with misdemeanor illegal entry, parents now are being forced to make the difficult choice between pleading guilty to these criminal charges and facing jail time, in hopes of being reunited with their children sooner but risking their ability to receive asylum in the US upon their release, or pleading not guilty and awaiting trial, which could take days or weeks, thus delaying being reunited with their children. Some of these immigrants, like Juana Francisca Bonilla de Canjura, do not even know where their children are. “I don’t have any idea where they are,” she tells The Washington Post. “Nobody knows anything. Nobody says anything – just lies. They said they were taking them for questioning, and we were only going to be apart for a moment. But they never came back.”
Last month, Azalea Aleman-Bendiks, an assistant federal public defender in a courtroom in McAllen, Texas, asked Judge Peter E. Ormsby to order the federal government to provide information about the fate of these families and lists of children that have been separated in order to ensure that they would be reunited with their families. “My concern is that there are lost children here in the system,” Aleman-Bendiks tells Ormsby. “We are hearing it every day, your honor, and it’s not right.” While Ormsby advised Aleman-Bendiks to prepare a brief for the court explaining how he could order the government to provide such information, he added: “But on its face, it seems questionable to me that the court would have the authority to do that.”
With illegal entry cases in south Texas increasing to approximately one thousand per week, many immigration advocates are fearful of not only what toll this is taking on federal courts, but what it is doing to the government’s ability to provide adequate space in detention centers. This past Father’s Day weekend, reporters and several Democratic lawmakers visited a processing center and temporary detention facility in Texas in order to raise awareness for the division of families under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. They were greeted by over 1,110 undocumented immigrants, including 200 unaccompanied minors.
One lawmaker estimated that one hundred of these minors were under the age of six. These detained immigrants are being held in concrete-floor cells surrounded by tall fencing, much like cages. Twenty or more undocumented immigrants are placed in each metal cage at a time, according to their age and gender, and provided with foil blankets, bottled water, and food. While Sessions and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials believe this policy is a necessary deterrent as the US attempts to secure its borders, mental health professionals and human rights groups alike have found that separating children from their families and placing them in facilities with such conditions is simply inhumane. “The zero-tolerance policy means zero humanity and makes zero sense,” Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon says. Slate has a guide on how individuals can fight family separation policies at the border.
UPDATE JUNE 27, 2018: Judge Dana Sabraw of the US District Court for the Southern District of California has issued a preliminary injunction barring the separation of children from their migrant parents and ordering the federal government to reunite children that have already been separated under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy with their families. The federal government is now required to return all children currently younger than five years old to their parents within fourteen days and children older than give to be returned to their parents within thirty days. The injunction issued by Judge Sabraw also blocks the federal government from deporting parents who have been separated from their children “unless the Class Member affirmatively, knowingly, and voluntarily declines to be reunited with the child prior to the Class Member’s deportation, or there is a determination that the parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child.”
Parents are also now entitled to speak with their children within ten days. After overseeing a lawsuit against the Trump administration brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Judge Sabraw noted that the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy is a “chaotic circumstance of the Government’s own making.” Judge Sabraw also stated that it was a “startling reality” that no adequate planning or preparation had been done before government officials began separation children from their parents being detained and criminally prosecuted. “Tears will be flowing in detention centers across the country when families learn they will be reunited,” Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and the attorney who argued the case, says.