WASHINGTON, DC —Newly obtained documents from the Department of Health and Human Services released today by immigrant rights groups and the Houston Chronicle show that migrant children continued to be separated from their parents at the border nearly one year after the end of the “zero tolerance” policy.
The new data raises questions among legal service providers who have represented these families and advocates closely working on family separation about the extent to which unsubstantiated or overblown charges of criminality continue to be used as the basis for taking children away from their parents. Lawyers and advocates are also supporting victims of separations who do not appear in the newly released data, showing that separations are happening without proper documentation across agencies.
The records were obtained in response to Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the American Immigration Council, National Immigrant Justice Center, Kids in Need of Defense, Women’s Refugee Commission, and Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project to uncover the government’s internal family separation policies, guidance, and data.
As recently as March 2019, according to HHS figures, 383 children had been taken from their parents at the border after President Trump’s Executive Order supposedly ended its “zero tolerance” policy on June 20, 2018. Separations since that time included at least 37 children ages 2 years old or younger, and 108 children under the age of 5.
The justifications listed for the separations are vague, including allegations that a parent has a “criminal history,” “medical issues,” or a “gang/cartel affiliation,” or that the family relationship is “not verifiable.” In some cases, the justification given is simply listed as “criminal.” Of serious concern, the administration’s use of criminal history or gang affiliation as a justification for separation skyrocketed after June 2018.
In some cases, DHS accused asylum seekers fleeing gang violence of being affiliated with gangs themselves, based on erroneous information provided by foreign governments. Legal service providers have struggled to gain access to the evidence DHS cites in these cases as justification for taking children from parents. When attorneys have managed to obtain the evidence, as in the story of Maria, a 19-year-old Salvadoran woman described in the Houston Chronicle story, the government’s accusations have unraveled.
“Using unsubstantiated information from foreign governments as the basis to separate families, including information from gang databases, should not be a pretext to interfere with parental rights of immigrants,” said Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “Without any semblance of due process, the burden is unjustly placed on the immigrants to prove their innocence.”
“Impunity continues for those responsible for designing and carrying out the separation policy at the border. Despite Acting DHS Secretary McAleenan’s claims that the government only separates families in limited cases of extenuating circumstances, advocates and attorneys are systematically documenting ongoing cases of separation,” said Kathryn Shepherd, national advocacy counsel for the Immigration Justice Campaign at the American Immigration Council. “Administration officials who have implemented or defended the separation policy should be held accountable for their role in systematic rights violations and trauma imposed on children and parents.”
“Family separation was and continues to be a practice that inflicts lasting trauma for the parents and caregivers and children involved. Federal agencies clearly know the impact of tearing apart a family and yet continue to separate families without transparency and accountability,” said Katharina Obser, senior policy advisor for Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “That DHS—nearly two years after first implementing a family separation pilot and thousands of separations later—continues to act with impunity while separated family members languish apart and without any clarity on when they and how they might be reunited is simply unconscionable.”
“The forced separation of families before and after the ‘zero tolerance’ policy—and the separations that continue to occur each day—have devastating consequences for children and their ability to make their legal cases for protection,” said Wendy Young, President of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). “Decisions with such far-reaching impacts should be undertaken with the utmost of care and made by licensed professionals with training and expertise in the screening and care of children—and not by CBP officers—to ensure separations occur only when necessary to ensure a child’s safety. The recently released documents only underscore this need.”
“One year after the zero-tolerance policy, the Florence Project continues to see cases of family separation. In fact, all of the evidence we are seeing in Arizona suggests that separation is again on the rise” said Laura St. John, Legal Director at the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project. “Every day, we witness first-hand the trauma and anguish this policy has inflicted on countless children and their parents. It is unfathomable and unconscionable that the government continues to separate families using flimsy justifications and that they continue to do so with no established system for tracking separated family members, no plans for reunification, and no meaningful oversight.”