Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration violation policy is not the only policy that is leading to family separations. Even families crossing at regular ports of entry and requesting asylum have often ended up being separated. Oscar Leon reports from Arizona
OSCAR LEON: While President Donald J. Trump says the gangs are invading USA, it seems to be that the ones arriving are the gangs’ victims. A wave of unaccompanied children from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador have been knocking on USA’s doors, fleeing gang violence, escaping recruitment, assassination threats and poverty.
PATRICIA FLORES: Firstly, the future of my son forced me to get out of El Salvador, because there is no future. So, I decided to leave my country because of the insecurity, the violence.
OSCAR LEON: Differently from past migration waves with plans and intentions to avoid border patrol at all costs, large groups of families and even unaccompanied children take a great number of risks, just to get to a U.S. border checkpoint and ask for asylum. The zero-tolerance directive turns walking across the border into a crime and orders every state attorney to press mandatory criminal charges for those crossing the border. This means that those individuals will be immediately removed and sent to federal detention centers, and therefore cannot take care of children or minors accompanying them. The children and minors will be placed in the care of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, more exactly the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
ANA MEJIA: That’s my biggest fear, to be separated from my children. I am bringing them, fleeing from the danger in Honduras. And if we are separated here in US, I don’t know what I would do. I think about this day and night when I see my children.
OSCAR LEON: In the month that lasted the family separation policy, according to NPR, 2,342 children were taken away from their relatives and placed in detention centers for processing and eventual transfer to detention-care facilities. But even before the president backed down from his separation policy, some families had already been reunified thanks to the work of pro bono lawyers and advocates like the ones at the Florence Project, providing legal services to detained migrants and their families. Also, thanks to activists working with the Phoenix Restoration Project.
SELENA KEESECKER: I worked with one woman, picked her up at the bus station one night- or one morning. She was supposed to take the bus to go to Florida, but she was not going to leave because her daughter was not with her. So, we took her home and we worked with the Phoenix Restoration, which we’re a part of, to find what we could do to find the daughter. And I made a number of calls over to UMA, because we heard that might be where she was, and no one in the UMA child’s department knew where she was. Talked to, left messages and talked to three different people and also another person, and they did not know where she was. And this child is a U.S. citizen, and I have no idea why they did not send that child to the family where this person eventually did go. She was a U.S. citizen born in California. She was about twelve years old, about twelve years old.
OSCAR LEON: Cases like this are possible because unlike the people walking across the border, and because they are not fighting a criminal case but an immigration one, the people entering the country at ports of entry after initial processing and detention are entitled to seek asylum and have a legal opportunity to fight their cases in court, be released and even get to be reunited with their children here in U.S. pending their immigration cases. It is important to notice the difference between those who simply walk over the border and those who surrender themselves at ports of entry. The latter group “will not be prosecuted,” according to U.S. General Attorney Jeff B. Sessions, who, defending his immigration policy in Fox News, said:
JEFF SESSIONS: If they enter the country at a port of entry, and there are many of those around the border, they are not violating the law. The mother or father in that circumstance will not be prosecuted, and the families will stay together. However, the lawyers from the Florence Project have observed that this is not the case and there have separations at ports of entry, as they confirmed to us in a written statement.
FLORENCE PROJECT STATEMENT: The Florence Project is the only organization in Arizona providing free legal and social services to detained immigrants, including parents and children who have been separated. We have met with parents and children who were separated after seeking protection at a port of entry. We believe that the practice of forcibly separating families is cruel and inhumane.
OSCAR LEON: As far as the people caught crossing the border with their children, they will be detained and charged, will face six months prison time, repeaters will face two years prison time, and after paying their sentences they will be deported.
DOLORES ALARCON: We are each put in a cell that’s like a cage, the so-called “ICE machines.” It’s horribly cold. Us women are on the floor, there’s a piece of plastic over us and nothing else. For children, there is a mattress but there isn’t anything to cover you. And it’s very cold. We were there in detention for four days, my son and I, my husband also.
OSCAR LEON: After the signing the executive directive to stop the separation of families, the Trump administration has offered a way for those parents who accept being deported to be sent back accompanied by their children. The ones who choose to stay and fight their cases in court, face a much more complicated path. Their children, at the care of Health and Human Services, will be trapped in detention centers, care institutions, until they are claimed. Veronica Monge, a local mom and activist, emphasizes the importance of supporting organizations that shelter and support these kids who can suffer even harder detention conditions, if they turn eighteen and they haven’t been claimed.
VERONICA MONGE: After someone turns the age of eighteen, when they are released, if they don’t have anywhere to go, then they can be transferred to an adult detention center.
OSCAR LEON: There is already a generation of American kids who have been severely impacted by family separation. Something that has happened since a decade ago, albeit different circumstances.
VERONICA MONGE: I hear a lot of stories of separation, of families. A lot of people have relatives detained in Florence or in ICE detention.
OSCAR LEON: Germina Sanchez, an activist from Central United Methodist Church, knows about a number of similar cases.
GERMINA SANCHEZ: Those children face a very hard reality because they stay with an uncle, maybe an aunt or under the care of their older siblings. And it is very hard for someone so young to work and take care of them.
OSCAR LEON: But why is this happening? Was an escalation in cruelty necessary? Is it necessary to stop immigration from the South? A growing economy relies on a growing population, and with birth rates in the U.S. reaching record lows in 2018 and in constant decline since 1971, economists suggest the future of the U.S. economy could rely on migrant population to keep up with its growth. In other words, a declining population could pose serious challenges in the future. So, the US economy needs all those future workers, shoppers and taxpayers to be able to maintain a functional economy of growth, never mind keeping its place as a world leader. But others, like Arizona State Representative David Stringer, see these kids as an “existential threat.”
DAVID STRINGER: Sixty percent of children in public schools today are minorities, and that complicates racial integration because there aren’t enough white kids to go around. I mean look at that sixty percent number for our public-school students, just carry that forward ten years, fifteen years. It’s going to change the demographic voting base of the state and that’s what’s going on around the country”
OSCAR LEON: Stringer speaks of the “the demographic voting base” around the country changing, and he is right. If you look at the demographic charts of the city of Phoenix, you’ll notice that after that generational shift takes place in fifteen years, it is easy to imagine that an anti-immigrant party can never win an election in a context of white people being a forty percent minority, as it is the case in the early ages brackets. With an endless flow of refugees percolating the South border, that difference could increase at an even larger rate. So, do they want to make a wall and imprison families indefinitely just so they can keep winning elections, even at the cost of their own country’s economic well-being? Stringer himself says it openly:
DAVID STRINGER: Immigration is politically destabilizing the country, President Trump has talked about this. I am really concerned about this. Immigration today represents an existential threat to United States. If we don’t do something about immigration very, very soon, the demographics of our country will be irrevocably changed, and it will be a very different country. It will not be the country you were born into.
OSCAR LEON: Which begs the question, does having a larger multiracial population assures electoral victories for the Democratic Party? It is not written in stone, especially because Democrats have separated about four million families already and those children that grew up with no father or mother, or both, will not forget as easily as the rest. For The Real News, from Arizona, this is Oscar León.