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Migrant families cross the Rio Grande to get across the border into the United States, to turn themselves in to authorities and ask for asylum, next to the Paso del Norte international bridge, near El Paso, Texas, Friday, May 31, 2019. © 2019 Christian Torrez/AP Photo © 2019 Christian Torrez / AP Photo
(Washington, DC) – United States officials are separating migrant children from their families at the border, causing severe and lasting harm, Human Rights Watch said today. The US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform will hold hearings on the government’s family separation policy on July 12, 2019.
Human Rights Watch interviews and analysis of court filings found that children are regularly separated from adult relatives other than parents. This means that children are often removed from the care of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and adult siblings even when they show guardianship documents or written authorization from parents. Parents have also been forcibly separated from their children in some cases, such as when a parent has a criminal record, even for a minor offense that has no bearing on their ability as caregivers. As a result, in cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch, children as young as 5 have been held in Border Patrol holding facilities without their adult caregivers.
“Congressional hearings are the first step in accounting for and addressing the enormous harms inflicted on children and their families in holding cells at the border,” said Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior children’s rights counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Senior immigration officials should take this opportunity to acknowledge these serious concerns and announce an immediate end to family separation.”
A 5-year-old Honduran boy held in the Clint Border Patrol Station in Texas told lawyers that when he and his father were apprehended at the border, “the immigration agents separated me from my father right away. I was very frightened and scared. I cried. I have not seen my father again.” He did not know how long he had been separated from his father: “I am frightened, scared, and sad.” In another case, an 8-year-old Honduran boy detained in Clint with his 6-year-old sister said, “They took us from our grandmother and now we are all alone.” He did not know how long they had been apart from their grandmother: “We have been here a long time.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 28 children and adults, and reviewed an additional 55 sworn declarations filed in court and taken from children and adults placed in holding cells at the Texas border between June 10 and 20, 2019. Human Rights Watch identified 22 cases in which one or more children described forced separation from a family member, usually within the first few hours after apprehension. Three Human Rights Watch lawyers took part in the teams that collected these declarations to make sure conditions were in compliance with a settlement agreement. The agreement sets the standards for conditions in which migrant children are held.
No federal law or regulation requires children to be systematically separated from extended family members upon apprehension at the border, and there is no requirement to separate a child from a parent unless the parent poses a threat to the child.
US border officials are required to identify children who are victims of trafficking – such as children who are transported for the purpose of exploitation – and to take steps to protect them, but all of the cases of family separation reviewed by Human Rights Watch involved children travelling with relatives to seek asylum, join other family members, or both, with no indication that they were trafficked.
In June 2018, the Trump administration announced an end to the government’s forcible family separation policy after images of children in cages, leaked recordings of border agents mocking crying children, and other news of the extent and impact of the administration’s policy prompted a public outcry.
The cases that Human Rights Watch reviewed demonstrate that forcible family separation is continuing. For relatives other than parents, forcible separation appears to be a routine practice, and for many children, separation from relatives who have served as primary caregivers can be as traumatic as separation from a parent.
Between July 2018 and February 2019, US border officials separated at least 200 children from parents. They often failed to give a clear reason for the separation, a New York Times review found; in some cases, agents separated families because of minor or very old criminal convictions.
Immigration authorities have never disclosed the number of relatives other than parents forcibly separated from children at the border.
Forcible separation is traumatic for children and adults alike. Separated children interviewed by Human Rights Watch described sleepless nights, difficulties in concentrating, sudden mood shifts, and constant anxiety, conditions they said began after immigration agents forcibly separated them from their family members.
Most separated children we interviewed reported having parents or other relatives in the US, but family members with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said border agents made no attempt to contact them.
To prevent harm to children and uphold the principle of family unity, Human Rights Watch urges that:
  • The acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection should direct immigration agents to keep families together unless an adult presents a clear threat to a child or separation is otherwise in a child’s best interests. That determination should be made by a licensed child welfare professional, such as a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist with training and competence to work with children.
  • The inspector general’s office of the Department of Homeland Security should systematically review all instances of family separation, including of family members other than parents, to determine whether separation was in the child’s best interests.
  • Congress should prohibit the separation of families, including of children and their siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins, except when separation is in an individual child’s best interests.

“The border agency needs clear direction from the administration to end forcible family separation and other abusive practices,” Bochenek said. “And it’s up to Congress to provide the oversight to make sure the border agency complies.”

“Zero Tolerance” and Systematic Family Separation

In May 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy under which parents – including those seeking asylum – would be prosecuted for illegal entry, and their children forcibly removed from their parents’ custody and reclassified as “unaccompanied.” White House chief of staff John Kelly told National Public Radio that month: “The children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought a court case to compel the US government to disclose how many children were separated from their parents under the policy. Authorities struggled to provide this information, eventually telling the court that more than 2,700 children had been forcibly separated from their parents in May and June 2018. On June 20, 2018, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that he said ended his administration’s forcible family separation policy.

A government report published in January 2019 found that “thousands” more children had been forcibly separated from their parents, and beginning much earlier, than the administration had previously acknowledged. A leaked draft policy document confirmed administration officials were discussing a family separation policy as of late 2017.

The government has acknowledged that forcible family separations continued after the executive order. In a court filing this February, it reported at least 245 separations between June 26, 2018, and February 5, 2019. By late May, the number had risen to 700, the ACLU reported. In some cases these were triggered by minor, nonviolent offenses – a 20-year-old nonviolent robbery conviction in one case and possession of a small amount of marijuana in another, in cases reviewed by the New York Times. Most of these cases did not list detailed reasons for the separation.

These figures do not include the number of children who were forcibly separated from relatives other than parents.

Children Distraught Without Their Parents

Children described days of not knowing where their parents had been taken and when, if ever, they would be reunited. For example, a 17-year-old boy from El Salvador, interviewed in Clint, said that he and his mother had crossed an international bridge 16 days before. He said:

We presented ourselves to border patrol agents, who then separated us. They refused to explain why they were doing so. Since that moment, I have not known where my mother is. I have not known if my mother was in the United States or elsewhere, or even if she was alive. I have been extremely worried about her.

Children Taken from Grandmothers, Aunts, and Uncles

A 12-year-old girl who travelled to the US with her grandmother and 8 and 4-year-old sisters said that border agents woke them up at 3 a.m. two days before she spoke with lawyers:

[T]he officers told us that our grandmother would be taken away. My grandmother tried to show the officers a paper signed by my parents saying that my grandmother had been entrusted to take care of us. The officers rejected the paperwork, saying that it had to be signed by a judge. Then the officers took my dear grandmother away. We have not seen her since that moment. . . . Thinking about this makes me cry at times. . . . My sisters are still upset because they love her so much and want to be with her.

In another case, a woman who had raised her niece said border agents told her the notarized guardianship papers she showed them were “no good in the United States.” Agents told her she should expect to be separated from her niece once they were transferred from the Ursula Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, the facility frequently called the perrera, meaning “dog kennel,” because of its chain-link-fence holding pens.

An 11-year-old boy who travelled to the US with his 3-year-old brother and their 18-year-old uncle to escape gang violence in Honduras said that border agents separated him and his brother from their uncle when they were apprehended, about three weeks before Human Rights Watch spoke to him in Clint:

The border agents made us sit in a circle, then we were placed on trucks and transported. I don’t know to where. My uncle identified himself as our uncle. The agents told us we would be separated. This was so sad for me. I don’t know where they sent my uncle. We were not allowed to say goodbye to each other.

Human Rights Watch identified many other such cases in our own interviews and the declarations we reviewed. For instance:

  • A 12-year-old girl from Guatemala said that border agents separated her from her aunt and cousin when the three entered the United States at the beginning of June, 15 days before she spoke with lawyers while in the Clint border station.
  • An 8-year-old boy told lawyers he came to the United States with his aunt, who had been taking care of him back home in Guatemala. He said that after border agents separated him from his aunt three days earlier, “I cried and they did not tell me where I was going.”
  • A 12-year-old girl from El Salvador said she and her 7-year-old sister were separated from their grandmother the previous day, after they crossed into the United States and reported to Border Patrol officers.

Siblings Forced Apart

A 17-year-old girl from El Salvador told lawyers she entered the United States with her 8-month-old son and her older sister. Border agents “separated [my sister and me] shortly after we arrived in the US about three weeks ago and I have not been allowed to speak with her ever since.”

A 16-year-old girl from El Salvador, interviewed in Clint, said that she and her 5-month-old daughter were separated from her 20-year-old sister and her sister’s 3-year-old son when they were apprehended three days before she spoke to lawyers in Clint. Border agents later told her that her sister and nephew had been released and sent to live with family members.

A 14-year-old Guatemalan girl said that immediately after she and her 18-year-old sister crossed the river to enter the United States – she was not sure how long ago – border agents “lined us up and checked our skin and our hair. That is when they took my sister away from me and now I’m very worried about her. I don’t know where she is or if she is ok.”

Adult Caregivers Returned to Mexico Without Children

Human Rights Watch has previously identified family separations occurring in the context of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which tens of thousands of primarily Latin American asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico to wait while their claims are pending in the United States. In the context of the MPP, agents separate families who had been traveling together at the border. Children, including some with mental health concerns, were separated from non-parental guardians by Border Patrol, classified as “unaccompanied alien children,” and detained alone. Meanwhile, their adult family members were sent to Mexico for the duration of their asylum cases, which can take months or years. Staying in contact is especially difficult for families separated under the MPP, since those forced to wait in Mexico may not have access to a cell phone or landline.

Families Split Up During Their Time in Border Holding Cells

If both parents are travelling together, fathers are frequently split from the rest of the family. For example, a 23-year-old Honduran man said he, his wife, and their two children were all in the same border station: “I was separated from my family almost immediately. I have only seen my wife and children one time in the three days that I have been here.” A 5-year-old girl told lawyers her father was separated from her and her mother when they were held in McAllen.

Teenagers who are held in the same border station as their parents often stated that they were separated if they and their parents are different genders. In such cases, even though they and their parents are in the same facility, they recounted having little or no contact with their parents. For example:

  • A 15-year-old girl from Honduras said that she was separated from her father in the two holding cells where they were detained. “I’m in a mixed unit with fathers and their children, so I’m not sure why I can’t be with my dad,” she told lawyers.
  • “I was separated from my mother for five days and I was very frightened because I didn’t know what was happening to me or my mother,” a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy said.
  • A 16-year-old Honduran girl said that she and her father were held in separate cells without any contact for two days. “I did not see my father again until . . . they called us out to be fingerprinted and photographed. We were not allowed to see each other before then even though my father repeatedly requested to see me,” the girl said.

Border agents sometimes split children between parents, assigning one or more to each parent during their time in a holding cell. “Our family is kept in separate cells, one son with me and one son with my wife,” a 29-year-old Guatemalan man said. A Honduran woman, also 29, said that when she, her husband, and their two children were apprehended, “[m]y daughter and I were separated from my husband and son almost immediately. I’ve only seen my husband and son one time since we arrived three days ago.”

Some of the children held in border stations have children themselves, and some have travelled to the United States with spouses or long-term partners. 

In one such case, a 16-year-old girl said that after she and her fiancé, along with their one-year-old daughter, fled gang violence in El Salvador, border agents separated her fiancé from her and her daughter. She told lawyers:

We were all very upset. Our baby was crying. I was crying. My fiancé was crying. We asked the guards why they were taking our family apart, and they yelled at us. They were very ugly and mean to us. They yelled at him in front of everyone to sit down and stop asking questions. We have not seen him since.

In another case, a 15-year-old girl who fled Guatemala with her husband and their 8-month-old son said that they requested asylum at the border crossing: “We told them we were travelling as a family and wanted to [remain] together. However, [my husband] was separated from us, and I do not know where he is now. I have not heard from him and I am worried about him.”

Trauma of Forcible Separation

A 15-year-old Guatemalan boy told Human Rights Watch he felt “really desperate and heartbroken and worried” after he was forcibly separated from his father after border agents apprehended them. He described the two months he had been apart from his father:

It is really difficult to be apart from my dad. I don’t know when I will be able to see him, and it makes me really sad. Because I am thinking about my dad and being apart from him, I have difficulty concentrating in class. It’s hard for me to pay attention to what I should be doing. I feel anxious and worried a lot. There are days I don’t have any appetite. I never had a problem eating before, and I think if I weren’t so sad about being apart from my dad I wouldn’t have a problem with eating now. . . . When I start thinking about what happened, I feel sad and I start to cry. This never happened before. . . . This is new. It’s caused by the stress I’m under now.

Family separation causes severe and long-lasting harm. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has noted: “highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health. This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress – known as toxic stress – can carry lifelong consequences for children.”

“This kind of stress makes children susceptible to acute and chronic conditions such as extreme anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, hypertension and heart disease,” two pediatricians wrote in the Houston Chronicle last year.

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