- 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.