It was a phone call from a public defender who was familiar with the work of the Texas Civil Rights Project that tipped off lawyers that immigrant families coming to the U.S. border were being separated from their children before being detained.
Since then, attorneys along the Texas border have worked to represent hundreds of families, primarily from Central America, who begged to find out where their children were and how soon they could be reunited, said Efrén Olivares, Director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Olivares talked to Rutgers students and faculty about the impact of the Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy towards people crossing the southern border and what it’s done to families and children.
His talk was organized by the Rutgers-Newark Human Rights Working Group and co-sponsored by the Center for Immigration Law, Policy and Justice. Political Science Professor Janice Gallagher and Rutgers Law Professor Rose Cuison Villazor provided comments to Olivares’ talk.
“Their kids were separated from them and nobody knew where they were,” Efrén Olivares said. “The parents asked us ‘When am I going to see my child again,’” many of them pleading guilty to the misdemeanor crime of crossing the U.S. border illegally so they could be released from prison and reunited with their children. “No one had answers for them, where their children were or when they could see them,” Olivares said.
Once the children were taken from parents they were considered “unaccompanied minors” by the U.S. government, though they’d come across the border with a parent or family member, Olivares said. Initially being cared for by foster parents, those children still in the U.S. are now being warehoused in tent cities with little supervision about their well-being, health care, or schooling.
“From a human rights perspective, there was something fundamentally unacceptable in taking someone’s child and not having to answer for it to anyone,” he added. Among the families he met was a parent separated from a six-year-old son with cerebral palsy, and a mother and daughter, who had been victims of rape, who also were separated. Another parent explained he was fleeing with a son after his sons’ life was threatened for not joining a gang.
Olivares said his organization needed additional attorneys because of the high volume of people needed representation and that they worked hard to document the names and ages of the children and parents who had been separated, in the hopes of reuniting them. “This was allowed to happen because these were mostly brown Spanish-speaking children,” he said of the separations.
After public pressure, the family separation process was ordered stopped in June, and since then, most of the parents and children have been reunited, but some children remain detained because their parents have been deported and cannot be found, Olivares said. “It was clear there was no plan to reunite them once they were separated,” he said.
Professor Villazor, who is an expert in immigration law, said this treatment of the immigrants at the border meets the definition of torture as defined by federal statute. “Why was the Zero Tolerance policy enacted? It was a way to punish and deter immigrants and to punish those already here, even those with viable asylum claims,” she said.
Professor Gallagher talked about the history of U.S. involvement in Central American countries that has led to the unrest and economic problems that is driving many of the migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to seek refuge in the U.S.
She noted that migration from Mexico has been decreasing in the last two years and that 80 percent of the people still crossing the southern border are from Central America. Of the 408,000 people who came in 2016, 90 percent were asylum seekers, she said, many of whom had a credible fear of returning to their home countries.
This story originally appeared on the Rutgers Law School website.