On May 7, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session announced that the Department of Homeland Security would refer 100 percent of illegal border crossers for prosecution, including parents with children. On May 14, six Tucson Operation Streamline lawyers arrived at the DeConcini Federal Courthouse to meet with their assigned immigrant clients and encountered frantic parents who did not know where their children had been taken.
No one knew the location of the children or how to help the parents. The Streamline lawyers were shocked. The immigrant parents had been arrested by Border Patrol, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, and were being prosecuted by the U.S Department of Justice. Their children had been taken into the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of another giant federal agency. ORR contracts with numerous organizations for child placements all over the country. Where did Lupe’s son get taken? Where was Oscar’s daughter? Lawyers and other advocates scrambled to find out.
Immigrant parent/child separation has sharply increased all along the U.S.-Mexico border, impacting mostly brown and black Latino families. The American Immigration Council reported that 638 parents were separated from 658 children during prosecution for illegal entry during a 13-day period in May.
In Tucson’s Streamline court, frightened parents ask their lawyers to find out how they can be reunited with their child at the time of deportation. There are few answers.
The Houston Chronicle reported that coordination between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ORR is rare or nonexistent. A parent convicted of illegal entry may get time served and be deported in a few days, or may be incarcerated for several months, depending on the charges. The children are held in shelters or other child welfare settings for weeks or months, which is undoubtedly traumatizing. It is difficult for detained parents to locate their children, and almost impossible to arrange for a coordinated deportation. Thus, parents may be returned to their home country alone, without knowing where their children are or how to get them back.
The ramped-up child separation is also creating a strain on existing resources. In mid-May, numerous media reported that the Trump administration is considering using military bases to expand the nation’s capacity for immigrant child custody.
Many of the parents affected by child separation are fleeing persecution and violence in Central America. The U.S. is bound by its own law and international treaties to allow these families to pursue asylum claims without punishment or deportation. Yet we are subjecting them to both. President Trump denounces gang violence in Central America but won’t protect the very people who are brave enough to risk everything to resist and escape.
This can no longer be ignored. Where are our community, political and religious leaders, the ministers, rectors, bishops, rabbis, imams, and especially the evangelical leaders with close ties to this administration? This is our government, seizing children and holding them hostage, purportedly in order to teach their parents a lesson — a grave moral and human-rights violation.
Please call your members of Congress and ask them to take steps to ensure that the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice immediately cease prosecuting parents entering the U.S. with children and cease separating children from their parents.
Isabel Garcia is the former director of the Pima County Legal Defender. Dino J. DeConcini is the former Tucson City attorney. The authors are members of the End Streamline Coalition.