From the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to the Southern California coast, the Trump administration continues separating migrant families at rates that alarm immigration attorneys and advocates, even though a federal judge barred family separations as a systemic policy.
Separations have slowed significantly since a federal judge in San Diego ordered the administration to halt the practice in June 2018. U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw allowed separations in rare, specific circumstances, and the Trump administration has exploited those openings at a worrying clip, according to groups that work with migrants along the border.
“We are alarmed,” said Jennifer Nagda, policy director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, a Chicago-based national human rights group. “In March and April, we again saw a notable increase.”
Advocates at the Young Center’s Harlingen, Texas, office said one in every five families they see at migrant shelters have been separated at the border for questionable reasons. The children ranged in age from 18 months to 15 years old.
Attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project said they’ve counted more than 40 separated families a month in the McAllen area since the injunction in June.
Officials at Al Otro Lado, which advocates for immigrants in California, said dozens of families are separated each day throughout the San Diego metro area.
The official government count is at 389 separated families since last summer’s injunction, according to data received by the American Civil Liberties Union in court filings. One-fifth of the newly separated children are younger than 5 years old, according to the figures.
Advocates said that border-wide, the number of separated children is much higher.
Efrén Olivares, racial and economic justice director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said he realized that the government still intended to separate children at the border days after the injunction. Sitting in the federal courtroom in McAllen, he learned of multiple cases of families being separated. One man from Guatemala had his 2-year-old-daughter taken away from him despite having a birth certificate with both their names and no prior criminal record, Olivares said. It took nearly a month to get them back together.
“We knew then we couldn’t let our guard down,” Olivares said. “This was still happening every day.”
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told a congressional panel Tuesday that his department is conducting “less than two” family separations per day, which he described as minor compared with the 1,600 family units crossing the border each day.
“It’s being done very carefully in extraordinarily rare circumstances,” McAleenan testified before a House appropriations committee.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees all immigration enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which carries out the separations, refused to answer questions about the separations. They would not say how many separations have occurred since Sabraw’s order or what happened to the separated minors.The Department of Health and Human Services, charged with caring for the migrant children, refused to comment on the number or status of separated migrants in its custody. “HHS is not a party to the child’s immigration proceedings,” the department said in a statement.
The separations occur amid the shakeup at Homeland Security, which led to the departure of its chief, Kristjen Nielsen, on April 7. Trump said he wants the agency to take a firmer stance against illegal immigration as the number of Central American families requesting asylum skyrockets and holding facilities along the border overflow.
“Danger to child”: Despite ban, separating migrant families at the border continues in some cases
In March, Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 92,000 immigrants illegally crossing the border, a 12-year high, including 53,077 members of family units, an all-time high.
McAleenan, Nielsen’s replacement, said during an interview with NBC News that family separations are “not on the table” because the policy is “not worth it.”
Border groups said those pronouncements from Washington do not reflect what they see on the ground.
Children traveling with the Central American migrants that hope to reach the United States, play at the beach next to the US-Mexico border fence in Playas de Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on Dec. 29, 2018. El Salvador insisted Saturday that it is taking steps to curb illegal migration to the United States, fending off criticism from President Donald Trump, a day after he threatened to cut off aid to nations in Central America’s Northern Triangle, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Guillermo Arias, AFP/Getty Images