“You can’t imagine the pain,” Dennis said. “If you’re not a dad, you don’t know what it’s like.” I reached Dennis by phone in a small town in the Copán Department of Honduras, where he lives with his wife and three children. For five months this year, the family was fractured across borders. Sonia, age 11, had been separated from Dennis after they crossed into the United States and turned themselves in to the Border Patrol to ask for asylum. Dennis was deported from Texas, and Sonia sent to a shelter in New York.
The U.S. government is still taking children from their parents after they cross the border. Since the supposed end of family separation — in the summer of 2018, after a federal judge’s injunction and President Donald Trump’s executive order reversing the deeply controversial policy — more than 1,100 children have been taken from their parents, according to the government’s own data. There may be more, since that data has been plagued by bad record keeping and inconsistencies. The government alleges that separations now only happen when a parent has a criminal history or is unfit to care for a child, but an ongoing lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union argues that the current policy still violates the rights of children and families. Border Patrol agents, untrained in child welfare, make decisions that some parents are unfit to stay with their children based solely on brief interactions with them while they are held in custody.
Dennis picks coffee during the harvest season and works other basic jobs when he can, but he struggles to put food on the table and pay for his kids’ school supplies. In April, unable to find steady work in the coffee fields and receiving regular threats from a creditor, he headed north, hoping to find safety and opportunity in the United States. “We were barely eating. I couldn’t give my kids a life,” Dennis told me. (He preferred that I only use first names for him and his family due to safety concerns.) Thinking that his two boys — ages 2 1/2 and 7 — were too young to travel, Dennis took Sonia and together they left Honduras. They trekked through Guatemala and Mexico by bus, train, and on foot. They were robbed once, terrified the whole way, and had to beg for food. They slept wherever they could — sometimes in the woods, along the tracks, or, when they could scrounge enough money together, in migrant flophouses.
After about a month of travel, Dennis and Sonia crossed the Rio Grande in a small raft outside of McAllen, Texas, on the morning of May 17. They walked for hours before they turned themselves in to a Border Patrol agent and were taken to a processing center, where they were locked up in one of the freezing-cold temporary holding centers known as hieleras, or iceboxes. Only a few hours later, a Border Patrol agent took Dennis and Sonia and locked them in separate rooms. It was the last time he would see his daughter for five months.
Border Patrol agents, untrained in child welfare, make decisions that some parents are unfit to stay with their children based solely on brief interactions.
For the next 11 days, Dennis remained in the hielera, asking repeatedly to see his daughter. Border Patrol officers tried to get him to sign papers that were in English, which he couldn’t read. He refused. “You can’t see her,” a Border Patrol agent told him about his daughter. The agent said that she was fine, but wouldn’t tell him where she was. Border Patrol transferred Dennis to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Port Isabel, Texas. They told him that because of a previous deportation and a felony — a 10-year-old charge for using false work authorization papers — he was ineligible for asylum. For the next 30 days of his detention, he knew nothing of his daughter or her whereabouts. Finally, an agent called him over and told him that she was on the phone. The call was brief. They both cried. He told her to be strong. He told her that they were going to send him away. Two weeks later, without talking to his daughter again, he was deported back to Honduras. “I’m a man, but I cried. I cried,” he told me. “Oh, it was so hard.”
Sonia was in New York in an Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, shelter, where she was living with a number of other children. In Honduras, after Dennis’s deportation, the rest of the family waited in agony for nearly 5 months, until October 9, when Sonia was released and then flown home. “My wife,” Dennis said, “she didn’t eat, didn’t sleep. You can’t imagine the suffering. And, don’t forget,” he reminded me, “she had two other kids to raise.”
In 2018, much of the world looked on aghast as U.S. immigration agents separated thousands of children from their parents in an unprecedented anti-immigrant crackdown. In one notorious instance captured on audio, Border Patrol agents laughed and joked at desperate children crying for their parents. The separations, part of a series of policy changes to limit total immigration and effectively shutter refugee and asylum programs, stemmed from the so-called zero-tolerance policy that began in El Paso in 2017 and was rolled out border-wide in the spring of 2018. The administration had announced that it would seek to prosecute all people who illegally crossed the border (despite the fact that, according to U.S. law, it is not illegal for an asylum-seeker to cross the border), but it later emerged that the government had specifically targeted families. A strict zero tolerance policy — prosecuting every individual who was apprehended — was always beyond capacity. The focus on families was part of a distinct effort by the Department of Homeland Security and the White House to try and dissuade — by subjecting parents and children to the terror of separation — more people from coming to the United States.
After widespread uproar and international condemnation, Trump issued an executive order to halt the separations on June 20, 2018. Six days later, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw issued an injunction, demanding the reunification of parents with their children within 30 days. For children under the age of 5, the deadline was 14 days. For some, however, it was too late. Parents had already lost custody, been deported, or even lost track of their children. Even for those who were reunified, trauma had set in. In 2018, the number of publicly known separations was 2,800. In fact, as the government revealed this October after pressure from the ACLU lawsuit, that original count was over 1,500 children short. Furthermore, the government has admitted that more than 1,100 additional families have been separated since the executive order and injunction — bringing the total number of children impacted to at least 5,446. That number may still be an undercount and will continue to rise if immigration officials’ current practices continue.
The government has admitted that 1,100 additional families have been separated — bringing the total number of children impacted to at least 5,446.
The grounds for the ongoing separations — the 1,100 new cases — stem from a carve-out in Sabraw’s injunction: that children should not be separated “absent a determination that the parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child.” That language, the ACLU and others allege in an ongoing lawsuit, is being interpreted too broadly by the government, resulting in unwarranted separations. ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, who has been litigating against the government on behalf of a class of separated families, called the ongoing separation policy “as shocking as it is unlawful.”
The reason that Dennis and Sonia were separated, for example, goes back to 2008, when Dennis’s wife was pregnant with Sonia, and Dennis came to the U.S. to find work and support his family. He made it to Minnesota and was loaned false papers to get a job, but he was quickly picked up and charged with forgery. He spent three months in a federal prison before being deported. Eleven years later, that conviction led to Sonia being taken from him. “You could call any child expert from anywhere in the country, and they would tell you that these parents are not a danger to the child,” Gelernt said in a September 20 hearing. “The government is simply saying, ‘We are going to take away children because the court said we could.’”
In a brief filed to the court in July, ACLU attorneys pointed out cases in which children were taken from their parents for “the most minor or nonviolent criminal history.” The reasons for separation cited in those cases included marijuana possession convictions, a 27-year-old drug possession charge, and a charge of “malicious destruction of property value” over a total of $5. An 8-month-old was separated from his father for a “fictitious or fraudulent statement.” A mother who broke her leg at the border had her 5-year-old taken from her while she was in emergency surgery, and ORR did not release the child for 79 days.
In an example of a dubious determination made by the Border Patrol of a father being “unfit” to care for his 1-year-old daughter, an agent separated the two because the father left his daughter in a wet diaper while she was sleeping. She had been sick and, after caring for her and taking her to the hospital on two separate occasions for a high fever, the father “wanted to let her sleep instead of waking her to change her diaper,” according to the ACLU brief. Nonetheless, a female guard took his daughter from his arms, criticized him for not changing the diaper, and even called him a bad father. The government’s own documents show that the father has no other criminal history.
In another instance, a 3-year-old girl was separated from her father due to Customs and Border Protection’s allegation that he was not actually her parent. Although the father’s name does not appear on the child’s birth certificate, he presented other documentation showing parentage and requested a DNA test as proof. Officials ignored his request and separated the family. After an attorney intervened, the family took a DNA test and confirmed paternity. Meanwhile, the daughter was sexually abused while in ORR care and, according to the brief, “appears to be severely regressing in development.”
CBP did not respond to a request for comment.
The ACLU’s brief received some coverage this summer, but many of the most egregious stories it collected went unmentioned. Overall, even as the separations have continued, media attention has flagged. From a high of 2,000 stories a month in the summer of 2018, this fall has seen an average of only 50 to 100 stories a month that mention family separation, according to an analysis by Pamela Mejia, head of research at Berkeley Media Studies Group. Mejia told me that the issue had “reached a saturation point” for many people: “The overwhelming number of stories that generate outrage has made it harder to keep anything in the headlines.”
“At this point, no government official can plausibly claim that they are unaware of the damage these separations are doing to the children, yet they continue to do it.”
At first, the child victims of the government’s actions were easy to empathize with. There was no “crime frame,” as Mejia put it, to explain away the children’s suffering, in contrast to the way that immigration is often covered. Whether denominating migrants as “illegals,” seeing them as “hordes” or “invaders,” or using a broad brush to associate them with crime or terrorism, politicians and the media alike often wield anti-immigrant or dehumanizing language when discussing immigration. Young children, however, are something different. The broad consensus in 2018 was that the family separation policy was an outrageous and unnecessary cruelty.
But, despite the outrage, the policy continued and now there’s a sense of “futility that this is going to keep happening,” Mejia said. Gelernt likewise attributed the lack of ongoing coverage to “media burnout,” noting especially that there are more than 200 kids under the age of 5 who have been separated from their families. It’s hard to cover so many heartrending stories, Gelernt said. And now, simply, “People think it’s over.”
But it’s not. Sabraw, the southern California judge who issued the injunction in 2018, is expected to rule soon on the ACLU’s challenge to the continued separations. But even if he again orders the government to reunify families, or narrows immigration officials’ latitude in carrying out separations, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the government can, or will, comply. CBP, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, has already proven negligent in keeping track of the separated children — calling families who had undergone separation, for example, “deleted family units.” Some children still remain unaccounted for.
“At this point, no government official can plausibly claim that they are unaware of the damage these separations are doing to the children,” Gelernt told me, “yet they continue to do it.”
In late November, back in Copán, Sonia graduated from sixth grade. One of her favorite things to do, Dennis told me, is to draw with her younger brothers. She is also teaching the older of the two boys to read, practicing his letters with him. She’ll go into seventh grade soon, but her father worries about her growing up in what he described as a gang-ridden town. Honduras has one of the highest incidence rates of violence against women in the world. He also doesn’t know how he’ll be able to pay for her high school. “I know it’s desperate,” he said, “but I’m thinking of heading north again. I can’t see how else to do it.”
Sonia doesn’t talk much about her time separated from her family, but Dennis notices that she’s changed, and he and his wife are worried: “She told me she didn’t feel good. She was just crying at first [while in the ORR facility]; that’s all she did.” Now when she goes quiet sometimes, her parents wonder if she’s still affected by the trauma. As Dennis contemplated aloud another potential trip north in search of personal and financial security, he reflected, “I just ask that we have enough food to eat every day. I just want my family to be safe.”