US border police are resorting to drastic measures in their fight against unauthorized immigration – even with babies.
Trespassing can lead to family separation: at the US border with Mexico in Arizona Photo: dpa
Desperate cries for help from the next room were the last thing a young mother in San Diego, California, heard from her seven-year-old daughter. Only days later did she learn that U.S. Border Patrol agents had taken her daughter to a home in Chicago, 3,300 kilometers away. Only after weeks were mother and daughter allowed to speak on the phone. The young woman’s "crime": she had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo with her child and applied for asylum in the United States.
Since U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session announced in early May that children and parents crossing the border without permission would be separated, a practice that border patrol agents had been using in many places in the United States for months has been spreading. Particularly along the southern border, they are separating parents and children more and more systematically. Dramatic scenes occur daily. Between May 6 and May 19 alone, 658 children were separated from their parents, according to the New York Times.
In Arizona, Laura St. John of the Florence Project organization has recorded 200 cases since January. The youngest victim in Arizona was 53 weeks old. In Texas, police officers took away a six-month-old baby she was still breastfeeding from a mother from Mexico who had fled sexual violence.
In most cases, children were taken to distant homes without their parents’ knowledge. While parents wait in internment camps for decisions on residence or deportation, they lose all contact with their children. Even siblings are dispersed to different shelters.
Months can pass
As detention periods for paperless immigrants under Donald Trump grow longer, months can pass before families are reunited, if at all. To be sure, after a month has passed, children can be placed in the care of "sponsors," usually family members. But that becomes difficult when "sponsors" themselves are living in the U.S. without documents and face deportation if they come forward.
"The treatment of the families is baseless and inhumane," says St. John, who has provided legal services to immigrants for the past decade. Her colleague Lee Gelernt of the civil rights organization ACLU says, "We’re creating new trauma for children who are traumatized when they arrive, and for whom their mothers were often the only safety they ever had."
Children arrive at distant home without their parents’ knowledge
From the U.S. government’s perspective, family separations are an application of the zero-tolerance principle. "If you don’t want to be separated from your children, you shouldn’t come across our border with them illegally," Secretary Sessions says.
It is the second scandal in a few weeks in U.S. immigration policy. In late April, the head of the Children and Families Program at the Department of Health and Human Services, Steven Wagner, had told the U.S. Congress that his agency had lost track of 1,475 children. These children are among 7,000 unaccompanied minors who had entered the country without papers and were told to wait in "sponsor" families for decisions on their right to stay. Wagner’s revelation was followed by an outcry of indignation. Warnings of child abuse or trafficking circulated. Wagner countered that the minors may have gone into hiding to avoid deportation.