Earlier this year it was reported that the parents of 545 migrant children who were separated from their families at the border cannot be found. These families were separated under President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. Reports of unwanted and unknown hysterectomies in ICE detention centers were also circulating. While these allegations are shocking to the rest of the world, they are not for advocates.
Since the election, a lot of people are wondering what will happen to all of those kids who were separated at the border once President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Will detention centers close? In the first 100 days, Biden plans on reversing Trump's policies that separate parents from their children at the border, end Trump’s asylum policies, and create a plan to protect Dreamers and their families. Biden made history a few weeks ago when he appointed Alejandro Mayorkas, an immigrant and the first Hispanic American, as the new head of the Department of Homeland Security.
YR Media spoke with Linda Rivas, attorney and the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas, about the shocking headlines and the reality she's seeing at the border in her work.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Denise Tejada: What was your initial reaction when you heard the parents of more than 545 children, who were separated from their parents at the border, can't be found?
Linda Rivas: We've known this for a long time. And so while it wasn't shocking to me, I don't know if it paints the whole story. We did know this was going on. Having a specific number still actually leads to a lot of questions. We don't know the full scope of the number.And it's hard to know if we'll ever truly have an accurate number. And I don't believe the government has made huge efforts to retrieve that. Maybe they're just not able because they’re not really ever keeping track.
I'm very glad that the general public has seen that number because the number has been significant and the story has been significant to people who were not working with these folks directly because it makes them realize that the problem never went away.
It's important to note that these children were not unaccompanied. They came with their parents and then they were placed into the system that was really never equipped to handle someone who had been separated at the border.
DT: How do these parents all of the sudden disappear?
LR: I can only speculate here because I don't know how this number was calculated. My experience between ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) is that ICE was an agency that would communicate with ORR but not at length. We sometimes have this notion that the government does this really great job of communicating and I think that that's very much far from the truth. I think that ICE and ORR never met to say, “Okay, I'm taking the kids and I'm taking the parents and we're going to communicate with each other so that we don't lose track of them.” Because when cruelty was the point of separation, why would they ever care enough to do something like that?
Why would they ever care enough to know that ICE was going to potentially rapidly deport a parent? Nobody is documenting where you're being deported to. It was never kind of neatly packaged and we could put family separation behind us. That is far from the truth. And the problem was a lot deeper and it was a lot crueler than we could have ever imagined. It was meant to deter people. And we know that we've had several people in this administration admit that at this point.
We're dealing with a trauma that we had never even really experienced in advocacy. I witnessed people literally shaking when recalling how they were separated from their children. They are watching their children grow up through WhatsApp, through pictures. At this point, it's been, you know, two and a half to three years since the separations. Their children look vastly different. ICE knew that many of these parents would not be successful in their claims to remain in the United States. DHS (Department of Homeland Security) knew that a lot of these parents would end up deported while their children were then going to be placed in a whole different court proceeding that could take longer.
DT: How does a judge rule and decide where a kid goes?
LR: So judges actually have no say in that. ORR is staffed with caseworkers and some social workers. When it is an unaccompanied minor, they typically are coming with a phone number of family members. It was a very rare occurrence, but there was a story that came out where under the ORR system, a few children had been released to people who were potentially involved in trafficking. And it's the social workers and the caseworkers that will call and make contact with the families. And then background checks ensued.
But when we're talking about the 545, the way I understand the news reports around it is these were children who came and were separated from their parents, not the truly unaccompanied minor. But, of course, like I said, when the government started to forcibly separate children from their parents, their parents were proving they were their parents. They had birth certificates with them. There's also a lot of myths that, “Oh, it's the traffickers, the coyotes that were bringing them over.”
DT: What are some issues that you're seeing in those detention centers that are not being covered by the media?
LR: Detention conditions are and continue to be extremely horrific. Medical neglect is a really big deal. Sexual assaults in detention centers also happen. The ability to go on with no accountability whatsoever and to victimize people is something that is a horrific problem with ICE. And you see it with DHS in general and you see the profound effects of family separation. This global pandemic we're in, the United States has decided to weaponize COVID and not allow asylum seekers at all. This includes unaccompanied children.
So for the first time in our history, despite us having this system, ORR and the shelters, they have stopped. Children were being held in these secret locations because they were actually just getting ready to expel them from the country. Which is essentially sending them back to their home country with zero due process, no ability to speak to an attorney, and no ability to reunite with their family.
There's a lot of pain. There is more pain and trauma than any other clients that I've ever worked with. The memories of family separation are very fresh. They're very new. There are still open wounds there. We always have to remember that family separation, unfortunately, is not new for our country. Our country has a very horrible history with Black and brown children and so family separation continues in many ways. And we still have a great, great, great need for very robust immigration reform.