“They are not our friend, believe me,” Donald Trump said of Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
This quote was pulled directly from Donald Trump’s speech when he announced he was running for president — revealing quite clearly how he feels about the people of Mexico. Fast forward to April 6 of this year — not even a year and a half after his inauguration — and the “zero-tolerance” policy is announced, a policy that we now know resulted in the separation of an estimated 2,654 children from their parents once they crossed the border.
Asylum Is Not A Crime
Even though the zero-tolernace policy was put in place by the current administration, there were claims that it was originally created by the Democrats. “I know what you’re going through right now with families is very tough, but those are the bad laws the Democrats gave us. We have to break up families,” POTUS told Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in May. The reality is that the POTUS’ desire for “stronger borders” and building a wall south of the border superseded any sliver of compassion he might have had for those that seek refuge in the United States.
Previous to the “zero-tolerance” policy, families who crossed the U.S. border illegally were detained together in family detention centers or released until they went before a judge in immigration court, were deported or had their asylum case(s) heard. The civil removal process was never to jail those who enter the country or separate families. Under the zero-tolerance policy, those crossing the border are criminally prosecuted, resulting in their detention and separation from their children.
What the administration failed to address was that asylum seekers who come to our border are required to be physically present in the United States to begin the asylum process; the narrative that those who are detained and separated at the border are committing a crime by being here is false. In order to begin an asylum case you must be in the United States or come to the U.S. port of entries near the border and state that they are fleeing persecution in their home country and seeking asylum. Instead asylum seekers were turned away or arrested. “ … people were told, ‘You don’t have the option to seek asylum and be reunited with your children,’” Gracie Willis, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told HuffPost.
People, Not Property
On June 26, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw issued the order that required an immediate halt to separating immigrant families at the border, as well as the reunification of parents with children under the age of five within two weeks of separation and parents with children aged five and older within 30 days. This order in no way obstructed standing immigration law; it simply reversed the implications put forward in the “zero-tolerance” policy that families were to be separated at border entry. “The unfortunate reality is that under the present system, migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property. Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process,” Sabraw wrote in the order.
Unaccounted for is an understatement. By the time Judge Sabraw reversed the order — only a few months after it had been put into effect — parents were being deported without their children, and, in some cases, children were deported without their parents.
We spoke with Efrén C. Olivares, the Racial Economic Justice program director at the Texas Civil Rights Project(TCRP) who told us of one such story. A pair of brothers were deported while family that they traveled to the U.S. with were still detained in the U.S. Luckily, their mother was in Mexico. When I asked Olivares if the U.S. government knew that their mother was in Mexico, he replied, “Well, I don’t know that the U.S. government knew that before deporting them. Once they landed in the Mexican equivalent of [the Office of Refugee Resettlement], at that point the Mexican ORR interviewed the children and found out that their mom was in Mexico.”
In another reunification case with TCRP, a mother was told she would be reunited with her daughter and ICE agents brought her the wrong child. The mother was later reunited with her child, but these cases are prime examples of the lack of concern and organization surrounding the reunification process.
As for the estimated 463 parents who were deported without their children, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is reported to have coerced many into signing papers for voluntary deportation by telling them it was the only way in which they could be reunited with their children.
“We are in touch with some of the parents who have been deported without their children,” Olivares told us. “Some of them told us that they did not want to be deported without their children. They don’t know what they signed, they weren’t given a copy. They were told it was necessary for them to sign, otherwise they were never going to get their child back, so they signed, but they don’t know what it was …”
Of the reported 2,654 children originally separated from their parents, 416 children remain separated, according to court documents filed on September 6. Prior to this, a status report was released in August with data that included tables with specific categories for those who remain in government custody under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). PBS News Hour broke down the tables outlined in the status report as follows:
- 366 adults are currently outside the U.S. These are parents who have already been deported by immigration officials or left the U.S. voluntarily.
- 154 parents “indicated desire against reunification.”
- 83 reunification cases were “prevented or potentially affected by separate litigation.”
- 46 children are under ORR care upon further review that showed they weren’t separated from their parents by Department of Homeland Security officials.
- 37 adults had a “red flag” in other case reviews.
- 36 adults had a “red flag” in their background checks.
- 19 adults are in federal, state or local custody.
- The locations for 10 adults are under case file review.
- 9 adults were released to the U.S. interior.
Many of these categories are alarming considering what we now know about the lack of organization and coercion that has occurred throughout this process. The 154 parents who “indicated desire against reunification” is an obvious red flag for those that have been following this this story from the beginning — now there are two literal “red flag” categories. Until now, the term “ineligible for reunification” has been thrown around without any clarification as to why parents are considered unsuitable. All of these categories fit within the “ineligible for reunification” umbrella.
We spoke with Jorge L. Barón, executive director at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), who is working with parents who have been placed in the “ineligible for reunification” category. When we asked if he has a better understanding of what these categories mean he answered frankly, “The answer to your question is ‘no.’” Barón works directly with the families effected and even him and his colleagues have remained in the dark about what disqualifies parents from reunification.
He has, however, dealt with cases in which a parent attempting to get their child back fell within the “red flag” category. “They told her that the child had expressed some concern about being released to her,” Barón told us, “and so they were not going to release the child initially. They didn’t really explain why. Then they were saying, ‘Well, you know, there’s a red flag.’ And we’re like, ‘What’s the red flag? What’s the reason?’ We pushed and pushed, and eventually they ended up releasing the child. There’s been all these cases where they said that there’s some red flag that has been raised, and, of course, nobody could talk to the child, so it was hard to figure out what it was they were claiming. In that case, it ended up being a moot point, because they did end up releasing the child.”
TCRP has also come across cases where parents were told they were going to be deported, and that their child was going to be with them on the plane — yet their child remained in the U.S.
Follow The Money
Throughout this entire process, it’s been clear to those closely involved that the government never had a plan in place to reunite these families. Instead of reunification, the government turned to facilities like the Southwest Key Programs in Texas — and placement of separated children in facilities similar to the one mentioned above is far from a new phenomenon.
The U.S. has a long history of detaining immigrant children. In Texas there are 32 licensed facilities for detaining migrant children, and roughly 100 in total across the U.S. Southwest Key Programs is the largest facility in Texas; its chief executive earned nearly $1.5 million in 2016 alone. And Southwest Key Programs is far from the only company profiting from the imprisonment of children seeking refuge. This is a billion-dollar industry that is financed by the American people.
A study conducted by Reveal from The Center of Investigative Reporting and The Texas Tribune uncovered an incredible amount of taxpayer money — $1.5 billion in the past four years — going to these facilities. Additionally the report uncovered evidence of gross abuse and neglect that often goes unchecked in these private companies. In the last 15 years, the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department has allotted almost $5 billion dollars in federal grants to the Office of Refugee Resettlement — a small division of HHS. Allotted to companies like His House Children’s Home, in which a federal audit revealed that the center “might have placed federal funds totaling 9 million dollars at risk of mismanagement or misappropriation,” as well as evidence of negligent policy practices when it comes to medical care, clothing and background checks for adult employees.
During the media storm of coverage when the zero-tolerance policy was first introduced, images of chain-link fences holding children of all ages and a literal tent city with armed guards in Tornillo, Texas — which costs HHS $775 per person per day — flooded our feeds. Though the financial cost is extremely high — almost three times as much as it would cost to house families together — the emotional and psychological costs of these enterprises are much higher.
Detention centers similar to Southwest Key Programs claim to “provide quality education, safe shelter and alternatives to incarceration for thousands of youth each day.” In reality, their conditions are much like that of their incarcerated adult parents, rampant with disturbing violations — yet they continue to remain open. The Texas Tribune collected comprehensive data on the amount of government funding and number of violations, among other things, each facility in Texas has accumulated using data collected from, and made available by, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Here are some notable data points, as of September of this year:
- Southwest Key Programs — An employee came to work drunk. Reports of one child waiting three days to get medical care after a broken wrist, and three weeks for a child with a sexually transmitted disease (even more unsettling, considering sexual abuse is common in these facilities). Southwest Key has received $204.5 million dollars in federal funding having 246 violations on the books in the last three years.
- BCFS Health and Human Services — Employees reported to have had “inappropriate relationships” with the children in custody. These facilities have received $49 million dollars in federal funding even though they have had a reported 52 violations in the last three years.
- Upbring — Formerly known as Lutheran Social Services. The facility rebranded due to the death of a 12-month-old girl, whose head was crushed by her caretaker. These facilities have received $9.4 million in federal funding even though there have been 37 violations in the last three years.
- Shiloh Treatment Center, Inc. — A 16-year-old girl was reportedly restrained by staff, resulting in her death. Another child was administered psychotropic drugs without his mother’s consent, which she later had to wean him off with the help of a psychiatrist. This facility has received $2.6 million in federal funding even though the facility has had eight violations in the last three years.
Behavior Training Research Inc. and Daystar Residential Inc. are affiliated with Shiloh Treatment Center through founder Clay Dean Hill. Four more children are reported to have died after being restrained at these facilities, and one died from asphyxia. Just last month, a Southwest Key Programs employee in Arizona was accused of molesting eight boys. A boy was sexually assaulted by one of the older boys at The Children’s Village and was taken to the hospital. His mother was told that there “had been an incident with a boy,” but “he was fine,” and that they would send along the official incident paperwork. The only paperwork she ever received was an $800 bill from the hospital that saw her son after his assault.
Turning 18 and aging out of care doesn’t end the brutal ways in which undocumented children are treated. On their 18th birthday, many immigrant children are treated as criminals by ICE; they are handcuffed, chained and placed in shackles before they are transferred to an adult immigration jail without due process. Only hours before, they were considered shackle-less and children.
“When they turn 18, it’s basically, ‘Happy birthday,’ and then they slap on handcuffs and take them off to adult detention centers,” Lisa Lehner, an attorney with the nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice, told Miami New Times.
Janet Gwilym, the managing attorney of Kids in Need of Defense, believes it is a form of intimidation. “I believe it’s a psychological strategy they’re using to try to get them to just give up and go back home, even if they know they’ll be killed if they go back,” she told Miami News Times.
Once in adult detention facilities, the conditions only worsen. The Southern Law Poverty Center did a study on the immigration detention system and uncovered a monumental amount of gross civil rights violations, abuse and neglect. A man contracted a preventable, treatable infection at Alabama’s Etowah County Detention Center, where it went untreated; he eventually became paralyzed from the neck down before passing away. One person at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia went five months with a broken clavicle before he was treated. At Baker Detention Center in Florida, a pregnant woman asked to see a medical professional because she was bleeding vaginally — she was placed in a holding cell and never seen.
Those that run the facilities have no incentive to do any better. At the Etowah County Detention Center, sheriffs are allowed to keep any funds left over from what would go into jail kitchen budgets, resulting in unsustainably small meal portions for those detained. And unlike American citizens, immigrants are not promised counsel, isolating them from any knowledge of due process resulting in prolonged detention — thus continuing the cycle of fattening the pockets of for-profit contract facilities.
What Are Our Options
By taking a step back and simply looking at the systems in place, it becomes evident that they are failing. The Office of Refugee Resettlement has repeatedly awarded grants to facilities known to abuse and neglect the children they detains. The lack of oversight is criminal, and detention centers continue to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
But what other options are there?
According to a 15-year study conducted from 2001 to 2016 by the American Immigration Council, 96 percent of immigrants who came to the U.S. seeking asylum and released from detention until their case could be seen in court showed up for their court hearings. Anti-immigrant rhetoric hangs on the theory that the only choice the U.S. has is to lock these families up, but that is simply false. Less than one quarter of all U.S. immigrants are unauthorized. The only people who benefit from the incarceration of families are the companies who are profiting from immigrant detainment.
The Future is Grim
And politics play a huge part in that. During the 2016 election, the two biggest private prison companies — CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America) and Geo Group — donated massive amounts of money to their interests in the Republican party. Since Election Day, both companies’ stocks rose tremendously — Geo Group a whopping 98 percent and CoreCivic an incredible 140 percent. Stocks also rosethis year as families continue to be separated.
With a president in office that is “enhancing public safety in the interior of the United States,” the Department of Homeland Security is able to broaden its reach and cash flow. If private prisons prove they can run a facility at a lower cost than a public one, they receive a stipend from the federal government — which only continues to exacerbate issues of abuse, ignorance and omission.
Since the zero-tolerance policy has been rebuked, the Federal Government is now seeking new tactics to detain and hold immigrants and end any oversight into their conditions by doing away with the Flores Settlement Agreement.
“The administration is planning its next step, which we believe will result in even more suffering and trauma for children,” Ai-jen Poo of the Families Belong Together Coalition told Reveal. “By dismantling long-standing child protection under the Flores Settlement Agreement and implementing regulations in its place, the Trump administration is seeking to expand its power to jail families for longer in worse conditions and lock [up] children indefinitely.”
According to Human Rights First, the 1997 agreement required the following:
- “The government is required to release children from immigration detention without unnecessary delay to, in order of preference, parents, other adult relatives, or licensed programs willing to accept custody.”
- “If a suitable placement is not immediately available, the government is obligated to place children in the ‘least restrictive’ setting appropriate to their age and any special needs.”
- “The government must implement standards relating to the care and treatment of children in immigration detention.”
With the Flores Settlement Agreement currently intact, there are clearly many things wrong with the current system — without it, conditions will only worsen, possibly indefinitely, for those who came to this country seeking refuge.
This Is America
People of color have been a bartering and bargaining chip for those in power since the first colonizer set foot on what is now America.
- African slaves had no rights, not even to their own children. Often children were sold to pay debts, create equal inheritance, or to show dominance in the most traumatic way possible— punishment by way of selling their child.
- Indigenous peoples know all too well the trauma of being torn from your family. Tens of thousands of children were taken from safety of their own family, culture and language and placed in abusive boarding schools in an effort to, “kill the Indian and save the man.”
- In what was called “repatriation” during the Great Depression, a recorded one million people of Mexican descent were forced to leave the United States even though many of them were American born. An estimated sixty percent were American citizens.
- Japanese-Americans were torn from their homes and placed in internment camps created during WWII.
The shock that these recent separations have elicited should allow us to see this for what it is— racist, bigoted and greed concealed under the guise of “national security.” And without the Flores Settlement Agreement and the continued actions of good people, this grotesque immorality will continue to flourish.
How Can You Help?
Non-profit organizations and activists have done an incredible job with the resources at hand to clean up the mess the federal government created and reunite families that have been separated. Our government did not have a plan in place to unify these families, so it was up to the people to do what was necessary.
We asked Barón, the executive director at NWIRP, if he had confidence that the number of separated children — 2,654 — seemed accurate. He replied flatly, “There was such a lack of organization, and I have serious concern on the government having been able to adequately track this [number].”
But there is still hope for change. You are that hope.
Overworked and understaffed: one of the most clear and disheartening hurdles that non-profit organizations face. “This summer for several weeks we had to devote all of our time and energy and staff to the family separation crisis. We were lucky that it was in the summer and we had law students available so that helped a little but they are gone now so we’re back to the normal staff,” Olivares shared.
Ironically, government grants for non-profit organizations like NWIRP garner nowhere near the amount of funding the for-profit organizations receive. The same for-profit organizations that reap the benefits of detaining immigrants. Non-profits need some extra help.
“One of the challenges that we have here locally is that the Tacoma [Washington] immigration court is tied for the highest rate of bond in the country. One of my clients was granted [a] $50,000 bond,” Barón told us. “Virtually all of the clients we’re representing, who had come to the United States with very little resources, basically what they were carrying on their bodies, did not have the ability to pay per bond. We were fortunate that a number of community members and organizations expressed interest about helping out the families who were separated. There was an organization called Together Rising that did this fundraiser at the national level that provided funds for bonds. That’s how these individuals have been able to be reunified.”
Protest, Protest, Protest!
Families Belong Together organized protests all over the U.S., and many other organizations helped to launch a nationwide protest on June 30, but since then the outcry from U.S. citizens has died down to a whisper. This is not the time for silence.
Make it a family affair and teach your children the value of civil disobedience. Mobilize and exercise your First Amendment right to assembly and freedom of speech, inspiring others to do the same.
Find out who your representatives are. Make sure they hear what you have to say, and if they aren’t listening, go and vote them out come election time. During the 2016 election, only 58 percent of eligible voters exercised their right to vote, and for local elections that number drops tremendously — as low as 14 percent in the 2016 New York mayoral election. In half of the 30 most populous states, less than 20 percent of the population turns up to vote. If we are to see a more inclusive, just system, we must participate in this process and become proactive — or what we are witnessing now will continue to flourish.
If a parent left their child in a fenced cage, unsupervised and malnourished, that child would, without a doubt, be taken away. Continuing to allow our government to rationalize taking children from loving parents and placing them in inhumane conditions needs to end now. Be a part of that change. This has not ended yet, and the administration has every intention of continuing down the current path.
Now, go call congress and tell them to cut the Department of Homeland Security’s budget [missing link]. Let them know that you want your tax dollars spent elsewhere, not towards incarcerating immigrants, and do your part on the local level to keep this from happening in the future.
Pay attention, stay informed. Volunteer. Donate. Protest. Vote.
Published on DopeMagazine.com