EL PASO – As President Donald Trump visits the border to see prototypes of the wall he wants to build, organizations that help immigrants and refugees in the New Mexico border region say the administration is resorting to the harsh tactic of separating children and parents to curb illegal immigration.
“We’re seeing this over and over again. We’re seeing it across the border,” said Taylor Levy, legal coordinator for Annunciation House.
The organization held a news conference Monday in its red brick house that provides temporary shelter for migrants and refugees. A mother from El Salvador who was picked up by Border Patrol in October shared her story.
“They separated me from my son and sent him to another shelter and didn’t tell me where he was going,” said the immigrant only identified as “Ana.”
She is seeking asylum in the U.S. and is afraid to use her real name because she still has relatives back home.
Ana said she fled her home in Ahuachapán, El Salvador, after her husband was killed and made her way to the border with her 13-year-old son. They were detained by Border Patrol agents in October.
The Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee raised $7,500 to bond her out last Thursday. She has not seen her son since they were separated in October.
“And like me there are many mothers crying for children they are separated from,” Ana said.
“The separation of single parents traveling with minor children is now regular, systematic and completely arbitrary,” said Christina Garcia of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.
Garcia said Las Americas is providing legal help to a Brazilian woman who also was separated from her son at the border.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit Friday on behalf of parents seeking asylum after taking the case of a Congolese mother who was separated from her 7-year-old daughter at a border crossing in California.
The mother was released from a detention center in San Diego last week, but her daughter remains in a facility for children in Chicago.
An El Paso public defender representing Ana said four other parents were convicted of illegal entry and deported to Central America.
“It’s a termination of parental rights,” said Sergio Garcia, the public defender. “In the United States we don’t terminate parental rights without a hearing.”
Organizations that work with refugees and others seeking asylum report an uptick in cases of parents and kids being separated at the border in the past few months.
But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said there has been no change in policy.
“DHS does not currently have a policy of separating women and children,” said Tyler Houlton, acting DHS press secretary in an emailed statement.
“However, we retain the authority to do so in certain circumstances – particularly to protect a child from potential smuggling and trafficking activities.”
Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, said the arbitrary practice of separating families is designed to deter parents from crossing the border with their children to seek asylum.
“It’s very difficult to not to draw the conclusion that it’s a system designed to make life so difficult, so miserable, that people cease to even want to find protection,” he said.
Year-end figures released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2017 show the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which includes all of New Mexico, saw a 52 percent increase in the number of “family units” crossing the southwest border from 5,664 in 2016 to 8,609 this past year.