Originally Published in The New Yorker.
A new government report found that thousands of children were separated from their parents, but the exact figure is still “unknown.”
January 18, 2019
When Mino González, his younger brother, Erick, and their mother, Mabel, were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents, in September, 2017, the Trump Administration was quietly testing a program that would become a precursor to its family-separation policy. Mino and his family, who are from northern Honduras, walked directly into the new dragnet. “We crossed the border wanting to get apprehended,” Mabel told me. “We were looking for an immigration agent so we could request asylum.” Instead, they were separated without explanation. Mabel was transferred to an icedetention center in El Paso, where she remains and expects to be deported. The boys, who were fifteen and fourteen years old at the time, went to a children’s shelter overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. A month later, they were released to live with their aunt, in Philadelphia; by November, they were enrolled in a local high school. “My mother’s still in Texas,” Mino said on Thursday. “She’s fighting for her freedom.”
Earlier this week, the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services released a report documenting that the Trump Administration had separated far more families than it had previously admitted or could even properly count. Although the official government tally had identified some twenty-six hundred separated families, “the total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown,” the report said. Mino and his family are just one example of why the government’s math is so complicated. The Administration had been separating families since the summer of 2017, roughly a year before it officially acknowledged the practice. Last summer, when a federal judge halted the Trump Administration’s family-separation policy and ordered the government to reunite the families, Mabel continued to languish in detention, unaffected by the broader turn of events. Since her children had already been released, the government treated her case as though she and her children had never been separated. They are now among “thousands of children,” according to the report, who have been separated without any record of it.
The report also found that children “were still being identified more than five months after the original court order,” in large part because the government had never created “an integrated data system to track separated families” across the different federal departments. The Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of caring for unaccompanied immigrant children, didn’t always know which children had been separated from their parents by the Department of Homeland Security. The D.H.S., for its part, was detaining the separated parents while also routinely failing to document those who had crossed the border with a child. “There were separated-parent files that literally had no reference to any child,” one department official told me. In these cases, the official said, the only record of the separation came several weeks later, when the parent was given a preliminary asylum interview.
The Inspector General’s report is damning in a characteristically Trumpian way: it is at least as scandalous for what it doesn’t reveal (an “unknown” number of children affected) as it is for what it does (the “lack of an existing” system to track them). “We don’t even know what we don’t know,” Veronica Escobar, a Democratic congresswoman from El Paso, told me on Thursday. “That’s why, more than ever, the oversight that will come with the new House majority is so important.”
There is one particularly startling government revelation in the report: the Trump Administration is still separating families at the border. Between July 1st and November 7th, the O.R.R. received at least a hundred and eighteen children who had been separated from their parents after the judge’s order. The D.H.S. had simply changed its rationale for doing so. Rather than separating families as part of the zero-tolerance policy that was blocked in federal court, the Administration has come to rely on a long-standing D.H.S. prerogative in which immigration agents are allowed to take a child from her parent at the border for her own safety—if, for instance, the adult is posing as the child’s parent, or the parent is abusive. A department spokesperson has denied that these most recent separations were out of the ordinary. But, in practice, there is a total lack of transparency about how such decisions are made, and the Inspector General’s report, in its way, attempts to emphasize that. “D.H.S. provided O.R.R. with limited information about the reasons for these separations,” the report said, “which may impede O.R.R.’s ability to determine appropriate placements.” In this sense, the report can be read as a warning to the public from one government department (Health and Human Services) about another (Homeland Security).
This doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. In November, ProPublica reported that a four-year-old Salvadoran boy had been separated from his father at the border because an immigration agent had determined that he had gang ties. The government, however, refused to share the evidence. (Under pressure, it eventually relented and reunited the father and his son.) Over the past few years, it has become increasingly common for the D.H.S. to brand asylum seekers from Central America as “gang members,” even when they’re coming to the U.S. precisely to flee the region’s gangs. “The government persists in using dubious—and often baseless—allegations of criminal activity to take children away from their parents,” Kate Melloy Goettel, an attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, told me. “We know of women who remain in detention and who were separated from their children. In at least two instances, the government seems to be alleging the women are gang affiliated or committed other criminal acts.”
Recently, I visited Mino and his brother in Philadelphia, where they share a small white row house with their aunt and three cousins. “I miss my mother every second,” Mino said. He is tall and gangly, with a soft voice and a shy manner. “I think about her at school and at home. It distracts me. I know she’s trying hard to get out.” A few days earlier, a group of classmates who belong to a local gang accosted him at school; they’d been harassing him for months, he said. He managed to run home before the fight escalated, but he was still visibly shaken. Later, when Mino was out of earshot, his aunt, Claudia, told me, “The whole family’s devastated about their mother, but it’s been hitting Mino especially hard.”
Claudia is an asylum seeker herself. In 2016, after gangsters murdered her husband, she came to the U.S. with her ten-year-old daughter and was released at the border with a scheduled hearing in immigration court. (Her older daughter, who was twenty-three and pregnant when she left Honduras, travelled to the U.S. separately, eventually joining Claudia in Philadelphia; both of their cases are now pending.) “I told my sister I would take her boys while she was in detention,” Claudia said. “But it’s been getting too hard. I can’t afford to take care of them anymore.” She’d recently lost her job in the kitchen of a local restaurant and was looking for part-time work to support her own children, including an infant grandson.
Last September, Mino and his brother considered going back into government detention. “The idea was that we could be in another children’s shelter, and my mom’s lawyer could bring us to visit our mom,” Mino told me. Ironically, if the children returned to federal custody, there was a chance the family would be released together; the judge’s order to reunite the separated families might then apply to them, making Mino, his brother, and their mother eligible for relief. But, Mino told me, “I didn’t like the idea. My younger brother told me he was scared to go back there.”
When I met Mabel in Texas, last summer, she was organizing other motherswho’d been separated from their children from inside a detention center. For months, while the Trump Administration was still denying that any families had been separated, she took down the women’s names and informationabout their children and mailed it to lawyers all over El Paso. In May, 2018, Linda Rivas, the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, who had heard about Mabel from another client in the same facility, took on her case. Since the judge’s order to reunite the separated families, Rivas told me, some of her clients were released, but not others; four separated mothers were recently deported, leaving their children behind in the U.S. “The only thing we could do was offer them a deportation with their child,” Rivas told me. “These were elementary-school-age kids. And the mothers would say, ‘I’m probably going to try to come back alone.’ ” Earlier this month, after a partially successful appeal to slow Mabel’s deportation, an immigration judge closed her case for a second time. “We’re on our last appeal,” Rivas said. “This is it.”