TORNILLO, Texas — In the sand-colored tent city at Tornillo, Texas, located about 30 miles outside of El Paso, caseworkers from Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services try to connect parents and relatives with the dozens of migrant children who are being detained there by the federal government.
“It’s not a physical reconnection, but at least the parents know where their kids are and are able to establish contact with them,” said Melissa Lopez, the executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services for the Diocese of El Paso, which helps relatives find migrant children in federal custody who are deemed “unaccompanied.”
Lopez told the Register that her agency thus far has been able to connect about 25 children with their parents.
“It’s something we always do, but it’s been amplified, just given the scale of everything that’s happening right now,” Lopez said.
From early May until President Donald Trump signed an executive order June 20 to halt the practice, more than 2,300 migrant children were separated from their parents and relatives who had illegally crossed the United States’ southern border with Mexico.
The separations happened as a result of the Trump administration’s having instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting any adult who crossed the U.S. border illegally, including men and women with no prior immigration offenses and who were traveling with children.
Instead of releasing the men and women on conditions that they report to court for deportation proceedings, a “catch-and-release” policy followed by prior administrations, immigration authorities detained them for criminal prosecution. Children were then separated from their parents and considered “unaccompanied,” allowing them to be placed in the custody of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The Trump administration’s rationale for its hardline stance on immigration enforcement was that smugglers, traffickers and others who would be denied legal entry were using children to exploit “loopholes” in the system.
Defending the zero-tolerance policy in a May 7 speech in San Diego, Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted it was “necessary” to protect the rule of law in the immigration system and to defend the U.S. from being “overwhelmed” with unauthorized immigrants, citing a tripling in border apprehensions in March and April 2018 compared to the previous year.
“The trends are clear: This must end,” Sessions said. “Eleven million people are already here illegally.”
Trump insisted that his administration’s zero-tolerance policy of separating children from their families could be traced to a law enacted by Democrats.
“We have to break up families. The Democrats gave us that law,” Trump said during a roundtable on sanctuary cities in California May 16, in an apparent reference to what is known as the Flores settlement, a consent decree arising from the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court case Reno v. Flores. The settlement limits how long the federal government can detain migrant children who crossed the border illegally by themselves or with relatives.
Under Flores, the federal government is required to release detained immigrant children from custody after a maximum of 20 days. This requirement is a major reason why previous administrations implemented the “catch-and-release” policy for adult immigrants. Otherwise, if parents are prosecuted and detained past 20 days, their children must be separated from them and placed in the custody of other adult relatives or in licensed programs willing to accept custody if no relatives are available to care for them.
During the roundtable, Trump also disparaged the “catch-and-release” policy. “Catch-and-release — think of it. We catch somebody; we find out they’re criminals. We end up having to release them, and they go into our society.”
But Trump’s move provoked withering and broad-based criticism, including from the U.S. bishops. In a June 1 statement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the policy was “contrary to our Catholic values.” That was followed by a June 13 statement, delivered at the start of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spring assembly in Florida, in which USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said he joined in “condemning the continued use of family separation at the U.S./Mexico border as an implementation of the administration’s zero-tolerance policy.”
Said Cardinal DiNardo, “While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.”
Pope Francis joined in the criticism, saying, “I am on the side of the bishops’ conference” when he was asked about the family-separation controversy in a June 20 interview with Reuters.
The family-separation policy has also generated pushback from groups such as some prominent evangelical Christian leaders, who previously had been solidly supportive of the Trump administration’s thrust of prioritizing border security ahead of other immigration issues.
Congressional Republicans also distanced themselves from Trump, introducing bills in both the Senate and the House of Representatives intended to address the border problem without requiring children to be separated from parents.
But Trump backtracked on the policy himself June 20 by signing his executive order. The order stated that, while the White House remains committed to enforcing all existing immigration laws, “It is the policy of this administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.” To this end, it added, the government immediately would seek court permission “to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.”
Despite the administration’s claim that zero tolerance remained in effect in the wake of the executive order, Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, June 25 told reporters that moving forward, many migrant families who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border will be quickly released, with a promise to appear in court, thereby reviving the “catch-and-release” policy.
And in a separate court proceeding, initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal judge in California ruled June 26 that all children separated from their families under the zero-tolerance policy must be reunited with their parents within 30 days.
Navigating the System
Against this heated political and legal backdrop, Catholic caseworkers who work with unaccompanied migrant children across the country are now trying to navigate the complicated apparatus of the federal government’s immigration enforcement and detention system to reunite parents with their children.
“On the social-work level, we try to get information on where mom and dad were and try to facilitate to let the parents and children know where they are,” said Ashley Feasley, the director of migration policy and public affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Feasley told the Register that the migrant children separated from their parents were “devastated.”
Missionaries of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in the Diocese of Brownsville, runs a respite center in McAllen, Texas, that assists 50 to 60 migrant families a day. She said those people have fled horrific cartel and gang violence in their home countries. She said people have a right to seek asylum and added that she was pleased with the president signing the executive order.
“When you separate a child from the mother, it’s totally wrong. The pain and suffering is very evident,” she said. “It really breaks your heart to see that. It should not be something that we in the United States ever stand for.”
Said Sister Norma, “The government needs to look for alternative ways to handle the situation in a more humane way.”
Other Catholic immigration advocates and immigration attorneys interviewed by the Register also criticized the Trump administration for “weaponizing” the Flores settlement.
“What the administration is doing is being punitive toward vulnerable families who are fleeing for their lives from gang violence and individual persecution,” said Kevin Appleby, international migration policy director for the Center for Migration Studies, a Catholic think tank founded by the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo.
Mitzi Hellmer, an immigration attorney based in Virginia, told the Register that the migrant children have more legal options than the adults, so their cases take longer to adjudicate. In some cases, parents have been deported while their children remained behind in the federal government’s custody, raising concerns that they may never be reunited.
“I think the real issue for (the administration) is they can’t keep the kids detained indefinitely, which means they have to release the entire family,” said Hellmer.
The president’s June 20 executive order — titled “Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation” — blamed family separations on Congress for its “failure to act,” as well as court orders that put the administration “in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law.”
“It’s a problem that’s gone on for many years, as you know, through many administrations,” Trump said as he signed the order. The president added that the immigration issue had “been left out in the cold. People haven’t dealt with it, and we are dealing with it.”
Indeed, there were cases during the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama where migrant children were separated from their parents. In 2016, Feasley said, the Obama administration set up an interagency taskforce to address the issue.
But Catholic immigration advocates pushed back on Trump’s claim that he has been forced to clean up a policy mess inherited from Congress and from previous administrations.
“There were times in the past when family separations happened, but it was much more ad hoc. It was not a policy to be specifically implemented,” Feasley said.
Feasley added that the June 20 executive order, while it suspended family separations, still opened the door to large-scale migrant family detentions, which she noted that the bishops also oppose.
“We urge the Department of Homeland Security, which has existing alternatives to detention which are already running, to look at the existing programs and apply those to the families, instead of spending billions of dollars to build more child-detention facilities,” Feasley said.
In a June 25 commentary in The New York Times, titled, “The Lesser Cruelty on Immigration,” Catholic commentator Ross Douthat argued that those who oppose Trump’s policy need to pursue “less cruel” means of reducing illegal immigration.
Douthat denounced the recent child separations as “the wickedest thing” the Trump administration has done, but noted that even Barack Obama’s immigration-friendly presidency found it necessary to undertake some harshly punitive actions to prevent illegal immigration spiraling completely out of control.
As a “less cruel” deterrent, Douthat proposed workplace E-Verify enforcement measures that would make it harder to hire unauthorized immigrants, thereby discouraging some from arriving and others who are here already to leave. “Trump is showing us what the greater cruelty looks like; that makes it a good time to choose the lesser one,” Douthat argued.
For his part, Appleby said the recent furor over the child separations could be “a turning point” for the country on the contentious immigration issue.
“The long-term sustainable and humane solution to irregular migration and to this Central American migration crisis is to address the push factors driving people to make these dangerous journeys to the U.S.,” Appleby said.
“We really need to have a five- to 10-year plan in place to address the violence, the lack of opportunity and the lack of future for the citizens in those countries.”
Brian Fraga writes from
Fall River, Massachusetts.
to this report.