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#EndFamilyDetention Now!: The Human Drama of Detained Migrant Families

A Q&A with Margaret Regan

Asylum seekers waiting in line  sitting on blankets donated by local people in Nogales  Sonora. They're waiting to make their case with a U.S. immigration agent.
Asylum seekers waiting in line sitting on blankets donated by local people in Nogales Sonora. They're waiting to make their case with a U.S. immigration agent. Photo credits: Margaret Regan.

Across the country, thousands took to the streets for the Keep Families Together march to protest the separation of immigrant families. But the fate of these families is still in jeopardy due to the spike in anti-immigrant policies enforced by the Trump administration. Margaret Regan, journalist and author of Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire, has seen first-hand what migrant families are going through as they’re waiting to be processed by Customs and Border Enforcement. She reports from the front lines in this Q&A with our blog editor Christian Coleman.

Christian Coleman: What developments have you seen first-hand of migrants who’ve been waiting to be processed by Customs and Border Enforcement?

Margaret Regan: On a blazing 99-degree day, I visited the US Port of Entry at Nogales, the border town sixty miles south of my Tucson home. On the Mexican side, I saw something I’d never before seen on the border: a refugee camp. I counted forty-eight people living outdoors on a tile floor, mercifully protected from the sun by an overhanging roof. Half of these asylum seekers were mothers or fathers, the other half were kids: babies, young children, teenagers.  

Four of the women had the swollen belly of pregnancy; one Guatemalan woman sat on the floor nursing her baby boy, her face tight with worry and fear.

The weary travelers had set up donated blankets and water bottles and toys in their cramped living space. The parents mostly sat exhausted, leaning against the walls. But little kids were rocketing around; four boys were swinging around concrete poles. A toddler was sacked out on a blanket on the floor, her arms flung outward, deep in sleep.

The locals have been kind to the wayfarers, bringing food, toys, and bedding, and offering shelter to some for the night. The Catholic Kino Border Initiative arrives with breakfast each morning, and provides beds and floor space in a shelter run by nuns. But many sleep outside at the port all night.

Everyday tourists walk by in the lane next to this human drama, carrying their purchased trinkets, confidently flashing their US passports. The refugees don’t have that freedom of movement: some had already waited six days in the heat to tell a Customs and Border Patrol agent their harrowing stories of violence in their Central American homelands and in cartel-ridden Mexican states. CBP had slowed the process mightily—and kept people living on the streets—by speaking with only three or four families a day.

I spoke to eight of the refugees, and heard accounts of kidnapping and murder, of extortion and threats against children, of domestic violence and rape of women.

Kimberly, a twenty-three-year old single mother from Huehuetenango, in northwest Guatemala, had left her home with her four-year-old daughter to escape violence. She used all the money she had to ride by bus 20,064 miles from her highlands home to this hot camp on the edge of America.

“My sister was kidnapped and wasn’t found for four days,” she said.

The kidnappers wanted money the family didn’t have. Kimberly feared that she or her little girl would be next; she fled in hopes of a safer life with family members in Baltimore. I met Kimberly before Trump signed an order ending family separation, and she had heard that the American president was taking children away from their mothers. Asked if she was afraid that the agents would take her little girl, she nodded. “Mucho,” she said. 

Rony, a thirty-year-old dad, was from San Marcos, a district in western Guatemala long in the grip of the drug trade. He was here in Nogales for one reason only.

“My only goal is to protect my son,” he says. “I came to ask for political asylum.”

Like Kimberly, Rony was escaping extortion by would-be kidnappers. A drug cartel had three times tried to abduct his ten-year-old son from school. On the first effort, a man came to the school pretending to be the dad. The boy refused to go with him. The second time, the teacher called Rony, telling him that someone had showed up, insisting he was the father. The third time, men followed his son as he walked home from school until he took refuge in a babysitter’s house.

Rony went to the police, but they did nothing. Often accused of being in league with the drug dealers, the police sometimes tip off the gangsters that someone has reported them. Terrified of an attack, Rony took his son and fled.

Mario, a twenty-seven-year-old from Honduras traveling alone, said that when he was seven, the Mafia murdered his father. Later a brother disappeared permanently. “They’re after the whole family,” Mario said. When his brother vanished, Mario “ran away.”

All of the people I talked to intended to seek asylum on the grounds of drug cartel violence and kidnapping, police corruption, or domestic violence. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions, breaking with previous standards, recently ruled that crime and domestic violence will no longer be grounds for asylum. And though the family separation policy was supposed to apply only to those who crossed the border without papers (a misdemeanor), some asylum seekers who presented themselves lawfully at the port of entry had their children wrenched away.

Central American migrants are far more common than Mexicans these days, but the overall number of migrants at the border is at low historical levels, despite President Trump’s talk of an “invasion.” The government’s own numbers prove it: This year in May, CBP arrested 51,912 migrants along the Southwest border. In May 2016, two years ago, they arrested more, 55,442. What the administration is relying on to inflate their claims is that apprehensions dropped significantly in May 2017, to 19,940. Apparently, potential asylum seekers were so terrorized by Trump’s threats in his first few months in office that they stayed home. But conditions are so bad that asylum seekers eventually returned in their usual numbers. As many researchers have pointed out, these numbers are far below the days of mass migration back at the turn of this century.

And it is important to remember that the United States badly destabilized Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras during the Reagan-era wars, by contributing arms, money, and military “advisors” to murderous regimes. Mass genocide killed thousands in these countries; in Guatemala alone at least 200,000 indigenous people died. As Princeton prof Douglas Massey reported in High Country News, the destruction of local economies followed, leaving space for violent gangs like MS-13 (imported from Los Angeles) to terrorize people like Kimberly, Rony, and Mario. The disaster they’re fleeing is in large part of our own making.  

At least once a day, the women in the camp tidy up the place  with brooms and mops.
At least once a day, the women in the camp tidy up the place with brooms and mops.

CC: What becomes of migrants and their children after they get through the Port of Entry?

MR: Virtually all undocumented people who’ve been processed by CBP at the Arizona border are first taken to a Border Patrol holding tank. They can be locked up short-term in perreras, the now-notorious “dog kennel” cages seen in recent news photos. Many parents and children land in the Border Patrol station in Tucson, a prison-like facility with such poor conditions that a judge in an ACLU lawsuit found “persuasive evidence that the basic human needs of detainees are not being met.”

The lockup has sleeping mats now, in response to the judge’s order, but it hasn’t met his other demands. The place is still a hielera, an icebox, and the food is scant and almost inedible. At Casa Alitas, a Catholic shelter in Tucson, I met Aldea Batal Cuilco, a pregnant Guatemalan traveling with a toddler. She’d spent one night in a cell there that was “mucho frío,” she said, very cold. And though she told an agent she was expecting, she didn’t get the extra food the rules required. She got the same poor offering that her fellow inmates did: highly processed frozen burritos.

Asylum seekers without children would likely be sent to Arizona’s Eloy Detention Center and held indefinitely. But Aldea kept her child and was released to a shelter where she and her little girl got beds to sleep in and ate hearty home-cooked food for two days before departing on a three-day Greyhound-bus ride to Florida. She traveled legally with papers from ICE, with strict orders to report to a Florida immigration court under pain of arrest; she also had to give ICE the address where she’d be living. Unlike other adult travelers, as a pregnant woman she didn’t get the painful ankle bracelet that ICE locks onto other migrants to track their location.

But many hoping for asylum are arrested crossing the border; when parent separation was in effect, they had their children ripped from their arms. From mid-May to mid-June, some fifty-six arrested parents going through the mass Streamline court hearing said they has been separated from a total of sixty children, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

Mirroring the nationwide confusion about the whereabouts of the more than 2,300 children abducted by the feds, bereft parents repeatedly told the Streamline judges they had no idea where their kids were. One judge asked a federal attorney prosecuting the cases about their whereabouts. The attorney replied that he didn’t know, and it wasn’t his business to know, because he represented Homeland Security and the children were in the jurisdiction of the Dept. of Health and Human Services. The judge, exasperated, told him to find out.

But the Streamline numbers don’t reflect all the kids taken in Arizona. Writing in June in The Guardian, Lauren Dasse, a lawyer who directs the Florence Refugee and Immigrant Rights Project, said her group documented 425 cases of family separation in the state since January, “with drastic increases in the last month.” There are at least fourteen shelters in the state holding migrant kids; one in Tucson is run by Southwest Key, the same non-profit chain that houses migrant boys in a former Walmart in Texas.

And as in Texas and elsewhere, the children taken from parents in Arizona were of all ages, from tender-age—the federal-speak word for infants—all the way to teenagers. Dasse reported that “a five-month-old baby…was taken from his mother, and is held in immigration detention with three of his siblings. Their mother, escaping serious threats of violence, is held in a detention center several states away.”

CC: What will happen in the wake of President Trump’s executive order ending family separation?

MR: ICE and Border Patrol may have stopped tearing children away from their mothers and fathers, but Trump’s next strategy is hardly humane. He intends to put parents and children in indefinite family detention. To do that, he has to get around the 1997 Flores settlement that limits incarceration of immigrant children to no more than twenty days. And his lawyers must bring their case to Dolly Gee, the tough federal judge in Los Angeles who scuttled the Obama administration’s effort to keep children in family detention for far longer than that.

If Flores were to be stricken down, everything would change. Coupled with the Supreme Court’s February ruling that immigrants can be held indefinitely, with no right to periodic hearings, the loss of Flores could mean years-long incarceration of families. Children could grow up behind bars.

Homeland Security might turn its longtime collaborators, for-profit private prison companies, to build and operate new family detention centers. We have three now: one operated by Berks County in Pennsylvania; and two in Texas, one run by the for-profit CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), and the other by GEO Group—both opened under President Obama in 2015. These family lock-ups have a total of about 3,000 beds, not nearly enough for the thousands of moms, dads, and kids that the current administration proposes to lock up. Family detention has been extremely profitable to these prison corporations: family prisons charge the government about $300 a day per inmate, double what the for-profits earn per inmate in adult detention. As always, the more immigrants America locks up, the more money the for-profit prisons make.

Asylum seekers. At right, a nursing mother walks with her son strapped to her back.
Asylum seekers. At right, a nursing mother walks with her son strapped to her back.

CC: How will the children currently detained be returned to their parents?

MR: That’s the big question. Trump’s executive order outlined no plan to return the children to their families. In chaotic days after the announcement, federal departments offered contradictory statements, with one official asserting that none of the children recently detained would benefit from the new policy, another quickly rebutting that claim.

Four days after the announcement, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services finally outlined a plan for reunification of nearly all the children separated from their parents. A press release said that 522 children out of the more than 2,300 in their custody had already been returned. (Those 522 kids were the ones still being held by Border Patrol near the border; the rest are in in facilities around the country.)

“The United States government knows the location of all children in its custody,” the statement read, but it was a declaration that was hard to believe, given the weeks of confusion featuring hen children scattered all over the US, tiny kids wailing for absent parents, desperate parents unable to learn where their kids were, and some adults deported without getting their children back. Even highly trained social workers, lawyers, and reporters struggled to connect parents with children in the Kafkaesque detention system.

The feds don’t have much time now to figure out how to get to these parents and kids back together. On Tuesday, June 26, another no-nonsense federal judge, Dana Sabraw of US district court in San Diego, ordered the government to reunite all the children with their parents within thirty days. Children younger than five must be returned to their parents within fourteen days.

CC: Your book Detained and Deported was originally published in 2015. What changes have you seen since then for immigrant families during the Trump administration?

MR: Detained and Deported ended with the 2014 “surge” of migrant families fleeing the horrors of violent Central American nations. Obama dealt with that by reintroducing family detention centers, opening the two permanent centers in Texas and a temporary one in New Mexico. Throughout his two terms, Obama detained thousands of immigrants and deported people at a record pace, though the deportations slowed in his final years.

So Trump came to office with a border enforcement regime already in place: some 35,000 beds in detention centers; 650 miles of walls across the southwest border; and 60,000 employees at Customs and Border Patrol. But Trump immediately took harsh new actions. He abandoned the Obama directive for ICE to concentrate efforts on immigrants who had committed crimes, while using prosecutorial discretion with law-abiding immigrant families already living in the US Under Trump, all immigrants were to be subject to deportation, no exception.

ICE arrests in the interior of the country, largely of immigrants who had lived here for a long time, soared. Trump reignited mass ICE raids on workplaces, making military-like assaults on a gardening enterprise in Ohio, a meat-packing plant in Tennessee, arresting parents, affecting children, and decimating communities. Trump tried to abolish DACA, the Obama program to permit law-abiding young adults who had been brought to the US without papers to remain and work here for renewable two-year periods. So far, Trump’s effort has been stymied by the courts. Finally, his administration unleashed the brand-new “zero tolerance” policy of charging every single crosser with a crime, and created the nightmare of deliberate family separation.


About Margaret Regan 

Margaret ReganMargaret Regan is the author of two award-winning books: Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Firea 2015 Southwest Book of the Year; and  The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, a 2010 Southwest Book of the Year and a Common Read for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. A longtime writer for the Tucson Weekly, Regan has won many regional and national awards for her immigration reporting, including the 2016 Matthew Freeman Social Justice Lectureship at Roosevelt University, Chicago. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.