While the plight of children of asylum seekers separated from their parents fades from the news, hundreds remain incarcerated and still not reunited. Of these, some 400 are children of parents already deported. There is little chance these families will be reunited soon. Possibly they never will be.
Others are children of parents arbitrarily deemed “unfit”. A typical example is Juan Hernandez, who sought asylum with his three-year-old daughter Maria. The government kept her in detention and wouldn’t let her be reunited with her father because of two alcohol-related offences that occurred more than 12 years ago.
Hernandez was then tricked into signing deportation papers he couldn’t read, after officials lied saying that by signing he would be reunited with Maria. He was deported and she remains in detention.
Hernandez first came to the US from El Salvador in 1999 after he was repeatedly attacked by gangs. He was 17 and found work picking lettuce for agribusiness. In 2001, he obtained temporary protected status, granted to Salvadorans at the time because of devastation caused by an earthquake.
He was convicted in 2005 of carrying an open container with an alcoholic beverage in his car. He got another conviction for driving while intoxicated in 2006. When he failed to renew his temporary status in 2006, he was deported.
Feeling unsafe in El Salvador he moved his family to Chiapas, Mexico. There is an increasingly violent situation in that state, and last March he sought asylum with his daughter, hoping that, if successful, he could bring his entire family. Instead, he was swept up in Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
The government claims that any criminal offence and unspecified “red flags” are sufficient to declare a parent unfit. Immigrant rights groups say that usually the crimes are minor and do not affect the parents’ ability to care for their child. Few cases would cause an American parent to be ruled unfit.
While children asylum seekers continue to be separated, mass incarceration has ballooned. The New York Times reports that in May 2017 there were 2,400 children locked up. The number has now increased more than fivefold to 12,800. Most came across the border alone.
“The huge increases, which have placed the federal shelter system near capacity, are due not to an influx of children entering the country, but a reduction in the number being released to live with families and other sponsors”, reporter Caitlin Dickerson writes.
“Zero tolerance” was only one policy designed to bar immigrants. Another was adopted last June. Authorities announced that potential sponsors and all adult members of their household would have to submit fingerprints and that data would be shared with immigration authorities.
Traditionally, most sponsors have been undocumented themselves, or someone in their home has been. Many are obviously wary of submitting their fingerprints. Those who do have to wait months to be vetted. The result is a sharp reduction in the number of immigrant children being released into homes.
The Trump administration’s answer isn’t to get rid of the whole anti-immigrant project and act humanely – it is to build more detention facilities. One of these is an outdoor tent concentration camp called “tent city” in Tornillo, Texas, scheduled to be tripled in size to accommodate the rapidly growing number of immigrant children destined to be inmates.
The Obama administration initiated this dreadful program, but Trump has put it on steroids. Under Obama, most inmates were released in fewer than 20 days, the lawful limit by court order. Trump thumbs his nose at such restrictions and is demanding Congress remove them while he violates them.
Detaining children for months in these detention centres has produced severe depression, violence and other ill health. Younger children are especially susceptible to being traumatised by such a situation. Experts predict long lasting impairments and personality disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder.
Prior to hurricane Florence hitting the east coast, wreaking great destruction, the administration took $10 million from the budget of the Federal Emergency Management Authority, which is supposed to help victims of the hurricane, and put it into the funds for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, one of the spearheads of the anti-immigrant drive.
Florence resulted in a deluge of rain in many areas, causing mass flooding. Many have been forced to evacuate, homes have been destroyed and people have died. As in other cases, especially hard hit are the poorest sections of the working class, including Blacks and Latinos.
The undocumented have to undergo more hardship. Many express concern they will encounter ICE if they seek help. A mother in the coastal city of Wilmington, North Carolina, which has been isolated by surrounding flood waters, told NBC News she feared being separated from her children by ICE if they evacuated to a shelter.
“My smallest daughter, the little one, asked me, ‘Mom, I’m afraid that our home is going to be destroyed, and I don’t want to go to a shelter because I don’t want to be separated from you. I would rather die first than be separated from you’”, she said.
Even small children have heard the news about separation.