December 23, 2019
Maria is a young woman from Guatemala. Six-years ago her relatives were killed in a gang attack; all died except for her infant niece, whom she took in and raised as her own child. In 2018 Maria’s partner was murdered in another gang related attack. Maria was shot at as well, but survived. At that point, Maria left Guatemala with her then 5 year-old niece and made her way to the United States to seek asylum. At the border, the girl was taken from Maria - who could not prove she was a legal guardian. Maria was put in a detention center in Arizona where she still waits a year later. The girl, now six years old, is in foster care 2,400 miles away in New York.
Maria’s case is a common example of how family separation works. The forced removal of children from their parents that was the hallmark of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy was certainly an unusually cruel measure - ultimately suspended by a judge. But the problem of family separation and the removal of children from non-parental relatives is a long standing problem that well predates the Trump administration:
After a federal judge in 2018 ordered most family separations to end, attorneys have been scrambling to reunite families. There are currently about 5,500 known cases of children separated from parents during the Trump administration. But no one has tracked how many children have been split from non-parent relatives, nor is there a formal mechanism for those families to reunify. (emphasis added)
In January of 2017, the Women’s Refugee Council, KIND and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services issued the report, Betraying Family Values just as Trump was coming into office. The report is a critical look at the practice of separating families and the treatment of children before Trump launched his “zero tolerance”policy, demonstrating that the systemic failure to track, care and even justify family separation, was a long-standing problem.
From the report:
Government agencies currently have little policy guidance on family unity and separation, and no consistent or comprehensive mechanisms to document family status or trace family members….Although agencies have a process to share data among their respective databases, information relating to family separation is often not transmitted. There is no government entity charged with systematically tracking family separation. Not only is there no systematic coordination between CBP and ICE, there is also no requirement that family separation be documented or justified.
The cruelty embedded in this official indifference is intentional:
As a matter of procedure and policy, border agents routinely separate family members, including intentionally, as a punishment - or “consequences- through what DHS calls its Consequence Delivery System (CDS). The consequences are meant to deter future migration, often regardless of international protection or other humanitarian concerns.
‘CDS’ was implemented in 2005, and employed by both the Bush and Obama administrations before Trump. For example,
As families fleeing violence in Central America began making headlines in 2014, the Obama Administration implemented an aggressive deterrence policy designed to stop families from seeking protection in the United States. The Administration prioritized all recent border crossers as enforcement priorities and vastly increased the use of expedited removal and detention of mothers arriving with children.
In 2017, the Trump administration was already gearing up for what would become its zero tolerance policy in 2018. As we reported in spring 2018,
In December  a coalition of organizations including the Immigration Justice Campaign, Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services, and RAICES, among others, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security over family separation incidents that appear to have increased dramatically over the second half of 2017. The authors of the report argue, “[f]amily unity is recognized as a fundamental human right, enshrined in both domestic and international law. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the right to family unity is ‘perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by [the Supreme] Court.’” Despite this fundamental right, reporting organizations, “have noticed an alarming increase in instances of family members who arrived together but were intentionally separated by U.S. immigration officials without a clear or reasonable justification, as a means of punishment and/or deterrence and with few to no mechanisms to locate, contact, or reunite with separated family members.”
Maria is caught up in this system of family separation that is in some ways decades, if not centuries old, but in its specific current context of “deterrence,” at least 15 years old. Trump’s contribution to this system is to utilize the tools available to him in such an offensively cruel manner that it became newsworthy. Now we all know.
And yet, nothing has changed. Not for Maria and her niece.
The logistics of how and when María will see her niece again if she is not paroled are unclear. María’s asylum appeal could take up to two years. Sean Wellock, another pro bono attorney representing her, said if María were to lose her appeal, the government would be under no obligation to coordinate a reunion in Guatemala with her niece if they are deported separately.
The girl could lag behind María by days, weeks or months.
Christie Turner-Herbas, an attorney specializing in reunifying migrant families at Kids in Need of Defense, said when a child is deported alone, US government agencies do not always communicate clearly about the child’s travel.
“There have been complications like a child is leaving and we never get any notice,” Turner-Herbas said. “And then we find out, you know, get a panicked call from the family saying that they heard the child is coming in, but they’re not able to get [to the airport] in time.”
Fortunately, Maria has the support of many people who are amplifying her case, and a host family waiting for her and her niece if they are released. There is no reason, at all, to keep Maria incarcerated. However, the fact that she has not been paroled is another feature of Trump’s current war on asylum, in which almost no asylum seekers are being paroled. Trump’s bloated detention numbers are a direct result of this cruel and unjustifiable policy. Over the past few months, from one-fourth to one-third of all people held in ICE detention are asylum seekers who have already established a credible fear of torture or persecution if returned home.
Maria's is just one of these 12,000 stories.