Attorneys are still trying to reach the parents of 337 migrant children who were separated at the US-Mexico border under the Trump administration, down from 368 in June, according to a federal court filing Wednesday.

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Originally published by NPR

Fleeing violence in Mexico, one Honduran family decided to cross into the U.S. illegally last month and turn themselves over to Border Patrol agents in the desert near San Diego.

The father and son were immediately returned to the border and told to walk back to Tijuana, but the mother, who was pregnant, was in pain. So Border Patrol agents took her to a nearby hospital, where she gave birth.

Two days later, the mother was given a choice: Go back to Mexico with or without her newborn, who is a U.S. citizen by birthright.

“That’s not a choice. That’s not a legitimate choice,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, an attorney with the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. She said the mother and the baby returned to Mexico.

“These people – both the mother and the father – were literally driven in a patrol vehicle to the border and forced to walk across into Mexico, by armed agents. I don’t see choices there,” Ebadolahi said.

A Border Patrol spokesman said the mother has no “legal right” to be in the United States and that the mother could have simply chosen to turn her newborn son over to child services in California.

Immigrant advocates in San Diego say this isn’t the first time the Border Patrol has tried to separate a mother from her newborn. Last December, immigration lawyers say an asylum-seeker was told she’d be sent back to Mexico without her U.S.-citizen child. Her lawyers intervened to stop the separation, and the mother was allowed to pursue her asylum case from inside the U.S.

The Honduran family had crossed the Rio Grande in Texas earlier this year and tried to claim asylum in the U.S. Under the “Remain-In-Mexico” program, they were given a March court date and told to wait in Mexico. After they say they were robbed at gunpoint in Monterrey, they moved to Tijuana.

Since the pandemic ramped up in March, the Department of Homeland Security has closed the border to nearly all asylum-seekers based on an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In June alone, the U.S. turned back more than 27,000 migrants after they were screened and fingerprinted.

“The CDC was very clear with us,” Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf said when he visited the San Diego border in May. “We needed to make sure we do not house these individuals in our facilities, both for our workforce protection and the protection of our DHS officers, the protection of the American people, and the protection of other migrants.

The ACLU’s Ebadolahi says the case of the Honduran family could have been handled differently.

“There are mechanisms in place, there’s authority for the agency to parole family units into the United States, where they can pursue their asylum claims safely and in a humane way, without separation, and without additional trauma,’ she said.

The ACLU, along with Jewish Family Service of San Diego, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general on Friday. They say the family was denied their legal right to an interview to determine if they were in danger in Mexico. The organizations asked Customs and Border Protection to allow the family to enter the U.S. to continue their asylum claim.

Luis Gonzalez, an attorney with Jewish Family Service, said that just because the law isn’t clear doesn’t mean the family should automatically be sent back to Mexico.

“It leads to really difficult situations like the one we are witnessing right now,” he said. “This could have been resolved by DHS exercising their discretion to parole the entire family together into the United States.”

The family has since reunited in Tijuana, where they remain in a rented apartment. The mother hasn’t been able to access care in Mexico because local medical professionals are stretched thin by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, the Trump administration extended the turnback policy along the southern border indefinitely.

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Originally published by LA Tiimes

Veronica Ledesma goes to sleep worrying about 86 families. And none of them are her own.

There’s the mother who fears being five minutes late to pick up her children. They were separated at the border and when she is late the kids wonder if they will see her again.

The little boy who doesn’t want to be in this country anymore, after being taken from his parent.

A mother who prayed for someone to help her and her daughter, who were apart with no contact for over a month.

Ledesma’s job is to connect these fragile families with services – paid for by the government – that will help them overcome the trauma and mental illness caused by the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy. Since April, outreach coordinators have been trying to reach thousands of immigrant parents and children who have been reunified after months of separation.

Although the government has acknowledged that about 2,700 children were separated from their families at the border, the total number of those separated under President Trump remains unknown. Earlier this year, the group Physicians for Human Rights found that the separations constituted torture.

In the last five months, coordinators with Seneca Family of Agencies, a California-based nonprofit, have reached several hundred families out of about 2,500 across the United States who are potentially eligible for services.

It’s a difficult job under any circumstances; but a deadline looms, and the pandemic has made these families harder to find and turned available services into rare commodities.

The timing could not have been worse, and the impact could not be larger in terms of the degree to which we are slowed down, said Ken Berrick, chief executive and founder of Seneca Family of Agencies. What I think was thought of as a yearlong process just can’t possibly be done in that time.

On a recent Thursday, Ledesma underwent a two-hour training meant to help coordinators track down families scattered across the country.

They went over community outreach ideas, such as contacting grocery stores, community centers and laundromats near addresses of families to see if they’d put up fliers to promote the Todo Por Mi Familia initiative.

During the training, they were able to find the number for a family on Whitepages.

Our goal is to connect every single one of our families to services, Ledesma said. We don’t want to not be able to find one.

Seneca has been helping with the effort since the end of March, after a judge ordered the government to provide mental health services to families who were separated by the government on or after July 1, 2017, and who remain in the U.S.

The government’s contract with Seneca ends in January 2021. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment about whether it would extend the contract.

We’re hoping there’ll be some flexibility, Berrick said. We started this in an environment that was very different than what the settlement anticipated.

To try to find families before the deadline, the agency has collaborated with legal and community-based organizations, created a hotline and made videos of celebrities – like Pedro Pascal of The Mandalorian – touting the initiative. Outreach coordinators have used contact information and last known addresses provided by the government.

But some of the numbers ring to detention centers. Others are out of service. Of her 86-family caseload, Ledesma – who is on the Central Texas team – has been able to reach only 12.

When she does get in contact, Ledesma – who has a social work background – must overcome skepticism and assure families that the services will not affect their legal proceedings and that their information will not be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In a statement, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reiterated that information about the families discovered by Seneca is not shared with ICE or other government agencies.

…families interact only with Seneca nonprofit staff, and then with their mental health providers, not with federal personnel, the agency said in a statement.

To reassure families, Ledesma at times shares her own background immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 8 years old. She was granted immigration relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – better known as DACA.

In the case of one mother who wanted to help her daughter process the trauma, Ledesma was able to connect them with a clinic that would provide free mental health, dental and primary care services.

She was just very grateful to feel like her sacrifices were worth it, Ledesma said.

Some days though, Ledesma finds herself calling more than 10 providers. Because of the pandemic, some clinics are closed. Therapists aren’t accepting new patients or don’t call back immediately because they’re working from home.

It’s hard to find providers. I think that’s where we’re struggling the most because of COVID-19, Ledesma said. We need other providers to step up and help us with these families.

In her first therapy session, Luisa confessed the guilt she’d been carrying since she was separated from her 13-year-old daughter two years ago.

Guilt over the fact that her daughter didn’t trust her anymore. That the teenager avoided her embrace. That she lashed out at her mother.

What happened, the therapist consoled Luisa, was not her fault.

Luisa arrived at the border in December 2017, fleeing gang persecution in El Salvador. Soon after, her daughter watched as she was placed in shackles.

The little girl could only make the shape of a heart with her hands before her mother was taken away.

While her daughter was placed with a foster family in the U.S., Luisa was deported to El Salvador. She was one of at least 471 parents who were deported without their children.

Luisa wouldn’t see her daughter for 16 months, until April 2019. By the time they reunited in the U.S., with the help of the legal advocacy nonprofit Al Otro Lado, the two were like strangers.

Al Otro Lado has been able to reunite around 36 separated parents with their children, most recently in January. There have been 25 of those families who have since connected with Seneca and five who have already started therapy, including Luisa.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, families are receiving tele-health services instead of face-to-face appointments.

Over the past month, Luisa and her daughter have had several therapy sessions where the therapist has asked them to open up to one another. Luisa talked about why she left their country, her daughter about the fears that they might be separated again.

I think that’s the conversation where she opened her heart and began expressing herself, Luisa said. It was something so beautiful that we’ve been practicing.

It won’t change overnight, Luisa said, but her daughter is hugging her again.

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Originally published by The Intercept

ON A RECENT morning, 6-year-old Belen Martnez went to one of her favorite spots in her house in San Salvador: her aunt’s vanity, where she likes to play dress up. But instead of smiling at the mirror, she began to cry. When her aunt found her there, Belen said she had been praying to God that the coronavirus would go away. She knows the pandemic is the reason she isn’t with her dad.

Belen and her three sisters – Amy, 19; Abigail, 16; and Genesis, 8 – are stuck in El Salvador, awaiting the end of a long process that would bring them to their father, who lives in Bakersfield, California. The girls were packed and ready to go when their flight was canceled due to lockdowns in El Salvador. It wasn’t the first time their plans had been scuttled. Three years ago, they’d been about to leave when the Trump administration tried to cancel the refugee program that was their ticket out.

We were sad because there were only a few days left and it was the same situation as before, said Abigail. But how were we going to know that this pandemic was going to happen?

The sisters are among 2,700 children approved for refugee status or temporary residence through the Central American Minors, or CAM, program, which began in 2014 under the Obama administration. The program had strict parameters: Only unmarried children under the age of 21 in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – with a parent legally residing in the U.S. – were allowed to apply.

CAM was the only official migration option for children who might otherwise make the dangerous journey through Mexico to the U.S. border – and the Martnez sisters were among the lucky few who met all the requirements for it. But the lifeline thrown to them during the Obama administration has been dangled over their heads during Donald Trump’s presidency. In 2017, the administration abruptly terminated the program. In March 2019, a judge said the administration had to go through with resettlement for people like the Martnez sisters, who were already approved, though the ruling did not require that the government accept new applications for the program.

The coronavirus was another reminder to the Martnez sisters of their precarious situation. Their flight was canceled when Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele closed the airport during the pandemic. Soon after, on March 19, the U.S. stopped receiving refugee arrivals except in emergency cases.

The Trump administration has used the pandemic to ramp up a restrictive immigration agenda, effectively ending asylum at the U.S. southern border. Now, as El Salvador begins to reopen its economy, the fate of the Martnez sisters remains unclear. The International Organization for Migration, which administers CAM, says it is working to ensure swift travel for these families, but does not have an exact date. The U.S. State Department said it would seek to resume refugee arrivals when it is safe and logistically feasible to do so.

The uncertainty of the past few years has made it difficult for the oldest Martnez sisters to make plans. Amy graduated from high school and wants to study video game design. But she’s been hesitant to enroll in a program in El Salvador just to drop out and start over in the U.S. Abigail, 16, said goodbye to her friends in March only to find out she was not yet leaving. For now, we don’t know if we’re going or not, so meanwhile we just have to focus on our studies, said Abigail. Their younger sisters are anxious to move and often ask when they’ll be able to go.

The girls’ father, Manuel Martnez, has had their rooms ready at his home in Bakersfield since 2017. Every day [without them] is a day without peace, he said.

Martnez has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, frequently traveling to El Salvador to spend time with family. He is one of nearly 250,000 Salvadorans with Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a reprieve from deportation which was granted to Salvadorans living in the U.S. in 2001 after a monstrous earthquake rocked their home country. The status was renewed every 18 months until the Trump administration decided to end the protection for Salvadorans in January 2018.

The Department of Homeland Security has since extended TPS for Salvadorans until January 2021, but Manuel and many others still have no pathway to citizenship. This means he has few options to bring family legally to the U.S.

Paying a coyote to bring the girls across the border could put his daughters’ physical and emotional well-being at risk, he said. I know how difficult it is to cross illegally, he said. Never in my life would I want my daughters to cross like that.

In fiscal year 2019, more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras crossed the U.S border. Many flee violence and have no legal route to immigrate to the U.S. from their home countries, so instead they try to reach the border and ask for asylum. CIMITRA, an NGO in El Salvador that assists CAM applicants, estimates that at least 80 percent of the minors in the program are fleeing violence. Others who aren’t fleeing an immediate threat can receive humanitarian parole, which lasts for two years.

In 2015, the Martnez girls’ mother died of lupus, and Manuel felt it was even more pressing that he be reunited with his daughters and watch them grow up. Around that time, Manuel heard about the CAM program from a distant family member. The Martnez family were part of a select few who qualified for the program.

That was by design, explained Oscar Chacn, executive director of Alianza Americas, a migrant rights organization with offices in the U.S and Central America. The program sounded perfect on paper, he said, but failed to address the reality of many Central American minors fleeing imminent violence by gangs, partners or family members, or state forces.

The process of applying was extremely tedious, he said. For many people, waiting so long was impossible. Others didn’t qualify based on the requirement that parents be legally in the U.S.

Despite its shortcomings, the program was an invaluable opportunity for Central American children like the Martnez sisters.

The four girls were finally approved for travel in 2016 after extensive interviews and medical checks. We were really excited back then, even more than now, said Abigail. She began to dream about her life in the U.S., what high school would be like, and how she might help her father with his trucking business one day. When the Trump administration abruptly ended the program, her planning ended too.

It was a big blow, she said. All of a sudden our efforts were for nothing.

When a judge ordered the Trump administration to resume processing applications that had already been approved, the family once more began collecting medical checks, interviews, and paperwork. But the girls were more skeptical this time. I don’t want to get my hopes up, said Amy in February. We know it could happen in any moment, but we’re not as excited as we were before, said Abigail.

Their comments proved to be prescient when their flight was canceled.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, having to wait, said Manuel.

Fred Ramos contributed reporting.

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David Xol-Cholom, of Guatemala hugs his son Byron at Los Angeles International Airport as they reunite after being separated about one and half year ago during the Trump administration's wide-scale separation of immigrant families, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Originally published by The Intercept

THE SEPARATION OF families by U.S. immigration officials at the U.S.-Mexico border amounts to torture, according to a group of medical and human rights experts that performed psychological evaluations of asylum-seekers. Their report for Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S.-based nonprofit that investigates human rights violations around the world, found that the policy of family separation – which officially ended in the summer of 2018 but continues today – constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. In other words: torture.

As far as we know, as of last December, over 5,500 children had been forcibly separated from their parents under a policy first implemented in 2017 and drastically expanded in 2018 as part of the Trump administration’s so-called zero tolerance crackdown on the border. In their investigation, You Will Never See Your Child Again: The Persistent Psychological Effects of Family Separation, PHR evaluated 17 adults and nine children from Central America who had been separated between 60 and 69 days. All of the parents reported already having suffered trauma in their home countries, and feared that their children would be harmed or killed if they remained or returned. And so, in search of protection, they fled.

Instead of finding safety or refuge in the United States, however, they were met with new abuses, and further trauma. Children were forcibly removed from [parents’] arms or simply disappeared while their parents were taken to court. Some of the parents were then taunted and mocked by U.S. immigration officials when they asked after their children. The subsequent shock, terror, and grief was not only expected, but intentional – designed to push parents into giving up their asylum cases.

U.S. officials intentionally carried out actions, the report explains, causing severe pain and suffering, in order to punish, coerce, and intimidate Central American asylum seekers to give up their asylum claims. That intentionality is a key factor that the report leans on to make the argument that the abuse meets the legal standard for torture.

A mother from El Salvador recalled the nightmare when officers woke her at 2 a.m. and interrogated her in front of her daughter. They told her she had broken the law and hence she would be arrested. They handcuffed her in front of her daughter and then proceeded to take her daughter to another room.

Another mother from El Salvador recounted asking a U.S. official why her daughter was being taken away from her. The official reportedly responded that her daughter was going to be adopted by an American family and that [she] would be deported and that she would never see her daughter again, according to the report. Another mother whose daughter was taken from her was told she should learn to deal with it.

PHR clinicians chronicled that all those they interviewed exhibited symptoms and behaviors consistent with trauma: confusion, constant worry, crying a lot, having difficulty sleeping and eating, nightmares, depression, overwhelming anxiety, panic, and despair. Parents described feeling pure agony and being incredibly despondent. One mother reported that she felt she was in a black hole.

Children, too, exhibited regression in age-appropriate behaviors, including excessive crying, refusing to eat, nightmares and other sleeping difficulties, loss of developmental milestones, as well as clinging to parents and feeling scared following reunification. All but two of the children and two of the adults who were evaluated showed signs of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

The consequences of torture, especially the torture of children, are severe and long-lasting. Children who have undergone torture have higher rates of chronic medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and premature death, the report notes. In addition, there is an increased risk of psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, and psychosis, and of detrimental coping behaviors such as smoking and the use of alcohol or drugs.

The consequences have a domino effect, especially in children, said Dr. Ranit Mishori, a senior medical adviser for PHR, influencing overall health, mental health, cognition, behavior. Such trauma in children can actually physically alter the structure of the brain, as well as DNA, Mishori explained. She cited evidence of children who had been separated suffering severe regression even more than a year after they had been reunited with their family.

Hundreds of the children who were separated were preverbal, and the report concluded that the U.S. government taking them from their parents amounted to endangering children’s very right to their names and identities, a serious violation of children’s rights. The United States is the only member of the United Nations that is not party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed in New York in 1989.

For the purposes of the report, PHR followed the Istanbul Protocol: the United Nations guidelines for assessing and documenting torture. The official U.N. definition of torture is an act that causes severe physical or mental suffering, done intentionally, for the purpose of coercion, punishment, intimidation, or for a discriminatory reason, by a state official or with state consent or acquiescence. The decision to label this particular set of cruelties as torture was not something we took lightly, Mishori told The Intercept. The organization consulted with United Nations experts on torture and carefully considered the legal definition.

Part of calling this torture, Mishori said, is about accountability. PHR is calling for reparations for the people who were harmed, specifically in the form of mental health treatment. People who were deported likely received no specialized attention at all. Those who remain in the U.S. may have gotten help from nonprofits or government-sponsored programs, but a recent Washington Post investigation revealed that some therapists working in immigrant detention centers share information about their clients with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which can then use details against them in their cases. PHR isn’t calling for an international court to take up the case, at least not yet, but they do want an internal reckoning, Mishori said, especially for those who designed and implemented the policy.

PHR also concluded that the policy of family separation constitutes enforced disappearance, which occurs when state agents conceal the fate or whereabouts of a person who is deprived of liberty. A recent article from Reveal, giving disturbing substance to PHR’s claim, detailed the story of a 10-year-old girl who was separated from her family and then disappeared into the shelter system for six years, during which her family had no idea where she was.

In all of the cases examined in the PHR report, there was at least one period where parents had no idea where their children were, were unable to contact them, and had no assurance of, or timeline for, eventual contact or reunification.

One of the recommendations in the report is simply to stop family separations. The government has been ordered to do just that: Trump signed an executive order on June 20, 2018, and a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction on the policy six days later. Yet loopholes were left in place to allow the practice to continue in certain situations, and at least 1,142 children have been separated since the official end to the policy. That is, according to PHR, another 1,142 children tortured by the U.S. government.

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Originally published by The NY Times

NAIROBI/LAGOS, Nigeria – An Eritrean father yearning to be reunited with his four children after 15 years apart. An American woman adopting a Nigerian toddler. A Nigerian man desperate to be with his American wife and children.

These are some of the families waiting to see how they will be affected by President Donald Trump’s expansion of the U.S. travel ban.

Awet, who asked that Reuters use a nickname to avoid reprisals against his family, fled Eritrea in 2005. He is now a U.S. citizen.

Awet described how he hugged his four young children hard, whispering only to his weeping mother that he was leaving forever. For three days, he said, he hid under rocks by day and dodged hyenas and soldiers at night as he tried to cross the border.

Awet spent four years as a refugee in Ethiopia and Kenya before being resettled to the United States in 2009. When a 2018 peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea made it possible for the children to leave Eritrea safely, he finally dared hope he would see them again. Awet had been trying to bring his children over on family visas for the past year.

But on Friday, Trump, a Republican, issued an expanded version of his travel ban that suspended immigrant visas – a category that includes family visas – for Eritreans and Nigerians. The other countries with new restrictions are Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Tanzania and Sudan.

U.S. Homeland Security acting Secretary Chad Wolf said the restrictions were needed because the six countries had failed to meet U.S. security and information-sharing standards. But U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, called the ban “discrimination disguised as policy.”

Trump’s new law, for us, it’s very hurtful, said Awet, speaking by phone from his home in the United States. At least let the children in … those who want to come to be with their mother or father.

Awet said he is still praying that he will see his children – now aged 14-18 – again one day. Their mother is in the Middle East.

“I’m leaving it to God,” he told Reuters.

“God and a lawyer,” his attorney Kari Scofield chimed in.


In the West African powerhouse of Nigeria, 37-year-old Californian Lynsey Elston is waiting to find out if or when her newly adopted daughter will be able to meet the rest of the family back in the United States.

The former social worker always wanted to adopt. Three-year-old Eliana Ezinne arrived at her home in Nigeria on Christmas Eve 2019 after years of paperwork, interviews and uncertainty.

“This is my child,” she said as she cuddled the sleepy girl. “I can’t be separated from my child.”

Hasan Shafiqullah, head of the Immigration Law Unit at The Legal Aid Society in New York, told Reuters that Elston can apply for Eliana’s citizenship only from inside the United States, and Eliana can enter only on an immigrant visa.

The 2017 version of the travel ban outlines which groups can qualify for waivers, including adoptees, and the expanded ban says it will follow the same guidelines. But the system for obtaining waivers has proven opaque and difficult to navigate, and there is an ongoing federal lawsuit challenging the government’s implementation of the process.

“The emotion I am feeling is anger, Elston said at her home in an upscale neighborhood of Lagos.

In the same city, a 38-year-old Nigerian man quit his job last month as he prepared to move to the United States with his two toddlers and wife – all U.S. citizens. He asked for anonymity to avoid prejudicing his visa application.

The man said his mother and two sisters, also U.S. citizens, live in America, and he studied there and lived there for a decade. He wanted his children to grow up near his family, he said, and he considers America his second home.

Asked what he will do if he cannot get a visa to move with his family, he drew in a long, slow breath and went silent.

“I’m afraid to even consider that,” he said at last. You really are powerless.”

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Originally published by The New York Times

A Guatemalan woman seeking asylum in Massachusetts is suing the federal government to reunite with her partner and son, who have been ordered to remain in Mexico under the Trump administration’s asylum process.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of Maudy Constanza and her partner, Hanz Morales, argues the asylum policy violates constitutional due process and equal protection rights.

United States law protects asylum seekers like Ms. Constanza, Mr. Morales, and their children, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said in the suit filed Friday in federal court in Boston. The law forbids sending people to countries where they will be persecuted or tortured, and provides migrants with an opportunity to see an immigration judge before they may be sent to a place where they fear such persecution or torture.

The civil rights group said the couple fled Guatemala with their three young children last year after Morales was shot four times. The family traveled together to Mexico but split up just before crossing the U.S. border in July 2019.

Constanza and the couple’s two daughters were released into the U.S. to pursue their asylum claim, but Morales and their 9-year-old son were returned to Mexico.

They are among more than 50,000 people who have been sent back to the country as a result of President Donald Trump’s Remain in Mexico policy, which took effect in January 2019.

Formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, the policy requires asylum seekers from certain Spanish-speaking nations, including Guatemala, to wait out the U.S. immigration court process in Mexico.

But while living in Mexico, Morales and his son have survived an attempted kidnapping, struggled to find food and rarely leave their home because of the violent and dangerous conditions near the border, according to the ACLU.

The organization wants a federal judge to declare the asylum policy unlawful and allow Morales and his son to await the outcome of their case in the U.S. with the rest of their family.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is named in the suit, declined to comment.

The ACLU and other groups sued last year in San Francisco federal court on behalf of 11 migrants challenging the asylum policy. An appeals court panel heard arguments in the case in October but has yet to rule.

The ACLU’s San Diego chapter has also sued the federal government over the policy, arguing that asylum-seekers should have access to an attorney before being returned to Mexico to wait.

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Originally published by The Washington Post

At last night’s Democratic debate, Elizabeth Warren stated, A great nation does not separate children from their families. It was a forceful rejoinder to many of the Trump administration’s immigration policies: separating more than 5,400 children from their families, sending families to Mexico to await the chance to make asylum claims and seeking the chance to detain children indefinitely. The administration has also supported efforts that would end chain migration and de-prioritize family reunification.

When discussing immigration, candidates like Warren are likely to gain support when they speak in support of keeping families together. Making family reunification the centerpiece of the legal immigration system strengthened the United States in the 20th century while increasing the migration of people of color and benefiting U.S. citizens who were able to bring family members to join them. Keeping families apart is an effort to reduce immigration and whiten America – and history suggests that despite attempts by nativists to brand family reunification with the derisive, dehumanizing term chain migration, the public will remain steadfastly supportive of keeping families together.

Around the turn of the 20th century, many families immigrated together to the United States. Between 1871 and the outbreak of World War I, 12.9 million immigrants came from Asia and Europe in search of economic opportunities, social mobility or safety. They joined millions of migrants around the globe who, at the end of the 19th century, left their countries to escape stagnant economies, political unrest or persecution to take advantage of the demand for unskilled labor in rapidly industrializing nations.

By 1920, the three largest groups of immigrants in the United States were Italians (4 million), Eastern European Jews (2 million, mostly from the Russian Empire) and Poles (1 million). These numbers stood in stark contrast to the years preceding the mass migration of the turn of the 20th century. Until the 1880s, 11,725 Italians and about 150,000 Jews, mostly of German descent, had entered the United States.

These new immigrants faced discrimination in the United States. Many Americans of Northern and Western European ancestry regarded them as nonwhite, biologically and culturally inferior and unassimilable. Calls for immigration restrictions against Asian and European immigrants echoed a global push to restrict, exclude, deport and segregate immigrants deemed undesirable – especially immigrants of color.

As the debate raged, Italian and Jewish leaders skillfully put family ties at the forefront of their efforts to staunch the nativist push. Starting in 1896, when Congress first considered administering a literacy test to incoming immigrants – a tactic to reduce immigration – Italian and Jewish reform advocates argued that many of the proposals under consideration in Congress would lead to family separation. For the moment, framing restriction as harming families worked, and the bills failed to make their way into law.

But a few years later, as large-scale immigration of families continued, nativist opponents of immigration demanded policy change. Soon, immigration laws emerged as the ideal tool of social engineering and nation building. As Prescott Hall, one of the leaders of the Immigration Restriction League, put it in 1919, immigration restriction is a species of segregation on a large scale, by which inferior stocks can be prevented from both diluting and supplanting good stocks. Framing immigrants as stocks diluting white America originated from popular eugenicist beliefs that immigrants and their families posed a threat to the survival of U.S. society through reproduction.

As pressure to close the gates mounted, Italian and Jewish reform advocates joined other groups to oppose restrictive immigration laws. They pushed to exempt family members from the quota system under discussion, and advocated for family reunification. But their efforts collided with those of a powerful coalition of nativists in Congress who worked to solidify a regime of restriction and strengthen their political influence.

When Congress passed the 1924 Immigration Act, which imposed a near ban on immigration from Asia and restricted immigration from Europe through the national origins quota system, Rep. Albert Johnson (R-Wash.), one of its sponsors, was clear about the motivation. He called it America’s second declaration of Independence and argued that the United States is our land … if it was not the land of our fathers, at least it may be, and it should be, the land of our children. We intend to maintain it so. The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended. Aiming to whiten the country – to ensure that American families remained white – meant legally restricting the immigration of people deemed nonwhite.

But over the course of the 20th century, reformers sought to open the gates that had been shut so tightly. Gradually appeals to American family values emerged as the main tool to challenge restriction. Italian and Jewish reformers understood that, despite their differences, congressional leaders of both parties were willing to negotiate over family reunification as an exception to restriction because many of them regarded the family unit as the foundation for U.S. society.

Their efforts finally began to succeed in the 1950s. Although Italian and Jewish reform advocates were frustrated when the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act retained the national origins quota system from the 1920s, they welcomed the law’s new emphasis on family reunion.

Because of the act’s emphasis on family reunification, education and economic potential, immigration increased in the late 1950s. Immigrants from outside of Europe took advantage of these new family provisions, despite the small annual quotas allocated to their countries. In turn, these trends paved the way for a more diverse society.

Under the law, more than 2 million immigrants should have arrived between 1952 and 1965, but in fact 3.5 million people entered the country, only about a third of whom came under the annual immigrant quotas allocated by the law. Many instead entered through the family reunion provisions. This trend expanded considerably after Congress, again embracing the centrality of family, passed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which replaced the national origins quota system with a global ceiling on immigration and retained the emphasis on family reunion, skills and education.

Restrictionist legislators’ support for family reunion in 1952 and 1965 was no accident. Their decision to prioritize family reunion was rooted in their belief that emphasizing family would be the best way to preserve the existing racial status quo. They expected that, because the 1920s legislation prioritized Northern and Western Europeans, that they would be the perpetual beneficiaries of family-based migration.

But the rapid postwar recovery of Western European nations, greatly facilitated by the Marshall Plan, meant that citizens of these countries no longer sought to emigrate in large numbers, while totalitarian governments in eastern and central Europe blocked aspiring migrants from leaving altogether. Meanwhile, the pressure to leave increased in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Restrictionists never expected that instead of preserving whiteness, family preference would become a leading factor in creating the most diverse society in U.S. history.

Today’s efforts to undermine family reunion as the centerpiece of U.S. immigration policy and the use of family separation as a deterrent to immigration are not by chance. In fact, as restrictionists have come to recognize their miscalculation and that family reunion has benefited immigrants of color, they have adjusted their tactics to attempt to preserve the racial status quo.

But the public has shown little support for the Trump administration’s policies targeting families. Like the mid-century reformers who pushed family reunion to the center of immigration policy, people today continue to embrace the family unit as the foundation for our society. The question for the future of U.S. immigration, in 2020 and beyond, will be whether preserving families or preserving the racial status quo is the more important priority.

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Originally published by The New York Times

Heydi Gamez Garca was discovered by her aunt just after midnight.

In recent weeks, Heydi, a 13-year-old immigrant from Honduras, had become increasingly depressed about her father, who had been held in detention since he was caught illegally crossing the southern border in early June. It had been his third attempt in four years to reach the United States to be with his only child, who was living with his sisters in New York. But as days turned into weeks and more than a month passed without his release, the young girl seemed to lose hope, her family said.

Around 10:30 p.m. one recent night, Heydi shut herself in a room, saying she wanted to be alone. About an hour and a half later, her aunt, Zoila, gently opened the door to offer her a snack. Maybe some cookies and milk would cheer her up, she thought.

But the bed with blue and violet flowered sheets was empty. Zoila peered out the window, and then caught a glimpse of the closet on the opposite end of the room: There was Heydi, hanging from a phone-charging cable that she had fashioned into a noose.

She was unconscious, on the edge of death. She had left no note – nothing to help explain what, of the many things that can lead young people to take their own lives, had prompted her to try to end hers.

She was so smart, it doesn’t make sense why she made a decision like this, a decision so out of character, said Jessica Gamez, 32, the aunt Heydi lived with in the Long Island hamlet of Brentwood. I thought she would be safer here with me, safer than in Honduras.

Heydi’s short life story is much like those of thousands of Central American families who have been making their way to the United States over the past five years, petitioning for asylum from the turmoil of their homelands and hoping that the challenges of building a new life in an unfamiliar country will not be greater than the ones they left behind.Heydi at her fifth-grade graduation last year.

Heydi at her fifth-grade graduation last year.
Heydi at her fifth-grade graduation last year.

Heydi’s mother abandoned the family when she was just 2 months old; her grandparents, who raised her in Honduras, both died – she was among those who found her grandfather dying in the street after he was attacked by gang members. She moved to New York and had the usual challenges of adolescence, going to a new school and learning English. But more than anything else, her family and friends said, she missed her father.

Heydi was so excited when he told her he was coming, I think the idea of her dad being here with her felt like a refuge, said Erika Estrada, 25, who knew Heydi from their church, the Gospel Tabernacle Church in Brentwood. She lost her grandparents, her mother left, she had all this daughterly love that she couldn’t put towards her aunts or her uncles, only him, Ms. Estrada said.

The story of American immigration has long been one of split families – a parent travels to the United States to work; children and sometimes spouses are left home. In earlier years, migrant workers would return home at the end of the work season and then cross back. But the fortification of the border that followed the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and stepped-up security in the years since have made such comings and goings far more difficult. In many families, parents and children remain separated for years, sometimes for a lifetime.

While the past year has seen repeated cases of migrant family separations and children detained on the border under President Trump’s strict new immigration policies, the Gamez family’s difficulties spanned three presidential administrations – all of which debated but did not deliver a wide-ranging legal solution for migrant labor in the United States.

Going home to be with a sick parent, attend a funeral or to another emergency: It happens all the time, said Marty Rosenbluth, a lawyer who represents immigrants at a detention center in Lumpkin, Ga. Then people get caught when they try to return to the U.S.

What happened to Heydi has been reconstructed through interviews with her father, aunts and uncles, cousins, a family friend and her father’s lawyer, as well as information from the family’s asylum cases, federal court records and immigration authorities.

Heydi grew up in a modest concrete home in El Progreso, a town in northwest Honduras flanked by a mountain range to the east and the Ulúa River to the west. For decades the city was a hub for commercial banana plantations.

But by the time Heydi was born in March 2006, El Progreso had also become host to some of the country’s many violent gangs, including MS-13. Gang members often demanded cash payments – taxes – from Heydi’s family and others in exchange for guaranteeing their safety.

The instability combined with lack of opportunity led her father, Manuel Gamez, now 34, to head for the United States. In 2007, leaving Heydi behind with his parents, he sneaked across the border and traveled to Long Island, where his sister, Jessica, had settled two years earlier.

Being apart from Heydi for most of her childhood was difficult, Mr. Gamez said, but he made enough as a landscaper to send money to support her.

When Heydi returned from her Catholic nursery school, she played with the family dogs or rode a pink bicycle her father had given her, recalled Zoila, another of Mr. Gamez’s sisters. Occasionally, she helped in the small store her grandparents ran from their house, raiding shelves and stealing caramels.

But one day in June 2014, the security in which Heydi’s grandparents had enveloped her was shattered.

After months of rebuffing gang members’ demands that he hand over his small S.U.V., her grandfather was gunned down two blocks from their home. Hearing the commotion, Zoila had rushed outside to find her father sprawled on the ground. Peeling back his cattleman hat, she saw blood seeping from his head, forming a pool on the pavement. Heydi stood at a distance, watching the scene unfold.

Within days of the killing, Mr. Gamez said, he was on a plane back to Honduras.

There was no one there to take care of Heydi or Zoila; my mom was very sick then, he said. I thought it might be a risk to go back, but I couldn’t leave them there alone.

About a year later, Mr. Gamez’s mother died of complications from diabetes and, according to her children, heartbreak over her husband’s death. With four of his siblings in Long Island and the fear of further retaliation from the gangs weighing on him, Mr. Gamez decided that Heydi and Zoila must go to the United States to be safe.

He sent Heydi first, in the summer of 2015, deciding to stay behind in Honduras in case she was turned back at the border.

On Sept. 25, 2015, after nearly two months in a migrant shelter for minors, the 9-year-old Heydi landed at La Guardia Airport, followed a few months later by Zoila.

Surrounded by seven cousins around her age, Heydi adjusted well to life in America, her aunts and cousins said. Within six months, she learned English, motivated as much by her ambition to succeed in her new school as by her desire to be included in the secret conversations her cousins had in English around their Spanish-speaking aunts and uncles.

On nearly daily video calls with her father in Honduras, she began teaching him the basics (Hello. How are you?) and chastising him for not learning the language better, since he had lived in the United States. Heydi even taught him some lines for talking to women when he arrived in America, perhaps her way of nudging him to find her a mother, he thought.

She taught me ‘Are you married? Are you single?’ he recalled. I would say it and she would laugh and smile, she said my accent was very bad.

Heydi urged her father to practice. He had to prepare for living with her, she said. He assured his daughter that he would arrive soon.

In June 2016, based on the threat from gangs to her family, Heydi won asylum, entitling her to live permanently and legally in the United States. Around this time, Mr. Gamez made his first attempt to return to the United States. But the border was much harder to cross than when he had first journeyed to America nine years earlier.

The first time I came I crossed with a big group: It took two days, it was easy, he said. But then it became more difficult, much more difficult. There were Border Patrol agents everywhere.

When Mr. Gamez was apprehended in McAllen, Tex., he told agents that he feared for his life should he be returned to Honduras. But an asylum officer deemed that his fear was not credible, and he was deported that November.

How is it that his daughter and sister are both eligible for asylum and he fails? said Anibal Romero, Mr. Gamez’s lawyer. He clearly is fleeing for his safety, for the same reasons. This just shows you how this is a flawed system.

In September 2017, immigration officials detained Mr. Gamez near Santa Teresa, N.M., after he had made yet another attempt to enter the country. He was convicted of illegally re-entering, served 45 days in prison and was deported to Honduras a second time in November.

With each failed attempt, Heydi grew more dispirited.

I told her, ‘I can’t be there right now because the law won’t allow me,’ he recalled. But how do you explain that to a child? How do you explain what laws are to her?

Mr. Gamez remained in Honduras, hawking shoes on the side of the road to support himself.

By the time Heydi reached the sixth grade this past year, she was developing some crushes. For months she clung to a love note from a classmate, Carlos. I want you to be my girlfriend and for us to be together forever. Let me know what you think, it said, its worn edges folded into a perfect rectangle and tucked between assignments in her homework binder.

But she also showed signs of emotional distress. In the same binder, Heydi scribbled a note in the margins of a poem she was studying in her English class. The stanza she marked said, and the thought of my own / grandmother homeless / in the cold with no place / to pray and be warm / made me sad and depressed. Heydi wrote: It reminds me of my own depression.

Jessica attributed her niece’s sadness to both the trauma of losing her grandparents and her growing exasperation over whether she would ever be reunited with her father. Heydi often complained to her aunts that everyone else had a mother and a father, but she felt like an orphan.

She started pleading to return to Honduras to be with her father. But Mr. Gamez maintained that Heydi needed to stay in America, where she had won asylum and had educational opportunities that he had never had.

On Heydi’s 13th birthday in March, Mr. Gamez promised her he would be with her by her 15th to celebrate her quinceañera, the traditional coming-of-age celebration. But sensing her increasing despondence, he told her he would try to cross the border in June.

The two started to make plans for their first summer together in the United States: They’d go to the mall, to the park, to the small beach by the Bay Shore Marina.

From Reynosa, Mexico, in early June, Mr. Gamez called Heydi and told her he was almost in the United States. They may not be able to talk for the next few days, he warned her, but he would see her soon.

Mr. Gamez never had the chance to call her from the other side of the border. After illegally entering the United States, he was apprehended by Border Patrol agents and sent again into detention. When Heydi learned he was in custody, she broke into tears. For days, her aunts said, she did not want to leave her room. She lost her appetite.

Jessica thought spending a few nights with Zoila, her younger aunt, might raise Heydi’s spirits. They planned an outing to Six Flags for July 5. But the trip never happened.

At 12:36 a.m. on the morning of July 3, the police responded to a 911 call from Zoila’s house, where medics tried to resuscitate Heydi. She was taken to Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, where doctors determined she was neurologically devastated. A week later, they declared her brain-dead.

On July 13, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to a request from Mr. Gamez’s lawyer, Mr. Romero, to release him from custody to be with his dying daughter. The authorities put him on a plane with a round-trip ticket from Texas, where he will return to detention – he had 14 days to bid Heydi goodbye.

As Mr. Gamez’s flight from Houston approached Newark, Jessica and her siblings waited in the arrivals terminal.

He still doesn’t know what happened, Jessica said, cradling her elbows in her hands. I still don’t know how I’m going to tell him.

When Mr. Gamez emerged, Jessica lunged toward him. Brother, please forgive me, she murmured.

As the siblings wove through traffic to the hospital, Jessica tried to explain what had happened. But her brother did not fully grasp that his daughter was brain-dead – until he saw her.

She lay in a hospital bed, eyes half-shut, buried beneath breathing tubes and IV drips, surrounded by monitors. His eyes welled.

My dear, my dear, please, he said softly, stroking the crown of her head. Please, if you see a light, don’t go toward it, please.

I’m here, I love you, he whispered.

Mr. Gamez spent the night beside her, the flicker of hope that she might awaken dimming with each monitor’s beep. By morning, the severity of Heydi’s condition had sunk in.

As he sat on the couch in Jessica’s apartment the next day, a look of disbelief and grief washed over his face.

As a parent, you don’t have any hopes or dreams for yourself, all your dreams are for your kids, he said. All my dreams are in her heart. All of them are gone with her.

On Thursday, Mr. Gamez plans to take Heydi off life support. They will have spent her last four days alive, together.

Updated, July 18: On Thursday evening, the Gamez Garca family gathered at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park as doctors took Heydi off life support. The family decided to donate her organs. She was so young, so healthy, maybe she can live on in another person, she can help another person live, her father, Manuel Gamez, said about the decision. They plan to hold a funeral service for Heydi in the coming days, before Mr. Gamez returns to ICE detention.

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Originally published by LA Times

A 33-year-old father of two American-born children was allowed to return to the U.S. on Monday, two years after being deported to El Salvador during the first months of the Trump administration. 

Jose Escobar was welcomed at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport by a group of supporters. He was accompanied by his wife, Rose, and their two children, Walter and Carmen, who had flown to El Salvador in June to visit him. They were in El Salvador when they got word that U.S. immigration authorities had approved waivers that would allow him to return to the U.S. legally. 

Escobar was a teenager when his family settled in the U.S. in 2001 with temporary protected status, which was granted to Salvadorans who were victims of earthquakes that year. He married Rose in 2006, the same year he learned that his family hadn’t filed the paperwork necessary for him to renew his visa. 

He was living in the U.S. without authorization, and an immigration judge ordered his deportation that year. His wife and children are all U.S. citizens. 

Escobar was arrested in 2011 – during the administration of former President Barack Obama – and detained for several months. After an intense lobbying campaign, the local field office director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released Escobar in January 2012 “so he could get his affairs in order,” the agency said last year. 

In February 2017, shortly after Trump took office and widened the priorities for detaining and deporting immigrants without authorization, Escobar was arrested during what was supposed to be a routine ICE check-in. 

The next month, he was deported to El Salvador. He called his wife from the San Salvador airport to tell her what had happened. 

Escobar moved to a town that’s about three hours from San Salvador, living with relatives and working intermittently as a laborer. 

He had video calls with his family at night, but he was often scared and worried about leaving the family home, as the gangs roaming the streets were known to target people who had come back from America and once held him up. He would watch the video from his home’s security cameras remotely. 

His children, meanwhile, struggled with the pain of losing their father. And with Jose having trouble making money in El Salvador, Rose Escobar supported the family on her own as a hospital receptionist and relied on savings that were quickly dwindling. 

Among the people who pressed his case was U.S. Rep. Al Green , a Houston Democrat. The Escobar family lives in Green’s district and the congressman took his case to heart, continuing to identify Escobar as his constituent even after he was deported. 

Green flew to El Salvador to meet with Escobar and later to press his case with consular officials. He presented Escobar with an American flag. 

“He’s always going to be my constituent,” Green said Monday. 

The Houston-based advocacy group FIEL contacted local attorney Raed Gonzalez, who took up Escobar’s case. He filed paperwork with U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services requesting waivers that would allow Escobar to return to the U.S., citing the hardship his deportation had placed on Rose. 

Those waivers were granted last month. 

Gonzalez said people in his office celebrated and cried with joy when the word came. But he also felt disappointed that Escobar was deported in the first place when he could have pursued the same waivers without having left his family. 

“This could have been avoided,” he said. “It could have been more humane. It could have been more decent.” 

On Monday, Green flew to El Salvador again – this time to greet the Escobar family and accompany them to Houston. Escobar carried with him the American flag that Green had brought him earlier. 

Sitting in an airport waiting room, Escobar held his daughter in his arms and recounted all the things he had missed while in El Salvador: birthdays, holidays, anniversaries. He already had plans to take the family to the nearby bayside town of Galveston for the Fourth of July holiday on Thursday to eat crawfish and watch fireworks. 

He looked at his son, Walter, and recounted how he had made him the man of the house while he was gone. 

“I’m back at home, so you get a break,” he said. 

Rose Escobar, who had called public attention to her husband’s case for more than two years, had tears in her eyes. 

“We’re whole again,” she said. “We’re a family.”

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