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A comprehensive guide to all the chaos going on at the border

May 7, 2018: Launching the “zero tolerance” policy

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation would be separated. He described family crossings as instances of people “smuggling a child across the border,” equating families fleeing violence and seeking asylum with child traffickers. It’s a classic move for the Trump administration, since the president seems to love equating immigrants with dangerous criminals, when the real threat they pose is only to the white majority his supporters care so much about maintaining.

Sessions also repeated the lie that the U.S. is dealing with a massive influx of border crossings, when the reality is that such crossings are historically low.

Although the policy was announced in May, Time found that separations had also taken place in April, with nearly 2,000 children being separated from their adult relatives between April 19 and May 31.

May 11: “Foster care or whatever”

In an interview with NPR, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, when asked about family separation, described it as a “strong deterrent” intended to prevent illegal border crossings. When asked if it was cruel to separate children from their mothers, he famously responded that “The children will be taken care of–put into foster care or whatever.” Earlier in the same interview, he criticized many migrants to the U.S. because they “don’t have skills.”

May 13: Marco Antonio Muñoz’s suicide

Marco Antonio Muñoz, a 39-year-old Honduran asylum seeker who was separated from his wife and child at the border died of suicide in his Texas jail cell. Border agents had previously had to use physical force to pull Muñoz’s child out of his arms.

Muñoz’s death highlights the severe trauma this separation policy inflicts not just on children, but also adults.

May 16-21: “Animals”

At a roundtable discussing immigration and sanctuary, Trump referred to migrants crossing the border as “animals.” Later, some Trump defenders argued that he was talking specifically about members of the gang MS-13. The administration doubled down on its dehumanizing language a few days later in a press release.

Regardless of who exactly Trump was talking about, the language of dehumanization is often the first step in committing greater violence against already marginalized communities.

May 25: Roxsana Hernandez died in CBP custody

Roxsana Hernandez, a 33-year-old Honduran trans woman, died after a week of being denied proper medical care in a detention center run by Customs and Border Protection. She developed pneumonia after being held in one of the freezing-cold cells called hieleras, or iceboxes. Hernandez also had HIV as a result of MS-13 gang members raping her back in Honduras. Her fear of the gang, and the violence often enacted against trans women in her home country, had driven her here, where she had hoped to find a measure of safety and was instead met with callous disregard and the torment and neglect that ultimately led to her death.

June 3: Jeff Merkley denied entry to detention center for immigrant children

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley went to Texas to try and see for himself the conditions in which ICE is holding immigrant children separated from their families. The detention center he went to was housed in a former Walmart. Officials there refused to let him in. Merkley demanded to see a supervisor. When one eventually emerged to speak with him, it was only to say that they couldn’t tell Merkley anything about the center, and called the police to force Merkley to leave.  

By this point, 600 children had been separated from their families over the course of the previous month.

Merkley also visited a child-processing center, where he saw children held in “cages” that he compared to dog kennels, with no beds and only space blankets for covers, cushions, or privacy screens. There, he learned that children separated from their families were then being recorded as unaccompanied minors, and that since children are processed through the Department of Health and Human Services, while adults are processed through the Department of Homeland Security, it is difficult for parents to find their kids again, or for immigration advocates to keep track of them.

June 6: ACLU sues over separations of asylum seekers

The ACLU sued the government for separating families who had arrived at official U.S. ports of entry to seek asylum in accordance with the law. In other words, although the Trump administration keeps trying to claim that they are only separating families who have entered the U.S. illegally, in reality they are doing the same thing to people who follow the letter of the law in their attempt to gain asylum.

June 10: ICE agents lie to parents

A Boston Globe reporter found that ICE agents sometimes tell parents their children are just being taken away for a bath when they are separated. As time passes, the parents gradually realize they have been lied to, and have no way of knowing when or if they will see their children again.

June 11: Domestic and gang violence no longer grounds for asylum

Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned a precedent set during the Obama administration that fears of domestic and gang violence could be considered valid grounds for seeking asylum in the U.S., making it harder in particular for many women to seek asylum.

June 12: Considering tent cities for children

The Trump administration announced plans to visit military bases to consider their suitability for hosting “tent cities” to house immigrant children who either arrive unaccompanied or are separated from their parents.

June 20: Executive Order “ends” family separation, abuse and neglect, psychotropic drugs, trauma

Trump signed an executive order supposedly ending the policy of family separation at the border. He had spent the past month and half lying by saying that he couldn’t end the policy without help from Congress. The new order did not provide a plan to reunite the more than 2,000 children that have already been separated with their parents. Adults are mainly being held in detention centers near the border, while some of the children are sent to foster homes in distant states like New York or Illinois. Some parents have already been deported, while their children remain in the U.S. A former ICE director said that some families may never be reunited, and the children may ultimately be adopted into U.S. families. The Trump administration may be creating “social orphans” who could lose their families forever. And some ICE agents have dangled the possibility of adoption as a threat to get parents separated from their children to “behave” or as a way to try and pressure parents into giving up their claims to asylum. Most children do not have lawyers provided to them, and face their immigration court case proceedings alone.

Also on June 20, The Texas Tribune and Reveal broke a story about how over the past four years, American taxes have paid for private companies to operate immigrant youth shelters that have been accused of sexual and physical abuse and neglect. Despite this years-long record of abuse, children continue to be placed in these shelters, run by the same companies. Staff members have been cited for failing to seek medical attention for children in need, “inappropriate contact” with children, and showing up to work drunk. The Tribune and Reveal found that some shelters may have also misused funds they received from the government.

These abuses date back well before the Trump administration, in some cases all the way back to the 1990s, but the family separation policy exposed even more children to these risks.

Meanwhile, a Huffington Post article out the same day revealed staff at some centers have allegedly been dosing children with powerful psychotropic drugs without their parents’ knowledge or consent.

Several outlets reported on the short- and long-term mental health effects the trauma of this policy will have on children and their parents. They’re at increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and ADHD, as well as future alcohol or drug abuse. The trauma can impact people’s ability to form strong, healthy relationships for the rest of their lives, which means in some form the trauma can be passed on even to children who will not be born for years. Entire generations will be traumatized by a policy seemingly designed for the sole purpose of inflicting suffering on the basis of racism and bigotry.

June 26: Court order to halt family separations, reunite families

Federal judge Dana Sabraw ruled that the federal government must stop separating families at the border and reunite the 2,044 in federal custody that have been separated within 30 days. He also ordered the government stop deporting parents without their children.

The government claims to have already reunited 538 families, but outside advocates have had trouble verifying that number. For instance, the Texas Civil Rights Project has only been able to confirm four family reunifications.

July 2: Cost of reunification

Families are being forced to pay thousands of dollars to get their kids released from detention centers, and pay airfare and other travel expenses to be reunited with their children. The red tape, administrative hurdles, and expenses are a major barrier to reunification for the parents who know where their children are.

July 4: Couple visiting their soldier son-in-law arrested at Fort Drum

A couple went to visit their son-in-law before he was shipped out for another tour of duty in Afghanistan. They have lived in Brooklyn for over two decades and have valid Department of Labor work permits and New York City IDs, but were nonetheless detained and taken to an ICE detention center in Buffalo.

July 6: Child filthy and covered in lice, HHS lost track of parents 

Olivia Caceras, a migrant mother reunited with her child after 85 days, joined a lawsuit against the federal government’s zero tolerance policy of incarcerating anyone detained at the border. She reported that her fourteen-month-old child was filthy and covered in lice when she was finally reunited with him, saying “It seemed like they had not bathed him the entire 85 days he was away from us.”

That same day, officials from the Department of Health and Human Services admitted that they didn’t know exactly where the parents of 20 percent of the toddlers in their custody were. On the same call they said they would only be able to reunite about half the families they were ordered to by Judge Sabraw’s deadline.

July 7: Website with info for parents on reunification down

Reveal reporter Aura Bogado obtained a video parents must watch before being reunited with their children. The video includes a link to a website with full information on sponsors, but that website was down.  

July 10: “Generosity and charity,” Downed phone lines, Miscarriages and abuse

Alex Azar, the secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, said his department was “performing one of the great acts of American generosity and charity” in caring for immigrant children and described the facilities as “a compassionate environment.”

Also on July 10, Aaron Cantú of the San Francisco Reporter wrote that a phone line that provides translation services for people in immigraiton detention at a privately-owned prison was disconnected without explanation for two weeks in June and July, preventing some from working with lawyers on their cases.

And Buzzfeed reported on women who had miscarriages as a result of mistreatment while in ICE custody, and of a range of other abuses carried about by ICE agents against immigrant women. Women are denied medical care, shackled around the stomach while being transported, and physically and psychologically abused. Some who miscarried said they bled for hours and sometimes even days before receiving medical attention.

July 11: Children bathing in sinks

Reveal found that children had been held overnight in Arizona office buildings run by defense contractor MVM Inc. Witnesses later reported children bathing in sinks, because there were no shower facilities. The buildings also did not have kitchens. MVM does not have childcare licenses in Arizona. Their contract with ICE is for transport, so its possible that holding children overnight violates their contract. One child being held there went missing and was never found.

July 12: Half of children under 5 not reunited with parents

The Trump administration said that all eligible children under 5 had been reunited with their parents. Nearly half of the children in that age group were not reunited because they were considered ineligible for some reason: possibly their parents were facing other criminal charges, possibly because their parents had already been deported, or for a range of other issues.

July 15: Trump administration may have intended permanent separation

Democratic lawmakers released a joint statement claiming that prior to Judge Sabraw’s order, the administration told them it had no plan for reuniting families separated at the border. No plan. They allegedly wanted to just tear families apart and keep them that way. The government seems to have wanted to make “effective orphans” of thousands of children who had arrived here with their loving, very much living parents.

July 19: Honduran child lied to by ICE

A 10-year-old girl separated from her mother and held in a detention center in Texas was told by an ICE agent she could see her mother at 6 pm one day when she was being held. However, when she asked guards what time it was, they said they were not allowed to tell her. She was held in a windowless room with the lights constantly on, preventing her from determining the passage of time in any other way. She did not see her mother until they were both eventually left the facility.

July 25: Parents misled into waiving rights

ICE agents detaining immigrant parents at the border allegedly lied to, tricked, and coerced some parents into signing forms waiving their right to reunification with their kids. Some actually thought they were filling out paperwork to be reunited.

One man had come to the U.S. with his young daughter because a powerful man back in his home country of Guatemala wanted to “buy” her. Immigration officials told him he was going to be deported no matter what, and the only choice he could make was whether his daughter would be as well. Fearing for her safety back in Guatemala, he waived his right to be reunited with her.

Others report being pressured to sign documents in languages they didn’t speak–many have limited English language skills, and some indigenous people also don’t read Spanish.

July 26: Another failed reunification deadline

The Trump administration missed another court-imposed deadline to reunite children with their parents. More than 900 children are still not back with their parents. Lawyers working with parents and kids say that the efforts to reunite them are chaotic and deeply traumatic for the families. In one particularly heartbreaking case, two children who were being held in a detention center in New York were sent to Texas to be reunited with their mother, only to find that she had been deported earlier that same morning. The legal group that had been working with those children has not received any information on what has happened to them since, and do not know if they have been deported or detained.

July 27: Number of parents deported without their kids on the rise

As of this date, at least 468 children in the U.S. are “ineligible” to be reunited with their parents because their parents have already been deported.

U.S. authorities are not sure how, or even if, they will reunite these children with their parents. Another 43 children’s parents were released into the United States and the government is now unable to locate them. The task of reuniting families may fall on NGOs, since the government doesn’t exactly seem that motivated.

August 1: A toddler dies shortly after their release from immigration detention

The Washington Post reported on claims that a female toddler who had suffered from a respiratory illness while in custody died shortly after she was released from a detention facility in Dilley, Texas.

August 7: Promotion for ICE official who compared child detention centers to “summer camp,” Activist targeted for detention, Administration to propose ways to make it even harder for immigrants to achieve legal status

Matthew Albence, an ICE official who made headlines when he said the child detention centers were like “summer camp” has risen to the position of acting deputy director and second-in-command of the whole agency. Other officials say that his ascension within the agency over the past 18 months would normally have taken someone years.

Also on August 7, The Intercept reported that an immigrant rights activist, Sergio Salazar, was arrested by ICE at a protest. Salazar arrived in the U.S. when he was two years old, and was previously protected under DACA. He had recently applied to have his legal status renewed. It wasn’t until he was detained by ICE after leaving a protest that he was informed his application had been denied, seemingly in retaliation for his activism. He was questioned by the FBI about his work in immigrant rights organizing, told his application had been rejected because he was a “bad person,” and then told that the FBI could help him regain legal status if he told them about other activists he had worked with.

And the Trump administration is expected to put forth a proposal to make it harder for immigrants to attain green cards, and for those with green cards to become citizens if they have ever used a range of popular welfare services, including food stamps, child health insurance, or Obamacare. More than 20 million immigrants could be affected. The proposal probably does not need congressional approval, meaning there is little to stop it from being enforced soon.

August 8: Trump administration tries to deport woman and child during their immigration hearing, ICE lied about a van accident

As lawyers from the ACLU stood in a courtroom on the 8th trying to argue for the rights of a woman and her child to remain in the U.S., that same woman and her daughter were removed from a detention center ant put aboard a flight to Central America. When the judge hearing the case, Emmet Sullivan, heard the news, he called the action “outrageous…that someone seeking justice in U.S. court is spirited away while her attorneys are arguing justice for her.”

Sullivan ordered that they be returned to the U.S. pending a decision on their case, and threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt of court if they were not.

A DHS official said they were complying with the order, and the plaintiff and her daughter would be returned to the U.S. promptly.

The same day, The Texas Observer broke the story that ICE crashed a van transporting 8 mothers en route to be reunited with their children, and then spent three weeks denying to the press that the crash had happened. The van was too damaged to continue driving, and had to be towed away from the scene. The women involved reported injuries, but when an ambulance arrived declined to go to the hospital because they were afraid it would prevent or delay them further from seeing their children again.

August 9: Texas begins investigation into death of child after detention

State officials in Texas launched an investigation into the death of a child shortly after she was released from the South Texas Family Residential Center (see August 1) to determine whether conditions at the center were responsible for her death.

August 13: Results of investigations into abuse in VA detention center

Virginia concluded an investigation into the treatment of immigrant teens at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center. The investigation confirmed what teens held there had alleged: that they were strapped to chairs with mesh bags over their heads, sometimes stripped of their clothes, and locked in solitary confinement. However, because we live in a dystopic hellscape, the state did not conclude that current treatment of the teens met the threshold for abuse or neglect.

The children interviewed for the study were reportedly not the same ones who had filed complaints about their treatment, and interviews were conducted with facility staff in the room with the children, meaning they may have been intimidated by the presence of the people who keep them imprisoned into understating the severity of their treatment.

August 20: Re-separation as retaliation

The Daily Beast reported that 16 fathers were handcuffed and separated from their sons for a second time (after their court-ordered reunification,) and taken to different detention centers. All of the fathers are applying for asylum or applying for legal status in the U.S., and nine of them were planning to participate in a hunger strike to protest their conditions and hopefully expedite their cases. An ICE officer said the fathers and sons had been separated because of “disruptive behavior.” So apparently any act of protest against the current immigration regime can result in further punishment. The move highlights how precarious family reunification is, even when it happens.

August 22: Administration shocked by outcry against separations

A writer for The New Yorker spoke with an official who said that the administration was surprised that there was so much backlash against the family separation policy. “The expectation was that the kids would go to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, that the parents would get deported, and that no one would care.”

August 23: Hundreds of children still separated from parents, remain in abusive “shelters”

Nearly a month after the court-imposed deadline to reunite families separated at the border, 528 children have still not been reunited with their parents.

August 24: Administration files to end court oversight of treatment of immigrant children

The 1997 Flores settlement was the result of a court case about the government’s responsibilities towards immigrant children. It established that the government had to meet certain standards of care, including housing and nutritional requirements.  DHS is now filing to end the agreement, supposedly in the name of providing “humane detention of family units.” Understandably, immigrant rights activists are concerned that this move will lead to even worse conditions for children and families detained by immigration authorities. The administration’s plans would end restrictions on how long families with children may be detained, and get rid of certain licensing requirements for detention centers.

August 28: Children still held at abusive centers

A federal judge ordered that children should be moved from Shiloh Treatment Center, a detention center with a history of abuse against the children held there. But 25 children are still imprisoned at Shiloh, and continue to be given psychiatric drugs without proper consent from their parents or medical evaluation, again in violation of court orders.

By Laura Muth

Laura Muth is a writer and researcher with a BA in political science from Johns Hopkins and an MA in international affairs from Boston University. They write at the intersection of security and human rights issues, with a special interest in gender, nationalism, racism, and religious identity. Laura loves connecting specific current events with larger trends in global politics.