Everyone involved in U.S. immigration along the border has a unique perspective on the new “zero tolerance” policies—most notably, the increasing number of migrant parents who are separated from their children. Some workers are charged with taking the children away from their parents and sending them into the care of Health and Human Services. Some are contracted to find housing for the children and get them food. Some volunteers try to help the kids navigate the system. Some, like Anne Chandler, assist the parents. As executive director of the Houston office of the nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center, which focuses on helping immigrant women and children, she has been traveling to the border and to detention centers, listening to the parents’ stories. We asked her to talk with us about what she has been hearing in recent weeks.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Texas Monthly: First, can you give us an overview of your organization?
Anne Chandler: We run the Children’s Border Project, and we work with hundreds of kids that have been released from ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] care. We are not a legal service provider that does work when they’re in the shelters. To date, most of our work with that issue of family separation has been working with the parents in the days when they are being separated: when they’re in the federal courthouse being convicted; partnering with the federal public defenders; and then in the adult detention center, as they have no idea how to communicate or speak to their children or get them back before being deported.
TM: Can you take me through what you’ve been seeing?
AC: The short of it is, we will take sample sizes of numbers and individuals we’re seeing that are being prosecuted for criminal entry. The majority of those are free to return to the home country. Vast majority. We can’t quite know exactly because our sample size is between one hundred and two hundred individuals. But 90 percent of those who are being convicted are having their children separated from them. The 10 percent that aren’t are some mothers who are going with their children to the detention centers in Karnes and Dilley. But, for the most part, the ones that I’ve been working with are the ones that are actually being prosecuted for criminal entry, which is a pretty new thing for our country—to take first-time asylum seekers who are here seeking safe refuge, to turn around and charge them with a criminal offense. Those parents are finding themselves in adult detention centers and in a process known as expedited removal, where many are being deported. And their children, on the other hand, are put in a completely different legal structure. They are categorized as unaccompanied children and thus are being put in place in a federal agency not with the Department of Homeland Security but with Health and Human Services. And Health and Human Services has this complicated structure in place where they’re not viewed as a long-term foster care system—that’s for very limited numbers—but their general mandate is to safeguard these children in temporary shelters and then find family members with whom they can be placed. So they start with parents, and then they go to grandparents, and then they go to other immediate family members, and then they go to acquaintances, people who’ve known the children, and they’re in that system, but they can’t be released to their parents because their parents are behind bars. And we may see more parents that get out of jail because they pass a “credible fear” interview, which is the screening done by the asylum office to see who should be deported quickly, within days or weeks of arrival, and who should stay here and have an opportunity to present their asylum case before an immigration judge of the Department of Justice. So we have a lot of individuals who are in that credible fear process right now, but in Houston, once you have a credible fear interview (which will sometimes take two to three weeks to even set up), those results aren’t coming out for four to six weeks. Meanwhile, these parents are just kind of languishing in these detention centers because of the zero-tolerance policy. There’s no individual adjudication of whether the parents should be put on some form of alternative detention program so that they can be in a position to be reunited with their kid.
TM: So, just so I make sure I understand: the parents come in and say, “We’re persecuted” or give some reason for asylum. They come in. And then their child or children are taken away and they’re in lockup for at least six weeks away from the kids and often don’t know where the kids are. Is that what’s happening under zero tolerance?
AC: So the idea of zero tolerance under the stated policy is that we don’t care why you’re afraid. We don’t care if it’s religion, political, gangs, anything. For all asylum seekers, you are going to be put in jail, in a detention center, and you’re going to have your children taken away from you. That’s the policy. They’re not 100 percent able to implement that because of a lot of reasons, including just having enough judges on the border. And bed space. There’s a big logistical problem because this is a new policy. So the way they get to that policy of taking the kids away and keeping the adults in detention centers and the kids in a different federal facility is based on the legal rationale that we’re going to convict you, and since we’re going to convict you, you’re going to be in the custody of the U.S. Marshals, and when that happens, we’re taking your kid away. So they’re not able to convict everybody of illegal entry right now just because there aren’t enough judges on the border right now to hear the number of cases that come over, and then they say if you have religious persecution or political persecution or persecution on something that our asylum definition recognizes, you can fight that case behind bars at an immigration detention center. And those cases take two, three, four, five, six months. And what happens to your child isn’t really our concern. That is, you have made the choice to bring your child over illegally. And this is what’s going to happen.
TM: Even if they crossed at a legal entry point?
AC: Very few people come to the bridge. Border Patrol is saying the bridge is closed. When I was last out in McAllen, people were stacked on the bridge, sleeping there for three, four, ten nights. They’ve now cleared those individuals from sleeping on the bridge, but there are hundreds of accounts of asylum seekers, when they go to the bridge, who are told, “I’m sorry, we’re full today. We can’t process your case.” So the families go illegally on a raft—I don’t want to say illegally; they cross without a visa on a raft. Many of them then look for Border Patrol to turn themselves in, because they know they’re going to ask for asylum. And under this government theory—you know, in the past, we’ve had international treaties, right? Statutes which codified the right of asylum seekers to ask for asylum. Right? Article 31 of the Refugee Convention clearly says that it is improper for any state to use criminal laws that could deter asylum seekers as long as that asylum seeker is asking for asylum within a reasonable amount of time. But our administration is kind of ignoring this longstanding international and national jurisprudence of basic beliefs to make this distinction that, if you come to a bridge, we’re not going to prosecute you, but if you come over the river and then find immigration or are caught by immigration, we’re prosecuting you.
TM: So if you cross any other way besides the bridge, we’re prosecuting you. But . . . you can’t cross the bridge.
AC: That’s right. I’ve talked to tons of people. There are organizations like Al Otro Lado that document border turn-backs. And there’s an effort to accompany asylum seekers so that Customs and Border Patrol can’t say, “We’re closed.” Everybody we’ve talked to who’s been prosecuted or separated has crossed the river without a visa.
TM: You said you were down there recently?
AC: Monday, June 4.
TM: What was happening on the bridge at that point?
AC: I talked to a lot of people who were there Saturdays and Sundays, a lot of church groups that are going, bringing those individuals umbrellas because they were in the sun. It’s morning shade, and then the sun—you know, it’s like 100 degrees on the cement. It’s really, really hot. So there were groups bringing diapers and water bottles and umbrellas and electric fans, and now everyone’s freaked out because they’re gone! What did they do with them? Did they process them all? Yet we know they’re saying you’re turned back. When I was in McAllen, the individuals that day who visited people on the bridge had been there four days. We’re talking infants; there were people breastfeeding on the bridge.
TM: Are the infants taken as well?
AC: Every border zone is different. We definitely saw a pattern in McAllen. We talked to about 63 parents who had lost their children that day in the court. Of those, the children seemed to be all five and older. What we know from the shelters and working with people is that, yes, there are kids that are very young, that are breastfeeding babies and under three in the shelters, separated from their parents. But I’m just saying, in my experience, all those kids and all the parents’ stories were five and up.
TM: Can you talk about how you’ve seen the process change over the past few months?
AC: The zero-tolerance policy really started with Jeff Sessions’s announcement in May. One could argue that this was the original policy that we started seeing in the executive orders. One was called “border security and immigration enforcement.” And a lot of the principles underlying zero tolerance are found here. The idea is that we’re going to prosecute people.
TM: And the policy of separating kids from parents went into effect when?
AC: They would articulate it in various ways with different officials, but as immigration attorneys, starting in October, were like, “Oh my goodness. They are telling us these are all criminal lawbreakers and they’re going to have their children taken away.” We didn’t know what it would mean. And so we saw about six hundred children who were taken away from October to May, then we saw an explosion of the numbers in May. It ramped up. The Office of Refugee Resettlement taking in all these kids says that they are our children, that they are unaccompanied. It’s a fabrication. They’re not unaccompanied children. They are children that came with their parents, and the idea that we’re creating this crisis—it’s a manufactured crisis where we’re going to let children suffer to somehow allow this draconian approach with families seeking shelter and safe refuge.
TM: So what is the process for separation?
AC: There is no one process. Judging from the mothers and fathers I’ve spoken to and those my staff has spoken to, there are several different processes. Sometimes they will tell the parent, “We’re taking your child away.” And when the parent asks, “When will we get them back?” they say, “We can’t tell you that.” Sometimes the officers will say, “because you’re going to be prosecuted” or “because you’re not welcome in this country” or “because we’re separating them,” without giving them a clear justification. In other cases, we see no communication that the parent knows that their child is to be taken away. Instead, the officers say, “I’m going to take your child to get bathed.” That’s one we see again and again. “Your child needs to come with me for a bath.” The child goes off, and in a half an hour, twenty minutes, the parent inquires, “Where is my five-year-old?” “Where’s my seven-year-old?” “This is a long bath.” And they say, “You won’t be seeing your child again.” Sometimes mothers—I was talking to one mother, and she said, “Don’t take my child away,” and the child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, “Can I at least have five minutes to console her?” They said no. In another case, the father said, “Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?” The officer said, “You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.” So, threats. So the father just let the child go. So it’s a lot of variations. But sometimes deceit and sometimes direct, just “I’m taking your child away.” Parents are not getting any information on what their rights are to communicate to get their child before they are deported, what reunification may look like. We spoke to nine parents on this Monday, which was the 11th, and these were adults in detention centers outside of Houston. They had been separated from their child between May 23 and May 25, and as of June 11, not one of them had been able to talk to their child or knew a phone number that functioned from the detention center director. None of them had direct information from immigration on where their child was located. The one number they were given by some government official from the Department of Homeland Security was a 1-800 number. But from the phones inside the detention center, they can’t make those calls. We know there are more parents who are being deported without their child, without any process or information on how to get their child back.
TM: And so it’s entirely possible that children will be left in the country without any relatives?
AC: Could be, yeah.
TM: And if the child is, say, five years old . . .?
AC: The child is going through deportation proceedings, so the likelihood that that child is going to be deported is pretty high.
TM: How do they know where to deport the child to, or who the parents are?
AC: How does that child navigate their deportation case without their parent around?
TM: Because a five-year-old doesn’t necessarily know his parents’ information.
AC: In the shelters, they can’t even find the parents because the kids are just crying inconsolably. They often don’t know the full legal name of their parents or their date of birth. They’re not in a position to share a trauma story like what caused the migration. These kids and parents had no idea. None of the parents I talked to were expecting to be separated as they faced the process of asking for asylum.
TM: I would think that there would be something in place where, when the child is taken, they’d be given a wristband or something with their information on it?
AC: I think the Department of Homeland Security gives the kids an alien number. They also give the parents an alien number and probably have that information. The issue is that the Department of Homeland Security is not the one caring for the children. Jurisdiction of that child has moved over to Health and Human Services, and the Health and Human Services staff has to figure out, where is this parent? And that’s not easy. Sometimes the parents are deported. Kids are in New York and Miami, and we’ve got parents being sent to Tacoma, Washington, and California. Talk about a mess. And nobody has a right to an attorney here. These kids don’t get a paid advocate or an ad litem or a friend of the court. They don’t get a paid attorney to represent them. Some find that, because there are programs. But it’s not a right. It’s not universal.
TM: What agency is in charge of physically separating the children and the adults?
AC: The Department of Homeland Security. We saw the separation take place while they were in the care and custody of Customs and Border Protection. That’s where it was happening, at a center called the Ursula, which the immigrants called La Perrera, because it looked like a dog pound, a dog cage. It’s a chain-link fence area, long running areas that remind Central Americans of the way people treat dogs.
TM: So the Department of Homeland Security does the separation and then they immediately pass the kids to HHS?
AC: I don’t have a bird’s-eye view of this, besides interviewing parents. Parents don’t know. All they know is that the kid hasn’t come back to their little room in CBP. Right? We know from talking to advocates and attorneys who have access to the shelters that they think that these kids leave in buses to shelters run by the Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement Department of Unaccompanied Children Services—which, on any given day there’s like three thousand kids in the Harlingen-Brownsville area. We know there are eight, soon to be nine, facilities in Houston. And they’re going to open up this place in Tornillo, along the border by El Paso. And they’re opening up places in Miami. They’re past capacity. This is a cyclical time, where rates of migration increase. So now you’re creating two populations. One is your traditional unaccompanied kids who are just coming because their life is at risk right now in El Salvador and Honduras and parts of Guatemala, and they come with incredible trauma, complex stories, and need a lot of resources, and so they navigate this immigration system. And now we have this new population, which is totally different: the young kids who don’t hold their stories and aren’t here to self-navigate the system and are crying out for their parents. There are attorneys that get money to go in and give rights presentations to let the teenagers know what they can ask for in court, what’s happening with their cases, and now the attorneys are having a hard time doing that because right next to them, in the other room, they’ve got kids crying and wailing, asking for their mom and dad. The attorneys can’t give these kids information. They’re just trying to learn grounding exercises.
TM: Do you know if siblings are allowed to stay together?
AC: We don’t know. I dealt with one father who knew that siblings were not at the same location from talking to his family member. He believes they’re separated. But I have no idea. Can’t answer that question.
TM: Is there another nonprofit similar to yours that handles kids more than adults?
AC: Yes. In Houston it’s Catholic Charities. We know in Houston they [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] are going to open up shelters specific for the tender-age kids, which is defined as kids under twelve. And that’s going to be by Minute Maid Stadium. And that facility is also going to have some traditional demographic of pregnant teenagers. But it’s going to be a young kid—and young kids are, almost by definition, separated. Kids usually do not migrate on their own at that age.
TM: That’s usually teens?
AC: Teens. Population is thirteen to seventeen, with many more fifteen-, sixteen-, and seventeen-year-olds than thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds. They’re riding on top of trains. You know, the journey is very dangerous. Usually that’s the age where the gangs start taking the girls and saying “you’re going to be my sex slave”–type of stuff. I’ve heard that it’s going to be run by a nonprofit. ORR does not hold the shelters directly. They contract with nonprofits whose job it is to provide essential food, mental health care, caseworkers to try to figure out who they’re going to be released to, and all those functions to nonprofits, and I think the nonprofit in charge of this one is Southwest Key.
TM: So how long do the kids stay in the facility?
AC: It used to be, on average, thirty days. But that’s going up now. There are many reasons for that: one, these facilities and ORR are not used to working with this demographic of young children. Two, DHS is sharing information with ORR on the background of those families that are taking these children, and we’ve seen raids where they’re going to where the children are and looking for individuals in those households who are undocumented. So there is reticence and fear of getting these children if there’s someone in the household who is not a citizen.
TM: So if I’m understanding correctly, a relative can say, “Well, I can pick that kid up; that’s my niece.” She comes and picks up the child. And then DHS will follow them home? Is that what you’re saying?
AC: No. The kid would go to the aunt’s house, but let’s just imagine that she is here on a visa, a student visa, but the aunt falls out of visa status and is undocumented and her information, her address, is at the top of DHS’s files. So we’ve seen this happen a lot: a month or two weeks after kids have been released, DHS goes to those foster homes and arrests people and puts people in jail and deports them.
TM: And then I guess they start all over again trying to find a home for those kids?
TM: What is explained to the kids about the proceedings, and who explains it to them?
AC: The Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement goes through an organization called the Vera Institute of Justice that then contracts with nonprofit organizations who hire attorneys and other specialized bilingual staff to go into these shelters and give what they call legal orientation programs for children, and they do group orientation. Sometimes they speak to the kids individually and try to explain to them, “This is the process here; and you’re going to have to go see an immigration judge; and these are your rights before a judge; you won’t have an attorney for your case, but you can hire one. If you’re afraid to go back to your country, you have to tell the judge.” That type of stuff.
TM: And if the child is five, and alone, doesn’t have older siblings or cousins—
AC: Or three or four. They’re young in our Houston detention centers. And that’s where these attorneys are frustrated—they can’t be attorneys. How do they talk and try to console and communicate with a five-year-old who is just focused on “I want my mom or dad,” right?
TM: Are the kids whose parents are applying for asylum processed differently from kids whose parents are not applying for asylum?
AC: I don’t know. These are questions we ask DHS, but we don’t know the answers.
TM: Why don’t you get an answer?
AC: I don’t know. To me, if you’re going to justify this in some way under the law, the idea that these parents don’t have the ability to obtain very simple answers—what are my rights and when can I be reunited with my kid before I’m deported without them?—is horrible. And has to go far below anything we, as a civil society of law, should find acceptable. The fact that I, as an attorney specializing in this area, cannot go to a detention center and tell a mother or father what the legal procedure is for them to get their child or to reunite with their child, even if they want to go home?
And my answer is, “I don’t think you can.” In my experience, they’re not releasing these children to the parents as they’re deported. To put a structure like that in place and the chaos in the system for “deterrence” and then carry out so much pain on the backs of some already incredibly traumatized mothers and fathers who have already experienced sometimes just horrific violence is unacceptable.
This post has been updated to clarify who is planning to open up shelters in Houston for children under twelve. It is the Office of Refugee Resettlement, not Catholic Charities. We apologize for any confusion.