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Home | Tag Archives: trump immigration policy

Tag Archives: trump immigration policy

The Trump administration knew migrant children would suffer from family separations. The government ramped up the practice anyway.

Newly obtained government documents show how the Trump administration’s now-blocked policy to separate all migrant children from parents led social workers to frantically begin tracking thousands of children seized at the southern border and compile reports on cases of trauma.

In June 2018, months after the Trump administration began its so-called “zero tolerance” policy to deter migrants trying to enter the United States, an employee working for the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement described a 5-year-old’s despair at a shelter. “Minor was separated at the border from his biological mother. Minor was tearful when he arrived and would not speak or engage in conversation with anyone,” the caregiver wrote in a report. This document and others shed light on a social experiment that was both cruel and chaotic.

Reports of traumatized children were forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which is charged with ensuring that national security policies respect constitutional rights. A Center for Public Integrity and NPR investigation earlier this year found that the office failed to assist children whose suffering was documented in hundreds of similar complaints the office received last year.

The most recent internal documents Public Integrity reviewed add to scathing criticism from the Homeland Security inspector general’s office, which reported on Nov. 25 that it couldn’t verify how many children were separated by the zero tolerance policy, which began gradually in late 2017 and ended in June 2018. Tracking was flawed because U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers didn’t accurately record possible family relationships between adults and 1,233 children detained between October 2017 and mid-February 2019, the inspector general concluded.

Trump’s zero tolerance policy required CBP to separate children so that migrant adults, many of them seeking asylum, could be immediately held in immigration detention and prosecuted for illegal entry.

Earlier this year, former Office of Refugee Resettlement Deputy Director Jonathan White told Congress that he’d heard in early 2017 a broad separation policy could be in the works, and that he and his colleagues told Homeland Security officials they were concerned “not only about what that would mean for children, but also what it would mean for the capacity of the program.”

Internal records, however, show that such concerns date back further.

Warnings weeks before Trump

Among the documents Public Integrity obtained is a September 2016 email from a child refugee specialist signaling discomfort with Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations splitting up migrant families prior to zero tolerance.

“The best thing that could happen is for the OFO to stop the practice of family separation,” a child refugee field specialist added to the top of an email containing instructions for reunifying families that he sent to colleagues on Sept. 20, 2016.

Just 10 days after the specialist sent the email, a Homeland Security advisory committee issued a damning report on the damage children suffer when abruptly separated from parents. Separations were comparatively uncommon at the time, but they’d grown frequent enough to trigger a review, conducted by representatives of the American Academy of Pediatrics and civil rights groups.

“Separation can be acutely frightening for children and can leave children in ad hoc care situations that compromise their safety and well-being,” the advisory committee warned. “It can also be traumatizing and extremely stressful for the parent.”

The Trump administration’s now-blocked policy to separate all migrant children from parents led social workers to frantically begin tracking thousands of children seized at the southern border and compile reports on cases of trauma. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

The committee urged Homeland Security to separate parents and children as little as possible and instead place families in supervised release programs while their asylum or other immigration claims moved through the courts.

Before Trump began zero tolerance in 2018, Customs and Border Protection had — and still has — the authority to separate parents and children under limited circumstances.

But because zero tolerance required parents to be immediately detained, CBP was essentially forced to seize thousands of children, including infants and toddlers. Most families were arriving from Central America, a region the State Department has said is ravaged by predatory gangs and homicide rates that are among the highest in the world.

The 2016 message from the field specialist is part of a collection of Health and Human Services emails and other internal documents shared with Public Integrity. Most were written in 2018 by officials at the agency’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The office is responsible for caring for unaccompanied migrant children, or children CBP officers separate from parents at the border. The internal documents show Health and Human Services staff members were unprepared for the unprecedented number of suffering young children transferred to their custody.

The materials were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted to Health and Human Services by the American Immigration Council, the National Immigrant Justice Center, Kids in Need of Defense, the Women’s Refugee Commission, and the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. All have experience providing legal services for migrant children.

Child on floor crying

Most of the internal government emails reviewed by Public Integrity were written during the height of zero tolerance, which ended in late June 2018 after a court order and public outcry. Other documents show Refugee Resettlement staff or contractors’ observations, which then were forwarded to Homeland Security, about distraught children placed in shelters.

A 10-year-old held in a shelter for two months was found on the floor, crying and holding his hand. “My hand hurts because I got mad about my case and I hit the wall,” the boy reportedly said in July 2018. A 12-year-old boy reported “suicidal ideations” after separation from an aunt and a cousin in June 2018, according to a document. In a July 2018 report about a 9-year-old, a case worker wrote the girl “reported that her uncle was murdered by a local gang.”

After a federal judge ordered Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Refugee Resettlement on June 26, 2018, to reunite families, emails and other documents show refugee office staff and contractors were pressed into service.

“All resources available to comply with court order,” reads a summary of what’s labeled as a meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “We must do everything to identify parents, contact them, and make strides to reunify them or [allow children] to go to another sponsor if the parents want.”

Given the poor quality of records, Health and Human Services officials rushed to use DNA testing to match parents and children.

“DNA kits,” a message to staff advised, “will be sent to programs with separated children 0-4 on week of July 2nd and DNA kits will be sent to programs with separated children 5 and up on week of July 9th.

DNA collection is controversial. News reports in July featured mothers and a director at a migrant mothers’ shelter claiming they were told parents would have to pay for DNA testing. Health and Human Services denied it was charging fees for the testing and said it was covering costs for collections.

Documents also show that social workers anxiously sought supervisors’ guidance on how to respond to Central American U.S.-based consular officials, who were asking for information about migrant children scattered nationwide.

Robert Carey, a Refugee Resettlement director in the Obama administration, told Public Integrity that most of the office’s staff are social workers who were put in an “ethical” dilemma with the zero tolerance policy.

“Not only was it inhumane,” he said, “it was extraordinarily poorly managed.”

When he was in charge, Carey said, the average minor in Refugee Resettlement custody was about 15 years old. A “large part” of what the office would do, he said, was vet sponsors, often relatives, so children could be released from group shelters or foster homes.

Trump’s zero tolerance has ended, but CBP continues to have the authority to separate children from adults who are not legal guardians, including aunts, uncles and grandparents. It also has the authority to separate children based on a parent’s prior immigration violations, if CBP wants to refer that parent for prosecution. Officers have also separated children due to parents’ criminal histories or suspected ties to gangs — decisions that at times have been based on false allegations.

James De La Cruz, the Health and Human Services employee who wrote in 2016 that ending family separations would be “the best thing that could happen,” is still at the agency.

His email included instructions for reunifying families and a contact sheet for Homeland Security staff assigned to supervise “alternatives to detention” programs. These programs — no longer favored by the Trump administration — monitored migrant families that had been released from custody to ensure they would attend court proceedings.

Contacted by Public Integrity, De La Cruz declined to elaborate on his 2016 email or on problems Health and Human Services faced with the surge in family separations last year. The agency’s media representatives also declined to comment but sent a written statement emphasizing that “HHS is a child welfare agency, not a law enforcement agency. We play no role in the apprehension or initial detention of unaccompanied alien children.”

Under Trump, however, Health and Human Services was forced into a central role in the administration’s zero tolerance policy because separating children from migrant parents was a key feature.

Separating kids to block asylum seekers

Despite evidence from the State Department and others supporting many migrants’ stories of escaping violent crime in their home countries, Trump accused migrants of gaming the asylum system, and he sought ways to block their entry. After he took office in 2017, his advisers suggested options that would require prosecuting every border crosser. Separating thousands of their children “would be reported by the media and it would have substantial deterrent effect,” previously released documents shared by NBC show.

As a pilot program began in 2017, people who swam or walked over the border or who approached CBP officers at border gates were taken into custody to be prosecuted for illegal entry — a misdemeanor the first time — and their children were taken from them.

Central American migrants walk next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence after crossing into El Paso. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Preparing for a blanket separation policy, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke out in defense of family separations in May 2018. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border,” he said.

That same month, however, Refugee Resettlement officials were already sending out “high importance” emails related to the developing search for separated families.

Like Homeland Security, the office had come under pressure because of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union three months earlier. The lawsuit accused Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Refugee Resettlement of violating due process and Homeland Security’s own directives for granting detainees’ release.

The initial plaintiff was an African mother who was cleared at the U.S.-Mexico border to apply for asylum but was put into detention. She said she heard her daughter, 7, screaming as the child was taken away to be sent to Refugee Resettlement custody.

Eventually, the lawsuit became a class-action effort to free and unite separated families.

On May 16, 2018, a Refugee Resettlement email exhorted staff to find the parents of children in their custody — one day after then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified in Congress that “we do not have a policy to separate children from their parents.”

“It is very important to locate the separated parent for all UAC [unaccompanied alien children] in your program,” a Refugee Resettlement supervisor wrote. “For parents in ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] custody, you should be able to locate them and have a phone call with that parent as soon as possible.”

That assumption proved far too optimistic.

CBP, it turned out, was sending children to Refugee Resettlement with little information about parents. Infants and sobbing toddlers were too young to know parents’ names, as Public Integrity previously reported, much less the “alien number” that ICE assigns adult detainees and enters into a detention database.

“The system totally broke down,” said Jennifer Podkul, an attorney with Kids in Need of Defense, which coordinates legal representation for migrant minors. Even lawyers who know the names of clients have a hard time using the ICE detainee tracking system because of misspelled names and other erroneous information, she said.

One internal email warned social workers “to NOT engage directly” with the ACLU, as one caregiver program did, and instead follow “the chain of command” to prepare for a child’s release.

‘Initiate contact with parents!’

On June 26, 2018, the federal judge in San Diego presiding over the ACLU’s lawsuit admonished U.S. officials for tracking migrant children with less diligence than they track belongings the government seizes from people and keeps in storage. He placed a preliminary block on further separations, ordered officials to arrange phone calls between parents and children, and reunite them on deadlines by age group the following month.

Emails show Refugee Resettlement staff discussed how to arrange and pay for collect calls from detained parents, and how parents were incommunicado while held in federal marshals’ custody, as many were at times.

On June 28, 2018, two days after the federal judge ordered reunification of families, an email circulated advising Refugee Resettlement affiliates that Health and Human Services was designing a database to “eliminate the need to track information [on families] on spreadsheets.”

At the same time, Refugee Resettlement managers were told, “Please do not wait for the database to go live to initiate contact with parents!”

Homeland Security databases on parents — some on their way to deportation — had no information on whether children had been separated from them. The Homeland Security and Health and Human Services databases were not linked.

As separations ramped up, documents provided to Public Integrity show, Refugee Resettlement staff also began sending more “significant incident reports” about separated migrant children to Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

The Public Integrity and NPR investigation found that during the first half of last year, Refugee Resettlement filed the majority of more than 800 family separation complaints logged by Homeland Security’s civil rights office. Among children who languished in shelters without the office’s help were blind or deaf children — disabled children the civil rights office acknowledges it has authority to expeditiously assist.

Meanwhile, fallout from the mass separations of families continues.

On Nov. 5, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that the U.S. government should be held accountable for the impact of the zero tolerance policy. The government, the judge said, must provide mental-health services to thousands of traumatized migrant children who languished without seeing or being in contact with their parents, sometimes for months.


This story was published in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and the Texas Tribune

President Trump Proposes Compromise to End Government Shutdown over Border Wall Standoff

In a rare Saturday afternoon address to the nation, President Donald Trump announced a possible deal to end the stalemate that’s resulted in the longest government shutdown in the country’s history.

As part of his speech, the President offered temporary and partial DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) or Dreamer’s protection in exchange for funding for his wall.  President Trump bluntly stated, “I will fix this crisis, one way or the other.’

During the speech, President Trump referenced the ‘crisis on the border,’ noting the perilous journey migrants undertake from their home countries to the US border.  He also mention the border as being a ‘wide-open gateway’ allowing drugs and criminals into the country.

President Trump added,  “the Radical Left will never control our borders.”

According to the Washington Post, the president’s proposal offers “a reprieve on his attempts to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and temporary protected status (TPS) for immigrants from some Latin American and African nations.”

Via the White House website, the President’s proposal includes:

  • Administration has requested $5.7 billion for construction of approximately 234 miles of new steel barrier on the Southern Border, a $4.1 billion increase over the Senate bill.
  • To protect our communities, the Administration requested $675 million to deter and detect narcotics, weapons, and other materials crossing our borders.
  • Among the Administration’s requests for more resources are:
    • $211 million to hire 750 additional Border Patrol agents
    • $571 million for 2,000 additional ICE personnel
    • $4.2 billion for 52,000 detention beds, personnel, transportation, and detention alternatives
    • $563 million for 75 additional immigration judges and support staff

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to President Trump’s proposal as a “Non-Starter” and a rehashing of previously presented ideas.

To review the President’s plan, click here.

Detention Center for Immigrant Children in Tornillo Will Remain Open Through mid-September

TORNILLO — The immigration detention facility for undocumented immigrant minors in this West Texas outpost will remain open another month, federal and state officials confirmed on Friday.

The facility was erected in June and was originally scheduled to close in July, but federal officials extended the contract with its service provider until Aug. 13. But a spokeperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families said the facility will now be up and running until Sept. 13.

The detention center, which critics have called a “tent city,” houses unaccompanied minors who crossed the border illegally.

“HHS will continue to assess the need for this temporary shelter at Tornillo Land Port of Entry, Tornillo, Texas, based on projected need for beds and current capacity of the program,” the spokesperson said in a news release. “HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement is continuously monitoring bed capacity available to provide shelter for minors who arrive at the U.S. border unaccompanied and are referred to HHS for care by immigration officials, as well as the information received from interagency partners, to inform any future decisions or actions.”

San Antonio-based BCFS Health and Human Services currently operates the facility, but the HHS spokesperson said in an email that no new contracts for operations at Tornillo were awarded. A spokesperson for the company did not respond to an email requesting comment on the latest extension.

The announcement came the same day Democratic state Reps. César Blanco of El Paso, Mary González of Clint, Eddie Rodriguez of Austin, Ina Minjarez of San Antonio, Diego Bernalof San Antonio and Gina Hinojosa of Austin, all members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, toured the facility. They said there are more than 170 immigrant minors in Tornillo, but none are children who were separated from their parents or guardians under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration. The facility previously housed a small number of those children, but they have all been released, Minjarez said.

The lawmakers said that while attention from the border crisis has somewhat shifted to other topics, they wanted to keep a spotlight on the Trump administration’s immigration policies and its effect on the minor children. The Tornillo facility was constructed after the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy was enacted and was only necessary because it led to an influx of children in other shelters who would otherwise have been left with their parents or guardians.

“We are the only country in the world who incarcerates children [because] of their immigration status,” González said. “At this moment in history, there are kids who could be with families. What we heard today was that the only thing that was stopping these kids from being with their sponsors or with their families [in the United States] was the federal government’s lack of movement regarding background checks. All the kids had a place to go.”

The lawmakers said there are more than 170 undocumented minors at the facility, including 103 from Guatemala, 55 from Honduras, 20 from El Salvador and four from Mexico.

González and Rodriguez said that because the Tornillo facility is on federal land, there is little lawmakers can do in terms of oversight and regulation. They said that policy could create an incentive for the federal government to construct similar detention centers elsewhere and shut out local or state lawmakers who oppose the administration’s continued crackdown on undocumented immigrants who are seeking asylum in this country.

“I think as members of the Texas Legislature, we want to try to get more oversight of these types of facilities, but when they are on federal land it becomes very challenging” Rodriguez said. “So what I am going to be looking at … is what Congress does in terms of putting more of these on federal land so they take away [oversight] from the state government. If that happens, we’ll have tent cities everywhere.”

Author:  JULIÁN AGUILAR – The Texas Tribune

Republicans in Washington Closer to Compromise on Immigration – But Still Unclear if They Can Pass a Bill

WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress appear closer to reaching a compromise on immigration — and ending family separations at the Texas-Mexico border — after a closed-door meeting with President Donald Trump Tuesday evening.

Trump, who has repeatedly blamed Congress for his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, encouraged House Republicans to pass a modified version of a compromise bill Republican leaders introduced last week. That updated version would include a provision that would keep immigrant families together as they await court hearings, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting Tuesday.

For days, photos of detained immigrant children have streamed out of South and West Texas, upending the workflow in Washington in a way not seen since the travel ban early in the Trump administration. Despite growing Republican criticism out of the Senate — including from Texas’ two GOP senators — White House officials have dug in on their policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.

“The answer to this current situation is a solution that allows us to both enforce the law and keep families together,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

He said he agreed with former first lady Laura Bush that there should be “a better answer.” Bush is among a chorus of voices of criticizing the policy — a group that includes the other living first ladies. Cornyn has said in recent days that he intends to introduce legislation that will keep families together and expedite hearings.

On Tuesday evening, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz introduced emergency legislation that would marshal more resources to the border to expedite the legal process for immigrants seeking asylum and create facilities that would allow parents to stay with their children. Earlier Tuesday, he confirmed a report from The Washington Post that he was working together with Cornyn on a bill that could be filed later in the day. Cornyn was not listed among the co-sponsors of the bill, but a spokesperson told the Tribune that the two senators are still working together.

Asked about working with Cruz on the legislation, Cornyn said the bill Cruz has been working seems to contain the elements “of a consensus approach” and said he aims to work with Democrats on a bipartisan solution. At a press conference later in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood next to Cornyn as he said “all of the members of the Republican conference support a plan that keeps families together while their immigration status is determined.” He said Republicans hope to reach out to Democrats to “see if we can get a result.”

But in a speech Tuesday afternoon, Trump appeared to shoot down at least an element of Cruz’s proposed emergency bill — an idea to double the number immigration judges from roughly 375 to 750.

“We have to have a real border, not judges,” Trump said, adding that some judges might be corrupt.

Immigration is poised to dominate congressional action this week, as the House is set to pick up two Republican pieces of related legislation on Thursday. Those bills — both of which face uphill battles in the House and the Senate — will address Trump’s long-sought border wall and what to do with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era immigration measure that protects hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

The more moderate bill, which provides a conditional pathway to citizenship for certain qualifying undocumented youth and addresses the family separation issue, got a boost Tuesday after Trump told lawmakers he supported the proposal.

The President’s remarks appear to have convinced a number of Republicans who were previously leaning toward a more conservative bill authored by Texan U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Tomball and Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.

Several Texas Republicans exiting the meeting Tuesday voiced support for the compromise bill and optimism that it would garner the 218 votes it needs to pass.

“No one is stronger or tougher on border security than President Trump, and he strongly endorsed this common-ground bill because it is an America-first bill — it’s border security first, reforming the broken visa system, and then — and only then — is there a path to legal status for those who’ve earned the merit to stay here,” U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands said in an interview. “He made it clear he’s behind this bill 1,000 percent.”

Brady said Trump endorsed provisions in the bill that addressed the family separation question. Specifically, those measures would allow families to stay together as they undergo immigration proceedings and would allocate $7 billion in federal funds for family detention centers.

Brady said those provisions “drew strong support” from House Republicans in the room.

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, said she will vote for the compromise bill. “It will keep the families together,” she said.

The controversy over the family separation policy has fully consumed regular business at the Capitol.

The outcry is so widespread on Capitol Hill that it worked its way into a high-profile Tuesday morning committee hearing on the FBI’s actions in the 2016 Clinton email investigation. House Democrats veered off topic during the hearing to decry the policy as Republicans grumbled “Out of Order!”

The images of crying children at the border are beginning to spook Republican political consultants, who fear they could impact the GOP’s chances of holding the lower chamber after this fall’s midterm election. At the same time, it was only one week ago that U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-South Carolina, lost his primary. President Donald Trump specifically targeted him for past critical comments and reinforced the fears many Texas Republicans and their advisers of crossing the president.

The calls against Trump from that chamber remained largely muted in recent days, and when the The Texas Tribune surveyed the Texas delegation Monday, many Texas Republicans avoided commenting on the matter.

Trump’s endorsement of the compromise bill Tuesday evening seems to have provided political cover for vulnerable Republicans to get behind the legislation and speak out about the family separations.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, who is facing a tough re-election fight, said he was “very encouraged” by the meeting.

“It’s got all the right elements that we need to secure the border, to make sure we’re taking care of the DACA problem, to make sure that the families aren’t separated,” he said.

But the Tuesday meeting did not convince everyone. U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, is among the holdouts still supporting the Goodlatte-McCaul bill.

“I’m going to support the Goodlatte bill. There are a lot of commonalities between the bills,” he said. “I think the key difference is what would be no pathway to citizenship versus a green card.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, said Republicans were still trying to whip up the votes Tuesday evening to pass the compromise measure and that it is unclear when that bill will come up for a vote. The House will likely vote on the more conservative Goodlatte-McCaul bill Thursday.


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