Helplessness. It’s what I feel when children are faced with forced separation from their parent or caregiver at the US border. Anger, sadness, uncertainty, and dismay all follow closely behind.
I work as an attorney with an organization called Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, devoted to working with unaccompanied children. I hear firsthand stories that illustrate the severe impact of family separation on children; to say they are terrorized and completely devastated is an understatement. This new terror is compounded by the trauma already experienced by these children — the violence, persecution, and other harm they faced in their home country that caused them to seek protection in the US in the first place.
Among our cases of family separation are two siblings, a 7-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy, who traveled with their mother to the United States from Central America and were apprehended in September 2017 in El Paso, Texas. On the cold January day when they came into our office, the 12-year-old was wearing a green raincoat while his sister wore only a rainbow-adorned blouse because, as she told us, she was “too young to get cold.” We learned from the children that Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, had taken them from their mother at the border. The 7-year-old told us how she cried and begged to be with her mother — she was clearly still in shock.
We later learned that their mother had been detained, transferred between various detention facilities over the course of about two weeks, and then deported. The children were told their mother had committed a crime by bringing them to the United States, and were promptly transferred to a shelter.
A few months later, as these two children sat in KIND’s office telling their story, their emotions were still raw. They are currently living with a member of their family whom they are not close with; it hardly feels like home to them. They remembered every detail of the horrifying moment when immigration officials took their mother away. The 7-year-old kept saying over and over how she was having trouble going to school because she missed her so much. Only her mom knew how to do her hair just right each morning, she said. Her brother, a few years older, told us he had to take care of his little sister after their mom was taken away. They were terrified of never seeing her again.
What could we tell them? We didn’t know if or how they would see their mother again, either.
Separating children from their parents has a devastating emotional impact on the child
Separation of children from non-parental caretakers at the border is not new. It’s been a longstanding policy since the system for these children was created by the Homeland Security Act of 2002. We have seen firsthand the devastating effect of this practice, which is often just as damaging when these non-parental caretakers are the primary caregiver for the child.
In April of this year, 8-year-old Abel from El Salvador was separated from his grandmother, with whom he had lived his entire life, as soon as they arrived at the border. Abel was placed in a shelter, and his grandmother was taken to a detention facility, where she was held for two weeks and then deported. They were fleeing El Salvador because Abel’s grandmother was being extorted; people were threatening Abel’s life if she did not pay a monthly fee. Under federal law, children who are apprehended by immigration without a parent or legal guardian are routinely separated from that adult.
When Abel came into our office, his eyes were filled with fear. He was frightened to meet our staff and scared to even talk to us — he didn’t know if he could trust authority figures. He barely talked his first month in the United States.
In addition to the nearly incomprehensible suffering the United States is imposing on these children, the administration’s new policy, which separates children from parents, makes it much harder for the child to make a claim for US protection. As of last month, all parents are being referred for prosecution because they crossed into the United States without documentation. The parents are placed into US Marshals custody in an adult detention facility, while the child is rendered “unaccompanied” and deportation proceedings are initiated against the child alone. Their case is completely separated from their parents and little to no communication is facilitated between the parent and child.
Parents don’t know what’s happening to their children, and vice versa. This has significant implications for the child’s ability to make their case for US protection. Often, adult family members have information and documents that are vital to making their case. We see children who may not know why they came to the United States — parents and caregivers often do not tell their children the full story, lest they be scared or traumatized.
Testimonies from family members are vital to their path to legal protection. When children and parents are separated, who helps the child tell her story? How will they answer questions when all they can think about is, “Where is my mom?”
The idea that separating children from their families acts as a deterrent is not accurate
The administration argues that they must separate children from their parents as a deterrent for other families who may want to come to the United States. Families are coming to save their children’s lives from terrible conditions back at home — a new policy will not stop a parent from making that attempt. Any parent from anywhere in the world would do the same.
In the many years I’ve worked with immigrant and refugee families, I’ve had the privilege of hearing countless stories of survival and resilience. These families have sacrificed greatly to protect their children and give them a chance to be safe. As a lawyer dedicated to helping these children, I am devastated by my inability to alleviate the suffering they have been forced to go through. As an advocate, I am also frustrated, and enraged, by the due process violation inherent in separating children from the only people who can provide information needed for their legal cases.
The current policy of separating families criminalizes parents who are seeking safety for their children. Every day, more vulnerable children are taken from their parents. The impact on the children is lifelong, and unless we immediately end this ruthless policy, the stain on the United States may be permanent.
Katie Annand is the managing attorney for KIND’s San Francisco field office and satellite Fresno office, coordinating a team of eight attorneys and legal services team staff. KIND’s legal services team represents unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in their removal proceedings through direct representation and pro bono mentorship. The team also provides social services referral to support and empower clients. Katie is a graduate of the University of California Hastings College of Law, and of Wesleyan University, where she majored in anthropology and international relations.