Earlier this month, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to prosecute “100 percent” of migrants illegally crossing the Mexican border, it became official US policy to routinely separate children from their parents. Already, hundreds of children have been ripped from their families: 658 kids in the first 13 days of the program alone, Customs and Border Protection disclosed in a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday. This policy—which advocates say in practice mainly targets women and youths seeking asylum from the violence-ridden countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—is intended to punish the adults by criminally prosecuting them for entering the country, thereby deterring others from making the journey north. But it does incalculable damage to the children at an already traumatic moment in their lives, often stripping them from their mothers when their mothers are all they have.
“Why do I have to leave? Mami I want to stay with you!” one four-year-old El Salvadorian boy bawled to his mother, known as JIL, as CBP officers took him and his ten-year-old brother away from her in South Texas, according to an affidavit filed by the mother. They were separated in March—before Sessions’s policy even officially launched—but the incident is an example of what is now common practice at the border. The brothers slept in the same room as their mother back in El Salvador and were too anxious to go to the bathroom without her after witnessing MS-13 gang members beat and threaten her. But once they arrived in the US, the boys were placed in two separate foster homes and held in government custody for over a month without being able to speak with their mother, who remains in Laredo Detention Center, JIL’s attorney Denise Gilman told me.
The boys are now staying with other family in Virginia, but JIL will likely be detained for many more months: A San Antonio judge Wednesday issued her a bond too high for her to pay—$12,500—deeming her a flight risk for being connected to a gang, when her sole connection was the harm they did her.
As Gilman, the director of University of Texas’s Immigration Law Clinic, explained: “There’s a real trend towards trying to put all asylum seekers in the same category as gang members. All this young mother did was seek to protect these young boys by bringing them to the US.”
ICE intends to prosecute all parents for illegal entry, but an agency spokesperson told me that the process is still ramping up, so some families are still remaining together and being sent to family immigrant detention centers.
Stories of extreme violence, sex abuse, death threats, and imprisonment are the norm when talking to these families—time and time again, the women say they only brought their children here to save their lives.
The same week Sessions made his announcement, the largest family facility—a 2,400-bed cluster of trailers in Dilley, Texas—was packed nearly to capacity, as volunteers and a few legal staff scrambled to inform women of their rights as they fought immediate deportation. Kids detained included a 16-year-old whose father sold her to drug traffickers until her mother rescued her; a first-grader pulled out of school to work for her father inside the house all day with her mom while an armed guard trapped them inside; a nine-year-old pursued by gang members at school to sell drugs for them until her mother refused and was threatened with murder; and an adolescent boy forced to watch his mother have sex with his stepfather in their one-room apartment nearly every day.
For the children, even a moment’s separation can be devastating. One volunteer recalled a two-year-old who wailed when her mother, a Honduran woman, tried to leave her in a separate room while discussing her case. So the child sat doodling as the mother recounted why they’d fled: A member of the M18 gang had kidnapped them from their home, held them hostage, beat them, and brought ten comrades over to rape the mother in front of the child. He swore to kill them if they escaped, but one night while he was sleeping the mother was able to slither through an opening in the window. She sprinted with her baby to the bus station and rode straight to the US. While the mother spoke, her child started drawing on her and kissing her shoulders.
These are the faces of family separation: the families who come here because their governments could not protect them. But the face new problems upon crossing the border and being detained by the US. Parents and children could lose contact for months, years, or even permanently. Mothers convicted of illegal entry can be sentenced to up to six months in jail and be dealt up to $10,000 in fines, while the youths are shipped off to Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters around the country—and ORR and the US Marshals Service, which prosecutes the mothers, do not communicate, Jennifer Podkul, policy director for Kids in Need of Defense, told me.
Even once the parents are out of jail and transferred to immigrant detention centers, they remain divided from their kids—meaning some parents are deported before their children even know it, said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project.
And as they wait in limbo, it's unclear where these children will be able to stay. Already the ORR shelters equipped to house unaccompanied minors—which until now have been children traveling without a parent—are 91 percent full. To quickly make more room, the Trump administration now plans to put kids on military bases—which the Obama administration did in the past with unaccompanied teens. But this setup is only meant for kids 13 and older for temporary emergency stays. And while the vast majority—83 percent last year—of unaccompanied minors entering the country have been older than 13, children traveling with parents tend to be far younger, often babies.
Children stayed in shelters an average of 41 days in fiscal year 2017—but that will likely increase with widespread family separation, projected Bob Carey, who was ORR director under Barack Obama. These children may have to wait for their parents to get out of detention, or they may seek another adult sponsor already in the US to claim them. But those adults are now more fearful to come forward, since the Trump administration just two weeks ago announced a proposal to collect information on potential sponsors’ immigration status, information that could be used for enforcement purposes. As Carey told me, “It appears we’re setting up a long-term incarceration system for children.”
Physically divided from their parents, they also become divided before the law: While each family makes up a single asylum case when that family is kept together, when parents and children are in different locations different courts handle them. That’s because proceedings must go forward where each individual is located—so JIL’s asylum case is currently being heard in San Antonio immigration court, while her children’s is in Virginia, Gilman said. And any parent in detention is heard in a detained docket, which can’t include non-detained family members, further splitting cases. This spells trouble for a legal system already overwhelmed by a backlog of nearly 700,000 cases—and since immigrants don’t have the right to free legal help, we’re likely to see more young children representing themselves in immigration court.
A DOJ spokesperson told me that there had been no blanket policy change to the way the courts were handling family asylum cases, so it’s too soon to know how separations could impact the courts long-term. He noted that the backlog currently counts each family member, even if multiple relatives are part of one case, and he referred me to Sessions’s statement announcing the policy, which said, “Congress has failed to pass effective legislation that serves the national interest—that closes dangerous loopholes and fully funds a wall along our southern border. As a result, a crisis has erupted at our Southwest Border that necessitates an escalated effort to prosecute those who choose to illegally cross our border.”
An ICE spokesman also defended the policy to me by noting that “every day in communities across the country, if you commit a crime the police will take you to jail—regardless if you have a family or not.” And under the law, anyone can be prosecuted for illegally entering the US, including parents. The spokesman said ICE was committed to making sure its enforcement did not “unnecessarily disrupt the parental rights of alien parents and legal guardians of minor children,” and that it would look into any individual cases of children not able to communicate or reunite with their parents.
This new policy is only the latest in a line of so far unsuccessful strategies to dissuade Central American families from coming to seek protection in the US. Beginning in 2014, facing the fact that families from the Northern Triangle countries were fleeing northward en masse, the Obama administration began opening family detention centers like Dilley and conducting deportation raids of Central Americans who lost their asylum cases.
The US government also funded and trained Mexico’s immigration enforcement to facilitate the removal of immigrants before they reach the US border—but as I found reporting in Honduras in 2016, families desperate for protection would often get straight on the bus north again after being deported. Coyotes—the real smugglers, who get paid by migrants to lead them to the US—began offering clients three chances for their money. So even if Mexican authorities deported them twice, they would still attempt the journey once more.
The Trump administration is now going even further than the Obama administration in its attempts to deter asylum seekers, as it seeks to terrify mothers from coming here with their children. The prosecutions have already started flooding border courts, and this “zero-tolerance" policy has only just begun. Meanwhile the refugee crisis of Central America’s Northern Triangle countries continues apace—16 times the number of people from the region were displaced in 2017 as were in 2011, the the UN refugee agency noted in a recent report. The families have a legal right to seek asylum here—and as devastating as the consequences may be, they will not stop coming. The terror they leave behind is much worse.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter.