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A woman and children on the US side of the border visit people on the Mexican side in October 2019.
A woman and children on the US side of the border visit people on the Mexican side in October 2019.
Image: David Barak/Zuma Wire/PA Images

Biden wants to undo 'national shame' of child separations at US-Mexico border

An estimated 600 to 700 children remain apart from their families.
Feb 3rd 2021, 9:59 AM 22,638 44

US PRESIDENT JOE Biden has signed three executive actions seeking to reunite families split up at the US-Mexico border.

Biden has also ordered a review of Donald Trump’s wider immigration agenda.

Around 5,500 families were separated in 2017 and 2018, and an estimated 600 to 700 children remain apart from their families.

The Barack Obama administration, in which Biden was vice president, also separated undocumented children from adults at the border, but activists say this happened much less often.

Biden has prioritised creating a special task force to reunify the families as part of his sweeping rolling back of Trump’s hardline policies, which focused on deterring migration from Central America.

“It was a moral failure and a national shame that the prior administration used family separation as a weapon against desperate families and children,” an administration official briefing on Biden’s plans told journalists.

“The Biden administration is committed to remedy this awful harm the Trump administration inflicted on families,” the official said.

Vicki Gaubeca, Director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, today said there has been an increase in “cruel” policies in recent years.

Gaubeca told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland there has been “a growth of hyper-militarisation at the US-Mexico border, along with an increase in cruel policies that have been very anti-immigrant”.

“The cause of the separation under the Trump administration was actually the prosecution of parents for unauthorised entry between ports of entry, which we’ve been seeing for several decades.”

Gaubeca said a large number of children have been separated from their parents at the border over the last three decades under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

She and other campaigners want Biden to also revoke ‘Title 42′, which was issued under Trump to stop the spread of Covid-19 and allows US authorities to expel almost all people caught crossing the border illegally.

Gaubeca said the “so-called migrant protection protocol” should also be revoked, saying it is “forcing people seeking safety in the United States to wait in Mexico or in other countries” while they seek asylum.

She said what many people don’t realise about the US-Mexico border is that members of the same families often live on different sides of the border and regularly cross it for healthcare or shopping purposes.

“I think what people don’t know is that border communities are very fluid communities. We have family on both sides who go shopping down to northern Mexico or go to a doctor’s appointment or get glasses and family come up [to the US] and visit to do their Christmas shopping or whatever.”

Gaubeca added that Title 42 makes it “far more difficult for us to come back and forth”.

“People are still attempting to cross between ports of entry, and often those are very, very remote regions of the border and many of those migrants wind up dying of exposure.”

Merciless crackdown

Trump came to power in 2017 promising to halt the mass movement of undocumented migrants over the southern border.

But an initial crackdown only slowed the flow, with tens of thousands of individuals and families — especially from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — crossing each month, and few mechanisms in place to send them back.

A year later Trump announced the zero-tolerance programme, declaring that any undocumented border crossers would be arrested and charged with a crime.

As part of the new regime children were separated from their parents, on a promise that the families would be reunited within weeks. But this did not happen in thousands of cases.

The policy was applied with little mercy, court filings showed.

In May 2018, a six-year-old Honduran boy named Andres was wrested kicking and screaming from his father by US border guards.

It took another 10 months for the pair to be reunited — but they were among the lucky ones.

After being taken from his father Jacinto, Andres went into the custody of US officials, while his father was deported to Honduras.

While their separation lasted less than a year, it took a full 16 months to reunite 13-year-old Karina from the mother she was torn from on Christmas Day 2017 as she was placed in handcuffs.

Her mother Lorena remembered how Karina cried and made a heart sign with her hands as they were separated after having been detained in a cell so cold migrants called it “the freezer”.

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A public outcry and lawsuits forced the Trump administration to halt the separations, but for over 5,000 children, the damage had been done.

Leonel Dubon, director of Guatemala NGO El Refugio de la Niñez, praised the new policies, calling the Trump administration’s policies a “violation of human rights”.

And Cesar Rios, director of the Salvadoran Institute of Migrants, said the separation of families fleeing poverty and violence was “inhumane”.

Trump’s immigration officials kept poor records and did little to cooperate with groups seeking to help the children, forcing more lawsuits.

According to a document in one of those cases dated January, 611 children had still not been reconnected with their parents.

Underscoring the issue of poor documentation, the court filing says that for 392 migrant children, their parents “are believed” to have been deported.

For another 201, the parents “are believed” to be in the United States. And for 18, there are no known contacts.

Contains reporting from © AFP 2021

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Órla Ryan

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