Washington has a long history of using deportations to strike fear among undocumented workers. In recent years, deportations have multiplied — previous president Barack Obama became known as “Deporter in Chief”.
But President Donald Trump has greatly stepped up the drive, mainly against Latinos without papers. He has unleashed Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) to carry out indiscriminate raids where Latinos congregate, deporting the undocumented. These include those without criminal records or who are guilty of only minor offensives, often separating families.
Now an especially cruel new policy has been adopted: to tear children out of the arms of their parents for the “crime” of crossing the border seeking asylum from extreme danger in their countries. The adults are deported, but the children are sent into US detention centres, often hundreds of miles from their parents, or to distant foster homes never to be officially seen again. Their long-term fate is unknown.
In April, Trump’s Attorney-General Jeff Sessions announced: “I have put in place a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border [with Mexico]. If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple.
“If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child may be separated from you, as required by law.”
But what law justifies such separations? It doesn’t exist. It is Sessions who is the criminal, ordering kidnappings — a serious crime.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, US director at Amnesty International, said this is “a flagrant violation of their [parents and children] human rights. Doing so in order to push asylum seekers back into dangerous situations where they may face persecution is also a violation of US obligations under refugee law.”
Writing in the New York Times on June 12, Michelle Goldberg said: “There are countless horror stories about what’s happening to immigrants under Trump. Just last week, we learned of a teenager from Iowa who had lived in American since he was three was killed shortly after his return to Mexico.
“This month, an Ecuadorian immigrant with an American citizen wife and a pending green card application was detained at a Brooklyn military base where he had gone to deliver a pizza; a judge has temporarily halted his deportation, but he remains locked up. Immigration officers are boarding trains and buses and demanding that passengers show them their papers.”
Under the radar, from last October to April, more than 700 children, including 100 under the age of four, have already been seized from their parents and sent away. Since Sessions announced his illegal plans, the snatching of children has accelerated. In the first two weeks, 650 were torn from their mothers’ and fathers’ arms and sent to detention centres.
Goldberg noted: “The human consequences have been horrific.” She reported that a five-year-old boy from Honduras “who had been separated from his father, cried himself to sleep at night with a stick-figure drawing of his family under his pillow”.
The Washington Post reported that Marco Antonio Munoz, a 39-year-old from Honduras, killed himself in a padded cell after his three-year-old was wrenched from his arms.
What happens to these children in detention centres is maintained as a government secret, even from US senators. Early this month, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley travelled to Brownsville, Texas, to visit one of these centres in an old Walmart to see firsthand what was happening inside — and was turned away by police.
Merkley tweeted: “I was barred entry. Asked repeatedly to speak to a supervisor — he finally came out and said he can’t tell us anything. Police were called on us. Children should never be ripped from their families and held in secretive detention centres.”
On June 12, Sessions turned the screw further, announcing that asylum seekers could no longer base their appeals on the dangers they face in their home countries — effectively ending almost all such appeals of those crossing the Mexican border.
Since Sessions’ proclamation, so many parents have been charged that their cases are all lumped together and tried en masse. The result is so grotesque it can only be described as Orwellian.
Debbie Nathan, a reporter for investigative journalism website The Intercept, wrote a report posted on May 29 titled, “Hidden Horrors of ‘Zero Tolerance’ — Mass Trials and Children Taken from Their Parents”.
In an interview with Democracy Now! about her report, Nathan said: “I’ve been to several of these trials in Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso [all in Texas]. What you see is somewhere between 20 and 40-something people … their hands in handcuffs chained to their waists, and their feet shackled.
“They clunk and clang into court… They go through these mass processes in less than an hour, usually. They are instructed to answer [in unison]. So you’ll hear 40 people being asked a question, and they’ll say, ‘Si’ or ‘No’ all at once. It’s really uncanny. It’s shocking. It doesn’t feel like due process.
“One after one after one after one, with only one lawyer [for all of them] they plead guilty: ‘Culpable,’ ‘culpable,’ ‘culpable,’ ‘culpable’. I mean it feels like something out of Abu Ghraib, except that it is completely legal in this country to do this to people.”
In her Intercept report, Nathan said one judge, Ronald Morgan, would ask “many of his questions en masse. This had the astounding effect of eliciting, from otherwise mute and downcast defendants, thundering group responses.”
She wrote: “‘Are each of you satisfied with the help of the lawyer?’ the judge asked. ‘Si!’ they roared in unison. ‘Has anyone offered you anything or threatened you?’ Another roar: ‘No!’”
It should be noted that these lawyers, who are public defenders, see each defendant for only one or two minutes.
Morgan subsequently started asking individual defendants questions about why they were seeking asylum. They began to tell him about being separated from their children. Nathan reports Morgan himself was becoming disturbed by what he heard.
“It was Thursday, the fourth day of ‘Zero Tolerance’ in his court, and defendants were telling their stories. The judge had just asked Holly D’Andrea, the assistant US attorney handling illegal entry prosecutions that day, if it were true that families were being reunited in detention. D’Andrea sounded uncertain, but she answered she thought it was true.
“‘Tell you what,’ the judge said slowly, with a hard edge in his voice, ‘if it’s not, then there are a lot of folks that have some answering to do. Because, what you’ve done, in effect, by separating these children is you’re putting them in some place without their parents. If you can imagine there’s a hell, that’s probably what it looks like.’”