Children separated at US-Mexico border had ‘no interaction’ with their parents: report
Migrant children who were separated from their parents at the southern border were not informed by U.S. officials of their right to interact with family members, resulting in increased trauma from detention, according to an official report filed in court last week.
According to the report, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials at times separated children as young as 8 from their parents, often without informing the parties of their right to interact with each other.
The report was filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for Central California by Paul Wise, a professor of child health and pediatrics at Stanford University and the court-appointed juvenile child monitor overseeing implementation of the Flores settlement agreement, a key court resolution governing detention standards for migrant minors.
“None of the interviewed children had visited with their parents since they were separated, including children who had been separated for 4 days. Most of the children were not aware of any protocols that would allow them to request a visit with their parents,” Wise wrote in the filing.
Caregivers assigned to the children were also largely unaware of the detainees’ visitation rights, according to the report.
A CBP official told The Hill the agency uses filings like Wise’s to identify deficiencies — for instance the lack of information on visitation rights — to address specific issues in compliance with Flores.
The report, concerning conditions for migrant minors in just two sectors of the border — Rio Grande Valley and El Paso — heightened concerns among advocates.
“U.S. Border Patrol’s continued practice of family separation as detailed in this report is deeply troubling. It confirms that CBP continues to violate children’s rights to safety and family unity, despite the traumatic and long-lasting consequences of separating children,” said Gladis Molina, executive director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.
“The fact that Dr. Wise’s report focuses on just one part of the border gives us reason to be concerned that forced family separation is even more widespread than we know.”
According to the Flores settlement, minors may not be held in immigration detention for more than 72 hours in most cases, a rule that CBP largely followed for unaccompanied minors, but less so for family units.
In July, 737 minors traveling as part of family units were subject to longer-than-usual detention; 697 were held for three to five days, 39 for more than five days, including 15 who were held more than 14 days.
That’s a sharp increase from June, when 187 minors were held for periods longer than three days, and none for more than 14 days.
Few unaccompanied children were held for long periods. No unaccompanied minors were held longer than three days in June, and five were held in July, including only one minor held more than 14 days.
“When the 72-hour limit is surpassed, it is almost always due to special circumstances, such as a child initially reporting that they are over 18 years old or for a protracted medical issue,” Wise wrote.
“Children in families, however, are routinely held for more than 72 hours.”
Those prolonged detentions are decided on a case-by-case basis and can respond to a family’s proximity to repatriation, medical care or other factors, but are not used “for the purpose of prolonged separation,” according to a CBP officer.
Wise cited site visits to the Donna facility in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, a temporary holding facility run by CBP, where investigators found that some children had been separated from their parents.
The separated children included young boys separated from fathers and young girls from mothers, an apparent violation of the terms of the Flores settlement.
However, the report noted that some family separations are routine, for instance placing older teenage boys among other boys, rather than in family holding facilities.
“This is done so that teenage boys are not held in the same pods with large numbers of what are often, very young women,” Wise wrote.
Children can also be separated from their parents if officials believe the parents are a risk to the welfare of the children.
Those exceptions are not clearly delineated in the settlement, and medical professionals such as Wise say forced family separation comes with intrinsic risks.
“The essential context for these Settlement provisions and their legal assessment is the fundamental understanding that hold a child separately while in custody is bad for children. Separating a child from a parent can be profoundly traumatic for children and can have lasting, harmful effects,” he wrote.
The report’s recommendation on the issue was simply to stop separating children younger than 16 from their parents, or at the very least inform children, parents and caretakers of family visitation rights.
Advocates say the practice has to end.
“There is simply no justification for routinely separating children from their parents at the border. If ‘overcrowding’ is truly CBP’s concern, the agency should take action to quickly process and release families together,” Molina said.
“Children seeking safety at our border require the highest standards of care. The Biden Administration must immediately address these concerns, rather than repeating the harm of the past.”
But, Wise noted, family separations while in detention under the Biden administration different from the Trump administration’s short-lived “zero tolerance” policy, which extended beyond detention.
“The separations observed in the [Rio Grande Valley] pertained only to the families’ time in custody, as parents and children were reunited upon their release from custody,” Wise wrote.
“These separations in custody, therefore, should be distinguished from the family separations associated with the ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy in 2018 in which children were separated from parents at apprehension and ultimately transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, [Health and Human Services], as [unaccompanied children].”
Updated at 6:58 p.m.