By Courtney Grogan
Maria had been a victim of sex trafficking and abuse by a local gang when she fled Guatemala. Taking her 3-year-old son, Jose, she made the trek to the U.S. border, seeking asylum in the United States.
But when she arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in December 2017, she was apprehended by Customs and Border Protection. Agents separated her from her son, who was grouped together with “unaccompanied minors” by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, while Maria was transferred to adult detention.
Maria’s story, as related by the Migration and Refugees Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is not unique.
At least 700 migrant children have been separated from adults claiming to be their parents since October 2017, according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which takes custody of the children. More than 100 of these children were under the age of 4.
Katie Kuennen is the associate director of children’s services for the U.S. bishops’ migration and refugee services, which operates a shelter for unaccompanied children in Texas.
“The vast majority of the kids coming into our residential programs are experiencing the trauma of family separation,” said Kuennen, who has observed increasing numbers of family separations at the border in recent months.
“We know from our work here in child welfare and social work that the impact of such a separation … can be extremely devastating both developmentally and psychologically on the child,” Kuennen explained in an online webinar on family separation on May 30.
On June 5, the United Nations human rights office condemned the U.S. practice of separating migrant children from their parents at the border as “a serious violation of the rights of the child.”
“The practice of separating families amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life,” said UN spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani, who called on the U.S. to “ immediately halt this practice of separating families.”
Prior to the UN condemnation, the U.S. bishops released a statement on June 1, urging the U.S. government to keep migrant families together.
“My brother bishops and I understand the need for the security of our borders and country, but separating arriving families at the U.S./Mexico border does not allay security concerns,” wrote Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin.
“Rupturing the bond between parent and child causes scientifically-proven trauma that often leads to irreparable emotional scarring,” continued Bishop Vasquez, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ committee on migration.
“Children are not instruments of deterrence but a blessing from God,” said the bishop.
On May 4, the Department of Homeland Security began referring all people crossing the border illegally to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.
This “zero-tolerance policy” was implemented in response to a report that there had been a 203 percent increase in unauthorized border crossings in the past year. The majority of people arriving at the U.S. border had fled Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, according to the UN.
The goal of the policy is prosecuting 100 percent of the people who cross the border illegally, said Melissa Hastings, a policy advisor for the U.S. bishops’ migration and refugee services.
While adults over the age of 18 await prosecution in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, any children who had been traveling with them will be designated as “unaccompanied” and transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The policy “does not have any exceptions for families who are coming in and willingly turning themselves over to border patrol seeking protection” by applying for legal asylum, said Hastings.
“In the majority of these cases it is noted that CBP had never asked the parent if they could verify the relationship at the time of apprehension,” added Kuennen, who said that parents are not being asked for documentation or evidence of their kinship before separation.
Once a child is separated and their parent detained, Kuennen has found it to be very challenging to facilitate communication between family members because the shelters caring for the children have to identify where the separated parent has been detained and establish contact.
“We recently had a 5-year-old girl from El Salvador who was separated from her biological mother. In this particular case, it took over 30 days to establish initial contact with the mother,” said Kuennen, noting that the child had been extremely traumatized by the initial separation.
“We’ve heard also some cases of extremely young children, infants, nursing babies who have been separated from their parents and caregivers,” said Kuennen.
For young children, this traumatic separation can lead to long-term physical and mental health consequences, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which released a statement condemning family separation in May.
“[H]ighly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health. This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress – known as toxic stress – can carry lifelong consequences for children,” the academy warned.
There is also an issue of judicial efficiency, added Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the U.S. bishops’ migration and refugee services.
Previously, a mother could claim her children as derivatives on one asylum application and court claim. The family separation policy forces each individual to have their own claim, multiplying the number of court cases at a time when “our judicial immigration system is already overrun,” Feasley said.
She encouraged Catholics to help by contacting Congress, volunteering with immigrants through their local Catholic Charities, or even volunteering to foster a separated or unaccompanied child.
“Right now, in this initial phase, given the strong statements by DHS and the fact that Congress does have a small, but important oversight role, we are really pushing Congress to push back on this issue at this time,” she said. “We think it is crucial.”