When Michelle Brané visited the immigration processing center known as Ursula in McAllen, Texas, to monitor a group of migrant children being held there, she asked to see a 4-year-old girl on her list.
“I can’t find her,” an agent told her plainly.
Brané, who works with the Women’s Refugee Commission to make sure facilities like Ursula are adhering to legal standards, says that the only person who could find the girl was a fellow detainee, a 16-year-old who had met the toddler three days earlier and been caring for her. “She would put this child to sleep and comfort her when she would cry. She changed this kid’s diaper,” says Brané. “No adult, no official in the facility, ever stepped in. All of this in a facility where they sleep on the floor, and the lights are on 24 hours a day.”
Brané’s is one of many horrific stories that have surfaced in the weeks since the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy was enacted on April 6, an unprecedented move to criminally prosecute every unlawful entrant to the U.S., including asylum seekers. The practice has resulted in the separation of more than 2,000 children from their parents, many of whom have little information about their kids’ whereabouts.
RELATED: 5 Ways You Can Help Children Separated from their Families at the Border
Activists on both sides of the aisle have expressed disgust at how families have been forcibly broken apart.
These are some of the fearless women on the ground—lawyers, organizers, advocates—seeking to put them back together.
Robyn Barnard, Immigration Attorney with Human Rights First
Robyn Barnard, a Los Angeles-based immigration lawyer who represents several parents who are detained and separated from their kids, says that the biggest challenge to her cases is simply getting in touch with clients. “They have to pay for any phone calls they make at a high rate,” she says, pointing out that many detainees come to the U.S. with very little money and need to cold call multiple organizations to find legal council. “I heard this asylum seeker yesterday give this analogy: When you have money on your commissary account, you have to make a decision—do you use that money so you can get some food for the day, or do you use that money to call your loved one or your lawyer. It’s a pretty tough choice that they’re faced with.” At the same time, she says, “there’s no way for us to call the detention center and say ‘Hi, can I speak to … We have to go in person or we could send a letter.”
One of Barnard’s clients, a mother of two from El Salvador, was separated from her sons—one under the age of 10, the other under 5—in May and hasn’t seen them since. She’s currently being held in a California detention center. “The first time I met with her she had been detained for about three weeks, and she had been told the state that [her kids] were located in but was not given a chance to speak to them,” says Barnard. “Every time I speak to this mom, her questions are, ‘Where are they? Are they safe?”
Barnard’s client entered the U.S. through an official port of entry in Tijuana to seek asylum. “She wanted to do it the way she’d been told is correct, but even that is being shut off to asylum seekers,” says Barnard. In such cases, Barnard says, there’s no reason U.S. officials should choose to criminally prosecute. “Under international and U.S. law, asylum seekers should not be punished for the way that they come to the country to seek protection. Security checks can be done in a quick way upon apprehension. Once they’ve confirmed their identity and that they have an asylum claim, they should be released into the community, which is more cost effective and humane. This allows families to stay together.”
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Allegra Love, Founder of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project
“They, in a lot of cases, have no idea where their children are,” says immigration attorney Allegra Love, who represents fathers detained at the U.S. border and placed in a federal criminal prison in New Mexico. The pleas she hears are always the same: “You have to help me find the kid.” But Love has little time with these dads, who will soon be transferred into ICE custody. Often, she says, the only thing she can do to help clients locate their kids while still in detainment is hand out flyers with the number of a hotline on them.
“Our job is trying to get them the hell out of the prison so that reunification can happen,” she says. “If we can get them out and avoid deportation, they can be the ones to pull their kids out of ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] custody.”
Love was drawn to her line of work after visiting a makeshift detention center erected in her home state in 2014, where “the average age was 6. It was a horrific environment,” she says. “I immediately started volunteering as a lawyer in that detention facility to get it shut down.” Unfortunately, another, more permanent one sprung up in its place.
What Love wishes more people understood is that detaining immigrants is not a new practice. “I have been involved personally in [fighting] detention of families since Obama revived the policy in 2014,” she says. “I think that one of the points that a lot of people are missing. But what the Obama administration would do is detain families together. Now, they’re using prosecution for illegal entrance to split up families. They’re saying, ‘This isn’t working, this isn’t cruel enough to deter refugees.’”
Support the Santa Fe Dreamers Project here.
Christina Fialho, Cofounder of Freedom for Immigrants
“When I was in law school, one of my friends was a victim of home raid,” recalls Christina Fialho. “ICE came to her home in the middle of the night and took her father. It was horrific trying to locate her father. It was only after he was deported to Mexico that we were able to be back in touch with him.” Fialho, who also comes from a family of immigrants, now works to help detained parents get released, locate their children, and reunite their families.
“People are demanding an end to the practice of separating families at the border,” says Fialho, but her goals are more radical. “The bigger question is why we need to imprison immigrants in the first place. Imprisoning asylum seekers is a relatively new phenomenon.” Not only have immigrants in community-based incarceration alternatives shown up to court hearings, but such programs are also more cost-efficient for the U.S.
Instead, the current system leads to heartbreaking cases like that of Fialho’s client whose 1-year-old child was taken away from her for weeks. “She talks about how it was like trying to adopt her own child trying to get back in touch with him.”
Fialho’s organization, Freedom for Immigrants, monitors abuse at detention centers and runs a free hotline for imprisoned immigrants. “Through our hotline we’ve documented hundreds of sexual assaults in immigration detention,” Fialho says, but the vast majority go uninvestigated. “A young girl under 18 who was detained at one of the facilities in Texas, there was a medical examination done on her that showed vaginal scarring and an STD, but the sexual assault complaint was still marked unfounded, which is just crazy.”
Support Freedom for Immigrants here.
Michelle Brané, Director of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission
“I come from a family of refugees—my mother left Hungary during WWII, and my dad’s from Argentina,” says Brané. “So I grew up with refugee stories. It hit home for me.” After stints as a human right officer in Bosnia and at the Justice Department, she joined the Women’s Refugee Commission. “We’re the people who have access to go into the facilities, who understand what they’re required to do by law, what the child welfare protocols should be. We also visit the border patrol stations and the processing centers where the actual separation are happening.”
The commission’s main objective is to monitor facility conditions. “When journalists call me, or when congressmen call me, and say, ‘How to fix this?’ I can say, ‘Here’s what the problem is. This is a better way to do it.’
And there is a much better way to do it, Brané assures. She calls some of the scenarios she’s observed “child neglect. Any normal circumstance of that, that would be criminal action.”
The 4-year-old she checked up on in Ursula, Brané says, was eventually reunited with her aunt. “I’m not sure what they will do in the long run,” she says. “At least they know now that the child is there.”
Support the Women’s Refugee Commission here.