Outrage over the Trump administration's “zero tolerance” border policy escalated recently, when agents allegedly ripped a breastfeeding baby out of her mother's arms.
The incident happened at one of the detention centers where the government holds undocumented immigrants, a Honduran mother told CNN. A lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, Natalia Cornelio, said authorities handcuffed the woman when she protested the removal of her daughter.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Texas have taken more than 500 children from their parents and transferred them to other jails in just the past month, according to Miguel A. Nogueras, an assistant federal public defender in McAllen.
The agents are complying with an order that Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued in May, as part of the administration's crackdown on illegal immigration. The United Nations has condemned the family-separation policy as a violation of human rights.
Nogeuras said some of the parents have no idea where their children are being held. “It depends on who the agent is on that day,” he explained. “They will be told, 'We're going to separate your kids so they can bathe.' And that's not true. It's really hard to look in the eye of a mother or father who would plead, 'Help me get my child back.'”
Cornelio declared that “the government is essentially torturing people by doing this.” She has interviewed a number of immigrants who shed tears as they recalled agents taking away their children. “All the women would start crying and would need to take a couple of minutes before being able to continue talking about it,” the attorney said.
White House officials have shown little sympathy for the traumatized families. In May, National Public Radio asked Chief of Staff John Kelly whether the separation policy is “cruel and heartless.” The retired general replied: “I wouldn't put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of; put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”
Many of the families are coming from Central American countries where autocratic governments are impoverishing, and some cases committing violence against, the people. Advocates argue that the migrants are refugees. Others point out that the United States shares responsibility for the crisis because it supports some of the oppressive regimes.
Undocumented border crossers previously faced prison terms as long as six months, as well as $5,000 fines. However, most of them were deported rather than jailed. The new policy calls for prosecuting everyone, which has placed a tremendous burden on federal attorneys' offices and the courts.
Nogueras said prosecutors are often working illegal immigration cases, rather than pursuing drug smugglers and other criminals. He reported that in just two days last week, public defenders appeared in court in McAllen on behalf of 290 foreign-born adults. Agents had separated at least 60 children from the migrants. According to Nogueras, there were 20 to 30 court cases per day during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies.
“I'm outraged about it,” Nogueras said. “I'm angry. It should never happen. I don't think that this represents the values of the American people.”
Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington also is incensed about what the government is doing to children and their families. The lawmaker saw for herself the conditions at one of the detention centers. She told MSNBC's Chris Hayes that adult migrants “were sitting in a room next to the room where their child was being held in some cases, and they could hear the children screaming for their parents.”
Jayapal described the experience as “heartbreaking,” adding: “Their treatment in the ICE and Border Patrol facilities was just outrageous. I have worked on immigration issues for 20 years, and this is about as bad as I've seen it. In many cases, they were not given water to drink for five days. They had a sink in their cell, and that water was dirty, chlorinated water, and that's what they had to drink. One woman said she was hit twice by Border Patrol right here, just below her eye on her cheekbone.”
The women who spoke with Jayapal in the jail claimed that authorities were denying them the right to a hearing on their applications for asylum in the United States. “They are strong, courageous women escaping rape, gang violence, murder, political persecution, coming to the United States,” the congresswoman said. “They want to do this legally.”
Agents allegedly are not providing parents any opportunities to stay in touch with their children. “Some of the women had been given these little slips of paper, white slips of paper, that had their name and then their kids' names,” Jayapal explained. “And one woman said to me, 'These are not my children.' The names that were listed on the paper were not even her children.”