"In the Italian film “Life is Beautiful,” a Jewish bookstore owner uses creative stunts to distract his child from the horrible reality of being held in a Nazi concentration camp. I was reminded of that movie recently, as I found myself part of an eerily similar heartbreaking moment.
As lawyers with the Texas Civil Rights Project, my team has been working around the clock to document hundreds of cases of children taken from their parents since the Trump administration launched its “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Under that policy, the government charges every immigrant apprehended at the border with illegal entry, a misdemeanor offense — regardless of whether they’re fleeing violence and seeking asylum, or traveling with children. Before zero tolerance, immigration and Department of Justice officials exercised their discretion on whether to press criminal charges against some immigrants and asylum seekers, particularly those traveling with children or those with special circumstances.
Each morning for the last three weeks, my colleagues and I have gone to the federal courthouse in McAllen, Texas, seven miles from the Mexican border. We arrive no later than 7:45 a.m., pass the metal detectors at the security check, and make sure to get to the eighth floor by 8:00.
By that time, the courtroom is already nearly full. On a typical morning, some 70 to 80 men and women are brought to court and put in handcuffs with shackles around their ankles. The vast majority are first-time border crossers. A public defender asks the group whether any are traveling with children and have been separated from them. Struggling with the handcuffs, it’s not easy for them to raise their hands. Sometimes, to answer in the affirmative, they must stand up.
The criminal proceeding begins at 9 a.m., and depending on how many separated parents are there each day, we have maybe five to seven minutes to speak with each parent beforehand. Hopefully, that’s enough to get the most basic information about them and the children taken from them — names, dates of birth, country of origin. They’re frightened and confused, and most don’t speak English. I tell them in Spanish that I’m a lawyer working on family separations and that I can try to help get their children back.
The parents ask when they’re going to see their children again. I try to calm them and tell them I’ll do my best to make sure it happens soon. The truth is I don’t have an answer. And I can’t make a promise I’m not sure I can keep.
The stories they tell are all devastating. But as a father, I was really hit in the gut by one a few weeks back.
I was talking with a single father whose wife left him several years ago when his daughter was three years old. They were fleeing violence in Honduras in search of a better life. But it didn’t work out that way. Once they crossed the border, the United States charged him with a crime, and agents told him they had to take his daughter away.
As they were leaving, his daughter asked where she was going. What can a father possibly tell his daughter in that situation?
Like the character in “Life is Beautiful,” this dad’s priority was to try to shield his little girl from pain. So he made up a story: He told her she was going to summer camp.
The girl, only seven years old and oblivious to her plight, walked away with a big smile. She was so excited for her first day of camp.
I’ve encountered so many awful stories like this that I’ve become desensitized. I almost see them as normal.
The first time a crying parent asked me when she would see her son again, I struggled to find an answer. But many weeks after the Trump administration started its zero tolerance policy — and hundreds of separated families later — I’ve become hardened to these conversations because I’ve had them over and over, day after day.
Plus, there’s no time for those feelings in the courtroom. We have to get as much information as we can, and it’s a race against the clock. If we don’t quickly complete the intake and interview process to later track them down, no one except the government will know that a separation occurred. And without the information about these children and their parents, how will we look for them? How will anyone?
Of 381 families we interviewed, 278 are still separated. At least two children have been deported without their parents. And at least five parents have been deported without their children, who remain in the United States. This is only a fraction of the more than 2,000 families that remain separated today.
Parents seeking asylum and safety for their families need meaningful access to attorneys and the courts. They shouldn’t be forced into a Hobson’s choice between seeing their children again or pursuing their asylum claim. Some of the parents we’ve interviewed tell us these illegal pressures from the government are increasing.
The way to end this nightmare is to rescind the zero tolerance policy that criminalizes immigrants and asylum seekers. The solution is not to detain these families indefinitely as the government currently plans. Rather, immigrants and asylum seekers should be allowed to pursue their cases in immigration court without being detained, as was done under the Family Case Management Program, which was highly successful in terms of people appearing for their court hearings, which this administration terminated.
In effect, the administration can end this crisis with the stroke of a pen today. Until then, my colleagues and I will be in the courthouse bright and early tomorrow morning, and each one thereafter.
Dozens of frightened immigrants and a courtroom full of heartbreaking stories will be waiting for us at 8:00."