Jessika and her two young sons fled the reach of MS-13 gang members in El Salvador for the U.S.
On the other end of their more than 2,000-mile journey, Jessika and her boys, 4 and 10, were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents in South Texas in March. They requested asylum because they feared they could be killed if they stayed in El Salvador.
Authorities sent her to a detention facility and her sons to a shelter.
“The boys cried,” said Denise Gilman, Jessika’s Austin-based attorney. “Especially the little one.”
Gilman didn’t reveal Jessika’s last name because her estranged husband is a member of the MS-13 gang and she fears violence from the gang.
Jessika’s story has become familiar, as immigrant families are separated on the U.S.-Mexico border, per a new U.S. Justice Department policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy last month on unauthorized crossings of the southern border.
“If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Sessions said in San Diego. “If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child may be separated from you as required by law.”
Under the Justice Department’s new policy, anyone who enters the U.S. without legal status outside of official border crossings, will face prosecution — even if they are seeking asylum — which means if an adult arrives with children, the adult would be separated from the children because the adult would go through the federal criminal justice system.
Bringing minors across the border also could mean facing child-smuggling charges, based on Sessions’ remarks. Minors, after they are separated from the adults with whom they entered the U.S., are taken to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
‘They’re being pushed back’
The new policy of criminally prosecuting parents is unprecedented, said Sofia Casini, immigration programs coordinator at Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based civil and human rights nonprofit organization. In addition, immigrants have been turned away at the border and prevented from asking for asylum in at least two ports of entry, both in Texas, according to accounts shared by immigrant advocates, Casini said.
“They’re being pushed back, they’re being absolutely denied this ability to say, ‘I have a fear for my life and I need help,’” said Casini, who also runs an immigration crisis hotline and surveys detention facility conditions in the Austin area. “It not only puts them in extreme danger from the gangs along Reynosa and along the border … it also literally forces them to cross in another manner to try to get in.”
White House senior adviser Stephen Miller said during a briefing Tuesday that unauthorized immigrants from Central America are exploiting a loophole that allows them to be released in the U.S., causing “many to never be seen or heard from again. And that fact is driving the entire child smuggling trade,” he said.
“A nation cannot have a principle that there will be no criminal or civil immigration enforcement for anyone who is traveling with a minor,” he said later. “That would … be completely and totally open borders. And the humanitarian consequence of that is the exploitation of children by these smuggling organizations that feed instability in the sending countries.”
It’s “abominable” to prosecute parents as smugglers, Casini said.
“I don’t believe a single person in this administration believes that those parents are smuggling their children,” she said. “This administration is well aware that these people are seeking asylum … and they’re trying to dismantle the asylum process, and they’re trying to discredit these families.”
Critics say the Trump administration is using the new policy to tie up immigrants in criminal courts to thwart their chances of receiving asylum and to threaten would-be immigrants who plan to enter the U.S. illegally with their families.
Gilman called the message cruel.
“I’m sure word will go to Central America,” she said. “I guess the question is will families stop coming, and I think the answer is no. It’s been shown again and again that when a mom is faced with extreme danger for herself and her kid, she’ll do what she needs to do to get the protection that the family needs, despite whatever deterrence measures are being put in place.”
It’s not clear how many families have been separated by border authorities in Texas, let alone across the country.
A group of attorneys from the Texas Civil Rights Project, Washington, D.C.-based Women’s Refugee Commission, the University of Texas Law School’s immigration clinic and McAllen-based law firm Garcia & Garcia filed an emergency request Thursday with the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to order the U.S. to end its family separations policy. The coalition filed the request on behalf of five families separated in or near Hidalgo County.
“With that we’re hoping to immediately gain some information about the whereabouts of the children,” said Zenén Jaimes Pérez, Texas Civil Rights Project spokesman.
Meanwhile, Jessika sits in a Laredo detention facility with a $12,500 bond, while her children are with family on the East Coast after being released following two months in the refugee shelter.
Given the trauma they endured in El Salvador and from the separation, she worries about them, said Gilman, who also is director of UT Law School’s immigration clinic.
Jessika’s older son has been referred to mental health counseling from his school, Gilman added.
“Jessika knows that her kids are struggling,” Gilman said, “and it causes her great pain.”