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Zero-Tolerance on the US-Mexico border: the Report of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches on divided and reunited families

The testimonies of Cristina, Jose, Maria, of Caritas workers, Lutheran faithful, nuns, immigration officers were collected in the Report  titled: “Serving Separated and Reunited Families: Lessons Learned and the Way Forward to Promote Family Unity", presented by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS) and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). The thirty-page dossier is rich with statistical figures, research findings, projects, recommendations to political leaders and Government agencies. The spotlight is on the 1112 families brought together thanks to the cooperation between the Churches which continue to assist them in various parts of the Country

(from New York) Cristina is twelve-years-old. She fled with her father to escape the violence in their hometown in El Salvador. They were separated at the US border. Cristina had to wait 88 days before seeing her father again, requested to sign expulsion papers by immigration agencies on several occasions. He was repeatedly told that his daughter had been adopted. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) helped the family reunite. Now Cristina and her father are housed by a couple in Los Angeles assisted by the local Caritas. Cristina continues to experience trauma and separation anxiety;

she was initially fearful of going to school as she did not want to be separated from her father again, not even for a second, for fear of finding herself lost and frightened in a foreign Country, of which she didn’t even speak the language. Jose was separated from his child as soon as he crossed the border. “It was excruciating, I felt my heart burning in my chest. I watched him cry and I couldn’t do anything to console him”, he said with a broken voice. He held back the tears from the child running around him. They were reunited after a few weeks thanks to the Lutheran Migrant and Refugee Services (LIRS). LIRS contacted a lawyer, gave them clothing items (they only had one change of clothes), and all the material needed by the child for his first day in school.

The crackdown on US migration policies and the “Zero Tolerance” memorandum leading to the separation of families on the Mexican border to discourage immigration into the Country is not only a collection of numbers and statistical findings, it brings together the stories of trauma and hope.

The testimony of Cristina, Jose, Maria, Caritas workers, Lutheran faithful, nuns, immigration officers, were collected in the Report titled “Serving Separated and Reunited Families. : Lessons Learned and the Way Forward to Promote Family Unity”, presented by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS) and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). The thirty-page dossier is rich with statistical figures, research findings, projects, recommendations for political leaders and Government agencies. The spotlight is on the 1112 families brought together thanks to the cooperation between the Churches which continue to assist them in various parts of the Country.

The request. On July 2 the Migrant and Refugee Service received a phone call from the Security Department in which the Trump Administration asked for the Church’s support to reunite separated families in compliance of a the federal court order. As a result of  extensive pressure, on June 20, 2018, President Trump issued an Executive Order on family separation instructing to keep families detained together and to provide or construct facilities that could be used for expanded family detention. Furthermore, a District Court in California established that the Presidential decree had to be implemented within a specific deadline: parents with children under the age of 5 were required to be reunified by July 10th; and parents with children ages 5-17 had to be reunified by July 26th.
Indeed, the practice of separating families occurred also during the George W. Bush and the Obama Administrations, but after the zero-tolerance policy implemented by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions the number of referrals of children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody grew by 76% in two months, putting even reception facilities in a state of alarm. 

Moreover, owing to a strict interpretation of the Law, immigration officers enforced it not only in cases of illegal entry but even for families who willingly turned themselves over to the Border Patrol seeking protection. As a result, family units arriving to the U.S./Mexico border were separated: the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) took in the children and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) took in the parents. The lack of effective coordination between the two Government agencies caused the minors’ disappearance.

Change in composition? The Report highlights the new face of immigration from Central America that controverts stereotyping and controversial media campaigns. The demographics of migrants encountered at the U.S./Mexico border have shifted from a majority of adult males, often from Mexico and seeking seasonal employment, to families and unaccompanied

children, primarily from Central America, fleeing the so-called Northern Triangle countries , (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) where they are targeted and threatened by gangs and armed criminal groups that are moving from solely urban and suburban communities to rural and agrarian communities as well, recruiting minors in their spiral of death. Additionally, situations of domestic and family violence in these States pervade many homes, they often are met with impunity and inaction due to the corruption within the law enforcement system. Thus leaving the Country is seen as the only possible option.

The interviews conducted on 1112 assisted families show that the flight to USA is their last resort after having been internally displaced in their own country several times:

some of them moved to ten different places before reaching the US border, testifying to the situation of extreme social and political fragility in departing Countries. 61% of migrant families were composed of male parents bringing their male children with them (67%), a greater proportion compared to women crossing the borders (39%) with their daughters (33%).

Reunification. Data on reunited families (up to September 27) contained in the Report drawn up by the Catholic and Lutheran Commission shows that 2296 families were reunited, some of them are still being detained, others have joined relatives in the United States, some were reunited in their Countries of origin owing to forced expatriation, while some were released after reunification. Coordination among the various agencies was a major challenge owing to the lack of a centralized service for processing all procedures. Thus the support of local Caritas centers and of the reception facilities of the Lutheran Church was crucial in serving as local centers providing information and additional assistance to reunified families. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley  received 600 families. A volunteer in the reception program said this had been one of the most emotional work experiences he ever had: “One of the parents told me that he had not seen his child in over

five months. When the children and parents were finally reunited, it was beautiful. We were blessed to be part of this reunification process.” The Report’s closing paragraph features a set of recommendations to legislators and political representatives leading them to acknowledge that when planning protection programs across the Country separating families is not a solution but a tragedy and a trauma the families will suffer from for many years. Detention “is never a solution.” For this reason, Catholic and Lutheran Commissions have requested to form part of the policy review process, in order to identify alternatives and for people’s protection above all.

(*) Names were changed to protect confidentiality of interviewees

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