Sister Norma Pimentel, Executive director of Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley, and Genin Rodas from Sabá, Honduras speak about U.S. Immigration officials separating families at detention centers.
McALLEN, Texas — As he struggled to sleep in a federal holding cell without his 5-year-old son, Genin Rodas’ American dreams — a job in San Francisco, sending cash back home to his wife and three other children in Honduras, a good education for his son, Edison — dissolved like smoke.
None of that suddenly mattered, he said. All he wanted was his son back.
“I kept asking myself, ‘Why did I come here? Why did I risk my son’s life and my life to come here?’” Rodas said from a refugee center in this border city. “It means nothing if I don’t have my son.”
Rodas was among 40 or so immigrants huddled last week at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center here, where dozens of immigrants show up each day after being released from U.S. Border Patrol custody.
Many of the people at the center had just experienced the U.S. government’s new “zero tolerance” policy and the family separation resulting from it. Rodas, like others here, was reunited with his son after four days. But the policy, launched in May, is raising questions of legality and ethics by legal experts and immigrant advocates.
Last month, the Trump administration began stepping up criminal prosecutions of people crossing the border without authorization, charging nearly everyone entering without papers with a federal misdemeanor. By doing so, under law, children entering the USA alongside adults fall under the care of the Office of Refugee Settlement, or ORR, while those criminal cases are pursued.
U.S. officials have not released exact numbers on children being held or whether parents are being deported without their children. One federal public defender estimated there are more than 400 children being held in the McAllen area alone. Several lawsuits are challenging the policy.
Supporters say the new policy is necessary to enforce existing laws and could help stem a recent rise in unauthorized arrivals. Last month, Homeland Security took 51,912 immigrants into custody, nearly three times the number detained in May 2017, when illegal immigration plummeted following Trump’s inauguration.
“The number of people trying to cross into this country illegally is increasing at a startling rate,” said Jessica Vaughn, of the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit research institute that promotes stricter immigration control. “When there are meaningful consequences for illegal entry, people think twice about doing it.”
At the Catholic Charities’ Respite Center, those who have been through the process described tense days separated from young children and tactics called into question by legal experts.
Janet Quintanilla, 32, said she fled her home in the Lempira province of Honduras in April because the violence was getting bad and street gangs were trying to recruit her son. She left with her son, Christian Orellana, 13, and daughter, Ashley Orellana, 10.
After crossing the border without authorization near McAllen on Sunday, Border Patrol agents took Christian and Ashley away, Quintanilla said. She slept on a floor in a large holding cell with dozens of other immigrants, covered by a foil blanket.
After a court hearing on Tuesday, she was reunited with her children and released. “When I saw my children again, I felt reborn,” Quintanilla said, her eyes welling with tears. “I cried. They cried.”
She added: “I just want a better future for them.”
A right to seek asylum
Immigrant families picked up crossing into Texas around the McAllen area are often taken to the Border Patrol’s Ursula Processing Center, a former warehouse in South McAllen refitted to hold recent arrivals, said Elissa Steglich, a professor at the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, who visited the border recently on a fact-finding mission.
At the center, agents separate parents from their children while the adults’ criminal cases are pursued, she said. In one case, federal agents told two female immigrants they were taking their daughters away for a bath, then never returned with them, Steglich said.
The policy tramples the rights of immigrants who may have a legitimate claim for asylum in the USA, many of whom have no criminal record, she said. Steglich, the Texas Civil Rights Project and other groups filed an emergency injunction last week with the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to halt the practice.
“U.S. law clearly allows for people in the United States a right to seek asylum,” Steglich said. “It doesn’t matter how you come in.”
As the people bathed their children or munched on snacks at the Respite Center, another group of 20 recently arrived immigrants shuffled into Judge Peter Ormsby’s 8th-floor courtroom at the nearby U.S. District Court, their feet and wrists shackled. Six of the defendants had been separated from their children.
After explaining their rights and sentencing them to the minimum penalty of time served, Ormsby asked the federal public defender if he had heard of any cases where immigrants were deported without their children. The public defender said he had not been able to get any information from the government.
“I’m sure it’s a terrible circumstance for those of you have come with a minor child,” Ormsby told the defendants, who listened through the help of an interpreter. He warned them not to try coming back illegally. “If you enter illegally, you’re violating the laws of the United States.”
‘It’s inhumane. It’s cruel’
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and director of the Respite Center, said immigrants coming to the center are exhausted and traumatized by the experience. Her biggest concern is parents being deported to their home countries without their children, which she said she heard is happening in some cases.
“It’s inhumane. It’s cruel,” Pimentel said. “I don’t see how we as U.S. citizens can be OK with that.”
Rodas, the Honduran immigrant, said he left his home country to try to better his and his children’s lives. Applying for a visa in his home country is too expensive, so he spent 25 days riding atop trains and taking buses with Edison, sleeping where they could, to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.
It was a dangerous trek, but he thought he’d be safe when he reached the U.S. After rafting across the Rio Grande at dawn Sunday with a group of others, agents picked them up, drove them to a holding facility and took Edison away. They told Rodas they were going to deport him and keep his son in the U.S., he said.
“I said, ‘No, why are you taking him?’” Rodas said. “The boy was crying. I also was crying.”
Rodas spent four days in a large holding cell crammed with other immigrants who had also been separated from their children, he said. Night after night, he prayed to God to see Edison again.
After a brief court appearance, Rodas was reunited with his son and released. He still hopes to meet his mother-in-law in San Francisco, find a job and get Edison in school.
If he’s forced to leave the U.S., he said he likely won’t return without a visa.
“With everything’s that’s happened to me, I’d say I won’t come back,” Rodas said.
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
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