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Advocate: DHS Proposal to Split Children from Parents at U.S. Border is “State-Sanctioned Violence”

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The Department of Homeland Security is considering a proposal to radically shift how federal agents treat undocumented families—including asylum seekers—who attempt to enter the country. Reuters is reporting DHS is considering a proposal to separate mothers from their children if they are caught trying to cross the border together. Under the plan, mothers would be held in custody, while children would initially be placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. Texas Democratic Congressmember Henry Cuellar criticized the new proposal. He said, “Bottom line: separating mothers and children is wrong. That type of thing is where we depart from border security and get into violating human rights.” For more, we speak with Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at a Department of Homeland Security proposal to radically shift how federal agents treat undocumented families, including asylum seekers, who attempt to enter the country. Reuters is reporting that DHS is considering a proposal to separate mothers from their children if they are caught trying to cross the border together. Under the plan, mothers would be held in custody, while the children would initially be placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.

AMY GOODMAN: Texas Congressman, Democrat Henry Cuellar criticized the new proposal. He said, quote “Bottom line: separating mothers and children is wrong. That type of thing is where we depart from border security and get into violating human rights.”

We go now to Los Angeles, where we’re joined by Marielena Hincapié. She is executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

So, this is a proposal, we understand, that’s being floated by the Department of Homeland Security, separating mothers from their children. Can you tell us what you understand, Marielena?

MARIELENA HINCAPIÉ: Thank you for the invitation, Amy and Juan.

Yes, this is a proposal, which means we can still try our best to stop this. This really amounts—if it goes forward, this would amount to state-sanctioned violence against children, against families that are coming to the United States to seek safety. We really—everything in this administration right now is—there’s such a lack of transparency. We don’t have details, except what the media is reporting.

And Reuters, as you mentioned, is reporting that there is a proposal based on some meetings that ICE has held starting in early February. There were some notes from that, that have been shared with both MSNBC and Reuters. And most recently, the Reuters reporter was able to confirm with attorneys at the Department of Homeland Security that this is very much part of a proposal that they’re seriously considering.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Marielena, what would be the purpose of separating the mothers from the children that accompany them?

MARIELENA HINCAPIÉ: Besides cruelty and inhumanity and inflicting emotional and psychological trauma, I think it’s deterrence. Right? We saw this even under the Obama administration, and the Trump administration clearly has begun wanting to show that immigrants aren’t welcome here, even immigrants who are seeking refuge. We saw this with the refugee ban, Muslim ban, and now we’re seeing with the—baby ban? Family ban? Not sure what we’ll call this next proposal if this comes to be a final policy. But the deterrence approach has been a failed approach. You cannot deter a mother from making the difficult decision of trying to save her children’s lives. I mean, any mother, any parent, will do that. And no wall, no level of detention, is ever going to stop that.

AMY GOODMAN: So can you explain exactly how it would work? They would take the mother, put her in jail, and what would they do with these children?

MARIELENA HINCAPIÉ: Well, again, we don’t have the details yet. But what we understand that’s being proposed is, yes, the family units would first be detained. Right? They would be detained when they arrive at the border. And again, let’s remember that these are called—currently, we have three family detention centers. There are two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania. These are jails, right? These are families that are being put in jail. The children then are sent to a Health and Human Services facility, but, again, that is still a jail. Neither the children nor the family members, nor the parents, belong in jail. Families belong together. Children belong with their mothers and their fathers. They belong in schools, they belong at home, they belong in parks.

What we believe will happen is that the families will be separated. Children will be ripped apart from their parents’ arms and placed in these separate detention centers and will then go through the legal process, which includes a credible fear interview. That means it’s an opportunity for the immigrants to show that they—you know, whatever evidence they have to explain that they are afraid of returning home to their home country because they fear persecution and, in many cases, murder. The fact that children will be, one, separated from their family, and, two, we have no idea what process the children will have to go through—again, because they’ll be by themselves. And to do so, the fact that 88 percent of families that came in the last few years had passed their credible fear interviews, the majority of people are coming to seek asylum, which they have a right to do so, under both U.S. and international law.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, some of the Republicans in Congress are claiming that the women are willing to risk the dangers of making the journey with their children, because they are sure that they’ll be quickly released from detention and that then the court dates will be set months or even years into the future. What’s your response to that?

MARIELENA HINCAPIÉ: My response is that those are completely uninformed comments. And frankly, again, they’re comments that talk to how out of touch these Republican and policymakers that would say that. Again, let’s understand what’s happening in Central America. In the Northern Triangle—in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—the levels of violence have increased dramatically over the last years. Most of the people—the numbers of people who are coming over have increased, and, in fact, the number of women, and particularly teenage girls, are increasing because the levels of femicide, gender-based violence, rape, kidnapping, etc., is what is driving people to leave and make the difficult decision.

Now, they’re not coming just to the United States. Asylum rates have actually increased also to Nicaragua, to Belize and Costa Rica and neighboring countries. So, the fact that a mother or a father would make the difficult decision to come to the United States and make the journey, either by foot or on the Bestia, on the train—five, 10, 20, 25 days—that is not a decision that a parent makes lightly. And so these policymakers, that claim that people are coming here just because they think they’re going to be able to, you know, get detained briefly and then go into the community, are completely uninformed. And lastly, I’ll also say that they should be released immediately, right? Once they are initially detained and have the opportunity to prove—right?—through a credible fear interview, that they are seeking asylum, they should be detained—they should be released, not kept in detention.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we should be very clear that President—under President Obama, who presided over more deportations that any president in history, though families were not supposed to be detained—women and children—for more than 21 days, we documented many times that they were held well over a year, being moved from one deportation center to another.

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