Trauma at the Texas-Mexico Border: Families Separated, Children Detained & Residents Fighting Back

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We look at growing outrage over the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families who cross the U.S.-Mexico border, many fleeing dangerous conditions and seeking asylum. At least 600 immigrant children were removed from their parents last month, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new rule. On Wednesday, 10 members of Congress protested by blocking the entrance to the headquarters of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency tasked with carrying out the forced removal of children from their parents. More protests in at least 60 cities are planned today by the group Families Belong Together, which formed in response to the new policy. We go to the epicenter of this “zero tolerance” crackdown, the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, where more than half of all migrant families and children have been apprehended by Border Patrol agents since mid-May, for a special report by Democracy Now! correspondent Renée Feltz, who spoke with residents taking action in response to the widely condemned practice of separating families.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show with the growing outrage over the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families who cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Many are fleeing dangerous conditions and seeking asylum. At least 600 immigrant children were removed from their parents last month, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new rule.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: I have put in place a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. 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.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Wednesday, 10 members of Congress protested by blocking the entrance to the headquarters of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency tasked with carrying out the forced removal of children from their parents. More protests in at least 60 cities are planned today by the group Families Belong Together, which formed in response to the new policy.

Meanwhile, in the border state of New Mexico, Republican Governor Susana Martinez told the Albuquerque Journal, people shouldn’t be allowed to break the law, quote, “simply because they have children.”

Earlier this month, Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley was barred from entering a detention center for immigrant children in Brownsville, Texas, after traveling to the center, housed inside an old Walmart.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: I haven’t been asked to leave the property, but I’m guessing that’s about what’s to happen.

POLICE OFFICER: Yeah, sir, I think that’s what they’re going towards. What was your name again, sir? I’m sorry. Senator…?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Senator Jeff Merkley.

POLICE OFFICER: Jeff.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley.

POLICE OFFICER: Merkley.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes.

POLICE OFFICER: How do you spell it, sir? I don’t want to misspell it.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes. M-E-R-K—

POLICE OFFICER: M-E-R.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yeah, M-E-R—M-E-R—

POLICE OFFICER: Yeah.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: —K-L-E-Y.

POLICE OFFICER: K-L-E-Y?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yeah.

POLICE OFFICER: And your date of birth, sir?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yeah, it’s October 24th.

POLICE OFFICER: October.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: 24th, 1956.

POLICE OFFICER: 1956. And you said you’re a U.S. senator?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: I’m a U.S. senator.

POLICE OFFICER: OK, sir.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes. And U.S. policy is involved right now with children—are you familiar with this policy?

POLICE OFFICER: No, negative. Actually, this is not something that we specifically deal with. You know what I’m saying?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: OK.

POLICE OFFICER: But it was just, just so I can ID and advice my sergeant that you’re here.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yeah. Well, we won’t—we won’t take up their time—

POLICE OFFICER: Thank you.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: —anymore, but I think it’s important for you all to be aware that—this has been in the press, all over the country—that the children, who were previously kept with their families, under a new policy just implemented by the attorney general, are being separated from their families and warehoused here.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Jeff Merkley, not able to get into that old Walmart center now housing 1,500 immigrant children.

For more, we go to the epicenter of this “zero tolerance” crackdown. The Rio Grande Valley in South Texas is where more than half of all migrant families and children have been apprehended by Border Patrol agents since mid-May. We begin in McAllen, Texas, where Democracy Now! correspondent Renée Feltz went this past weekend to speak with residents who are taking action in response to the widely condemned practice of separating families. Among those she met with, Sister Norma Pimentel, who in May received the Laetare Medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.

SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL: My name is Sister Norma Pimentel. I am the director for Catholic Charities here in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, right at the border with Mexico. I am right now at a Humanitarian Respite Center. It is the response of the community here, together with me, to help the many immigrant families, refugees, that are coming to our borders. The majority of the people that come, more than 50 percent, are children. They come with their parent. It’s a mother or a father with their child, maybe one child, two childs or three or sometimes four. And they are a family unit. We welcome them here from the bus station that they’re—where they’re dropped off. And we give them an opportunity to restore their human dignity.

RENÉE FELTZ: Just as it has since 2014, this humble center continues to assist as many as 200 parents and children a day, who are released after being detained by Customs and Border Patrol. They are the fortunate ones. The release of parents with small children used to be common practice, but under the new “zero tolerance” policy it’s become the exception.

SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL: This policy of zero tolerance is inhumane. It’s used as a deterrent to send a message. And you’re using human beings and children to make your point. This is wrong.

RENÉE FELTZ: The children I meet at the center stay close to their mothers and fathers. As parents wait to meet with a volunteer, they relace their children’s shoes with donated shoelaces. Then they relace their own shoes. Their original shoe laces were taken away in detention, in part to prevent suicide attempts. To learn more about how parents and children are being separated in the Rio Grande Valley, I met Friday with Efrén Olivares, who directs the Texas Civil Rights Project’s Racial & Economic Justice Program.

EFRÉN OLIVARES: We’re in downtown McAllen, about seven miles from the Mexico border, right next to the federal courthouse in McAllen. This is the McAllen Division of the Southern District of Texas. On the eighth floor sits Magistrate Judge Morgan’s court. And every morning, people who have been apprehended by Border Patrol and are being processed with the charge of illegal entry, many of them are first-time crossers, and many of them are asylum seekers, but, despite that, they are being criminally charged with the charge of illegal crossing under federal statute 8 U.S.C. Section 1325.

How we became involved in this is—relates to the fact that many of these people were traveling with children, and everyone who’s traveling with a child or their children is being deliberately separated from those children by Border Patrol or ICE agents. So, every morning, we step into the courthouse on the eighth floor, and before the criminal hearings begin, we interview the parents.

RENÉE FELTZ: As I interviewed Olivares outside the courthouse, a GEO Group private prison transport bus backed up behind us.

EFRÉN OLIVARES: These are the buses in which the immigrants, many of whom are parents who have had their children taken away, are transported to and from the courthouse, probably to a CBP detention facility. The sad thing is that many of those people have children, and many of them were separated this morning, before they came to court, and were led to believe that when they return to the detention facility, their children are going to be there. But we know that the children will not be there, because the government is separating them.

We have heard three different scenarios as far as how the separation happens. So, one is the parent and the child are separated very soon after they are detained. So the Border Patrol agents will arrest them out in the brush near the river, say, and then they are driven to the processing station. And right there and then, where they have their photograph taken and their fingerprints and they are processed, at that point, some of them are separated, and the children are processed separately from the parents. In other cases—and this tends to be the case for the youngest children—they are separated the morning that the parent has to come to court. And then, a third category is people who are separated at some point in between, usually on the second day. I’ve heard from parents directly that they were separated, and the child was in one cell, and the parent was in another cell, but the child was crying so much, because they were not with their mom, that they were brought to the mom in the middle of the night for a little while, so that they would stop crying, and then separated again. That’s the kind of cruelty that we’re seeing from this government. It’s appalling.

RENÉE FELTZ: Some Rio Grande residents are volunteering to observe the mass trials and take notes for the American Civil Liberties Union.

DIEGO RIVERA: The reason I wanted to do court watching is because if we aren’t involved, if we aren’t aware and if we aren’t standing up for what we believe are atrocities within our community, who else is going to do it?

RENÉE FELTZ: On Saturday, I met with Diego Rivera outside the federal courthouse in Brownsville and asked what he had witnessed there.

DIEGO RIVERA: It was right after Memorial Day weekend, so there were—there was a backlog. So I think they had—that day, they had about 130 defendants. I think there were 70 in the morning, like 60 in the afternoon. So, they meet you at the door when you try to enter, and they just tell you there’s no space, you can’t really look in. You can kind of peek, but it’s really hard to see. And you just see kind of all the immigrants lined up there.

And then there’s like a mezzanine area where you can wait, where you haven’t entered the courtroom, but you’re not completely outside. And there happened to be a private security contractor there, I think from the company G4S maybe. He spoke to us while we were waiting, and he just kind of told us the story of what he’s seen, which was that they support the Border Patrol, and what he had told us was they do a lot of the transport for them. They’re heading out to the field whenever the Border Patrol makes a call, to pick up the immigrants that have been detained, and taking them to different facilities.

One of the stories particularly that stuck with me was, he mentioned that—the separation of mother and child. And his words were, “You haven’t—you don’t understand the trauma until you’ve heard like the scream of a mother and child being separated,” something along those lines. He mentioned that they have to—sometimes they have to put the immigrants in line to show—make an example of some of them who seem like they’re a little bit unruly, for whatever that means. So he said sometimes they will take them outside of the transport bus and kind of—I don’t know if it was slap them around, but kind of pull them by the ear, kind of be a little physical with them.

What I think needs to happen is you need a public outcry from the whole country.

RENÉE FELTZ: More than a thousand mental health professionals recently signed a letter condemning the new practice of separating nearly all children from their parents at the border.

SELMA YZNAGA: The fact that kids are being forcibly separated from their parents has so much to do with the trauma that they are experiencing and that will have a huge effect on their behavior in the immediate future, in the near future and in the long term.

RENÉE FELTZ: Dr. Selma Yznaga is a professor of counseling at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus, along the border in Brownsville. She counsels unaccompanied minors from Central America who are detained in shelters that employ many of her former students.

SELMA YZNAGA: To think that our government is putting kids through this kind of traumatic—and it is traumatic—experience to send a message to people who are fleeing their countries, not out of their own choice, but for their own survival, is—amounts to torture.

The kids who travel unaccompanied, they know, more or less, what the journey is going to be like. These kids and their families don’t know that until they get here. The word may be spreading now, that they’re being forcibly removed, but it wasn’t something that we did routinely before, so they had no reason to expect it. So there was no way for the parents to talk to their kids and say, “Listen, when we get there, this is what’s going to happen: I’m going to go to one detention center or to jail, and you’re going to go to a place that’s going to keep you safe until they figure out what to do with us. And then we’re going to meet up again. Don’t be scared, because we’re going to meet up again.” They don’t have time to have that conversation with their children.

And so, as adults, they can cognitively understand that they will be reunited at some point—and even that is questionable, whether they feel secure about that. But I think they are developmentally mature enough to hope that they’re going to be reunited with their children. The kids have no idea what’s going on.

RENÉE FELTZ: Dr. Yznaga also counsels children who appear before a judge in immigration courts alone, without their parent, a guardian or a lawyer.

SELMA YZNAGA: It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to watch in my life. I sit behind them. And they stand up, and they are so scared, and they’re so respectful. And it’s just—it breaks your heart, because they’re trying so hard to do what the judge wants them to do. And the judge is reading some pretty harsh things to them. I’ve never seen a judge be aggressive or rude or mean, but they’re reading a script that is aggressive and harsh.

RENÉE FELTZ: Some children eventually find legal aid through groups like the ProBAR Texas Children’s Project, where immigration attorney Rosemary Gonzalez worked until last week. She spoke to me Saturday.

ROSEMARY GONZALEZ: Me, personally, I’ve seen children as young as about 2 years old to 17-and-a-half. Usually, for the child who, say, for example, is an infant or 2 years old, the judge will automatically reset the child’s case until, you know, the child can hire an attorney or be reunified to where, you know, whoever the sponsor is for the child can then assist with the immigration proceedings. Usually, if the child is over the age of 14, the judge will present the child with their rights, will review kind of the overall proceedings and will then ask the child to respond to the notice to appear and any allegations that might be listed.

In my position as a staff attorney with the ProBAR Children’s Project, I did see a few cases where the child requested voluntary departure because their parent had already been deported. They were separated because of the “zero tolerance” policy. By the time the child could get to the immigration court for their first master calendar hearing, their parent had already been deported. And so, the child, fearing that they wouldn’t have a caretaker in the United States or fearing separation from their parent, chose to face their fear in returning to home country to be reunited with their parent. The three cases that I saw, the children were between the ages of about 10 and 16.

RENÉE FELTZ: Reporting from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas along the U.S.-Mexico border, I’m Renée Feltz for Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, Renée Feltz joins us here in our studio, just back from South Texas, long reported on the criminalization of immigrants, family detention and the business of detention.

It’s great to have you back, Renée. Talk about—more about what you saw in this report, excellent report.

RENÉE FELTZ: Thank you, Amy.

I am just back from the militarized southern border of the United States with Mexico, down there in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It’s the very southern tip of Texas. And I went down there to report on a topic I’ve looked at before, which is family detention. And, you know, that’s happened under other administrations—the Obama administration, the Bush adminstrations. And I wanted to see what it looks like right now, and talk to people who are doing something about this issue of the separation of children from families. I was only there two-and-a-half days, but I saw a lot. And, in fact, I think it’s important for reporters to go down there, because there’s a lot of concerns being raised.

I was down in the same area about a year and a half ago, toward the end of the Obama administration. And I went to this Humanitarian Respite Center that I visited this time. Some of the changes that I noticed were, last time I went, the children were very friendly and playful with me, and this time, all of the children that I saw were basically sort of afraid of me, and they clung very close to their parents, and their behavior was different.

The parents that I interacted with at this respite center, from what I understand—you know, immigration is complicated, but, from what I understand, a lot of the people that I saw, the parents with their children at this respite center, had been apprehended in the days prior by the Customs and Border Patrol, had been processed and, in many cases, charged with a criminal offense for crossing the border—not a civil offense—and then given time served, and then reunited with their young children and then released to this respite center. As I explained in the piece, that’s different than what used to happen before, which was people processed very quickly, not criminally charged, and released relatively soon.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, previously, they were only charged with a civil offense, not a criminal offense. And this is a change that’s occurred in the last year and a half?

RENÉE FELTZ: Exactly. That’s the change that we’ve seen under the “zero tolerance” policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions about a month ago.

A quick thing I also wanted to mention, the attorneys that I spoke with in this piece, including Efrén Olivares from the Texas Civil Rights Project, he’s one of—his organization is one of the main groups that’s talking to the parents that are separated from their children, when they appear in federal court to face these criminal charges. After they have pled guilty for crossing the river on a raft the day before with their kid, they try to tell the judge or the public defender—and I’ve seen the trial, when I was down there; it was 40, 70 people at a time—that, “Hey, I want to ask about my child that was separated from me.” This organization, the Texas Civil Rights Project, goes there and does “intake,” they call it. They take notes of your name, so maybe you can help find your child later, because the government is not providing that service. They are the ones that reported in the past couple of days that a mother told them, in the federal courthouse, that her baby was taken from her while breastfeeding. This same organization told me that two mothers were told, while they were with their children, that they were going to go—that the children were going to go receive a bath, and then those mothers never saw their children again.

Now, there is litigation with the Texas Civil Rights Project before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is an international law body. There’s also litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union, which, in the recent weeks, in California, Judge Dana Sabraw of the Southern District of California ruled that their class-action suit on behalf of these separated parents and children can go forward. And I want to read a quick quote from the judge. He said the separation of families, if true, this conduct, is, quote, “brutal, offensive, and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency.”

A couple of other quick things about what I saw down there. I went to see a mass trial of about 40 people. And at that trial, I heard people tell the public defender that they had been separated from their 6-year-old son, their 12-year-old son, their 5-year-old daughter, their 9-year-old son, their 9-year-old daughter and another 9-year-old son—all in one trial. That’s repeated daily in multiple courts along the southern Texas border. So, when people ask me, when I went down there, “Is it bad?” I think the answer is yes. I was inspired, in part, to go down there by the reporter Debbie Nathan, who we’ve had on the program before to talk about what she saw with the mass trials.

There’s one other main thing I wanted to mention, while I was down there, and that relates to an area that I’ve covered before, which is the business of immigrant detention. A couple of quick things. We’ve heard about the unaccompanied minors. These are the children separated from their parents. They’re held in mass shelters, like the one that Senator Jeff Merkley tried to visit. That shelter holds 1,500 children, roughly. It’s not full yet—I’m sorry, it holds more than a thousand children, I should say, just to be on the conservative side.

AMY GOODMAN: The latest report, I think The Washington Post, saying more than 1,400.

RENÉE FELTZ: Exactly. Now, that facility is a nonprofit. It’s run by Southwest Key, which is interesting. I wanted to say some quick numbers. In 2015, Southwest Key received from the federal government $227 million that year. Of that, almost $194,000 was toward their “unaccompanied alien children” program. This year, in 2008 [sic] fiscal year alone—

AMY GOODMAN: ’18.

RENÉE FELTZ: —they’ve received $300 million, in three installments. And so, that money that I just mentioned, the three installments, was granted on May 10th, shortly after Jeff Sessions, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, made his announcement about separating children.

Real quick on that: I’ve reported on family detention centers which are run by private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America, now called CoreCivic, and GEO Group, and those companies run family detention centers in former prisons. In those facilities, there is a federal law now in place, a federal ruling, that mandates that children in those facilities, with their parents, have to be processed out within 20 days. In the child detention facilities, like Southwest Key, there’s no limit. And from several people I talked to, the children have been held there for six months, sometimes a year, including the counselor that I spoke with, Dr. Yznaga from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

One other quick point I want to make about the business of detention and link it back to Trump: Briefly, we saw one of the first acts of Attorney General Jeff Sessions come into office to rescind a memo that the Obama administration had made under the Bureau of Prisons to stop working with private prisons, because they were not safe and over—and expensive. And he rescinded that memo, and now we see them working very closely with private prisons. And we see that these prisons have reorganized as tax reinvestment trusts. They no longer pay corporate tax rates. They pay about 3 or 4 percent tax rates in some cases. Their investors got a huge tax break under the Trump Republican tax plan. And, in conclusion, people are concerned that if this business of private prisons is positive for investors, they will build more facilities. And if you build them, they will fill them. And we hear now about maximum full facilities down at the border. So, there’s no smoking gun there, but it does raise some concerns.

AMY GOODMAN: Renée, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Renée Feltz, Democracy Now! correspondent, just back from the South Texas border. Stay with us.

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