The Department of Health and Human Services still has not disclosed how many migrant children they are holding who have been separated from their parents at the border. Last week, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said 2,047 separated minors were still in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But the department has refused to give updated numbers, even though the Trump administration is facing a July 10 court-imposed deadline to reunite all separated children under the age of 5 with their parents. Meanwhile, CNN is reporting the Department of Homeland Security has been taking DNA samples of immigrant children. Immigration officials have reportedly been swabbing DNA from the cheeks of children as young as 2 months old, without consent, ostensibly in a bid to later reunite children with their parents. Rights groups have condemned the move, saying it could allow the federal government to track young immigrants for the rest of their lives. We speak with Linda Rivas, executive director and lead attorney of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an organization working with asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Department of Health and Human Services still has not disclosed how many migrant children they’re holding who have been separated from their parents at the border. Last week, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said 2,047 separated minors were still in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But the department has refused to give updated numbers, even though the Trump administration is facing a July 10th court-imposed deadline to reunite all separated children under the age of 5 with their parents.
Meanwhile, CNN is reporting the Department of Homeland Security has been taking DNA samples of immigrant children. Immigration officials have reportedly been swabbing DNA from the cheeks of children as young as 2 months old, without consent, ostensibly in a bid to later reunite children with their parents. Rights groups have condemned the move, saying it could allow the federal government to track young immigrants for the rest of their lives.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Linda Rivas, executive director and lead attorney of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, an organization working with asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Talk about what’s most important right now, Linda Rivas. I mean, this judge’s ruling, out of San Diego, that says, by next Tuesday, all children under the age of 5 must be reunited with their families, and two weeks later, all of the children—we’re talking about over 2,000 of them. As we were down in South Texas this past week, it’s almost impossible to get from the government, since this judge’s ruling, how many kids have been released, how many are still in detention. They are simply mum at this point. And isn’t there going to be some kind of status meeting between the judge and the government tomorrow?
LINDA RIVAS: Yes, that is my understanding. So, what I can talk about is what we’re seeing here in El Paso on the ground. We know El Paso was a pilot program for DHS to test the policy of family separation. What we’re seeing now and what we are most concerned about are some of these parents that have deportation orders and whether or not they will actually be reunited with their children, or will they be deported without their children, as we have already seen people be deported without their kids.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us some stories of the people you represent, about children and their parents.
LINDA RIVAS: Absolutely. So, we have one young mother that we met at the detention center just last week. She is a great example of how this administration has criminalized migration at all levels, at all stages. She comes in as a single mother with her 3-year-old child, and she’s attempting to cross at a port of entry, seeking asylum in an official way. And she is turned away, not once, not twice, numerous times over the course of three days. She’s alone with a baby who is sick and fussing. And she finally gets to the point where she is sick and tired of being turned away. And she does—in her own desperation, goes around the actual port of entry. And the minute she does that, she is prosecuted for illegal entry. She is separated from her 3-year-old little girl, and she is detained.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Right. So, Linda, could you talk about—you said that, you know, your focus is principally El Paso, where you are. What are the plans for the Fort Bliss military base there, with respect to increasing numbers of detentions?
LINDA RIVAS: Absolutely. So, we’ve seen an executive order from this administration. It doesn’t solve the problem of reunifications. We’ve seen then a federal order, which is very positive in its nature, that it’s asking—that it is demanding that these children be reunited with their parents. But what we are anticipating, as advocates on the ground, is what is next. First of all, the reunification of this many children with their parents, we are still concerned that this is going to actually occur. We’re concerned about the children. We’re concerned about the parents who may be deported. And then, again, we also are very much against the detention of these families. So while they say that separation will no longer occur, first of all, we saw this separation happen before it was an official policy. So how much can we trust this administration that separation will end once and for all, when reunification is such an issue? But additionally, we are already seeing the plans that the facilities will go up in Fort Bliss. That is our own military base here in El Paso, Texas. And they are set to house families. So this is mothers and children and fathers being detained together. And for how long? So that is our concern. We are trying to come together. We are coming together as legal organizations, as nonprofits, as immigrant—immigration advocacy groups. And we are trying to figure out what we’re going to do next.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Linda, you said that even before this became official policy, children were already being separated from their parents. Can you talk about that and when this practice began?
LINDA RIVAS: Absolutely. El Paso has been seeing the issue of family separation for over a year now. This has been confirmed by DHS, that does state that El Paso was the testing ground. As advocates, we were horrified when we began to see it. And unfortunately, the problem only got worse and worse. We had meetings at the local level with local ICE officials and local CBP officials, and no one was admitting that this was actually happening. It wasn’t until the actual formalization of this policy that we began to see it in even higher numbers. And we had to switch our focus as advocates. And that focus was helping one person at a time, trying to secure releases for these parents so that they may be released from detention, and we can try and reunite them with their children.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you say, Linda, what you think—what are some of the problems with now trying to reunite—you know, what the Trump administration is doing, what efforts they’re actually making, to reunite these children who have been separated from their parents, over 2,000 of them?
LINDA RIVAS: What we have seen throughout these weeks of being on the ground and interviewing mother after mother, and father, as well, in these detention centers, is a lack of a plan. We’ve seen some people facing deportation, and solely based on the individual deportation officer and us advocating for them and saying, “Will this person be deported with their child?”—and sometimes the deportation officer will say, “Yes, we are trying.” It just really, to me, shows a complete lack of a system for them to do anything at all.
We have heard—we represented one mother who was desperately trying to be deported with her child. She signed her deportation order. And we feel this is absolutely under duress for a parent to be asked to sign a document as to whether or not they want to stay or go, because they don’t know where their child is. And they don’t know if, by signing the deportation order, it will bring their child closer together—close to them or reunite them. And it’s just a lack of—it’s a lack of a system for these reunifications. We are incredibly fearful for the people who are still facing deportation, even with this order that is saying that they need to be reunited, and there’s a certain limited amount of days. We are scared how this is going to—if this will actually benefit all parents, including parents who are on the verge of deportation.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about this Intercept report headlined “Immigrant Mothers Were Moved Outdoors During Kirstjen Nielsen’s Secretive Visit to Detention. They Shouted for Help to No Avail.” The Intercept reports, quote, “Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen made a series of secretive visits to South Texas immigrant detention centers on Friday. One of the facilities the secretary visited, in Los Fresnos, houses parents whose children were taken from them under President Donald Trump’s 'zero tolerance' family separation policy. Many of the detainees there are women, and many desperately wanted to speak with Nielsen. Instead, they were moved to a distant soccer field, where they shouted to Nielsen for help but were too far away for her to hear them.” This is quite a remarkable story. And when The Intercept asked DHS about them being moved, they said it was for “recreation” reasons. Did you hear about this trip that Nielsen made?
LINDA RIVAS: I did hear about it. And hearing the stories of these mothers is very reminiscent of the women that I am speaking to almost on a daily basis in our El Paso Processing Center, the detention facility for immigrants here in El Paso within our city limits. They are desperate. The great example that you spoke of earlier is our client who is organizing the women from within. What she is doing is simply keeping track of women who are coming up to her, speaking to her and letting her know that they, too, have been separated from their children. She wants them to be able to get help. So she has come up with this system of writing down their names, writing down the number of children they were separated from, providing us with an identification number for them, so that we are able to interview them.
So, the efforts on the ground are really directly coming from her seeking out help for us in the name of all these women. They are desperate for help. All they want to know is—many of them still need to know where their children are. They need to communicate with their children. And they need to know how quickly they will see their children again. It is complete desperation. We have sat at these cold metal tables with these women, and we have cried together, because, as advocates, as fellow parents, the pain is unimaginable, what they are going through.