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“They Were Tortured”: 4 Families Torn Apart by Trump Are Reunited. 1,000+ Still Separated, Missing.

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Image Credit: Al Otro Lado

This week, four parents from Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico were reunited with their children in the United States after being separated under former President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. They were the first families to be reunited on U.S. soil since the Biden administration began its reunification process. “Although we love to see the reunifications and they’re very moving, we have to keep in mind what led to that and that it should never have happened in the first place,” says Carol Anne Donohoe, managing attorney for the Family Reunification Project at Al Otro Lado. We also speak with Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, who leads the ACLU’s lawsuit over family separations. He notes more than 1,000 children are still separated from their parents, and adds, “We have not even found the parents of 455 children.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Oh, you can sign up for our Daily Digest, our news email every day, by texting the word “democracynow” — one word, no space — to 66866.

This week, four parents from Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico were reunited with their children in the United States after being separated under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. They’re the first families to be reunited on U.S. soil since the Biden administration began its reunification process. At least two of the mothers were separated from their children since 2017. Biden initially agreed to reunite 35 parents with their children, out of more than a thousand youths who remain separated.

Immigrant justice group Al Otro Lado — in English, The Other Side — said the Department of Homeland Security did nothing to facilitate the return of the four parents and that it was groups like theirs who had to negotiate the travel visas, pay for airline tickets and actually arrange the reunifications. Al Otro Lado shared with us this video of 18-year-old Bryan Chávez as he was reunited with his mother Sandra Ortíz this week. This came three years, seven months and four days after they were separated. In 2017, the last words Sandra heard before Customs and Border Protection officers took Bryan away were, “Say goodbye to your son because you’ll never see him again.” Well, on Tuesday, Sandra and Byran embraced each other at the San Ysidro border crossing — the very same place where they were first separated — with Bryan holding a bouquet of balloons that read “Best Mom Ever.”

SANDRA ORTÍZ: It’s real, son.

BRYAN CHÁVEZ: It feels like a dream. Like, I was in the car, and I was just like, “This is finally happening, and I’m really going to be reunified with her after all these times.” It was just like — they barely let me know this week. This week. And it was just like just very brief, four days ago. And I was just like, “I can’t believe it. You know, am I actually going to see her today or no?” because you never know. And I was in the car, and I was just thinking, like, it just sounds unreal that I’m actually going to see her today after all these days, after me thinking every day, “How is she doing?” Like, I was talking to her on the phone and everything, but still not making sure — like, seeing her in person, being able to give her a hug and everything. It was just —

REPORTER: Does it feel like a dream?

BRYAN CHÁVEZ: Yes, it actually really does.

REPORTER: End of a nightmare?

BRYAN CHÁVEZ: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s 18-year-old Bryan Chávez being reunited with his mother Sandra Ortíz on Tuesday. He had been living with relatives in California, enrolled in high school, after the U.S. deported his mother to Mexico when he was 15. Well, this Sunday is Mother’s Day here in the United States. The holiday is celebrated Monday in Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.

For more, we’re joined by Carol Anne Donohoe, managing attorney for Al Otro Lado’s Family Reunification Project, and Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and the attorney leading the ACLU’s lawsuit over family separations.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I wanted to begin with Carol Anne. Talk about this moment with Bryan and his mother, this moment that has the country crying, both its poignancy and also why it took so long for them to come back together, more importantly, why they were separated to begin with.

CAROL ANNE DONOHOE: Well, as far as this moment, as the reporter asked him, it’s the end of a nightmare, it’s the beginning of a dream. This is a culmination of years of trauma. And although we love to see the reunifications and they’re very moving, we have to keep in mind what led to that and that it should never have happened in the first place, let alone what they’re going to have to overcome in the years ahead to heal from everything that was done to them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain what happened to Bryan when he was 15 with his mother at that same port of entry?

CAROL ANNE DONOHOE: Yeah, and that’s one thing. Sandra, when we told her about the reunification, she didn’t realize that she was going to be entering into the very same port of entry where she was separated from her son. And they entered seeking asylum. There were separated after a couple of days. They were told, as you said, that — she was told to say goodbye to her child. They were told to say goodbye to their children, they weren’t going to see them again. And according to Sandra, they were told, “Don’t be emotional about it, so that your kids don’t react.” And so, for two weeks, she had no idea where he was. He had no idea what had happened to her. And then she was deported back to the harm that she fled. She’s been in hiding ever since.

AMY GOODMAN: And how was it that they were reunited, Carol Anne Donohoe?

CAROL ANNE DONOHOE: Well, this is the culmination of years’ worth of effort and a lot of work done through the steering committee of the Ms. L. litigation, other organizations on the ground. And Sandra was referred to us by the steering committee to represent her in her reunification. And that was July of 2020. So that’s how long we’ve been representing her.

The border was, under Trump, effectively closed, so it wasn’t a question of being able to bring her there to the border like we had previously with a group of reunifying parents. And there was no way that the government was going to allow them in. So, we had to ask them to be patient. And we have to remember that throughout that time, we all went through the pandemic. There was one mom who wasn’t sure if she should just bring her child back to the harm, because her father had died of COVID, and she said, “What if I never see my child again? What if I die of COVID, and I never see her again?” They went through, endured two hurricanes in Honduras. We had to kind of wait, and holding our breath during the election, to see the outcome of that before we could even have some semblance of hope.

So, once Biden was elected, and we have to — you know, I have to be clear that if that were not the case, we would not be having this conversation right now. And we, as Al Otro Lado, the families that we represent, we have been preparing for this moment. We have been just waiting for the OK, so that when the time came where the government gave us the OK, that they can be processed through the port of entry, we were ready. We had done the prep work. And they told us to give them seven days’ notice, and we gave them seven days’ notices that day.

AMY GOODMAN: So what happens now? Is Sandra allowed to stay in this country?

CAROL ANNE DONOHOE: Well, what happens now is, of course, one of the biggest concerns. These parents will tell you that what they’re concerned about are the other parents who are still separated from their children and also the uncertainty around what will happen to them now. And we heard yesterday Secretary Mayorkas say that they’re looking into legal permanent status, but that’s not something that they can guarantee. And I can say that without permanent legal status, without some sort of guarantee that they’re going to be able to stay and not have to go through our adversarial process, they’re just going to be in limbo and continuously retraumatized.

And I just have to center this, that the families are — it’s easy to talk abstractly, but they were — according to Physicians for Human Rights’ own report, they were tortured. And so, we need to remedy the fact that our government tortured children and their mothers and their fathers. And so, unfortunately, there’s not — the executive branch is limited in what they can do as far as giving permanent status, but there is — Senator Blumenthal and Representative Castro just reintroduced the Families Belong Together Act, which would do a lot to remedy the harm. And so we’d ask Congress to act on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Lee Gelernt, you have been working on this for years, since the families started getting separated, just like Al Otro Lado. Can you talk about — are we at this point talking about thousands more children?

LEE GELERNT: Well, there were 5,500 — at least 5,500 — children separated by Trump. We believe that there are likely more than a thousand who still need to be reunited. We have not even found the parents of 455 children. But our best estimate is now that — and the government has joined us in that estimate — is that there are likely more than a thousand that are left to be reunited. So, we are thrilled for these first four families. I was at one of the reunions in Philadelphia. And, you know, that kind of emotion is indescribable.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe that one to us, though?

LEE GELERNT: Yeah, I mean, the best I can. There’s a great New Yorker piece by Jonathan Blitzer doing it, and there’s video out there people should look at on The New Yorker website. But, you know, it’s just sort of — it’s an intense emotional moment that I have not witnessed in my professional career outside of these reunifications. I think there’s an element of “We may never have seen each other again.” It’s not just that they haven’t seen each other for three-and-a-half years, but there is always that lingering thought all the time: “We may never see each other again in person.”

And the mother who reunited in Philadelphia actually surprised her kids — and I was there — and just walked in the door. And they hugged each other for what seemed like an eternity, just sobbing. And these were now, you know, boys who were separated when they were teenagers and have now had to adjust to America on their own, the culture, the language, a strange place, with the trauma of being separated. And, you know, I have teenage boys, and I think it’s hard enough, in the best of circumstances, those years in a teenage boy’s life, but to do it in a strange land without your mother is just unbelievable and a testament to this family that they’ve persevered. The big question now is —

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, we’re showing the video of —

LEE GELERNT: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: — Mabel’s children. They were 13 and 15. She came from Honduras. They were fleeing the violence there. She spent two years in ICE detention in El Paso, Texas, before being deported back to Honduras. The boys were in a detention center before ultimately ending up with a family in Philadelphia. As I look at it now, they cannot let go of their mother.

LEE GELERNT: Exactly. Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: So, go ahead with what you were saying, Lee.

LEE GELERNT: Yeah. So, I think, you know, now the question, of course, is, going forward — hopefully the process has been developed. We would have liked to have seen — obviously, everyone would have liked to have seen it go quicker. But we are where we are. And hopefully the process the government has developed over this initial time is scalable so the thousands — the thousand more can be reunited much more quickly.

But I think, beyond reunification, what we are pressing for, the ACLU is pressing for, in these negotiations — we’re trying to comprehensively settle our lawsuit against the Trump administration — is not just reunification; social services, including mental health trauma and other social services, compensation in the form of damages and, as Carol Anne said, most critically, legal permanent status. You know, we’ll never make these families whole again, but we have to try, and we have to give them permanency, legal status here, a safe place, so that they can begin to overcome the trauma. The medical community has been so clear that without real care, these families may not stand a realistic chance of leading a healthy, productive life, going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, like Sandra in San Ysidro at the port of entry, Mabel Gonzáles from Honduras can stay, at least at this point, for three years in Philadelphia with her boys. How are you pushing the Biden administration on this? I mean, it’s been months, and four families have been reunited, and you say there are over a thousand to go. Also, is the government doing this? And let me put this question to Carol Anne Donohoe. Is the government doing this, or are your groups, like Al Otro Lado, doing this? It sounds like you’re paying for the reunification, and yet it was the government of the United States that separated them and did the damage.

CAROL ANNE DONOHOE: Well, I just want to be clear that what we’re referring to in that case are these particular families. Of the four that reunited this week, Al Otro Lado represented three, and they were all — although they were not all Mexican nationals, they were all in Mexico. So, we did the legwork to get them there. And again, it was because we are in constant contact with these parents, we know and sense the urgency that not only is it torture for them to spend one more day without their children, but they are in physical danger. They’re back to where they’re in hiding. They’re hiding from their persecutors. So we understood the urgency. And while — you know, we couldn’t ask them to wait while policy and process was debated, so we just took that action. But going forward, as Lee said, they are working on a process for the larger group. We don’t anticipate that that’s going to be our role, moving forward. But in this case, as I said, we just wanted to get them there as quickly as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, speaking to NBC News’s Jacob Soboroff in an interview Thursday, that the Biden administration can’t guarantee a path to permanent residency for families separated by Trump. This is what he said.

DHS SECRETARY ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We are very much focused on providing stability to the reunited families, not just for her, but for the family as a unit. It’s not something we can guarantee at this point in time, but we are dedicated to achieving more than what we have delivered thus far. This, I think, is a temporary measure — unite the family, reunite the family, and then let’s work together, with those representing the family, to see what we can achieve under the law and, I think, what these families both need and deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: So, today, the Department of Homeland Security will visit a tent facility for unaccompanied migrant children at the border in Donna, Texas. And this week, DHS released pictures of their tents there, which had previously been packed with children. Democratic Congressmember Henry Cuellar said the photos are misleading, because the children are still at the same compound but are now being held in tents run by DHHS, the Department of Health and Human Services. The news outlet Border Report visited the compound Wednesday and said it’s now full of white tents, and everything is surrounded by black fencing that prevents anyone outside from looking in. Lee Gelernt, can you talk about this?

LEE GELERNT: Yeah, I just want to return quickly to the prior segment. I mean, we are working with the government to do all these things on a scale of sorts, but they will ultimately pay for all the transportation, including reimbursing the NGOs that paid for these initial four.

But beyond that, as to the unaccompanied minors who are coming and being held, we are very concerned with how they’re being held, but we believe the Biden administration is starting to turn the corner. They got caught off guard by the numbers. They want to get them out of there quickly. You know, we are going to continue monitoring that, if they’re not able to. Ultimately, though, they need to speed up the process and get these unaccompanied minors to relatives or even parents who are in the United States. Overwhelmingly, these children are coming to join relatives or parents. So, we’ll see how long it takes. They’ve been making progress. The Biden administration, to their credit, has been making progress. But it needs to continue and be quick.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Carol Anne Donohoe, apparently, the Biden administration has gotten down by 90% the number of kids in Customs and Border [Protection] custody. I think now they’re at 735 children. But more than 22,000 are in HHS custody. What is the difference? And what do you think needs to happen to speed up this process?

CAROL ANNE DONOHOE: Well, I can’t speak directly to that process, but I can just say that, as Lee said, it does appear that they are working very hard to get children certainly out of CBP custody. We hope that they work just as hard to get them out of HHS custody.

And I would argue that the overwhelming thread in this particular discussion is that we need to end Title 42, which was the Trump-era policy that supposedly had a public health rationale for expelling immigrants, asylum seekers. And unfortunately, one of the ramifications of that is families are being forced to make the awful decision about sending their children over without them, because the parents would be expelled, or, as a family, they would be expelled. So we really need to look at how our overall policies are affecting asylum seekers across the board.

AMY GOODMAN: And the class-action suit, Lee Gelernt, if you could explain it more fully, that the ACLU has brought?

LEE GELERNT: On Title 42, Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

LEE GELERNT: Right. So, we are negotiating with the Biden administration both on family separation and on Title 42. The Trump-era policy said no asylum seekers; we’re going to expel you without any due process or without an asylum hearing. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has kept that for families. It’s allowing unaccompanied children in, but not families. We sued over the children. The Biden administration has backed down. We sued over the families. We are now in negotiations with the Biden administration. I think we’re getting a little impatient that they’re continuing to expel families.

We believe that there is no public health rationale — there never was — for expelling families. If they need to test people, so be it. If they need to quarantine people, you know, that may be necessary at times. But you cannot use the public health laws as a pretext to send people back to danger.

The Biden administration is allowing us to get the most vulnerable families in. But, as Carol Anne said, often the family cannot get in. They’re making this horrendous choice, deciding whether their child should go forward and at least save the child or keep the child with them. And so it’s creating this sort of coercive self-separation. There are families in real danger with little children being sent back to really horrible situations, dangerous situations — Central America, Haiti — after they’ve fled danger.

So, we need the Biden administration to stop this. We need CDC to step up and say, “We’re not going to let CDC be used in this way.” The Trump White House overrode the CDC. We are surprised and troubled that the Biden CDC is not standing up to this, because the order is ultimately in CDC’s name.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Lee Gelernt is the deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and the attorney leading the ACLU’s lawsuit over family separations. And Carol Anne Donohoe, managing attorney for Al Otro Lado’s Family Reunification Project. Thanks so much.

When we come back, The Man Who Lived Underground. We’ll go to Portugal to speak with Julia Wright about how she unearthed an unpublished novel about racist police violence written by her father, the legendary African American writer Richard Wright, who wrote Native Son and Black Boy. Stay with us.

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