‘Why are you taking him?’
Trauma lingers from immigration policy that separates parents, kids
As he struggled to sleep in a federal holding cell without his 5year-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. Suddenly, none of that 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, where dozens of immigrants show up each day after
Last month, Homeland Security took 51,912 immigrants into custody, nearly three times the number detained in May 2017, when illegal immigration plummeted after President Trump’s inauguration.
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, was reunited with his son after four days. 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 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 Resettlement, or ORR, while the criminal cases are pursued.
U.S. officials have not released exact numbers on children being held or whether parents are deported without their children. Several lawsuits challenge the policy.
Supporters said the new policy is necessary to enforce laws and could stem a rise in unauthorized arrivals. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security took 51,912 immigrants into custody, nearly three times the number detained in May 2017, when illegal immigration plummeted after 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 nonprofit 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 had been through the process described tense days separated from children.
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 they crossed the border without authorization near McAllen, Border Patrol agents took Christian and Ashley away, Quintanilla said. She slept on a floor in a holding cell with dozens of other immigrants, covered by a foil blanket.
After a court hearing, 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 said, “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-Austin School of Law. At the center, agents separate parents from their children while the adults’ criminal cases are pursued, she 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.”
‘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 that parents could be deported to their home countries without their children. She said she heard that has happened.
“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, spent 25 days riding atop trains and taking buses with Edison, sleeping where they could, to arrive at the U.S.-Mexican border. After they rafted across the Rio Grande at dawn on a recent Sunday with other immigrants, border 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 USA, 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. 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 USA, he said, he probably won’t return without a visa: “With everything’s that’s happened to me, I’d say I won’t come back.”
Genin Rodas, 29, and son Edison, 5, from Sabá, Honduras, wait for a family member to buy them a bus ticket after being released by U.S. Immigration officials at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley refugee center in McAllen, Texas.
Families sleep on padded mats after being released by immigration officials at a Catholic Charities refugee center in Texas. CASEY JACKSON/ USA TODAY NETWORK