‘Why are you tak­ing him?’

Trauma lingers from im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy that sep­a­rates par­ents, kids

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Rick Jervis

As he strug­gled to sleep in a fed­eral hold­ing cell with­out his 5-year-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.

“With ev­ery­thing’s that’s hap­pened to me, I’d say I won’t come back.”

Genin Ro­das Un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant from Honduras

‘Mean­ing­ful con­se­quences’

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 large 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, who vis­ited the bor­der on a factfind­ing mission. At the cen­ter, agents sep­a­rate par­ents from their chil­dren while the adults’ crim­i­nal cases are pur­sued, she said.

In one case, fed­eral agents told two fe­male im­mi­grants they were tak­ing their daugh­ters away for a bath, then never re­turned with them, Steglich 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.”

As the peo­ple bathed their chil­dren or munched on snacks at the Respite Cen­ter, a group of 20 re­cently ar­rived im­mi­grants shuf­fled into Judge Peter Ormsby’s eighth-floor court­room at the nearby U.S. District Court, their feet and wrists shack­led. Six of the de­fen­dants had been sep­a­rated from their chil­dren.

After ex­plain­ing their rights and sen­tenc­ing them to the min­i­mum penalty of time served, Ormsby asked the fed­eral pub­lic de­fender if he had heard of any cases where im­mi­grants were de­ported with­out their chil­dren.

The pub­lic de­fender said he had not been able to get any in­for­ma­tion from the govern­ment.

“I’m sure it’s a ter­ri­ble cir­cum­stance for those of you who have come with a mi­nor child,” Ormsby told the de­fen­dants, who lis­tened through the help of an in­ter­preter. He warned them not to try com­ing back il­le­gally. “If you en­ter il­le­gally, you’re vi­o­lat­ing the laws of the United States.”

‘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, said he left his home coun­try to try to bet­ter his and his chil­dren’s lives. Ap­ply­ing for a visa in his home coun­try is too ex­pen­sive, so he spent 25 days rid­ing atop trains and tak­ing buses with Edi­son, sleep­ing where they could, to ar­rive at the U.S.-Mexican bor­der.

It was a dan­ger­ous trek, but he said he thought they’d be safe when they reached the USA. After they rafted across the Rio Grande at dawn on a re­cent Sun­day with a group of 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 crammed with other im­mi­grants who also had been sep­a­rated from their chil­dren, he said. He prayed to God to see Edi­son again.

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.”

CASEY JACKSON/ USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Genin Ro­das, 29, and son Edi­son, 5, from Saba, 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.

CASEY JACKSON/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Fam­i­lies sleep on padded mats after be­ing re­leased by im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials at a Catholic Char­i­ties refugee cen­ter in Texas.

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