US: Family Separation Harming Children, Families
United States officials are separating migrant children from their families at the border, causing severe and lasting harm, Human Rights Watch said. The US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform will hold hearings on the government’s family separation policy.
Human Rights Watch interviews and analysis of court filings found that children are regularly separated from adult relatives other than parents. This means that children are often removed from the care of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and adult siblings even when they show guardianship documents or written authorization from parents. Parents have also been forcibly separated from their children in some cases, such as when a parent has a criminal record, even for a minor offense that has no bearing on their ability as caregivers. As a result, in cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch, children as young as 5 have been held in Border Patrol holding facilities without their adult caregivers.
“Congressional hearings are the first step in accounting for and addressing the enormous harms inflicted on children and their families in holding cells at the border,” said Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior children’s rights counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Senior immigration officials should take this opportunity to acknowledge these serious concerns and announce an immediate end to family separation.”
A 5-year-old Honduran boy held in the Clint Border Patrol Station in Texas told lawyers that when he and his father were apprehended at the border, “the immigration agents separated me from my father right away. I was very frightened and scared. I cried. I have not seen my father again.” He did not know how long he had been separated from his father: “I am frightened, scared, and sad.” In another case, an 8-year-old Honduran boy detained in Clint with his 6-year-old sister said, “They took us from our grandmother and now we are all alone.” He did not know how long they had been apart from their grandmother: “We have been here a long time.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 28 children and adults, and reviewed an additional 55 sworn declarations filed in court and taken from children and adults placed in holding cells at the Texas border between June 10 and 20, 2019. Human Rights Watch identified 22 cases in which one or more children described forced separation from a family member, usually within the first few hours after apprehension. Three Human Rights Watch lawyers took part in the teams that collected these declarations to make sure conditions were in compliance with a settlement agreement. The agreement sets the standards for conditions in which migrant children are held.
No federal law or regulation requires children to be systematically separated from extended family members upon apprehension at the border, and there is no requirement to separate a child from a parent unless the parent poses a threat to the child.
US border officials are required to identify children who are victims of trafficking – such as children who are transported for the purpose of exploitation – and to take steps to protect them, but all of the cases of family separation reviewed by Human Rights Watch involved children travelling with relatives to seek asylum, join other family members, or both, with no indication that they were trafficked.
In June 2018, the Trump administration announced an end to the government’s forcible family separation policy after images of children in cages, leaked recordings of border agents mocking crying children, and other news of the extent and impact of the administration’s policy prompted a public outcry.
The cases that Human Rights Watch reviewed demonstrate that forcible family separation is continuing. For relatives other than parents, forcible separation appears to be a routine practice, and for many children, separation from relatives who have served as primary caregivers can be as traumatic as separation from a parent.
Between July 2018 and February 2019, US border officials separated at least 200 children from parents. They often failed to give a clear reason for the separation, a New York Times review found; in some cases, agents separated families because of minor or very old criminal convictions.
Immigration authorities have never disclosed the number of relatives other than parents forcibly separated from children at the border.
Forcible separation is traumatic for children and adults alike. Separated children interviewed by Human Rights Watch described sleepless nights, difficulties in concentrating, sudden mood shifts, and constant anxiety, conditions they said began after immigration agents forcibly separated them from their family members.
Most separated children we interviewed reported having parents or other relatives in the US, but family members with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said border agents made no attempt to contact them.
To prevent harm to children and uphold the principle of family unity, Human Rights Watch urges that:
- The acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection should direct immigration agents to keep families together unless an adult presents a clear threat to a child or separation is otherwise in a child’s best interests. That determination should be made by a licensed child welfare professional, such as a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist with training and competence to work with children.
- The inspector general’s office of the Department of Homeland Security should systematically review all instances of family separation, including of family members other than parents, to determine whether separation was in the child’s best interests.
- Congress should prohibit the separation of families, including of children and their siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins, except when separation is in an individual child’s best interests.
“The border agency needs clear direction from the administration to end forcible family separation and other abusive practices,” Bochenek said. “And it’s up to Congress to provide the oversight to make sure the border agency complies.”