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What Happens When Parents And Children Are Separated At The U.S.-Mexico Border


In the last few weeks, the Trump administration has been doubling down on its official policy of separating some parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border. As these cases become more common, we wanted a better understanding of what happens to families in these situations. Denise Gilman represents a mother currently separated from her 4-year-old and 10-year-old sons. They illegally crossed into the U.S. Gilman is the director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.

Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: So let's start at the beginning. Your client is from El Salvador. Who is she? And how did she come to make the decision to come to the U.S.?

GILMAN: So Jessica (ph) decided that she had to come to the United States for safety for herself and her two young boys when she was receiving very grave threats from the MS-13 gang and, in fact, had been beaten up by gang members who were associated with her husband, who is also an MS-13 gang member. She had sought protection from the Salvadoran authorities in a specific legal process and had not received any protection and so felt that her life and the lives of her children were at risk so that she had to leave.

CORNISH: When and where did she come to the border? What do you know about that moment?

GILMAN: So she crossed across the river in South Texas in March of this year and presented herself to the border officials that she encountered with her children on the U.S. side of the border. She had made the conscious decision not to present herself at an official bridge or port of entry. She thought that she would not be listened to if she presented herself officially to a bridge. And that's actually supported by a lot of evidence that suggests that border officials sometimes do turn away valid asylum-seekers at the border. So she made the decision to go ahead and cross into the United States to seek protection, that that was always her intention.

CORNISH: So how did they get separated?

GILMAN: When she was apprehended after crossing into the United States, she was taken with her two boys to a processing station, a Border Patrol station. And at some point, the immigration officials told her that she would be separated from her two boys. And then she was sent to an adult detention center in Laredo. And the boys were sent into a shelter that is used for unaccompanied children under the Office of Refugee Resettlement within Health and Human Services. At one point, the brothers were actually separated from one another and put into two separate foster family homes but were eventually reunited and have now been released to family on the East Coast.

CORNISH: And as we said earlier, she has a 4-year-old son and a 10-year-old son. We've been hearing so much about these new policies over the last few weeks. But at the time it was happening, I have to assume that Jessica was shocked.

GILMAN: Jessica was absolutely shocked. And she asked for explanation as to why it was happening, and nobody could tell her.

CORNISH: What's happened to her children since?

GILMAN: So her children are together and with family, but they are suffering. They really need their mom. The older boy is in school and has already been referred for mental health treatment because he's just not doing well as a result of the trauma that he experienced in his home country. And then losing his mother, who he came with, was another traumatic reality that has really caused him great harm.

CORNISH: Right now this means that there are three separate cases - right? - a lawyer...

GILMAN: That's right.

CORNISH: ...For each of the people in this story.

GILMAN: Well, I mean, none of the three has a lawyer in their asylum claim at this point in time. I'm working hard to try to get the kids a lawyer out on the East Coast for their separate cases. I am not going to be able to represent Jessica on the merits of her asylum claim from four hours away. It's just not possible to do that effectively.

But it is important to note that the kids, even though they're 4- and 10-years-old, have no right to have a lawyer appointed to them. And at least that might have made some sense if they came with their mother and their mother was able to help them and to speak for them and to explain the facts that are relevant to their case. But here the government took that one support away from them and then didn't provide them an attorney.

CORNISH: So how does a 4-year-old make the case for asylum?

GILMAN: (Laughter) What to tell you? Under current law and procedure, a 4-year-old has to make the case for asylum on his own. In this case, Mom could have at least helped to speak for him and could have, of course, also helped to find him a lawyer. But that was taken away from the little boy.

CORNISH: That's Denise Gilman. She's the director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.

Thank you for speaking with us.

GILMAN: Thank you.

CORNISH: We're going to turn now to NPR's John Burnett. He's been covering the Trump administration's policy of separating parents and children. And John, is the case that Denise Gilman described happening with more frequency up and down the border? I mean, is this the new normal?

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Absolutely. We're seeing a surge of these cases in federal courtrooms all up and down the border. Hundreds of defendants marched into these courtrooms 40, 50, 60 at a time, mainly from Central America. In many of these cases, they're charged with a misdemeanor, illegal entry, or a felony, illegal re-entry. But by this time, their kids have already been taken away from them by strangers in a strange land. And you can imagine what those scenes look like. There is an immigration attorney with the ACLU who described kids clinging to their mothers, having to be physically separated and parents telling the older ones - be brave; be brave.

But I should note, Audie, that some of these immigrants are bringing their kids on this long, arduous, dangerous journey from Mexico because they were told back in Guatemala or El Salvador - if you bring your kids, you'll be released from federal custody. And nowadays, under this new policy, they're sadly mistaken. And like Jessica, who Denise Gilman describes - she was completely surprised when they took her boys away from her.

CORNISH: And I understand there is some outrage growing about this practice. In fact, protests are scheduled for this week.

BURNETT: Right. These family separations have really stirred people up. There's this growing grassroots outrage. I understand there are dozens of protests planned around the country on Friday of this week. They call it the National Day of Action for Children. And they're calling on the Trump administration to stop removing kids from their parents at the border.

CORNISH: And how is the administration responding?

BURNETT: Well, the Trump administration actually calls the parents smugglers and says they're exploiting U.S. government policies. The government claims it's overwhelmed having to transport all these unaccompanied children to shelters, provide for their well-being for an average of 56 days and then find a sponsor for them. Health and Human Services says, in terms of its juvenile shelter beds, they're at a 95 percent capacity. And so now they're having to look for more at military bases or convert government buildings as a way to find places for these thousands of new kids who are being separated at the border. And remember, these are families asking for asylum, for protection from violence in their own home countries. The Trump administration says the great majority of these asylum-seekers are rejected by immigration judges and so they shouldn't be coming here in the first place.

CORNISH: That's NPR's John Burnett in Austin.

John, thank you.

BURNETT: You bet, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMY WHITE'S "TOUCHING SOULS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.