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How Ginger Thompson made us care for children separated from their parents

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Women from Honduras wait after surrendering to border patrol agents after illegally crossing the U.S./Mexico border on June 25, 2018 near Granjeno, Texas. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Ginger Thompson, a senior reporter at ProPublica, once told me the best reporting comes from a place of compassion and lack of judgment. I have watched with awe at how this extraordinary journalist changed the course of American immigration policy on June 18. On that day, ProPublica released an audio recording of the children detained at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility. Thompson wrote a stunning essay explaining and giving context to the voices of the children heard on the tape.

“Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe,” Thompson wrote. “They scream ‘Mami’ and ‘Papá’ over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.” I could almost hear the hitch in a child’s tear-clogged breath as I read that. Thompson made me feel what she felt, a deep sense of helplessness at what was happening. The combined effect of listening to the weeping of the detained children and reading Thompson’s essay was utterly wrenching.

We are at a time in our country when compassion is slowly being eroded from our public interactions. From the hateful messages that people post online to the labels we put on each other, trust is proving dispensable, anonymity is an armor and restraint is a forgotten experiment.

The one thing that unites us, in this precise moment of our moral evolution, is our inability to see young children suffer, no matter where they come from.

The executive order to reverse the child separation policy was signed by President Donald Trump on June 21 in response to the rising wave of outrage at the idea of children locked up and crying for their parents. The decision was made to detain families together while their asylum cases are being adjudicated.

Keeping families together while they appeal for asylum is perhaps the more compassionate course of action. Cory Smith, of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), believes, however, that the reversal of separation policy is deceptive. “We are moving from children in cages to indefinite family detention,” he said, explaining that the policy is aimed at undermining the Flores Settlement.

The 1997 Flores settlement limits the detention of children to under 20 days, even if that detention is with the child’s parents.

Smith is right. President Trump has ordered the Department of Justice to file a request to modify the Flores agreement and the DOJ has complied, requesting federal judge Dolly Gee to alter the conditions of the decree.

If the Flores agreement holds, then the children detained with their parents cannot be held beyond 20 days, which means that either immigration hearings will be fast tracked, parents and children will be separated again or there will be an increase in legal action against the federal government.

Smith believes the humane course of action is to keep asylum-seeking families together in community settings. He referred to a program called the Family Case Management Program, canceled in 2017, which worked in partnership with local nonprofits and non-governmental agencies to keep track of and provide support to immigrant families seeking asylum in a less restrictive environment.

“In 99 percent of the cases, they did not abscond,” Smith said, implying the families showed up for their court hearings and were willing to participate in the legal system of deportation hearings and determinations.

As I write this, thousands of families still have no clear sense of where their children are and when they will get them back. These children are termed “Unaccompanied Alien Children” — even though many were forcibly taken from their parents — and are likely to surface within our judicial system sooner or later, adding to the backlog of deportation cases in our beleaguered court rooms.

In an email, Smith said they have two San Francisco Immigration Legal Defense Collaborative attorneys handling 81 UAC cases in The City. Thirty of the cases are pro bono and 51 being direct representation of children in expedited deportation proceedings.

Stories of parents being deported and their children left behind keep surfacing every day. So, it is important that we keep paying attention to the reports of children and parents searching for each other.

When I met Thompson at a journalism workshop in Mexico earlier this year, she explained to our small group that journalism is about breaking down a larger, more complex circumstance by taking a smaller instance of it and going deep into that narrative. For me, it was the story that Thompson told of 6-year-old Jimena that perfectly illustrated that idea.

On the perilous journey across the border, Jimena memorized her aunt’s phone number. When she was separated from her mother and put into a separate detention unit, the young child repeatedly asked to make a phone call to her aunt. Her persistence paid off.

On June 22, Ginger Thompson tweeted, “Breaking: Jimena spoke to her mother! She cried through the entire call, asking her mom when they were going to be together again. I suspect hearing her mother’s voice for the first time after being so traumatically torn apart brought the pain rushing back. This is Zero Tolerance.”

Jimena became the emblem of young resilience.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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