On Feb. 2, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on the establishment of an interagency task force for the reunification of families separated by the previous administration’s Zero Tolerance immigration policy. This policy, designed to deter migrants from seeking to enter the United States, essentially ripped children even as young as a few months old from the arms of their fathers, mothers or other caregivers, creating a social and human tragedy that still haunts us today.
In 2020, government estimates indicated that 2,654 children had been initially separated, though it is acknowledged that this is an undercount. An audit conducted by the Office of the Inspector General in November 2019 found that the Department of Homeland Security “did not have the information technology system functionality needed to track separated migrant families …” The audit estimated that the number of children separated from their families was over 4,000.
Thirty-two-year-old Karina’s then 11-year-old son Justin was one such child. On June 9, 2018, Karina and Justin were apprehended by immigration authorities after they crossed the Rio Grande in McCallen, Texas. Karina told the interrogating officers that gang members had begun targeting Justin, and, in order to keep her son safe, she had left Honduras for the U.S.
After that initial interrogation, Karina and Justin were taken to a room with other families and with increasing apprehension, Karina and Justin observed how the children in the room were being taken away from their families. And when three officers came in and called Justin’s name, Karina was distraught. “One officer told me that they were going to separate him from me just for that day because the next day I had a court date with the judge. The officer told me that ‘you don’t have to take the child. I’ll give him back to you in two days.’ Yes, I thought they were going to give him back to me. I believed him,” Karina related, her voice breaking.
Over the next two days, while Karina waited in the “la hielera” (freezing room), she kept inquiring about the whereabouts of her son. An officer finally admitted the real story: “The truth is that the children are going to be adopted to other families and you are going to be deported,” he told her.
When Karina was transferred to the Port Isabel detention center, she sent a letter to her officer asking about Justin’s whereabouts. A response arrived informing her that her son was in New York with a foster mom.
It was all of 20 days before Karina was able to talk to Justin again and 45 days before they were reunited.
“After they gave me my child, I was so excited, I didn’t know if I should go back to my country, but I really did not care about anything, being with him was the only thing that mattered,” she said. The mother and child stayed in detention for 15 more days at a detention residency for families in Texas. Then, finally, Karina and Justin were sent to San Francisco, where Karina’s mother and brother live.
The family reunification task force, headed by the Secretary of Homeland Security, is charged with the task of identifying and reunifying all children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border between 2017 and 2021, recommending further immigration action for the families, and making “recommendations regarding the provision of additional services and support to the children and their families, including trauma and mental health services,” among others.
Seneca Family of Agencies is an Oakland based nonprofit with a mental health initiative for families whose children were separated at the U.S. border. Paige Chan, general counsel of Seneca, said that as part of their Todo Por Mi Familia program, they locate families in the United States who were separated under the Zero Tolerance policy and inform them about the availability of counseling services. “And then if the family is interested we work to find community based providers within their home community or wherever they are living right now and we cover all the costs of those services and make sure that they are culturally relevant services,” she said.
Chan said that when the Zero Tolerance policy went into effect there were several class action lawsuits filed to address the trauma of child separation. One of the lawsuits was the Ms J.P. v Sessions litigation. The court document, citing an expert, stated that “[s]eparation of a child from his/her mother would be a traumatic event for both the child/adolescent and for the mother and father, causing … [p]anic and terror, frightening dreams, flashbacks, dissociation (blanking out and lack of awareness), depersonalization (sense of unreality and separation from oneself), withdrawal into intense grief and depression, an ongoing sense of fear and terror.” The judge issued an order in November 2019 mandating that the government make counseling services available to the affected families.
The government signed a $14.5 million contract with Seneca in March 2020 to find families separated at the border and subsequently reunited and to offer them counseling services. The contract has been extended to June 2021.
In order to find families, Chan said that Seneca uses a four-pronged approach. The first step is to call the phone numbers on the list provided by the government. Unfortunately, they found that the list did not contain accurate phone numbers or addresses for these families.
Secondly, Seneca closely collaborates with advocacy organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union or Kids In Need of Defense and sends word out to immigration attorneys throughout the country. “That’s been really fruitful because those attorneys have shared the information with their clients and have made referrals directly to us.”
The third approach is to leverage media and social media to get the word out.
Fourth, many Latinx celebrities, like Pedro Pascale, Eugenio Derbez, Dayanara Torres and Cristian de la Fuente have created public service announcements for Seneca, which they then share on social media.
At this writing, Seneca has connected with 747 families and has enlisted 273 mental health providers to offer counseling.
Karina and her son Justin signed up for Seneca’s program. “I knew we needed it,” Karina said. Justin wasn’t sleeping at night and her partner’s 8-year old child, who had also been separated from his father, were acting out. “They were defiant, and I eventually felt that they blamed us for what had happened, for the separation,” Karina admitted.
When Seneca connected Karina’s family with the therapist, things improved. “We had to explain, particularly to [Justin], the reasons we had to leave so he would understand it. At this point we have been in therapy for a total of eight months.”
Long term, Chan sees Seneca as the trusted resource for the families they assist. Mental health services are just one piece of what’s required. “So if a family cannot think about mental health services, because they really need an attorney, then we make that referral to attorneys who work pro bono on immigration. Or a family will say to us that we also need food, our team will look for food pantries or food cars that we can send to the family.”
Today, Karina and her partner are both working, their kids are attending school, and the family is addressing the trauma they suffered. “I really thank the Lord and those who have helped us: the children are now safe and sound,” Karina said.
Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Veteran journalist Pilar Marrero contributed to this article. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan