I have just returned from a week as a legal volunteer with the Dilley Pro Bono Project at a family detention facility known as the South Texas Family Residential Center, where the U.S. detains mothers and children who have come to the U.S. to seek asylum protection, in most cases from the Northern Triangle of Central America.
The legal visitation area was filled with moms with kids of all ages. Teenagers with solemn eyes. Playful toddlers. Infants, who nursed as their mothers recounted the awful events that had driven them from their homes. Many children refused to leave their mothers’ sides, even for a moment. Others allowed themselves to play nearby, but always with a watchful eye, and they came running back at the first sign of a tear.
I spent my days visiting women about their experiences to help them prepare for their interviews with asylum officers. Without exception, the moms I met came to the U.S. with their children to escape horrific violence, almost invariably at the hands of men. Men who are their intimate partners, who use violence to exert domination. Men who are members of gangs, who use violence to terrorize communities.
Much of this violence plays out on the bodies of the children. One woman I spoke with described how her partner told her if she didn't comply with his wishes he would take it out on her 5-year-old daughter, and then locked himself in a room with the girl. When the mom got inside, the man and her daughter were both naked. Other women told of extortion threats: give us your money, your property, your harvest, or we will take your son to join our ranks, your daughter to be our "girlfriend." Your baby, and we will slaughter her like a pig.
Threats against children are a favored methodology used by Central American gangs to extract obedience. The Trump administration is about to take a page from a similar book. This month, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: For Trump endorsement: The more sordid, the better Those predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold MORE and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenUS to restart 'Remain in Mexico' program following court order Far-left bullies resort to harassing, shaming Kyrsten Sinema — it won't work Ex-Trump official: 'No. 1 national security threat I've ever seen' is GOP MORE unveiled the Trump administration’s policy of family separation. The policy mandates that any person who crosses into the U.S. without inspection be criminally prosecuted and, for good measure, be separated from her children.
White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE claims that using family separation as a deterrent is justified because asylum seekers “are not people that would easily assimilate into the United States” — a statement that is both demonstrably false and irrelevant. U.S. law requires that we protect people who are fleeing persecution. Even if they don’t speak English. Even if they are rural people. Even if they lack skills. And even if they don’t present themselves for inspection at regular border crossings. The laws of the United States require that we treat asylum seekers with humanity, that we protect them. The laws of morality require that, at the very least, we don’t punish children for their parents’ actions.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that Trump administration officials are inspecting military bases in Texas and Arkansas as possible facilities to house these children. It’s not hard to imagine what this will look like: camps holding hundreds or possibly thousands of kids. Teenagers. Toddlers. Infants. Children whose lives have been destroyed by the actions of violent men in their own countries, but whose most devastating loss was to be ripped out of their mothers’ arms by U.S. authorities.
Angered that the flow of refugees does not stop and that Congress will not give him his wall, the president has devised a policy that turns the bodies and psyches of refugee children into battlefields. The people of the United States must not allow him to implement it.
Sharon Phillips is an immigration and nationality law attorney based in New York City. She is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and her pro bono activities in immigration law include "credible fear" counseling to women and child asylum seekers from Central America, preparing applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (Haiti, Liberia) and representing refugees in asylum cases (Liberians, Coptic Christians).