Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The decline of the moral authority of the US: The Five-Year-Old Who Was Detained at the Border and Persuaded to Sign Away Her Rights

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Sarah Stillman reports in the New Yorker:

Helen—a smart, cheerful five-year-old girl—is an asylum seeker from Honduras. This summer, when a social worker asked her to identify her strengths, Helen shared her pride in “her ability to learn fast and express her feelings and concerns.” She also recounted her favorite activities (“playing with her dolls”), her usual bedtime (“8 p.m.”), and her professional aspirations (“to be a veterinarian”).

In July, Helen fled Honduras with her grandmother, Noehmi, and several other relatives; gangs had threatened Noehmi’s teen-age son, Christian, and the family no longer felt safe. Helen’s mother, Jeny, had migrated to Texas four years earlier, and Noehmi planned to seek legal refuge there. With Noehmi’s help, Helen travelled thousands of miles, sometimes on foot, and frequently fell behind the group. While crossing the Rio Grande in the journey’s final stretch, Helen slipped from their raft and risked drowning. Her grandmother grabbed her hand and cried, “Hang on, Helen!” When the family reached the scrubland of southern Texas, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended them and moved them through a series of detention centers. A month earlier, the Trump Administration had announced, amid public outcry over its systemic separation of migrant families at the border, that it would halt the practice. But, at a packed processing hub, Christian was taken from Noehmi and placed in a cage with toddlers. Noehmi remained in a cold holding cell, clutching Helen. Soon, she recalled, a plainclothes official arrived and informed her that she and Helen would be separated. “No!” Noehmi cried. “The girl is under my care! Please!”

Noehmi said that the official told her, “Don’t make things too difficult,” and pulled Helen from her arms. “The girl will stay here,” he said, “and you’ll be deported.” Helen cried as he escorted her from the room and out of sight. Noehmi remembers the authorities explaining that Helen’s mother would be able to retrieve her, soon, from wherever they were taking her.

Later that day, Noehmi and Christian were reunited. The adults in the family were fitted with electronic ankle bracelets and all were released, pending court dates. They left the detention center and rushed to Jeny’s house, in McAllen, hoping to find Helen there. When they didn’t, Noehmi began to shake, struggling to explain the situation. “Immigration took your daughter,” she told Jeny.

“But where did they take her?” Jeny asked.

“I don’t know,” Noehmi replied.

The next day, authorities—likely from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (O.R.R.)—called to say that they were holding Helen at a shelter near Houston; according to Noehmi, they wouldn’t say exactly where. Noehmi and Jeny panicked. Unable to breathe amid her distress, Noehmi checked herself into a local hospital, where doctors gave her medication to calm her down. “I thought we would never see her again,” Noehmi said. She couldn’t square her family’s fate with the TV news, which insisted that the government had stopped separating migrant families.

Helen had been brought to Baytown, a shelter run by Baptist Child & Family Services, which the federal government had contracted to house unaccompanied minors. Helen was given a pack of crayons and spent the summer coloring patriotic images: busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the torch on the Statue of Liberty. She was granted an hour of “Large Muscle Activity and Leisure Time” each day, and received lessons on the human respiratory system, the history of music, and “the risk and danger of social media.” “Helen,” a caseworker observed, “has excellent behavior at all times.” She had no major sources of stress, her reports noted, aside from “being separated from her family.” Her teachers encouraged her to develop “smartgoals”—ambitions that are “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.” Helen’s goal was simple: “Minor disclosed wanting to live with her mother and family in the U.S.”

According to a long-standing legal precedent known as the Flores settlement, which established guidelines for keeping children in immigration detention, Helen had a right to a bond hearing before a judge; that hearing would have likely hastened her release from government custody and her return to her family. At the time of her apprehension, in fact, Helen checked a box on a line that read, “I do request an immigration judge,” asserting her legal right to have her custody reviewed. But, in early August, an unknown official handed Helen a legal document, a “Request for a Flores Bond Hearing,” which described a set of legal proceedings and rights that would have been difficult for Helen to comprehend. (“In a Flores bond hearing, an immigration judge reviews your case to determine whether you pose a danger to the community,” the document began.) On Helen’s form, which was filled out with assistance from officials, there is a checked box next to a line that says, “I withdraw my previous request for a Flores bond hearing.” Beneath that line, the five-year-old signed her name in wobbly letters.

As the summer progressed with no signs of Helen’s return, Noehmi and Jeny contacted lupe, a nonprofit community union based in the Rio Grande Valley, to ask for help winning Helen’s release. Founded by the famed activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in 1989, lupe fights deportations, provides social services, and organizes civil mobilizations on behalf of more than eight thousand low-income members across south Texas; Jeny, employed as an office cleaner, was one such member. Tania Chavez, a strategy leader forthe organization, met with the family to hear their story.

Helen’s case didn’t fit the typical lupe mold. “Historically, we have served longtime residents of the Rio Grande Valley,” Chavez told me, “but since this new surge of refugees came about, we’ve been on the front lines of advocacy against family separation.” Freeing Helen struck Chavez as a tangible and urgent goal. “Right away, we said, ‘How do we help this little girl?’ ” she said. As Chavez saw it, the girl’s seizure by the government showed that the family-separation crisis hadn’t been resolved, as many Americans believed—it had simply evolved.

The first stage of the family-separation crisis unfolded largely out of public view, not long after Trump took office. By January, 2018, when I began collecting the stories of parents who had been separated from their children at the border, the government denied that these separations were happening without clear justifications, and insisted that they weren’t encouraged by official policy. In the late spring, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, was still espousing this line, even as she ramped up “zero tolerance” prosecutions—criminally charging parents with “illegal entry,” and seizing their kids in the process.

Stage two of the crisis unfolded in the national spotlight. As the number of separations soared past two thousand, and their wrenching details surfaced, hundreds of thousands of Americans protested in the streets. Laura Bush said that the practice broke her heart. The American Academy of Pediatrics denounced it as “abhorrent,” noting that the approach could inflict long-term, irrevocable trauma on children. On June 20th, the President issued an executive order purporting to end the practice.

Now stage three has commenced—one in which separations are done quietly, lupe’s Tania Chavez asserts, and in which reunifications can be mysteriously stymied. According to recent Department of Justice numbers—released because of an ongoing A.C.L.U. lawsuit challenging family separations—a hundred and thirty-six children who fall within the lawsuit’s scope are still in government custody. An uncounted number of separated children in shelters and foster care fall outside the lawsuit’s current purview—including many like Helen, who arrived with a grandparent or other guardian, rather than with a parent. Many such children have been misclassified, in government paperwork, as “unaccompanied minors,” due to a sloppy process that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General recently critiqued. Chavez believes that, through misclassification, many kids have largely disappeared from public view, and from official statistics, with the federal government showing little urgency to hasten reunifications. (O.R.R. and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment.)

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

12 October 2018 at 11:57 am

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