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Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, near McAllen, Texas. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

‘My son is not the same’: New testimony paints bleak picture of family separation

Last week, Democratic attorneys general in 17 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, arguing that its practice of separating families violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fifth Amendment. Now, in a new filing, they’re asking the federal government to provide more immediate information and access to those detained under the policy on an “expedited schedule.”

The motion filed Monday came with more than 900 pages of declarations that included powerful personal testimonies from parents, children and other family members who were directly impacted by the Trump policy. It also included declarations from the state attorneys general offices, elected representatives, advocates and child and immigration experts who have dealt with families separated at the border.


The PBS NewsHour’s Lisa Desjardins shares chilling first-hand accounts of family separations at the border.

Trump signed an executive order on June 20, halting the separation practice and ordering families to be detained together instead. But in a statement, the attorneys general criticized the administration’s response. “Hundreds of separated parents are in federal custody and the Administration can move them to other facilities at any time without notice,” they said in the statement.

The PBS NewsHour reached out to the federal agencies involved in the separation of families at the border — the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services; U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — for a response. All said they were unable to comment on ongoing litigation. The Department of Justice also declined to comment.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Thursday the agency was prepared to reunite separated children with their parents, and would prioritize children under age 5 starting next week. But Azar, speaking to reporters, said families that have been reunited could still experience long stays in detention.

It’s unclear how the lawsuit filed by the attorneys general would impact the administration’s efforts to reunify separated families.

The NewsHour read through all 99 declarations and pulled 12 that offer a window into the family separations at the border.

What parents say

“(My son) is not the same since we were reunited. I thought that, because he is so young he would not be traumatized by this experience, but he does not separate from me. He cries when he does not see me. That behavior is not normal. In El Salvador he would stay with his dad or my sister and not cry. Now he cries for fear of being alone.”

— Olivia Caceres was separated from her 1-year-old son in November at a legal point of entry. The boy’s father, who was seeking asylum, remains detained, Caceres said. It took three months for Caceres to get her son back from government custody. According to her testimony, she said that after reuniting with her toddler, “he continued to cry when we got home and would hold on to my leg and would not let me go. When I took off his clothes he was full of dirt and lice. It seemed like they had not bathed him the 85 days he was away from us.”

“They told me to sign a consent form to take my daughter, but that it did not matter whether or not I signed, because they were going to take her either way.”

— Angelica Rebeca Gonzalez-Garcia was apprehended and separated from her 7-year-old daughter in May. She hasn’t seen her since. She said officers at the border told her she would never see her daughter again, and that she had “‘endangered’ her by bringing her here,” she wrote. “I cannot express the pain and fear I felt at that point,” she wrote. Gonzalez-Garcia said she has spoken by phone to her daughter, who is currently in a shelter and said that she had been hit by a boy, was bruised and had gotten sick there.

“…One of the officers asked me, “In Guatemala do they celebrate Mother’s Day?” When I answered yes he said, “then Happy Mother’s Day” because the next Sunday was Mother’s Day. I lowered my head so that my daughter would not see the tears forming in my eyes. That particular act of cruelty astonished me then as it does now. I could not understand why they hated me so much, or wanted to hurt me so much,” she wrote as part of her statement.

“For eight days I was held in a small room with over 60 men. We called it The Freezer because the air conditioning was so strong that we felt like ice. The men got sick inside and we had to sleep, use the toilet, and pass the time all in the same tiny room.”

— “L. Doe,” the father to a 5-year-old son and 1.5-year-old daughter, wrote that he and his family presented themselves at a port of entry to apply for asylum. They were separated immediately. He remains in detention. “My thoughts run in circles, and I feel as though I am going to lose my mind. I need to see my family and take care of them.”

“[The children] did not have shoes or blankets in the detention center, and there were people in the cells that had to sleep standing up. They did not have enough to eat either, and could not drink the water, because of the chlorine they added to it … the incarcerated children were insulted – called named such as “animals” and “donkeys.”

— Ludin Jimenez said she was separated from her children, age 9 and 17, when she crossed the border in May seeking asylum. The family was reunited June 28 in Boston. She wrote that she was kept in a cell with nearly 50 other mothers. “The officers told them that they could not eat because they were asking about their children. There was a pregnant woman who fainted from hunger.”

According to her statement, Jimenez was not allowed “to bathe or brush her teeth for the eight days that she spent in the ‘dog pound.’”

“There was an immigration officer who was a good person. He said that he understood what was going on, but could not help. He brought them cookies, since he knew they did not get enough to eat.”

“I am worried about M.’s mental health when he learns that we have to start the process again and that he is not going to be released soon.”

— Francisco Serrano, a Washington, D.C., resident whose niece Maria crossed the U.S. border at San Ysidro in Southern California with her two children, age 2 and 7, as part of a caravan. A week later, a shelter called Serrano, informing him that Maria was going to separated from her children, and that she had asked for Serrano to be a sponsor. Serrano describes trying to become an approved sponsor as a process marked by complications and insufficient communication. In June, he said a social worker told him he would have to restart the sponsorship process again “because the rules changed.” Maria is on her way to Washington, D.C., but the boys are still in custody.

The 7-year-old, identified in the declaration as “M.”, “asked me why I had not picked him up yet,” Serrano wrote. “The social worker told me that [he] is depressed and asked me for words of encouragement to cheer him up.”

What officials say

“The guards would wake all the girls up at 4 a.m. to count them by kicking on their mats. … G cried when she told me she kept hoping her mother would show up to take her out of that horrible place, but that never happened. … G overheard a girl asking to make a phone call to her family, but she was told they did not allow girls to make phone calls while detained. “

— Alma Poletti, an investigator for Washington’s attorney general, interviewed eight children who were separated from their families and sent to the Seattle area for care and detention. “The place was freezing …The girls placed their mats in the floor very close to one another, since there was not enough space to fit them more comfortably. Girls as young as 3 years old were detained in this place and without their mothers,” Poletti wrote. She said one girl, 14, referred to as “G,” “felt hungry most of the time she was there because the food they provided her wasn’t good in quality or quantity.” “G” couldn’t sleep through the night, Poletti added.

“The placement of children with sponsors who have not been subject to the degree of evaluation and screening required by New Jersey law in all other circumstances substantially increases the risk that such children will be abuse or neglected.”

— Christine Norbut-Beyer, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, said the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s rules for taking care of children placed in foster care are less rigorous than state laws in New Jersey. “The home study requirements in ORR policy also fall short of requirements imposed by New Jersey law on all other foster care or adoptive placements in the state,” she wrote. “This is important because it shows that a child’s conditions in custody under ORR might meet federal guidelines, but don’t meet state laws.”

“ORR does not provide information to [relevant state agencies] about the specific location or placement of unaccompanied minors.

— Marcela Ruiz, the chief of the Immigration and Refugees Program Branch of the California Department of Social Services, added in her statement that “state-funded programs that serve unaccompanied minors in California rely on the State’s funding to support outreach, identification, and referral services.”

What advocates say

“I simply cannot believe that my government could have done this to these people.”

— Taylor Levy, the legal coordinator for the nonprofit Annunciation House, testified that he had worked with asylum seekers at the border for nine years. “I have borne witness to countless stories of rape, torture and murder. Despite all of this, I have never been as emotionally impacted by anything as intensely as I have been working with these mothers and fathers as they desperately struggle to be reunited with their minor children.”

“It is evident to [Kids in Need of Defense] that there is no consistent policy for ensuring communication among separated children and parents.”

— Jennifer Podkul, policy director for KIND, which provides legal assistance to children in immigration court.

What medical experts say

“Prolonged stress (also known as toxic stress) can permanently disrupt the structure and function of a child’s developing brain. These changes can manifest as greater likelihood of adopting unhealthy behaviors (e.g., smoking and illicit drug use), increased risk of diseases (e.g., obesity, heart disease and cancer), depression and socioeconomic inequalities.”

— Howard Zucker, the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Health. In a separate testimony, Mitchell Katz, president and CEO of New York City’s public health care system, said that “NYC Health + Hospitals have treated several children who, based upon information provided to us in the course of taking patient histories, were separated from their families at the southwestern United States border … for such condition as asthma, strep throat, and suicidal ideation.”

What lawmakers say

“Both men visibly struggled to maintain their composure while recounting the trauma that they experienced since coming to the United States and ultimately broke down into tears. Our interpreter too broke down into tears, finding their stories too painful to bear.”

— Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democratic congressman for Maryland, visited a detention center last month in Glen Burnie, Maryland, while the Trump administration was still separating children under its “zero tolerance” policy. There, he met two men who had been separated from their children under the policy. One of the men, identified as Carlos, fled Honduras with his 7-year-old son and reached the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas. He was arrested by border agents in March. The father, who said he was fleeing gang violence, wanted to claim asylum at the port of entry. Days later, Carlos was separated from his son. “Three months passed before Carlos was able to speak to his son again,” according to Ruppersberger’s testimony.

“Carlos had the foresight to make his son memorize a relative’s phone number before they left Honduras. As a result, his son was able to contact the relative, who connected him to another family member in the United States. Carlos still did not know when he would be able to see his son again,” the congressman added.

READ MORE: 5 numbers to watch on family separations

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