Transcript

Separated: Children at the Border

View film

MARTIN SMITH:

The border spans over a 1,900 miles. Nearly 700 of them have a wall or a fence. Where there are gaps, aerostat blimps surveil from above.

NARRATION:

Since 9/11, security is up. The number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to some 20,000.

BORDER PATROL PILOT:

These two are probably the guides for a larger group. Might have come up north but then went south.

NARRATION:

In mid-June, a young woman and her son from El Salvador took a raft across the Rio Grande into southern Texas.

BORDER PATROL PILOT:

That one looks pretty young.

BORDER PATROL PILOT:

Yeah, but they’ve been trying all day...

NARRATION:

After several hours of wandering in the hot sun looking for help, they found some Border Patrol agents and asked for asylum. After 24 hours in a holding cell they were released.

NARRATION:

I met them at this shelter in McAllen, Texas – Maritza Amaya and her nine-month-old son Wilfredo.

MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent:

¿De donde viene?

MARITZA AMAYA:

De El Salvador.

MARTIN SMITH:

El Salvador.

NARRATION:

They crossed the border at a time when many families were being separated.

MARTIN SMITH:

So tell us your story about why you came at this time.

MARITZA AMAYA:

[subtitles] Because four years ago, gang members killed one of my brothers, and now they’re looking for me and my son, to kill us. They threatened me every day. They would come looking for me at my job, and they would say they’ll do the same thing to me.

MARTIN SMITH:

Were you aware of the risks of being separated from your child when you came?

MARITZA AMAYA:

No.

NARRATION:

The day I met Maritza happened to be the same day President Trump issued his executive order halting more separations. Families would be allowed to remain together while their asylum claims were considered.

MARTIN SMITH:

And so, what is this? Is it uncomfortable?

MARITZA AMAYA:

[subtitles] Yes, it is. It hurts.

NARRATION:

In the meantime, Maritza wears an ankle bracelet that allows the government to track her movements.

MARTIN SMITH:

Are you scared now, being here?

MARCELA GAVIRIA, Producer, speaking Spanish:

[subtitle] Are you afraid right now?

MARITZA AMAYA:

[subtitles] Yes. I don’t want to be sent back to my country.

NARRATION:

This shelter was founded in 2014 by Sister Norma Pimentel. I asked her about the impact of Trump’s separation policy on the families she had seen at her shelter.

SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL:

They're concerned. They're worried. "Sister, what's happening to the children?” They saw other parents' children taken away from them. And they would be praying, "Please, not my child. Please, God, don't let them take my child."

MARTIN SMITH:

The president says that the people that are coming in can be criminals. They can be very bad people. Is that your experience?

SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL:

I believe that just because you're an immigrant doesn't automatically make you a criminal. Immigrants must be taken care of as immigrants – families who are fleeing violence, who need protection, and we need to understand the reason why they’re here.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

The dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country’s gonna be overrun with millions of people, and if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. We’re keeping families together but we have to keep our borders strong. We will be overrun with crime and with people that should not be in our country.

NARRATION:

Later that night, Maritza and Wilfredo waited for a bus to take them on a two-day journey to be reunited with a brother living in Virginia. On the evening news, the signing of Trump’s executive order.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

It’s been going on for 60 years. Sixty years. Nobody’s taken care of it. Nobody’s had the political courage to take care of it, but we’re going to take care of it. So we’re keeping families together. At the same time, it continues to be zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally. At this time, we don’t want people coming into our country illegally. This takes care of the problem. Thank you very much, everybody.

NARRATION:

While Maritza and Wilfredo may be still denied asylum, they are still together. More than 2,000 other families were not.

MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent, narration:

A few days later, I traveled to El Salvador, Central America, to visit a father who had been separated from his six-year-old child after crossing into the U.S. illegally. I found him, Arnovis Guidos Portillo, in a tiny village three hours outside the capital. It had been one month since he’d seen his daughter, Meybelin. He was calling a shelter in Arizona where she was being held.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitles] Hello? Is Meybelin there? Yes, I’m Meybelin’s father.

PERSON ON OTHER END OF PHONE:

[subtitles] She’s not available. Call back in a few hours.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

Oh, okay.

MARTIN SMITH:

What would you like to say to her right now?

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitles] First of all, I would ask her forgiveness for getting separated from her, even though it’s not something that I wanted to happen. But when my daughter asks me, “Daddy, why did you go back and leave me to suffer over here?” I won’t know how to answer that.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

Éste, esta es mi casa.

NARRATION:

Arnovis gave me a tour of his one-room home.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitles] This is where Meybelin slept. That’s her favorite dress. These are her toys. She didn’t have many big toys, but this is what she had to play with. She had a really big imagination.

MARTIN SMITH:

Do you have pictures of her?

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitles] Yes, I have pictures of her. These are photos of my daughter. It’s hard to look at the photos and realize she’s not here.

[video of blowing out candles on a birthday cake]

Another one, my love.

NARRATION:

Like Maritza, Arnovis and his daughter left fleeing violence.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitles] I couldn’t go on here because our lives were in danger.

NARRATION:

Arnovis says he got death threats after getting into an argument with the brother of a local gang leader.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitles] I was threatened over a soccer match. Nothing more. For a dirty play. It was insignificant, but something so insignificant turned into the worst nightmare of my life.

NARRATION:

The journey north can be torturous. Those from the humblest origins have to navigate many miles on foot.

MAUREEN MEYER, Washington Office on Latin America:

You run the gauntlet of risk to come here. Traveling for migrants is certainly not safe and you can be subject to horrendous crimes on your journey and be kidnapped and, you know, raped and in certain cases killed.

NARRATION:

Their first goal is to reach Mexico and then “The Beast” – a freight train that has carried hundreds of thousands of migrants up to the U.S. border. It’s a challenge simply getting on board. Sonia Nazario has ridden the train.

SONIA NAZARIO, Author, “Enrique’s Journey”:

Central Americans are crossing Mexico illegally, so they can't get on at the train station. They have to do this as the train is moving.

And for a lot of the kids, I would see that the first rung of the ladder would be at their waist or even higher. So children would lose legs and arms and be killed by these freight trains trying to get on and off them.

There were beautiful moments on the train where, you know, everyone's singing to try to stay awake and we would be in a cloud of a million fireflies, these mystical moments. And for a lot of children, it is also an adventure. That's what they view it as until the first horrible thing happens. They had gangsters who control the train tops who would roam from car to car and surround these people and say, “Your money or your life.” Throw people off of these trains to the churning wheels below. It's incredible what these people would go through to try to get through the United States.

NARRATION:

Many migrants never make it to America. Along the tracks, immigration police often find only discarded clothing.

POLICE WOMAN:

[subtitles] On this side of the tracks they are assaulting and raping the migrants who pass this way because this is a major migrant route.

NARRATION:

According to human rights groups, six out of every ten women traveling the route report being raped. And many get birth control injections before setting out on their journey.

SARAH STILLMAN, The New Yorker:

I was astonished by the number of people I found crossing through Mexico trying to get to the U.S. who had faced some kind of kidnapping or some kind of extortion or some other kind of violence. The people who made it here, it self-selects for people who have a tremendous amount of resilience, a tremendous amount of courage, a tremendous amount of just physical strength to get across.

NARRATION:

Arnovis and Meybelin avoided “The Beast.” Instead, Arnovis paid a smuggler – or coyote – to help him and Meybelin. Arnovis said the hardest part was when their coyote packed them in a trailer.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitles] We were really packed in on top of one another. My daughter was suffering quite a bit. Everyone started getting desperate because there’ve been many cases of people dying inside.

NARRATION:

He says they spent 52 hours crammed inside the truck with only an apple and a cracker and nowhere to go to the bathroom. When they finally reached the U.S. border they were elated. It was May 26th, 2018. Before crossing the Rio Grande they paused for a snapshot. After crossing, they were hoping to join Arnovis’ brother in Kansas.

MARTIN SMITH:

Did you know that you faced possible separation when you came across the border?

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitles] No. I didn’t know anything about that. If I’d known, I never would’ve crossed

NARRATION:

Arnovis and Meybelin surrendered to Border Patrol and were taken to a processing center in McAllen, Texas. But 24 hours after they arrived they were separated.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitles] They told me she’d be taken somewhere else and that I couldn’t travel with her because there wasn’t any room on the bus for me. I realize now that it was a lie. They said it to separate me from her.

NARRATION:

The last time Central Americans fleeing violence made big news was during the Obama administration.

POLICE:

[subtitles] Open the door! It’s the police!

NARRATION:

In El Salvador, rival gangs MS-13 and 18th Street were at war with each other and the police.

RADIO REPORT:

[subtitle] Thirteen people were killed in cold blood.

NARRATION:

Bodies showed up every day.

RADIO REPORT:

[subtitle] They found 55 bodies.

NARRATION:

The violence spread to neighboring Honduras and Guatemala. During Obama’s first term, many of those fleeing the violence were young people traveling without their parents. And the numbers were steadily increasing.

NEWSCASTER:

The government releasing stark new numbers from the crisis on our southern border.

NARRATION:

Then in 2014, there was an unprecedented surge of minors and young families.

NEWSCASTER:

The Border Patrol says more than 55,000 unaccompanied children have been detained since October. That is up 500 percent from this time last year.

NARRATION:

U.S. officials were totally taken by surprise.

NEWSCASTER:

...it was caught off guard by all of this.

CECILIA MUÑOZ, Director, Obama Domestic Policy Council, 2012-2017:

People from Central America – unaccompanied children as well as adults with children – tend to come in the spring. And then, so there’s a sort of bump in the number of people that comes that tends to decline in the super hot months.

NEWSCASTER:

Unaccompanied minors making their way from Central America...

CECILIA MUÑOZ:

2014 was an exception in that the usual bump that we were expecting – and I say “we” because I was serving in the administration at the time – was a hockey stick. The number of unaccompanied kids in particular spiked dramatically.

BORDER PATROL AGENT speaking Spanish:

[subtitles] Which minors are coming in without parents? Raise your hands.

BORDER PATROL AGENT:

Unaccompanied juvies by themselves.

BORDER PATROL AGENT translating for child:

“The violence over there don’t let me, doesn’t allow us to go to school. That’s why we’re coming over here.”

SONIA NAZARIO, Author, “Enrique’s Journey”:

The U.S. seemed to be caught unaware that there were these push factors in Central America and that there was this surge that was developing of these children.

You know, if your house is on fire, you are going to find a way to get out. And these children were finding a way to get out.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

When I took office I committed to fixing this broken immigration system.

NARRATION:

Then President Obama asked Amy Pope to help coordinate the White House response.

AMY POPE, Deputy Homeland Security Adviser, 2015-2017:

We started to hear from Customs and Border Protection that they were starting to see an uptick of children coming through. It was clear that it was a pretty significant difference from what we'd seen in the past.

NEWSCASTER:

Leaked pictures show hundreds upon hundreds of children packed like sardines.

NARRATION:

When pictures surfaced in the media, there was a national outcry.

NEWSCASTER:

...that 80 percent of the children have inadequate food and water supplies...

MICHELLE BRANÉ, Women’s Refugee Commission:

They were very compelling pictures. It was hard to believe that this was happening at the U.S. border...

NEWSCASTER:

A tidal wave of unaccompanied alien children...

MICHELLE BRANÉ:

...and they reinforced this perception that our border was being flooded.

PROTESTERS:

Mexicans go home! Mexicans go home!

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

As we speak, there are enough Republicans and Democrats in the House to pass an immigration bill.

NARRATION:

For the administration, the timing was terrible.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

Some in the House Republican caucus are using the situation with unaccompanied children as their newest excuse to do nothing.

NARRATION:

President Obama was, at the time, pursuing major immigration reform. But his decision to give temporary protection to undocumented children raised in the U.S. was blamed for sending the wrong message.

REP. BOB GOODLATTE, R-Va.:

The president’s own programs, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA – word’s getting back home if you come to the United States and you’re a child, you just tell ’em you want to come in and they’re going to let you in.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House:

We’re seeing a humanitarian disaster, one of the administration’s own making.

NARRATION:

Vice President Biden’s adviser was Juan Gonzalez.

MARTIN SMITH:

You were trying to push through immigration reform. Then you get 60,000 unaccompanied minors on, coming across the border. What was going on inside the administration?

JUAN GONZALEZ, Special Adviser to Vice President Biden:

Well, I think there was a, I would say there was a general concern that the flow of migrants at the southwest border would eliminate any opportunity to actually advance meaningful immigration reform in the United States.

PROTESTERS:

USA! USA!

JUAN GONZALEZ:

What the Republicans had actually been asking the White House to do was to be stronger on immigration enforcement. There's no pleasing any side. I think on the right, your enforcement is never strong enough. And on the left, you're never being humanitarian enough.

MIKE VICKERS:

Yeah, this is... I mean we’re on my property right now. That fence right there is my neighbor.

NARRATION:

As the numbers of migrants increased, so did anti-immigrant sentiment. Last year we met Mike Vickers, a local veterinarian in Brooks County, Texas, right on the border with Mexico.

MIKE VICKERS:

We need to go through this gate.

NARRATION:

He blamed Obama’s immigration proposals for luring thousands of young migrants to America.

MIKE VICKERS:

The Obama administration hurt us when he declared that if they have a family member here, he was gonna allow ’em to stay. I mean, it was like 24 hours later, here they come. I've got pictures of the huge groups of these teenagers pouring across. Intercepting ’em out here. Huge groups of ’em coming through.

NARRATION:

In order to prevent migrants from coming onto his land, Vickers had set up an electric fence.

MIKE VICKERS:

There's two wires on the top, one on the inside and one on the outside. It's 220 volts but it's amped down so it won't kill anybody. So if somebody touches it, it’s gonna roll their eyes back a little bit. They're gonna think twice about trying to climb over the fence. Consequently, they dig under or they cut holes underneath it. We're constantly plugging up these holes or patching the areas that they cut.

NARRATION:

Vickers runs a local militia that helps Border Patrol track down undocumented migrants.

MIKE VICKERS:

This guy’s another body. We find a lot of these, you know.

NARRATION:

He shared his laminated pictures of dead migrants found on his ranch...

MIKE VICKERS:

This one is one of the more recent ones. This guy was...

NARRATION:

...migrants who died of dehydration or hypothermia. Seven thousand dead migrants have been found along the border since 2000.

MIKE VICKERS:

This girl is right by a crawl hole, 50 yards from the front gates you drove in.

I'm black and white. I'm not gray. Everybody that is coming to this country illegally are gonna have to face some consequences. The bottom line is as simple as this. They've broken our laws by coming into our country illegally. Whether they're trying to flee violence, fleeing a terrible economic situation, I don’t care what their circumstances are. We cannot take care of the whole world.

BORDER PATROL:

[subtitle] Step over here. Where are you from?

HONDURAN WOMAN:

[subtitle] Honduras.

BORDER PATROL:

[subtitle] From Honduras? Is this your son?

HONDURAN WOMAN:

[subtitle] Yes, my son. I have papers. Can I show you?

NARRATION:

U.S. and international law allows anyone – man, woman or child – fleeing violence to seek asylum.

HONDURAN WOMAN:

[subtitles] I have a report from the National Police of Honduras that I was being threatened. They [gangs] were taking money from me... extortion. If you don’t pay, they’ll kill you.

NARRATION:

Immigration advocates urged President Obama to be more compassionate.

BORDER PATROL:

[subtitle] Is that your daughter? Yes?

SONIA NAZARIO:

We’re talking about, you know, 60,000 children who were apprehended by Border Patrol. I mean those kids wouldn’t fill a large football stadium in this country. I believe that we can handle that level of compassion.

NARRATION:

The White House pushed back.

AMY POPE, Deputy Homeland Security Adviser, 2015-2017:

The truth is, you can absorb 70,000 kids if it ends at 70,000 kids. The question is: Is that the end of it? The population in Central America is in the millions. We don't have an immigration policy that says: If you come here, you get to stay here. It's not clear that if we did have that policy, we would have it for Central Americans and not for other countries around the world. It's not clear that what was happening in Central America is worse than what was happening in Sudan or Syria or anywhere else. We didn't think it was feasible or consistent with what the American public would tolerate to just say, “Okay, you get here, you're in.”

NARRATION:

Under pressure from Republicans, the administration ordered several tough measures, including more border agents and accelerated deportations.

PROTESTER:

Not one more!

PROTESTERS:

[subtitle] Stop deportations! Not one more!

NARRATION:

Immigration advocates called Obama “the deporter-in-chief.”

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

Most importantly, we will live a... Most importantly, we will live up...

PROTESTER:

Families are separated!

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

Most, most importantly, we will live up...

PROTESTER:

I cannot see my family again!

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

...to our character as a nation.

NARRATION:

To deter more immigrants, the Obama administration even considered separating children from their parents when they crossed.

CECILIA MUÑOZ, Director, Obama Domestic Policy Council, 2012-2017:

I do remember being struck that that was a pretty extreme proposal, and that it wasn't considered for very long because it was a terrible idea.

MARTIN SMITH:

And what was the idea exactly?

CECILIA MUÑOZ:

The idea is effectively what the Trump administration has enacted, which is to prosecute everybody who enters illegally, which would necessitate separating kids from their parents. And we didn't consider it for very long ’cause it was on its face a terrible idea.

MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent:

Who raised an objection to that idea?

CECILIA MUÑOZ:

It didn't need to be raised. We all kind of looked at each other and said, "We're not going to do that, are we?" And it was pretty clear we weren't. And that's pretty much as far as it went.

NEWSCASTER:

A multimillion-dollar detention center has just opened in Texas.

NARRATION:

They rejected separating children from parents but they did commit to an expanded use of family detention.

AMY POPE, Deputy Homeland Security Adviser, 2015-2017:

In terms of what options might be on the table, detention for families, intact families, seemed to be the only place to go.

NEWSCASTER:

And just beyond the dusty dirt field sits the largest immigrant family detention center in the United States.

NARRATION:

To accommodate the growing backlog of asylum seekers, the president ordered the construction of more detention centers.

NEWSCASTER:

The facility quietly opened this week in Dilley, Texas.

MARTIN SMITH:

How did you feel about the idea of building out the infrastructure to allow you to detain families with children?

CECILIA MUÑOZ:

I was not excited about family detention, but at the end of the day, the options available to the government are all pretty terrible. We don't have the robust asylum process that we need for this kind of a situation.

NARRATION:

Inside family detention, conditions could be harsh.

KATIE SHEPHERD, American Immigration Council:

There's nothing “family” about it. These are vulnerable, asylum-seeking mothers and their children asking for help, and in response our government transferred them to a detention center where some of them suffer needlessly and are ultimately deported.

NARRATION:

Katie Shepherd provided pro bono assistance to families detained in a facility in Dilley, Texas.

KATIE SHEPHERD:

It looks like a large FEMA camp – high fences all the way around the facility. If you drive up to the detention center in Dilley from the highway, the center is actually recessed into the ground so you can’t even see the detention center. And at night, all you see are these big lights that really light up the sky. It's a bizarre thing. But it, it is very much hidden and Dilley is a tiny little town that has like four gas stations and a few taco stands and that's it. It’s far away from robust legal communities and that decreases the likelihood that these people are able to get a meaningful day in court.

NARRATION:

Family detention remained in place for a year. But then Obama ran squarely into something called the Flores settlement.

AMY POPE:

There's a settlement out there called Flores that limits when and how children can be held in detention. We read it as: Children cannot be held in detention alone under any circumstances. But Flores wasn't clear that it applied to children who were with their parents.

NARRATION:

But then immigration advocates sued the government, arguing that Flores should apply to any and all children held in detention with or without their families. They won.

NEWSCASTER:

Late Friday night, a federal judge ruled the detention centers do not meet legal standards

NEWSCASTER:

The current policy of detaining immigrant children and their mothers is unlawful.

CECILIA MUÑOZ:

The judge ultimately determined that you could not detain children for long periods of time and established a 20-day limit.

NARRATION:

President Obama was forced to release families intact pending court hearings. It was near the end of his term.

DONALD TRUMP:

Thank you. That is some group of people, thousands. So nice, thank you very much. That’s really nice, thank you. It’s great to be at Trump Tower.

NARRATION:

On the morning of June 16th, 2015, Donald Trump announced his run for the presidency.

DONALD TRUMP:

They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

WOMAN IN CROWD:

[subtitle] Save us, Mr. Trump! Save us! Save us!

NARRATION:

He invoked fears of a border out of control.

DONALD TRUMP:

The border is a disaster. People are pouring in, and I mean illegal people, illegal immigrants, and they’re pouring in.

TRUMP SUPPORTERS:

[subtitles] Build that wall! Build that wall!

NARRATION:

Trump had struck election gold.

DONALD TRUMP:

Illegal immigrants with criminal records are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.

NARRATION:

He would return to the theme time and time again on the campaign trail...

DONALD TRUMP:

We have some bad hombres here and we’re gonna get ’em out.

NARRATION:

...and as president.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

And yes, we will build the wall. It will be built.

TRUMP SUPPORTERS:

[subtitle] Build that wall! Build that wall! Build that wall!

NEWSCASTER:

His first trip to California as president included a look at the eight wall prototypes designed to keep illegal immigrants out.

NARRATION:

After taking office, Trump moved quickly.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

If you don't have a wall system, we’re gonna have, we’re not gonna have a country.

NEWSCASTER:

Several deportation arrests in northern California today...

NARRATION:

In his first 100 days in office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, rounded up 40,000 undocumented immigrants. Trump also broadened the criteria for deportation and threatened to cut funding to sanctuary cities.

NEWSCASTER:

President Trump is threatening to turn off the federal spigot for any city that refuses to cooperate on people in this country illegally.

NARRATION:

But some migrants continued to come across.

BORDER PATROL:

[subtitles] How are you? Is that your son? Where are you from?

HONDURAN MAN:

[subtitle] From Honduras.

BORDER PATROL:

[subtitle] Come over here.

NARRATION:

The president seemed especially frustrated by the policy of arresting family units and then releasing them pending a court date.

DONALD TRUMP, 2016:

We are going to end catch and release. We catch ’em. Oh, go ahead. We catch ’em. Go ahead.

NEWSCASTER:

If these orders are carried out, they will radically change how immigration is enforced. It orders an end to catch and release.

NARRATION:

So the Trump administration began considering something far more draconian – separation of parents and children at the border, the same policy that Obama had rejected.

BORDER PATROL:

We force them back.

NEWSCASTER:

Are you, Department of Homeland Security, considering a new initiative that would separate children from their parents if they try to enter the United States illegally?

March 6, 2017

JOHN KELLY, Homeland Security Secretary, 2017:

Yes, I am considering, in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network, I am considering exactly that.

MICHELLE BRANÉ, Women’s Refugee Commission:

We were very concerned about the consideration of a blanket policy of this nature. So we continued to monitor the situation. But we were unable to get confirmation that there was a policy in place from the administration. What we were told repeatedly was that it was being considered and that they continued to see it as the solution for how to prevent people from coming to our border and asking for asylum.

SEN. HEIDI HEITKAMP, D-N.D.:

There’s been reports that you are considering separating children from their mothers at the border, and I want to know whether that’s true.

JOHN KELLY:

Only if the situation, at that point in time, requires it. You know, the mother...

NARRATION:

A month later at a Senate hearing, Kelly publicly walked back his earlier statement on separations.

JOHN KELLY:

...if the mother is sick or addicted to drugs or whatever. In the same way we would do it here in the United States if, if we...

SEN. HEIDI HEITKAMP:

So, yeah. So, so, so if you thought the child was endangered...

JOHN KELLY:

Not routinely. Sure.

SEN. HEIDI HEITKAMP:

That’s, that’s the only circumstance to which you would separate?

JOHN KELLY:

Can’t, can’t imagine doing it otherwise.

SEN. HEIDI HEITKAMP:

Yeah.

NARRATION:

But three months later, they did just that. The Trump administration quietly began a pilot program at the southern border.

LEE GELERNT, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project:

We soon learned that there were hundreds of little children who had been taken from their parents. And so while everyone's waiting so see whether they're going to enact a quote-unquote “policy,” they were doing it anyway.

NARRATION:

That summer we were in Tijuana, Mexico, and spoke to Esmeralda Rodriguez and her three daughters who had sought refuge at this shelter for women and children. They were planning to ask for asylum by entering the country legally at a checkpoint in San Diego. But they had heard rumors that families were either being turned away at the checkpoint or detained and separated.

ALISON RODRIGUEZ:

[subtitles] They say that Donald Trump won’t let people through and that they separate children from mothers.

MARCELA GAVIRIA speaking Spanish:

[subtitle] What would you do if that happened to you?

ALISON RODRIGUEZ:

[subtitles] I don’t know what I’d do. There’s a possibility we would be separated from our mother. [reading Bible] “The earth was corrupt before God and the earth was filled with violence.”

NARRATION:

The family had fled El Salvador in November 2016. They say they escaped after the oldest, Alison, witnessed a murder.

ALISON RODRIGUEZ:

[subtitles] They killed my godmother. They put guns to our heads and threatened to kill us if we didn’t leave the country.

MARCELA GAVIRIA speaking Spanish.

[subtitle] How do you manage to live with that memory?

ALISON RODRIGUEZ:

[subtitle] My family took me to a psychologist so that it would go away.

MARCELA GAVIRIA speaking Spanish:

[subtitle] Do you keep thinking about that moment?

ALISON RODRIGUEZ:

[subtitles] Yes. Some nights I’d wake up scared because I dreamed they were killing her all over again.

NARRATION:

Alison’s mother said there was no turning back.

ESMERALDA RODRIGUEZ:

[subtitles] We’ll be murdered there. They will kill us. I have to make sure that my daughters are okay.

MARCELA GAVIRIA speaking Spanish:

[subtitle] And what are your plans?

ESMERALDA RODRIGUEZ:

[subtitles] I’d like to request asylum in the United States with my daughters. I have faith they will grant it to us.

NARRATION:

The practice of separating families was in effect by the fall of 2017, but opposition was muted.

May 7, 2018

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. Attorney General:

I have put in place a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry on our southwest border. If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. If you smuggle illegal aliens...

NARRATION:

It was not until months later that Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the separation policy explicit while on a border visit to San Diego. He said the government had to separate children while their parents were prosecuted for illegal entry.

JEFF SESSIONS:

If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child may be separated from you as required by law.

HECKLER on bullhorn:

Get out of here! We don’t want you in our state.

JEFF SESSIONS:

If you make false statements...

HECKLER on bullhorn:

Are you gonna be separating families? Is that why you’re here?

JEFF SESSIONS:

...you’re going to be jailed.

NARRATION:

Behind Sessions was the Acting Director of ICE, Tom Homan.

JEFF SESSIONS:

That’s a felony also.


THOMAS HOMAN, Acting Director, ICE, 2017-2018:

I was honored to stand next to Jeff Sessions to announce this decision surrounded by many American heroes wearing green with one heckler that probably doesn't know the first thing about serving this nation.

HECKLER on bullhorn:

Do you have a heart? Do you have a soul? Get out of here! Why do you work for this administration?

JEFF SESSIONS:

In order to carry out these important policies, I have sent 35 prosecutors...

THOMAS HOMAN:

It’s not a new policy. DHS has not changed their policy on separating families. What we’re saying is if you cross the country illegally between the ports of entry, you’re going to be prosecuted. We’ve done it before. Now we’re just going to zero tolerance. We made it clear.

MARTIN SMITH:

But we haven’t separated families.

THOMAS HOMAN:

We’ve been separating families for the 34 years I’ve been doing this job.

MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent:

Yes, you’ve been separating families if there’s a threat to the welfare of the child. This is a much broader application of this enforcement.

THOMAS HOMAN:

Agree. We, we do more of it.

MARTIN SMITH:

This decision to enforce the law much more strictly resulted in the separation of somewhere between two-to-three thousand parents from their children. That was new.

THOMAS HOMAN:

I agree.

NARRATION:

The Trump administration argued they were forced to do it because under the Flores settlement, children cannot be held for more than 20 days in an adult detention facility. They said they faced a stark choice.

MARC SHORT, White House Legislative Affairs Director:

And the choice is binary: to separate the children or instead within 20 days to let the parents and the children go free into society with the expectation they show up for court.

MICHELLE BRANÉ:

The administration has been creating this false dichotomy, this false choice that the only options are separation or family detention, which they say they couldn't do. The reality is, is that alternatives to detention exist, specifically designed as humane, affordable and effective options.

NARRATION:

Instead of choosing another option, the Trump administration simply separated children and sent them to shelters.

JESSICA VAUGHAN, Center for Immigration Studies:

The conditions are more than comfortable for these kids while their parents are being prosecuted for illegal entry. They’re keeping them in a protected, safe environment that, frankly, it’s probably superior to some of the situations you see in our cities and towns.

ANCHOR, “Fox & friends”:

That’s a good point. Yeah.

NARRATION:

Jessica Vaughan is the Director of Policy Studies at a Washington-based think tank that advocates strong border enforcement.

JESSICA VAUGHAN:

So you know, taxpayers are spending quite a bit of money for these shelters, but they are appropriate for these kids...

MARTIN SMITH:

Has this been done ever before in American history?

JESSICA VAUGHAN:

It certainly has been done if it's determined that the parent is a risk to the child.

MARTIN SMITH:

That's different. That's a child welfare issue. That's to protect the child. That's different. Has there ever been a time in American history where parents were separated from their children by the government forcibly?

JESSICA VAUGHAN:

Well, certainly in the criminal justice system it has been done.

MARTIN SMITH:

Yeah. But that's different. That's for the welfare of the child.

JESSICA VAUGHAN:

I can’t think of another time that I know of when kids have been separated from the, the caretaker parent.

NARRATION:

In fact, the last time children were separated like this was when the government forcibly separated Native American children from their families.

MARTIN SMITH:

A lot of Americans find it appalling. What do you say to them?

JESSICA VAUGHAN:

I, I think it’s appalling that we have to do it.

MARTIN SMITH:

What do you think the consequences are for these children that have gone through, that are still going through this trauma?

JESSICA VAUGHAN:

I, I think it's very possible that some of these kids will, will have some lasting effects.

NARRATION:

For 15-year-old Yoselyn Bulux, who crossed into Arizona with her mother on June 1st, it was traumatic. They were picked up and initially taken to a cell which detainees call “the icebox.”

YOSELYN BULUX:

[subtitles] They took our fingerprints. Then they brought us to an icebox. We waited in there, wondering what would happen. It was so cold in there.

NARRATION:

Within hours they were separated. Yoselyn was sent to a Texas shelter. Her mother remained in Arizona.

MARCELA GAVIRIA speaking Spanish:

[subtitle] What did they tell you?

YOSELYN BULUX:

[subtitles] They didn’t tell me anything. They just told me that they were going to take me to a shelter and that I’d never see my mom again. I didn’t want them to separate me from my mom, but they separated me. I stood there crying in that icebox and I couldn’t talk to my mom.

NARRATION:

For the very young, the experience is likely even more harrowing. Michelle Brané visited children in detention in June.

MICHELLE BRANÉ:

I observed young children being held in separate cells from their parents, pending processing. In some cases they were extremely distraught. They had no idea what was going to happen to them. They had not been told.

NARRATION:

Brané asked to interview some of the children.

MICHELLE BRANÉ, Women’s Refugee Commission:

We were given a list by the government and we were told that we could choose who we wanted to speak to. Looking through the list of over 500 names, I noticed that there were some very young children there, including a two-year-old, several one-year-olds, and one child that was listed as being zero. So I asked to see those children. They left and came back and said that they couldn't find the children. They said to me, “Well, we called out their name and nobody responded. So we don't know where they are.” So I, I sorta said, “Well...

MARTIN SMITH:

These are babies.

MICHELLE BRANÉ:

“...they're babies, they’re babies. Obviously, they're not going to respond to their name being called. Perhaps you need to locate the adult who is in charge of them. Who is taking care of these babies?” And they had no answer for me. They just shook their head and said, “I don't know.”

NEWSCASTER:

Growing outrage tonight as thousands of children are split from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

NEWSCASTER:

The battle over the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on immigration is intensifying.

REP. TED LIEU, D-Calif.:

If the Statue of Liberty could cry, she would be crying today. As I stand here, there are 2,300 babies and kids who were ripped away from their parents by our government and are in detention facilities across America.

NARRATION:

Outrage came from both the right and the left.

PROTESTERS:

You are not forgotten! You are not forgotten! You are not forgotten! You are not forgotten!

JEFF SESSIONS:

Many of the criticisms raised in recent days are not fair, not logical, and some are contrary to plain law.

NARRATION:

On June 14th, Attorney General Sessions responded to criticism by invoking Scripture.

JEFF SESSIONS:

Due to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained, ordained the government for his purposes.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, White House Press Secretary:

I’m not aware of the attorney general’s comments or what he would be referencing.

NARRATION:

Later that day, Sarah Huckabee Sanders backed Sessions up.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS:

I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible. However, this... Hold on Jim, if you’ll let me finish. Again, I’m not going to comment on the attorney’s specific comments that I haven’t seen.

JIM ACOSTA, Reporter:

You just said it’s in the Bible to follow the law.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS:

That’s not what I said and please don’t take my words out of context.

BRIAN KAREM, Reporter:

Come on, Sarah. You’re a parent. Don’t you have any empathy for what these people are going through? They have less than you do.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS:

Jill. Brian. Guys.

BRIAN KAREM:

Sarah, come on, seriously.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS:

Settle down.

BRIAN KAREM:

It’s a serious question. These people have nothing. They come to the border with nothing. And you throw children in cages. You’re a parent. You’re a parent of young children. Don't you have any empathy for what they go through?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS:

Jill, go ahead.

CHILD crying:

Mommy!

NARRATION:

Four days after that, an audiotape was published by ProPublica.

CHILD crying:

Daddy!

NARRATION:

It led the news for days.

CHILD:

[subtitles] At least can I go with my aunt? I want her to come. I have her number memorized. 34, 72...

MARTIN SMITH:

When you heard the tape that ProPublica published of the children wailing, what was your reaction?

THOMAS HOMAN, Acting Director, ICE, 2017-2018:

I didn't hear the tape.

MARTIN SMITH:

Oh, come on.

THOMAS HOMAN:

I did not hear the tape. I did not hear the tape.

MARTIN SMITH:

I can't believe that.

THOMAS HOMAN:

I've heard many children cry in my 34 years. I don't need to hear children cry.

MARTIN SMITH:

Can I play it for you?

THOMAS HOMAN:

Yeah.

ANJALI TSUI, CO-PRODUCER:

I can have it pulled up.

MARTIN SMITH:

It's a young girl who asks to call her aunt. She wants to call her aunt. She has the number memorized.

[audiotape plays]

MARTIN SMITH:

What do you think?

THOMAS HOMAN:

It tugs at the heartstrings, for sure.

MARTIN SMITH:

How can you not condemn that?

THOMAS HOMAN:

Look, I, I've seen a lot of terrible things in my 34 years. But we have to address the border. I mean...

MARTIN SMITH:

Do you not sympathize with their situation?

THOMAS HOMAN:

Oh, absolutely. I'm a parent. I, it’s, it’s, it’s sad. But when the government chooses to enforce the law and they separate the parents who have been prosecuted, just like every U.S. citizen person in this country gets separated when he gets arrested. But people want a different set of rules for an illegal alien.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

We’re signing an executive order I consider to be a very important executive order. It’s about keeping families together.

NARRATION:

Two days after the audiotape of the wailing children, the president reversed course.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

You’re gonna have a lot of happy people. Feel very strongly about it. We don’t like to see families separated. At the same time, we don’t want people coming into our country illegally. This takes care of the problem. Thank you very much everybody! Thank you.

PROTESTERS chanting:

Where are the children?! Where are the children?! Where are the children?! Where are the children?!

NARRATION:

The president’s order stopped future separations but it said nothing about what would happen with the children already separated.

PROTESTERS chanting:

Set them free! Set them free! Set them free!

NARRATION:

On June 30th, demonstrators in 700 cities and towns across America demanded reunification.

MAN FROM ACLU:

Hey there, everyone. We’re headed towards the Department of Justice. Thank you all for coming out.

NARRATION:

As a result of an ACLU lawsuit, a federal judge in California had ordered the government to reunite all separated children within one month.

PROTESTERS chanting:

Where are the children?! Where are the children?!

NARRATION:

Fifteen-year-old Yoselyn Bulux was released from a children’s shelter in Brownsville, Texas, on June 30th. Six days later, her mother, Juana, was released from a detention center in Eloy, Arizona. Volunteers paid her bond.

JUANA SOCH DE BULUX:

[subtitles] We’re aware we came here without an invitation. But this punishment... The price we paid is so high.

NARRATION:

She was released with another Guatemalan woman, Amalia, who had been separated from her two boys.

AMALIA ITZEP-LOPEZ:

[subtitles] If you don’t have patience, then you fall.

NARRATION:

The following days would be full of hotel rooms and car rides...

AMALIA ITZEP-LOPEZ:

Good morning!

NARRATION:

...as the two were driven across the country to reunite with their children.

JUANA SOCH DE BULUX:

[subtitles] We still have a few days, I know. But we are on our way.

AMALIA ITZEP-LOPEZ:

[subtitles] For me, it’s going to be very emotional.

JUANA SOCH DE BULUX:

[subtitles] Me, too. That’s a very strong moment. It’s a shot of adrenaline to the heart.

When I was in Eloy, I said I didn’t want to be in this country because the people were closed-minded. In the detention center they made us feel like we had no reason to be here. They said, “Why did you come to this country where no one wants you?” But now that we’re here, I thank God for the opportunity.

NARRATION:

In New York, mother and daughter were reunited after 38 days apart. Juana says her daughter had changed.

JUANA SOCH DE BULUX:

[subtitles] She had a very sweet personality but now she’s a little bit angry. She wasn’t like that. Maybe she’s scared. I don’t know.

YOSELYN BULUX:

[subtitles] I feel like it changed me a lot. Like sometimes I get angry. I don’t know. It’s just that I don’t want to remember everything that I’ve been through.

NARRATION:

Despite a court order, hundreds of children remain separated from their parents.

MARITZA’S BROTHER:

[subtitles] Mari! What’s up, my boy?

NARRATION:

Maritza and Wilfredo, who I saw in the shelter in McAllen, Texas, were met by her brother in Virginia. Maritza now reports to the authorities every 15 days while she waits for her asylum hearing.

The Rodriguez family spent four weeks in family detention before being released. We have since lost touch with them.

Meybelin Guidos was sent back to El Salvador after 33 days in the shelter in Arizona. Her father says she has also changed. Now she is quiet, he says, and cries a lot.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitles] Meybelin didn’t want to talk. When you asked her, she would just stand there like she was going back through the memory of all she had experienced. But she couldn’t find the words to say, “This happened and this happened.”

NARRATION:

But the day before we arrived, Meybelin had started to talk about her experiences for the first time.

MEYBELIN GUIDOS:

[subtitles] They took me in a plane. They said, “Your dad is going to come later on a plane.” And then when I got there and I didn’t see him, I said, “And my dad?” “He’ll be here soon.” And it was a lie.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitle] And they wouldn’t tell you where I was?

MEYBELIN GUIDOS:
[subtitle] No.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitle] And you would ask?

MEYBELIN GUIDOS:

[subtitle] Yes.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitle] And what did they say?

MEYBELIN GUIDOS:

[subtitle] That they didn’t know where you were.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitle] Were you scared?

MEYBELIN GUIDOS:

[subtitles] Yes, they would tell me that if I cried they wouldn’t pay attention to me.

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO:

[subtitles] If she doesn’t see me for a second she says, “Daddy, where are you?” And when I’m not around, she starts asking, “Where’s my daddy?” She wants to be with me all the time. Sometimes if I take her to school, I have to bring her home because she doesn’t want to stay. It’s like she feels that her time with me is running out, like she’s afraid it could happen all over again.

Support Provided By Learn more