On July 25 a group of immigrant parents boarded a bus in El Paso after being reunited with their children. “They were celebrating. They were told by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) they would be put on a plane and taken to a shelter and were going to be released,” said Taylor Levy, legal coordinator at Annunciation House, an El Paso immigrant shelter.
Instead, they were driven back to the El Paso Service Processing center where ICE agents boarded the bus with forms that were pre-checked saying that they agreed to be deported with their children, according to Levy, citing interviews with the parents. When they refused they were “yelled at” and taken off the bus and put back in detention, without their children.
In another case, a Honduran woman, identified as D.P. was detained by border agents after entering the United States illegally in June and sent to the Port Isabel Detention Center in South Texas. After her nine-year-old daughter was taken away she was summoned to meet an ICE officer who the detained immigrants nicknamed the “deporter.”
The woman, from the city of San Pedro Sula, described the ICE officer standing over her menacingly and shouting at her to sign. “He called me in to sign my deportation papers a couple days after I was told I did not qualify for asylum,” the woman, who is only identified as D.P., said in a sworn affidavit. “I told him I was not signing anything until I had my daughter with me. (Redacted) started yelling at me saying, ‘You will sign the papers because you said you did not want to see a judge. Don’t you understand that we don’t want you in this country? You are all ignorant and keep coming.’”
These are just a couple of numerous anecdotes of coercive tactics used by government agents against parents separated from their children, according to two immigrant advocacy groups, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the American Immigration Council (AIC), who filed a complaint August 23 with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS),
The complaint alleges that U.S. border and immigration agents abused migrant parents separated from their children at the Mexico border, and sought to coerce them into signing forms agreeing to leave the country. It requested that the DHS civil rights division and inspector general investigate the allegations and take corrective measures.
"The cases present powerful evidence of gross violations of due process committed by government officials," according to the complaint which details the stories of 13 parents who were held at immigration detention facilities and separated from their children as a consequence of the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy. “Coercion of noncitizens by immigration officials is a direct violation of the U.S. Constitution, federal statute, and regulations. As a nation we cannot tolerate such abuses in violation of our laws and we urge you to take immediate action to correct the situation,” it added.
An ICE spokesperson told Univision that the agency “is unable to comment due to pending litigation,” an apparent reference to a lawsuit filed in California by the American Association of Civil Liberties (ACLU) challenging the legality of the family separation policy.
The Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has in the past couple of years been responsive to issues brought to its intention, said Katie Shepherd, a lawyer with the Immigration Justice Campaign at AIC. “We are hopeful that they will open up investigations into this issue, particularly because it certainly does raise issues of illegal actions by government officials.”
“The agency has to look at itself in the mirror and we have to determine to what degree can it effectively oversight behavior that happens within the agency,” added Ben Johnson, executive director of AILA.
The Trump administration implemented its ‘zero tolerance’ policy in April in an effort to broaden and accelerate the deportation of migrants crossing the border illegally, or without proper documentation, resulting in a dramatic increase in prosecutions and parents being separated from their children.
After the government separated more than 2,600 families, and amid a growing outcry, President Trump issued an executive order on June 20, 2018 to ban the future separation of children from their parents. Some of the parents and children remain separated while hundreds of parents have been deported back to possible harm without their children, the immigration advocates say.
“This really is an intentional and systematic effort to take children away from their parents and hold them as hostages in order to sabotage their right to apply for asylum in the United States,” said Johnson. He accused DHS of trying to scare “other parents who may be attempting to or are contemplating coming to the United States to apply for asylum.”
Some of the parents and children remain separated while hundreds of parents have been deported back to possible harm without their children, the migrants advocates say.
Mistreatment began right after entering U.S. soil, said Shepherd. The use of “extreme coercive tactics” included verbal threats, deception, physical abuse and intimidation, designed to create “a stressful environment which colored every interaction they had with government officials thereafter.”
The trauma of being separated from their children as well as the coercive environment created by CBP and ICE officers “made it very difficult for parents to participate meaningfully during the incredible fear interview process,” she said.
The most serious allegations regard officers using intimidation "to coerce separated parents into signing forms relinquishing their rights," according to the complaint. "ICE officers reunified multiple parents with their children, then presented them with pre-completed forms affecting their rights to reunification, and re-separated parents who refused to sign the forms," it states.
Shepherd said interviews with 76 mothers found that more than 90% reported that they were not allowed to ask about the consequences of signing the form. As a result, less than 25% of mothers expressed that they understood what they were signing. Some 67% reported being intimidated and coerced prior to signing, and 30% reported that ICE officers threatened that if they didn’t sign the form they would never see their children again.
Begging for information
The Honduran woman, D. P., said she and the other mothers held at Port Isabel, begged officials for information about their children. “When we asked the guards for our kids they said it would be better if we never saw them again and that we shoud not try to seek asylum and should just go back to our countries alone. Some of the guards continued to say they knew nothing about where our kids were, while others told us they had already been adopted,” she said in her affidavit.
D.P and a
White House visitor
The complaint describes how, in July, a White House representative visited the Port Isabel detention center. The mothers say they were warned by guards not to communicate with the representative. After fifteen mothers spoke out in the presence of the White House visitor, D.P. said. they were punished by ICE detention officers. “I was handcuffed and put in solitary confinement for ten days. I was put in a dark room, so I did not know when it was day or night. I was not given food or water for about three days ... I was handcuffed for five days and had to eat and go to the bathroom in this way.”
El Paso bus incident
Perhaps the most egregious incident involved the families on the El Paso bus. The parents had declined to sign the forms and the agents were upset, Levy told a conference call organized by AILA and the AIC. “They yelled at them. There were multiple parents crying on that bus,” she added.
“By pre-selecting Option 1 (agreeing to deportation) on the Election Form, refusing to permit parents to select any other option, and screaming at any parent who disagreed, ICE agents violated the due process rights of these parents. Forcing a parent to sign a pre-selected form does not comport with due process as it does not allow for an affirmative, knowing, or voluntary decision by the parent,” the complaint said.
Levy said she had spoken to seven parents, one mother and six fathers, who refused to sign the form. One checked a different box even though the form was pre-checked saying they did not agree to be deported with their child. “The officer angrily pulled it [the form] away and handed her a new form and told her ‘No, you were supposed to sign here,’” Levy said.
The seven parents were taken off the bus and taken inside where they were yelled at again by agents and threatened. Eventually, they were brought back outside where their children were waiting on the bus. When the agents would not let them board the bus to say their goodbyes, one of the children tried to get off the bus and was yelled at by ICE as well. “These seven parents … were forced to wave goodbye to their children for a second time as the bus drove away. They were then re-shackled, re-put back in prison uniforms and taken back to the … facilities.”
Shepherd said her meetings with parents "were some of the more depressing conversations that I have ever had." But they only scratched the surface of abuses in detention centres that have been going on for decades.
The 13 stories in the complaint were only a sample of cases meant to ilustrated a larger trend, she said.