Giovanna Castaneda led protesters in Newark on Wednesday who rallied and raged against the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that forcibly separates children from immigrant families who cross into the southern United States.
“I know what it’s like to have your family separated, because at the age of five my father was deported,” said Castaneda.
Border agents have swept up more than 700 kids since October. The number of children in federal custody has surged 21 percent under the president’s new policy. And the impact’s felt thousands of miles away in New Jersey, a diverse state that’s home to an estimated half million unauthorized immigrants.
“They want to call us animals. They want to call us rapists. They want to call us murderers. They’ve been calling us criminals for decades. But our humanity is not up for debate,” said Joanna Calle of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.
“This is something that is unconstitutional. It’s un-American. It’s inhumane. The ACLU is challenging this policy in court as a violation of due process,” said Farrin Anello, senior staff attorney at the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
One family, too fearful to give their names, lives in New Jersey now. They crossed the border after fleeing violence in El Salvador two years ago. Even then, agents took the boy and put him with other kids in what many migrants call “the cooler.”
“They send us a place, white and it was so cold, I didn’t have my coat,” he said. “I was thinking about my family, together.”
“I didn’t know where he was, at one point. It made me very worried,” said the boy’s father. “Not knowing if he was warm or safe was really hard. It’s not right. It’s something I had to live through. And I ask that they stop separating parents from children,” he pleaded.
Some parents spend months apart from their kids. But the Trump administration has made it clear — deterrence is precisely the point.
“If you cross the border unlawfully, even a first offense, then we’re going to prosecute you,” said United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a conference in Arizona on May 7. “That child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring him across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”
Whether they’re separated from family, or cross the border alone, unaccompanied children by law can’t be detained by Border Patrol more than three days. Ultimately, kids end up at Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which held 10,773 unaccompanied minors in custody nationwide as of May 29th — up from 8,886 just a month before. It’s a looming crisis, with ORR’s 100 shelters in 14 states already at 95 percent capacity. NJTV News has learned a small one in Pennsauken in Camden County can reportedly house 20 kids.
“They could be children that came with their parents and because of this new policy got separated. And so the children are going into ORR custody — they could be placed in that shelter in Camden,” said Randi Mandelbaum, director of the Child Advocacy Clinic at Rutgers University Law School. “Children who have lived through extremely violent and dangerous situations, who have suffered multiple forms of trauma, we’re now putting in these facilities and separating them from their parents. It just breaks your heart.”
ORR says 93 percent of kids get released to parents or family members scattered across the United States — a surprising number of them, here in New Jersey. In fact, New Jersey ranks seventh among states in the number of kids received from 1,462 in fiscal year 2015 — to 2,268 last year and 867 through this March. But advocates fear another new Trump administration policy might significantly slash the number of families willing to sponsor these children, HHS will now share a family’s personal information with ICE. And these families often are undocumented.
“It’s deeply problematic for it to be working closely with an immigration agency that’s seeking to deport people who may be caregivers for the children, and so separating those functions is very important,” said Anello.
“Because they’re going to run fingerprint checks and do all sorts of background checks on the families,” said Mandelbaum. “A lot of those families members may not step forward to sponsor the children, which is going to leave the children in these ORR shelters — which are really like detention facilities most of them.”
Families fear isn’t unfounded. ICE arrests of unauthorized immigrants in NJ are up 42 percent over last year. Fearful families may not answer the phone when the feds call, and that might help explain why ORR couldn’t initially check up on 1,475 kids last fall. The public responded with searing criticism posting hashtags like #MissingChildren and #WhereAreTheChildren. Advocates say that maybe some did slip through the cracks, or maybe they’re too afraid to be found.
Meanwhile, advocates say only one in three New Jersey immigrants can afford an attorney, even though a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice showed lawyers in New York helped immigrants win 50 percent of deportation cases, compared to just 4 percent when they’re unrepresented.
“Where are our public officials? They’re too busy to stand with us on the street,” asked Archange Antoine, executive director of Faith in New Jersey. “Where are they? In the State House? They should’ve been at an emergency meeting yesterday to figure out how the New Jersey Legislature is going to deal with this issue.”
Gov. Phil Murphy’s budgeted $2 million that would help immigrants pay for a lawyer when they go to deportation court. It’s to be seen whether that appropriation survives the budget process.