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EL PASO, Texas -- Thousands of parents who crossed illegally into the U.S. in recent years have been held with their children at immigration detention centers. But the case of a Brazilian woman and her son illustrates what migrant advocates say is a harsher approach to immigration enforcement that aims to separate parents and children.

She is being held in Texas, while her son was taken to a shelter in Illinois. The unspoken goal, advocates say, is to discourage parents from crossing illegally or attempting to request asylum.

The Brazilian mother -- who asked to be identified only as Jocelyn because she was fleeing domestic violence -- entered the U.S. in August with her 14-year-old son, who she said was being threatened by gangs. They hoped to apply for asylum.

Migrant families like Jocelyn's are usually processed by immigration courts, an administrative process. Such families are detained together or released with notices to appear at later court proceedings. President Donald Trump promised to end the practice, dismissing it as "catch and release."

Historically, most border crossers were sent back to their home countries, but the Trump administration has threatened to prosecute some migrant parents because entering the country illegally is a federal crime. The first offense is a misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of six months. Those caught a second time face a felony charge with a maximum sentence of up to 20 years, depending on their criminal record. Once a case becomes a criminal matter, parents and children are separated.

According to public defenders and immigrant advocates, more immigrant families who come to the southern border seeking asylum are being charged in federal criminal courts from El Paso to Arizona. Jocelyn was charged with a misdemeanor, and her son was sent to a shelter in Chicago. Comprehensive statistics do not exist, but activists and attorneys say anecdotal evidence suggests the practice is spreading.

"There's not supposed to be blanket detention of people seeking asylum, but in reality, that's what's happening" in El Paso, said Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute, a nonprofit social justice group.

Earlier this month, 75 congressional Democrats led by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California sent a letter to the secretary of Homeland Security expressing anger at increased family separations and demanding that officials clarify their policies within two weeks.

"We are gravely concerned that these practices are expanding and worsening, further traumatizing families and impeding access to a fair process for seeking asylum," they wrote.

Homeland Security won't say it is targeting families but does say it is making procedural and policy changes to deter illegal immigration.

"The administration is committed to using all legal tools at its disposal to secure our nation's borders," said Tyler Houlton, a Homeland Security spokesman.

Jocelyn said she fled Brazil to escape an abusive husband. During a recent meeting at the El Paso detention center where she is being held, she lifted the sleeve of her white uniform to show scars on her arm that she said came from beatings by her husband, an armed security guard who refused to grant her a divorce.

She and her son flew to Mexico on Aug. 24, crossed the border two days later, turned themselves in to Border Patrol near El Paso and were told that they would be separated.

"I didn't know where they were taking him," she said of her son. "They didn't tell me. I asked many times. They just said, 'Don't worry.'"

A Section on 02/25/2018

Print Headline: Family separation is growing concern for aliens at border

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