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Family Separations and Other Anti-Migrant Horrors Haven’t Stopped Under Biden

The president is considering an executive action that will worsen death and destruction across the immigration system.

An aerial view shows migrants, including children, walking next to razor wire after crossing the Rio Grande to seek humanitarian asylum during sunset in Eagle Pass, Texas, on February 4, 2024.

President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump are in Texas today touring different sectors of the Southern border, a spectacle that encapsulates how central immigration is to each of their reelection campaigns. It is Biden’s approach to immigration in recent months, however, that has been a source of controversy on both sides of the aisle.

Large swathes of the country do not believe his actions on immigration have been severe enough, while Democratic voters cannot seem to understand why the man who promised to usher in a more “fair, orderly, and humane” immigration system now champions the same immigration policies he once decried.

Biden is currently considering an executive action that would prevent migrants who enter the U.S. outside of ports of entry from claiming asylum, a devastating blow to longstanding legal procedures that require migrants to be on U.S. soil to request protections. The order is a key part of a failed bipartisan bill Biden championed that would have implemented Trump-era immigration policies and granted the president the unilateral power to shut down the Southern border.

That Democrats signed off on the bill signals they have taken a hard-right turn on immigration during an election year. The party’s wanton disregard for asylum law will almost certainly lead to further human rights violations against migrants, who are already brutalized all across the detention system where the number of people detained has nearly tripled since Biden took office in January 2021.

Of particular concern for attorneys and advocates are asylum-seeking families, who are already being subject to grave reproductive injustices through the nation’s complicated patchwork of migrant shelters, border processing facilities, and detention centers. What does this look like under Biden’s watch? In California, for example, federal immigration authorities have spent the last several months quietly separating asylum-seeking families.

“We Are Suffering”

In October of last year, a Peruvian family consisting of a father, mother, and their 18-year-old son were taken into Border Patrol custody in the San Diego area. During processing, the parents were separated from their son and later “street released” without him — a phenomenon now occurring with alarming regularity.

According to Al Otro Lado, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC), the Center for Immigration Law and Policy (CILP) at the UCLA School of Law, and Jewish Family Service of San Diego (JFSSD), since September of last year Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has street released an estimated 42,000 vulnerable migrants, leaving them at transit centers and other locations across the San Diego County region without first performing any medical screening or stabilization and without providing food, water, options for shelter, or any travel coordination to speak of.

As part of these street releases, legal advocates documented more than 1,000 instances in which families were subject to traumatic separations.

In the case of the Peruvian family, the parents were street released, and CBP provided no information regarding their son or his whereabouts. Without intervention from multiple advocacy organizations over several weeks that tracked their son’s whereabouts to a detention center in Texas, the parents may have never found him or reunited their family.

“[W]e are suffering,” the father told Al Otro Lado during the family’s month-long separation. “My wife and I suffer here because our son is the most precious thing we have as parents. You, as parents, know that. We beg you. Don’t cause us more sadness than what we already have.”

CILP senior staff attorney Monika Y. Langarica is one of several legal advocates who filed an administrative complaint in December with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) regarding the number of families separated during and after asylum processing in San Diego County.

“I think it’s important to say that this isn’t our first time trying to get DHS to address this subject,” the attorney said. “We have been ringing the alarm bells about ongoing separations under the Biden administration since 2021, and the administration has really failed to implement a policy that would proactively prevent these kinds of separations from occurring.”

The family separations occurring under the Biden administration are different from those that occurred as part of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy. Under Trump, federal immigration officials separated small children from their parents. Under Biden, federal immigration officials separate different family formations, namely parents and their adult children. Part of the problem is how narrowly CBP defines “family.” According to the complaint, CBP does not appear to include relationships among parents and their adult children; spouses; couples who are in common-law marriages without marriage certificates; pregnant people and their partners; adult siblings; and extended family members, including grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

CBP’s current approach is “uncoordinated and chaotic,” Langarica said, leaving families without any understanding of where their loved ones are and with no resources to find them. Any reunifications that have occurred are a direct result of the labor of organizations on the ground — and the same is true of the data obtained and outlined in the complaint to DHS that illustrates how widespread these separations have become.

Prism reached out for comment from CBP but did not hear back by time of publication.

Langarica said she and other legal advocates are calling on federal immigration authorities to “respect the sanctity of family unity in all its forms.” More broadly, she’s concerned about the Biden administration’s embrace of harsh, anti-immigrant policies.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that our system as it exists now, including under the Biden administration, is already so unduly punitive to people who come to our border seeking protection,” Langarica said. “The system subjects families to routine separations for varying lengths of time. Pregnant people are subject to detention, which is really harmful and dangerous. For the duration of the Biden administration, we have been making no-nonsense policy recommendations that would remedy and prevent these injustices and harms from happening. Instead of leaning into a solutions-oriented approach, the administration is doubling down on more restrictive policies and the kind of harmful border rhetoric we heard under the previous administration.”

Worse yet, the administration is allowing death and destruction to flourish at the Southern border.

A Man-Made Disaster

A video taken in December of last year shows a woman at risk of drowning in the Rio Grande River. She holds her young child as she pleads for her life. A boat team with the Texas National Guard idles nearby, ignoring her increasingly desperate cries.

“I’m begging you, please help me,” she yells out in Spanish as her baby begins to wail. “Please don’t abandon me.” Seconds later, a CBP airboat speeds by, never pausing to help the woman and her child.

Texas National Guard boat teams patrol for migrants attempting to cross the stretch of the Rio Grande River where Eagle Pass, Texas, borders the city of Piedras Negras in Coahuila, Mexico. The goal of boat teams is to apprehend migrants, but according to propaganda from the Texas Military Department and the state’s Department of Public Safety, the Texas National Guard is also supposed to rescue migrants in distress. In this case, they did nothing for the mother and her young child. No one did. According to witnesses, she and the baby went underwater and struggled for several minutes after resurfacing. The woman eventually reached the southern banks of the river in Mexico on her own, Texas Public Radio reported.

The horrific scene was a precursor to an actual drowning about a month later when a woman and two small children died in the same stretch of river. According to CBP, Border Patrol agents were alerted to the situation by Mexican authorities, but the federal agents were ultimately blocked by Texas National Guard troops from being able to enter the area and potentially save the family.

Prism reached out for comment from the Texas Military Department and the state’s Department of Public Safety but did not hear back by time of publication.

This is the work of Gov. Greg Abbott’s draconian and much maligned Operation Lone Star (OLS). The so-called border security initiative in Texas relies on incredibly misleading apprehension numbers to justify the use of billions of taxpayer dollars to further militarize the Southern border in increasingly unprecedented ways. To say that OLS is an overreach of power would be a gross understatement.

The Biden administration sued Texas last month over OLS policies, namely the state’s use of razor wire between the Rio Grande River and the 47-acre area known as Shelby Park located in Eagle Pass. The wire maims migrants and prevents federal authorities with CBP and Border Patrol from assisting migrants in distress and ultimately carrying out the immigration enforcement that is under their jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court ordered Abbott to let Border Patrol remove the razor wire barriers. Instead — acting in defiance of the president, the Supreme Court, and federal authorities — Abbott installed more. There were no repercussions for his actions, and he recently announced plans to build a quasi-military base to house up to 1,800 Texas National Guard troops to carry out immigration enforcement in Eagle Pass. In a press conference earlier this month, Abbott said having the troops on site will, in part, help “to expand the razor-wire barriers that are going up.”

Abbott has long alleged that the federal government isn’t doing enough to stop unauthorized migration, but the timing of OLS says a great deal about the initiative’s larger political aims. The Texas governor launched OLS about two months into the Biden administration, and Abbott is escalating his efforts as Biden seeks reelection, leading to countless headlines about a “showdown” in Eagle Pass and fueling public perceptions of a “crisis” at the Southern border. While the last year has been “one of the most turbulent migration periods” in recent history, the chaos in Eagle Pass is entirely man-made.

What Happens in the Meantime

Like President Trump who preceded him, Biden’s actions on immigration have been harsh and needlessly punitive. Even so, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah said the president seemed “frustrated” by the limits of the actions he can take on immigration without Congress — something reproductive justice advocate Nancy Cárdenas Peña has repeatedly heard from Biden administration officials during meetings.

“The feedback that we constantly hear from the administration is that anything that would actually help immigrant communities is nearly impossible without congressional approval,” Cárdenas Peña said. “It was consistent feedback that they were powerless. Other administrations were ramming things through without batting an eye. We’ve had multiple conversations with the administration that were effectively pointless. It was clear we weren’t going to get anywhere.”

Born and raised in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, Cárdenas Peña is the new campaign director for the organization Abortion On Our Own Terms, a role she took on in July 2023 after spending more than seven years at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, where she focused on the intersection of reproductive justice and immigration. That President Biden is considering an executive action to shut down the border instead of making a larger effort to reel in Abbott’s unprecedented abuse of state power or actually improve conditions at the border is anathema to Texans like Cárdenas Peña.

“Ask yourselves if there have been actual concrete solutions or improvements that are radically different from the previous administration,” Cárdenas Peña said. “On the border, we’re not seeing any proactive measures that would actually improve communities. The border wall is still being built. We’re seeing very heightened and restrictive immigration policies. Funding to Border Patrol is being increased instead of allocating that funding to help relocate people or reunify families leaving detention. Our communities deserve better than the lesser of two evils argument — and it’s just really demoralizing to see that the administration’s response is federal immigration restrictions on par with some of the most restrictive and dangerous policies we’ve seen in a long while.”

But the devastation facing asylum-seeking families is not specific or unique to the Southern border — and it’s often the most vulnerable who pay the biggest price for our nation’s disastrous immigration system.

Under the Biden administration, multiple children have recently died in shelters used to house migrants. In December, 5-year-old Jean Carlos Martinez died after becoming sick at a shelter in Chicago where other children have had to be hospitalized. In January, 3-month-old Yuleisy Astudillo died at a migrant shelter in New York. Both cases have raised concerns about the conditions inside migrant shelters and the medical care families have access to. In the weeks since the children’s deaths, it appears officials have made no significant efforts to prevent additional deaths stemming from these facilities.

Cárdenas Peña acknowledges that the situation facing newly arrived families is “extremely difficult.”

“This is yet another administration that has let immigrant communities down,” the campaign director said. “Change isn’t going to happen overnight. I know it’s not a gratifying answer for people who instill a lot of hope with the current administration or who are looking for more immediate solutions. The fight is eternal, and little by little, I am hopeful that our communities will receive the care and justice they deserve and not just a situation where we settle for crumbs from the state.”

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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