“Tell them not to hug,” Antar Davidson’s supervisor shouted at him. “Tell them not to hug!”
Davidson, 32, was employed as a youth care worker at a Tucson shelter run by Southwest Keys Programs, the organization contracted by the federal government to house immigrant children across multiple states. His job was to assist with the approximately 300 immigrant children, ages 4 to 17, living there.
As the only staff member fluent in Portuguese, he had been called in to translate for three recently-arrived Brazilian siblings ages 8, 10, and 16. The siblings were distraught. They hadn’t slept since they arrived at the shelter that morning, and staff had told them that their mother had disappeared. In Brazil, those who are “disappeared” are abducted from their homes and never seen again. They were terrified. Davidson addressed the oldest brother, “You have to be strong.” Weeping, the boy responded, “How?”
These three children were among the more than 2,300 separated from their parents between May 5 and June 9. They are caught up in the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which separates children from their parents in order to criminally prosecute all adults who are caught crossing into the United States, even those exercising their legal right to seek asylum.
After Davidson refused to order the siblings not to embrace, he says his supervisor began to yell instructions at them in English and Spanish. According to facility policy, the siblings were then split up into different areas because of their ages and genders. When Davidson asked a case manager where the children’s mother was, she said she didn’t know, wouldn’t know for a week, and that it would be another week to speak with her. Two weeks later, on June 12, Davidson resigned.
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Davidson had been seeking post-college employment when he interviewed and subsequently began work at the shelter in February. Inspired to work there because his father was an immigrant, Davidson proposed teaching a capoeira course. Posters on the walls read: “We are all humanitarian heroes.” Davidson says, “They have a progressive corporate culture they present. They make you feel like we’re a humanitarian organization.”
The Estraya Del Norte shelter on North Oracle Road in Tucson is unremarkable in every way. Painted beige, the squat building blends into a strip of old motels, many of them abandoned. Tucsonans likely pass the building every day without noticing or wondering who is inside. When organizers and activists finally learned there was a detention facility for immigrant children in their own community, they came together to form the Free the Children Coalition.
Last week at a coalition-led rally, several hundred protestors gathered in front of the Tucson federal courthouse with markered signs reading: “Morals Over Profit,” “We Will Not Abandon Our Children,” and “Where’s Our Humanity?”
Isabel Garcia, board member of humanitarian organization Derechos Humanos and a longtime immigration attorney, called the policy of family separation “the lowest of the low.”
“We’re here because we allowed it,” she said. “What are we going to do moving forward?”
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In 1924, Congress first passed legislation criminalizing illegal entry or re-entry, but over time, the prosecution of border-crossing has varied widely.
Border communities like Tucson have felt the impact of increased border policing in more recent years. In 2010, Arizona passed S.B. 1070, which required law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of detained or arrested individuals if officers have “reasonable suspicion” they might be in the country without status. (The Supreme Court later struck down much of the law, and narrowed this specific provision.) Operation Streamline, a program begun in 2005, brings 70 migrants accused of illegal entry or re-entry before a federal judge almost every weekday. If migrants plea guilty to illegal entry, they are sentenced to time in detention but receive a misdemeanor rather than a misdemeanor and a felony for border crossing. In some courtrooms, prosecution of all 70 defendants, who appear before the judge seven at a time, takes as little as half an hour.
But American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Billy Peard, who has been meeting with immigrant parents held in detention in Eloy and Florence, Arizona, says, “From what I can tell, there is no precedent for systematically prosecuting adults for illegal entry or re-entry if they came over with a minor child.”
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Davidson said the atmosphere at the shelter became “more intense” and “more authoritarian” after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” announcement in May. Previously, he said, many Guatemalan children who came to the United States without their parents were prepared to enter a shelter. “They were very compliant, they kept their heads down.” But then under zero tolerance “kids started coming in who didn’t know the drill, who were ripped from their parents. Laws were rolling out differently day to day,” Davidson says. “If case managers didn’t understand, you can imagine what kids didn’t understand.”
“You know that audio clip everyone’s listening to of kids’ crying?” Davidson says. “That’s something we were experiencing every day—those were the sounds of the evening as we were preparing to go home.”
Two days prior to the arrival of the Brazilian siblings, three kids ran away. Davidson witnessed the most acute behavior from children referred to by staff as “of tender age,” those under 12. Kids ran around, cried through the night, and hit teachers. One child demonstrated problematic sexual behaviors, grabbing at his teachers’ genitalia. He was 6.
“I call it a triple threat of trauma,” Davidson says. “Escaping traumatic experience in their countries, becoming traumatized entering, and then again in facilities. When you combine that with underpaid and untrained workers, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
The short- and long-term health consequences of separating children from their parents were confirmed by Dr. Eva Shapiro, a Tucson pediatrician of over 40 years. “A parent’s role is to mitigate these dangers,” Shapiro said. “Robbed of that buffer, children are susceptible to learning difficulties, depression, and chronic conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.” She continued, “Officials at the Department of Homeland Security claim they are acting to protect the best interest of minor children, but the White House and Department of Justice have vocally supported the idea of family separation as a deterrent to keep migrant families from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Last week, Tucson mother Daisy Pitkin awakened when her 3-year-old son cried out from a nightmare. After consoling her child, she sat on the edge of his bed as he fell back asleep and nearly had a panic attack. “I thought: What would happen if nobody came?” she said. “What would happen if a stranger came? That’s happening to children right now.”
Pitkin was one of 17 parents who brought their small children to a “Play Date” last week at Republican Rep. Martha McSally’s Tucson office. She said that contacting elected officials is “a foundational democratic act,” and that the parents’ chief objective was to find out the Congresswoman’s stance on the separation policy. For an hour, parents read stories, led children in songs, and helped kids make art.
When parents asked staff to call her D.C. office or try to reach the Congresswoman on her cell, their requests were denied. Staff told constituents that the office had two caseworkers: one for veterans’ issues and one to handle housing issues of elderly constituents. “When we asked what happens if one of her constituents comes asking about immigration, they said, ‘We don’t have anyone here who can talk about that,’” Pitkin said.
Another organizer and mom, Margot Veranes, said staffers asked why the group didn’t make an appointment or come when Congress wasn’t in session. “We don’t feel that this can wait,” Veranes said. “This needs to stop in the next five minutes ’cause every moment it’s happening to a new child—and the trauma for these kids and parents is going to be lifelong.”
In response to the “Play Date,” Congresswoman McSally’s chief of staff released a formal statement accusing the group of being led by “radical activists” and breaking into the office. “Events like these distract from the many issues our country faces and make it harder for our community to come together to address them,” the statement read.
Veranes, whose children are 6 months and 2 years old, argues that this is exactly the issue our country needs to address. “We’ll try anything to make this stop,” she said. “We have the luxury of being parents who are unified and we stand in solidarity with parents who don’t know where their kids are.”
The office handed out opinion forms, which many parents and some children filled out. One, from a 10-year-old, read: “Please try to stop this. It’s really wrong.”
On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order purporting to end family separation that in reality just opened the door to the mass and prolonged incarceration of children along with their families—and potentially simply delaying family separation. This policy also contradicts a 1997 federal court decision that children accompanied by their parents cannot be held for more than 20 days. Moreover, the Trump administration has no plan to reunite the thousands of children whom it previously took from their parents.
“There will not be a grandfathering of existing cases,” said a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
One of the Tucson Play Date organizers, Reverend Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church, a mother to 4- and 6-year-old daughters, explained the new policy this way: “What the president said is ‘We won’t separate families, we’ll incarcerate them.’ My hope is that this is a moment of awakening for many people so they can begin to see what’s truly happening in our nation.”