Immigration Advocates Urge Biden Administration for More Concrete Change

Hundreds have been deported in the last week, even as President Biden signed several executive orders Tuesday to undo the Trump administration’s hard-line anti-immigration policies. The orders include a push to reunify families torn apart under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy and a review of the Trump policy known as “Remain in Mexico” that requires non-Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their immigration cases wind through court, leaving tens of thousands waiting in dangerous conditions along the border. Reporter Aura Bogado says that despite the Biden administration’s new “tone,” continued deportations of vulnerable people demonstrate “a continuation of the same practices that happened under President Trump and previously under Obama.” Erika Pinheiro, an immigration attorney and the policy and litigation director of Al Otro Lado, a binational nonprofit helping immigrants on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, says many migrants left waiting in Mexico are losing patience with assurances that the new administration will have a plan for them. “If we don’t have an answer for these people, other groups will fill that information void, like cartels and like smugglers, and ultimately the lack of a plan is going to result in more migrant deaths,” says Pinheiro.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We look now at President Biden’s latest moves to undo the Trump administration’s hard-line anti-immigrant policies. In an address from the Oval Office Tuesday, President Biden built on executive orders he announced during his first week in office by signing three new orders.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: With the first action today, we’re going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration, that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, their mothers and fathers, at the border, and with no plan, none whatsoever, to reunify the children, who are still in custody, and their parents. The second action addresses the root causes of our migration to our southern border. And the third action, the third order I’m going to be signing, orders a full review of the previous administration’s harmful and counterproductive immigration policies, basically across the board.

AMY GOODMAN: One new order establishes a task force to reunify migrant families separated under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. It will be led by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who was confirmed Tuesday by the Senate as the first Latinx and immigrant to lead the department. Mayorkas was born in Havana, Cuba, is the son of Jewish Cuban refugees from the Holocaust.

Biden also ordered a review of the Trump policy known as “Remain in Mexico” that requires non-Mexican migrants to stay in Mexico as their immigration cases wind through court, and has left tens of thousands of asylum seekers waiting in dangerous conditions along the border. This is asylum seeker Marlen, speaking to the advocacy group People Without Borders, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, about facing homelessness with her family after being sent to Mexico.

MARLEN: [translated] We vividly remember when we arrived to the immigration office in Mexico. They didn’t give us a place to sleep or anything to eat. Our children slept on the floor that night.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, has deported hundreds of immigrants in recent days, despite Biden’s call for a moratorium, including a survivor of the 2019 mass shooting at the El Paso, Texas, Walmart. She was deported to Mexico last week. The woman, identified only as Rosa, had been cooperating in the investigation into the shooting. Local outlets report she was apprehended after a traffic stop for a broken brake light. This is Rosa speaking by phone with El Paso station KVIA.

ROSA: And when he told me I have to go in to the police station, I was really scared, because I know they can deport me. That was my first thought. … I want to testify against him. I want to tell what happened and everything. I’m hoping to be there, be back, be OK. That’s all I hope.

AMY GOODMAN: The Biden administration has also deported a man named Paul Pierrilus to Haiti, who New York Congressmember Mondaire Jones had worked to successfully stop the deportation just weeks ago, before Biden was sworn in. But around 3 a.m. Tuesday morning, he tweeted, quote, “At 3am, my staff woke up to an urgent call. Suddenly, and in the dead of night, ICE was set to deport Rockland County’s beloved Paul Pierrilus to Haiti, a country where he has never been,” unquote.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Tijuana, Mexico, Erika Pinheiro is with us, an immigration attorney and the policy director for Al Otro Lado — in English, “The Other Side.” Also with us, Aura Bogado, senior reporter at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Aura, let’s begin with you. Can you explain what’s going on? You have these executive actions, that are extremely important, including one that calls for a halt to deportations. This is the president of the United States. And yet hundreds of people have been deported under this new administration. What is going on?

AURA BOGADO: Thanks for having me, Amy.

What we’re seeing is quite a departure from the previous administration, and I don’t want to discount the importance of appearances, the importance of the way that the president of this country talks about any human being, including people who may be detained or deported. We’re also seeing a lot of really great language and the commission of a task force, another order to suspend deportations.

And yet we see a continuation of the same practices that happened under President Trump and previously under Obama. And I do think that there’s a difference. There’s absolutely a difference in tone. But what we’re seeing is, for example, with the commission of the task force, we’re seeing DHS, which is the same agency that separated children at the border, now tasked with figuring out where these families are. It’s a little unclear what will happen after that.

And I think that for a lot of people that I’ve been talking to in the last day or so since the executive orders were announced, it doesn’t really go far enough and also sets a commission — in some case, a task force — for something that a lot of people voted on. The Biden ticket sort of stood against all of that, stood against those family separations. So the idea that we now need a task force to figure out how to move forward, instead of having something in place, when Biden also has the House and the Senate, rings hollow for a lot of people.

AMY GOODMAN: Erika, I wanted to ask you about your clients Alvaro and his son, Alvaro Jr., who just turned 9 years old. The little boy said all he wants for his birthday is to be reunited with his father. They’ve been separated since he was 6 years old. This is Alvaro speaking to NBC News about the day the two were separated.

ALVARO: [translated] An officer told me, “Give me your children’s things, because you are going to different places.” And I didn’t know what was going to happen to my child.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Erika Pinheiro, if you can talk about — among the executive orders are this issue of separation, the hundreds, over 600 children still left, it’s believed, separated from their parents. In some cases, the administration doesn’t even know where the parents are. In hundreds of cases, they may well be in the United States; in another few hundred, they may be outside the United States. But, I mean, clearly, Biden has put a top priority on this, because the people serving on this committee are the secretaries of homeland security, Mayorkas, just confirmed; the secretary of health and human services, the former attorney general of California, Becerra; and the attorney general, yet to be confirmed; and first lady Jill Biden. Talk about what this means.

ERIKA PINHEIRO: Well, thank you so much for having me, first of all.

And I just want to mention that it’s probably well over 600 families that are still separated. The 600 number are the number of parents that have yet to be located. So, amongst that population, we’re not sure who’s still separated, who might be reunified. But we are in touch with hundreds of families that have been separated for years and remain separated with no clear pathway toward reunification. I would guess that the full number of separated families could be a thousand or more. We’re still not sure.

I am heartened, like many others, to see that there is a task force, that there is movement toward reunification. But working with the families every single day, I can tell you that every day of delay feels like an eternity for a parent who’s separated from their child. I was disappointed to see in the executive order that the task force is given 120 days until their first report out, and then periodic report outs after that. I would hope that the task force reunifies families on a rolling basis. Like I said, we’re in touch with families now. They’ve been vetted. They’re ready to come back.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s four months. The task force is given four months to study this?

ERIKA PINHEIRO: Right. And there’s no indication that they’ll begin any reunifications immediately. There’s no indication that they’ll bring back parents who have been deported without their children. And I can tell you, from working on this issue, that the government has fought those types of reunifications every step of the way. So, I am hoping that this task force is not another stall tactic to delay these reunifications. And I hope that Biden keeps his promise and actually reunifies these families.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about the Alvaros. Tell us more about Alvaro and his little boy.

ERIKA PINHEIRO: So, Alvaro, like many other parents, was separated from his son at the border. He came to the United States seeking protection. In his case, they actually told him he was being separated. In other cases, agents told the parent, “Your child is just going to take a shower. They’ll be right back,” or “You’re going to court. When you come back, your child will be here.” And then, of course, they never saw their child again. In other cases, parents were tricked into signing their own deportation. They were told, “Your child will be on the plane with you, or they’ll meet you in home country.” And then they get back to their home country, and their child is still in the United States. You know, like Alvaro and his son, many of these families are now going on three years of being separated from each other.

And the children, for the most part, are not detained anymore. They’re living with families or other sponsors, but in various situations. Some are in really precarious situations, have gone from house to house. And I’ve even talked to kids that are now homeless because they don’t have anyone to care for them in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk further, Aura Bogado, about this absolutely critical issue? As Erika said, every single day — when you’re talking about children who are separated from their parents, every single day matters.

AURA BOGADO: It does. And I’ve spent a lot of time investigating family separations in the previous previous administration, under the Obama administration. I published a big investigation at the end of last year about a child who in 2013 was just 10 years old when she was separated from her family at the border. She spent seven years, close to seven years, going from — bouncing around from shelter to shelter. She was in Washington, in Texas, in New York, in Florida, Massachusetts, you name it. She was sort of all over the country. She started to believe that her family had abandoned her. Meanwhile, they were in North Carolina the whole time trying to figure out what happened to her. She was alone. She was drugged for a big chunk of that time. And she was 17 when she requested to be deported back to Honduras.

I was able to talk to her right around that time, and she was able to reconnect by phone with her family in North Carolina, but then never reunited. So she had her entire adolescence bouncing around, drugged, in shelters, from the age of 10 to 17. You know, during that time, she hardly learned to read or write. She can’t do either very well. She can speak some phrases in English. But imagine your entire adolescence. Imagine everything you learned from the ages of 10 to 17. She didn’t even have a hug during that time, because that’s not allowed either with other participants in the shelters she was in or with staffers. And now she’s in a very violent situation back home in Honduras.

So, when Biden talks about this national shame, this idea that we’re going to have a task force to look at this very discrete number of families that fall under the specific scope under one summer during Trump, I do wonder if we can also sort of take a moment and think about what truth and reconciliation means in other examples, what we hold other nations to, and whether we’ll ever be able to really reconcile the violence, really, that’s happened to migrant families at the border for years. And also the public’s attention — I mean, this was a really, really heightened issue during the Trump administration, a lot of times used as a political football. There was a lot of posturing around this. And now we see a lot of celebration for the executive orders. Maybe a lot of change will come through it. Maybe not. I mean, if you compare Obama and Trump just on the numbers alone, one president deported far many more than the other, and that was Obama. So, we’ll see what Biden does.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Erika Pinheiro about the “Remain in Mexico” policy. You’re in Tijuana right now, al otro lado, the other side. Talk about what exactly it is, who has to remain in Mexico, and what’s happening to them.

ERIKA PINHEIRO: So, two years ago, in January of 2019, the Trump administration started the program known as “Remain in Mexico.” And basically what it does is forces mostly Central American migrants, some South American migrants, even some random Haitian migrants and random other migrants, to wait in Mexico for U.S. court hearings.

When these immigrants are in Mexico — and more than 65,000 have been sent to Mexico under this program — they’re not given any kind of support in Mexico. They’re waiting in some of the most dangerous cities in the world along the U.S.-Mexico border. They are rarely communicated with regarding future court dates, so court dates could change. A lot of people miss court because they’re just not able to receive any communication from the U.S. courts. And I think by the end of the program — or, by the time the program stopped, about in March of 2020, I think 5% or less had access to an attorney.

So, as of March 2020, the CDC order closed asylum processing at the border. Anyone who was still in Mexico waiting for a court hearing has been stuck here since then. There has been — you know, the CDC order has been renewed every single month. There’s no indication as to when people are going to be processed out.

And when Biden was elected, there was a lot of hope amongst the migrants here that there would be a plan for processing them into the United States so they could continue their asylum hearings in the United States. But as we’ve seen with these recent executive orders, they’ve been given no timeline.

And I can say, as an advocate working here in Mexico, people have been very patient in the face of really dire circumstances. You know, I’ve met dozens and dozens of families who have suffered assaults, rapes, attempted kidnappings. They’ve actually been kidnapped. Family members have been killed. They’re homeless. They’ve lost their jobs. The pandemic has really had a disproportionate effect on this population.

And we’re really, honestly, very disappointed about the fact that the executive order does not have a timeline for processing. There’s only so much and so far that the migrants will listen to us when we say, “Wait for the plan. Don’t rush the border. Don’t try to go to the port of entry. Just wait for the administration to tell you what to do.” You know, if we don’t have an answer for these people, other groups will fill that information void, like cartels and like smugglers, and ultimately, the lack of a plan is going to result in more migrant deaths.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to give this update on today’s headline: The Associated Press reports a dozen Mexican state police officers have been arrested for their possible involvement in the massacre of 19 people in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The officers face homicide charges. The 19 bodies were found shot and charred in a town near the U.S.-Mexico border in January. Relatives of asylum seekers from Guatemala say they believe some of the dead could be their loved ones, including teenagers who were trying to reach the U.S.. Only four bodies have been identified — two Guatemalan, two Mexican. Do you know about this, Erika?

ERIKA PINHEIRO: Yes, I do. And the only surprise —

AMY GOODMAN: Can you —

ERIKA PINHEIRO: Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

ERIKA PINHEIRO: The only surprising thing about this story is that the police were actually arrested. Living on the border in Mexico, I can tell you that I have personally tried to call the police countless times when migrants were raped. I had a client who actually escaped a kidnapper by beating him with a pipe she found in the house where she was being kept with her child. You know, we called the police, and they didn’t even want to come that day to take a report from her.

We’ve seen countless cases of migrants being extorted by immigration agents, being extorted by the police. When we try to report things like smuggling operations, we’re told, you know, they’re not going to do anything unless it involves child sex trafficking. Other types of smuggling is just not even a priority for law enforcement here. So, it really doesn’t surprise me at all that the police were involved, especially in Tamaulipas, where we’ve heard numerous reports of systematic extortion, assault, kidnapping by security forces, by Mexican security forces.

So, I don’t really see a solution for this. As long as the ports of entry remain closed to processing, migrants have no other choice but to really engage with smugglers to try to cross the border to seek protection between ports of entry. And if they don’t engage with smugglers, that’s when they get kidnapped and killed, like we saw in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Erika, I also wanted to ask you about your group, Al Otro Lado, tweeting last night that it’s joined several groups, including Louisiana Advocates for Immigrants in Detention, to file a civil rights complaint against ICE in LaSalle Corrections for their use of torture in making Black refugees sign their own deportation papers. What’s happened here?

ERIKA PINHEIRO: Again, this is something that is unfortunately so common across the immigration system but rarely comes to light because it’s happening behind prison doors. At LaSalle in particular, we’ve seen systemic and continued torture of Black migrants. During the pandemic, there were numerous incidents where detainees were not given PPE. They were pepper-sprayed. They were put in solitary confinement. They’re lied to about their legal rights.

So, right now, although we are technically under a deportation moratorium, we’ve seen hundreds of Black migrants being deported. It seems like they’re emptying the detention centers into Haiti, which is experiencing extreme political turmoil right now. And in the case of the Haitian migrants that are the subject of the complaint, they are being lied to. They’re being told that they don’t have an option to continue their cases. They’re being coerced by terrible detention conditions. And so, the result is that people are being deported to a very dangerous situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Aura Bogado, the president has issued an executive order to end all new contracts with for-profit prison companies, but that’s that are run by the DOJ, the Department of Justice. He hasn’t talked about ICE. And we know about the horrific conditions in a number of ICE jails that are run by these for-profit companies. Ultimately, can you just talk about what you expect to see under Biden and what you think is most important to address right now?

AURA BOGADO: Well, it’s important to keep in mind that immigration detention is called “detention,” and it’s not called “imprisonment,” because it’s not technically punishment for a crime. These are people who are being held on civil charges. And again, for a ticket that ran on sort of rehumanizing an entire population of migrants and immigrants, to continue this, while putting a pause on other programs, is not necessary. There is no public health or public safety reason for why — which people and families must continue to remain detained.

I’m not sure exactly what we can expect from the Biden administration. Again, I do think that the tone is very important, and I’m not saying that in any kind of facetious way. I do think it’s important, that the portrait is really important.

I do think that it’s important to keep in mind that one of the people who was deported was a survivor of the El Paso shooting. And the ideology behind the gunman was to literally massacre and get rid of a whole bunch of people that he didn’t see as belonging to this country. So, when we have this new administration going and deporting somebody who survived that crime, who likely was eligible for a new visa, and then literally getting rid of that person, that does, unfortunately, fit with a certain kind of xenophobia that is rampant in this country.

So I’m not sure what we can expect to see, but it’s not so much as a preview, but sort of the early signs. I can’t say that I’m too surprised, but we’ve got some signs about what the next four years might look like for immigration and migration: a different tone, maybe not different actions.

AMY GOODMAN: Why independent reporting like yours is so important. Aura Bogado, I thank you so much for being with us, senior reporter at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. And, Erika Pinheiro, immigration attorney at Al Otro Lado, policy director, thank you for joining us from Tijuana, Mexico.

Next up, Jeff Bezos announces he’s stepping down as CEO of Amazon, this amidst new calls to break up the almost $2 trillion company. Stay with us.