There’s immense controversy over the policy of separating families at the Mexico-United States border attributed to the current administration, and specifically to President Donald Trump. But this policy didn’t start with the current administration, though the current “zero-tolerance” approach is making more headlines than we’ve seen since the policy’s implementation years ago.
It’s caused public outrage because the separations are presented as moral crises instead of legal issues. While this “zero-tolerance” policy may deter those wishing to come to the U.S. illegally, it doesn’t solve past issues with immigrants seeking refuge. The following story describes what one man faced when he sought asylum for himself and his 4-year-old son.
On May 12, 2018, Walter Armando Jimenez Melendez told his son Jeremy that they had to leave their home in San Salvador. After Melendez was extorted by a gang member at his home and later accused by police of being a gangster, he knew they had to leave for good.
Fearing for His Life
Being uncertain of what would happen to them if they tried to flee, Melendez planned to ask for asylum at the border. He reports that he was not trying to enter the United States illegally, and ultimately sought protection because he feared for the lives of himself and his son.
Melendez then took Jeremy by the hand and approached the border. With hat in hand, father and son gave themselves up at the Texas border on May 24. They remained together for five days, unaware that they would be separated.
Would He See His Son Again?
Five days later, on May 29, border patrol agents told Melendez that he had to attend a court hearing. He waited two hours until he was told him that he wouldn’t be reunited with his child. “They separated us with lies,” Melendez said. This angered the father, of course, but above all he was sad about his son.
Melendez didn’t get to say goodbye to Jeremy, reassuring him that no matter what happened, everything would be alright. Words of comfort are what a child needs at that moment, but Melendez didn’t get that chance. The boy was sent to a center while he awaited a court appearance to plead his case to a judge.
Over the next month, thousands of children were sent to facilities while their parents awaited a similar fate. Melendez thought he and his son would be protected since they were seeking asylum, but the U.S. considered Melendez’s crossing, like others during “zero-tolerance,” as simply an illegal attempt to enter the country.
What’s Really Going On
Parents and children are separated every day at the border. The children are labeled as “unaccompanied minors” and then are sent to government custody or foster care. The parents, on the other hand, must go through the legal system and are treated as potential criminals.
Between October 1, 2017, and May 31, 2018, at least 2,700 children were separated from their parents. However, the large majority of them (around 2,000), were separated in the last six weeks of that window, from April 18 to May 31. This meant that nearly 45 children have been separated from their parents each day.
How is the Government Separating Families?
While there isn’t an official policy stating that every family entering the U.S. without papers will be separated, there is a policy that suggests all adults caught crossing into the U.S. illegally are supposed to be criminally prosecuted.
When something like this happens to a parent, it’s inevitable that some form of separation from their children is next. People are taken from their respective borders and are held in immigration detention before being seen by an immigration judge.
The judge then decides if they will be deported as an unauthorized immigrant. However, migrants who’ve been referred for criminal prosecution can get sent to federal jail and then be brought before a federal judge weeks later to see if they’ll get prison time.
Being Told Lies
This is usually when the separation happens since children cannot be held in federal jail. According to federal defenders, some border patrol agents lie to families about why they’re being separated and for how long. This is exactly what happened with Melendez and Jeremy.
Border Patrol Agents
In fact, a federal defender told the Washington Post that parents were lied to. For example, they were told that their children were just being taken away briefly for questioning. Another defender told the Boston Globe that in several cases, children were taken away by border patrol agents who said they were going to give them a bath.
Then, as the hours passed, it dawned on the parents that their children were not coming back. Some women even recounted stories that border patrol agents told them that their “families would not exist anymore” and they would “never get to see their children again.”
Some have criticized the public outcry to stop family separation at the border, claiming that whether it’s a family crossing or not, illegally entering the United States is a crime. But a case like Melendez’s is unique, because unlike the majority of families who’ve tried crossing the border illegally, he was actually seeking asylum.
Detention of Asylum Seekers
While the current administration has increased the detention of asylum seekers, they’ve had to release most of the families they’ve caught. Melendez and son Jeremy were one of those families.
Melendez was reunited with Jeremy on July 10, six weeks after being separated. “[I went] without knowing where he was, if he was eating, how they were treating him,” Melendez told Reuters. But on that joyous day, he shared a meal with his son for the first time since May. “Imagine the joy I felt,” he recalled.
Melendez, who was held in two different facilities in Texas, said he didn’t learn he would rejoin Jeremy until four hours before. When he was told he would be reunited with his child, he refused to believe it until he actually saw him. Jeremy was among 63 other children under the age of five to be reunited with their parents.
The father and son plan to move to Rock Hill, South Carolina, where they will be reunited with Melendez’s wife and stepson. But, the ordeal still haunts the father. “Sometimes I try to be strong as to not show him sadness.”
“I hope that from here on everything is pure joy for him and that he can quickly forget about all of this.” It will likely take time for Jeremy to process and move past what happened to him, but luckily he is young enough that he can move past it. The president has responded to the immigration crisis by saying, “Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That’s the solution.”