The Government’s Use of Coercion on Separated Parents

“Even when I tried to pray, the words of the songs I have sung my whole life would not come to me.”—Mrs. A.R.

“I signed the paper because I felt I had no choice, no control.”—Mr. W.L.

“[They]…treated us [mothers] as less than human.”—Mrs. D.P.

“They said they would take us to El Pozo or “the well” as punishment if we kept crying about our children.”—Mrs. A.E.

These are the words of immigrant parents whose children were torn from them and sent to undisclosed locations, while the parents themselves were locked away in detention centers. These parents, according to a complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) this morning, were coerced by DHS officials into signing documents they may not have understood, ostensibly waiving their legal rights, including their right to be reunified with their children. Dozens of separated parents, most of whom signed paperwork they did not understand, remain detained and separated from their children while others have been deported back to possible harm without their children.

The U.S. government’s “zero tolerance” policy leading to the forced separation of thousands of immigrant parents and their children purportedly ended by executive order in late June 2018, though the impact of this policy leaves permanent scars in its wake.  This administration’s unspeakably cruel treatment of asylum-seeking immigrant families represents one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history.

Over the past several weeks, Immigration Justice Campaign staff members and volunteers met with separated parents in El Paso and Dilley, Texas to document their traumatic experiences and help them navigate the immigration detention and court system, and ultimately be reunified with their children. Each parent’s story was different, but as the interviews went on, troubling, common themes were revealed, as stories of coercion by government officials surfaced.

These parents are desperate to save their children. The government took full advantage with actions that are not only morally inexcusable, but also unconstitutional. Today’s complaint reveals the pervasive nature of this coercion at the hands of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, and how each parent’s desperation was used as a springboard to further disadvantage individuals seeking refuge in the United States.

AILA and the American Immigration Council urge the government’s oversight agencies to investigate DHS’s use of coercive tactics against parents, and ensure that all parents and children subjected to this coercion be immediately reunified.

The common themes our teams witnessed and documented in today’s complaint are harrowing. Of course, it is essential to note additional common themes in the stories relayed to us by these parents: incredible resilience, and the desire to do anything to save one’s child. Despite having faced adversity at every turn of their journey to the United States, the strength of these parents is staggering, and did not falter, even in the face of government-led manipulation and coercion. They and their children deserve better than this.

See how the Immigration Justice Campaign is fighting for these parents, and countless others, in need of a fair day in court and how you can help:

by Katie Shepherd