President Donald Trump claimed in June to have ended the practice of separating immigrant families at the southern border. “We are going to keep the families together,” he declared from the Oval Office.
Mr President, meet Clemente and his daughter Wendy, both fleeing gang violence in Guatemala. Your administration separated them six months ago and kept them apart.
These family separations, continuing but at a lower level than before, are an element of the real “emergency” at the border — the one also involving physical and sexual abuse of immigrant children in US custody and systematic deception from Washington.
The paradox is that Trump’s cruel policy to deter desperate immigrants appears counterproductive; apparently the furore it provoked drew attention to the possibility of migration. The result is a surge of Central American families traveling to the United States, with the number crossing the border far higher than a year earlier.
Clemente, 34, is from a small Guatemalan village. He doesn’t want to use his last name because of all he has been through at the hands of the US government. There is no way to verify parts of his story, but individuals who work with immigrants say it rings true.
A gang in Guatemala murdered his cousin, and last year gangsters stabbed Clemente’s father and sent warnings to Clemente: “It’s now your turn.”
Terrified, Clemente fled with his eldest daughter, Wendy, then 15, leaving his wife and five other, younger children, whom he did not believe the gang would target. He feared that the gang would abduct Wendy, an excellent student who loves books, and he could not bear that thought.
They crossed Mexico without serious incident, then waded across the Rio Grande and turned themselves in to Border Patrol officers, requesting asylum. That was Aug. 20, two months after Trump said he had ended the family separation policy. But officials promptly separated Clemente and Wendy.
Clemente was put in a “hielera,” or ice box, notorious detention rooms predating Trump that are kept cold. Clemente, wet from the river crossing, was soon freezing as well as hungry and weak because he had given his food to Wendy. “As a dad, the last thing you want is for your daughter to suffer,” he explained simply. “So I gave everything to her.”
In this frail state, he caught pneumonia and passed out. Many hours went by before he was taken to a hospital, unconscious and gravely ill. Inadequate health care in detention centres is common, and two migrant children died in December in Border Patrol custody.
“I woke up in the hospital, and I didn’t know where I was,” Clemente told me. “It was a nightmare. My first question was, ‘Where’s my daughter?’” After he was released from the hospital and later from detention, he found himself on the streets of Brownsville, Texas.
“He was distraught and he was crying,” recalled Sergio Cordova, a volunteer in Brownsville who does heroic work with immigrants, funded by donations, and discovered Clemente at the bus station. “I gave him a hug and he started saying he can’t find his daughter, he doesn’t know where his daughter is.”
Eventually, Clemente discovered that she was in a shelter. She was allowed to telephone him once a week, but not return to his care; his voice broke as he described her as “an angel from God.”
Immigration is a complicated challenge, but ripping families apart isn’t the solution. Perhaps the best approach is to help improve security in Central America so that people like Clemente need not flee. Some anti-gang initiatives there have been very successful in reducing murder rates that drive migration.
“If it were peaceful, I’d like to be back there where I grew up,” said Clemente, who received help from Immigrant Families Together in his quest to reunite with his daughter. “I’d love to be in the land where I was born.”
The Texas Civil Rights Project found that at least 272 adults were separated from a child family member in the six months after Trump supposedly ended family separation. The youngest to be separated was an 8-month-old girl taken from her mother.
Officials are less likely now to separate parents from children, but they continue to separate grandparents from grandchildren, siblings from siblings. The day I spoke with Cordova, the volunteer, he was helping two brothers from Honduras who had no other family left: Junior, 21, had raised Andy, 7.
When gang members brutally beat up Junior for refusing to sell drugs for them, he fled with Andy to the United States — and officials separated them on arrival six months ago. So little Andy is now in a shelter, apart from the only person who has loved and protected him.
“I see this all the time,” Cordova told me. “They cry with me, I cry with them.”
Finally, there was a break in Clemente’s case. On Wednesday night, authorities released Wendy to him. After six months apart, they had a teary reunion.
“I thought I might never get her back again,” Clemente said. “I am very thankful.”
So, yes, President Trump, you’re right that there’s an emergency at the border. It’s a humanitarian crisis of family separation that you helped create.
© 2019 New York Times News Service