Federal public defenders say that immigration enforcement officials in the United States have repeatedly deceived immigrant parents arriving in the US seeking shelter from violent conditions in their home country, telling those individuals that they are taking their children away for baths or other benign reasons only to never return with them.
Miguel Nogueres, a federal public defender in McAllen, Texas said that he’s seen a dramatic increase in the number of cases his office sees on any given day during the presidency of Donald Trump, and that he has been hearing from clients that they were lied to by Border Patrol agents when their children were taken away, and not being given further information about the whereabouts of their kids.
He says that they have been trying to count the number of children that are being taken from parents, but that doing so has been made difficult by the changes in American immigration policies that allow federal agents to separate families with the expressed goal of deterring future immigrants.
"Every day we hear that parents are being separated from their children and are given different reasons for the separation. Some are told the truth," Mr Nogueres told The Independent. "Others are told that they're children are being taken for a break to play, or bathe, or sleep, ... little white lies to ameliorate an exploding situation. The parents will realize they were lied to when they meet us before court."
Mr Nogueres said that he and his colleague —a fellow federal public defender named Azalea Aleman-Bendiks, who also represents clients in mass deportation hearings and who recently made similar statements about Border Patrol deception to The Boston Globe — have seen the number of people being pushed through the courts jump from around 20 to 30 clients a day under the administrations of Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, up to as many as 170 a day now.
During that time the makeup of those cases has shifted as well.
Mr Nogueres said that the cases he came across before would skew towards people with criminal records, and now the cases skew in the opposite direction.
"So, 90 per cent of those cases would be people with criminal records and less than 10 per cent of those would be with no criminal record," Mr Nogueres said of the way things used to work, before noting that the representation of criminal vs civil defendants has essentially reversed itself, from what he has observed.
A Border Patrol spokesman said that the claims that these children were in any way inhumanely or unlawfully taken from their parents are not substantiated.
"I would tell you nothing could be further from the truth and these allegations are unsubstantiated," Daniel Hetlage, the spokesman, said in a statement.
A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said, when contacted for comment, that the agency is committed to ensuring the parents are able to get in touch with their children, and to find out where their children are located.
"ICE is committed to connecting these family members as quickly as possible after separation so that parents know the location of their children and have regular communication with them in line with ICE policies and detention standards, including the directive Detention and Removal of Alien Parents or Legal Guardians," Danielle Bennett, the spokesperson, said in a statement
"ICE will post new information in all of our 72-hour facilities advising detained parents who are trying to locate, and/or communicate with, a child in the custody of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to call the Detention Reporting and Information Line (DRIL) for assistance," Ms Bennett continued, noting an effort to inform inmates that began last week. "Separated parents who are still in US Marshals Service custody and have not yet been transferred to ICE can also call the DRIL for assistance in locating their minor child. The information provided by these parents to the DRIL operators will be forwarded to ORR for action. ICE and ORR will work together to locate separated children, verify the parent/child relationship, and set up regular communication and removal coordination, if necessary.”
The issue of family separation has been a cause of public outcry against the Trump administration's handling of immigration issues, though it is not clear how many families have actually been separated so far. The administration has cited restrictions on children being in federal detention centres that only allow for adult detainees. Children are referred to a different agency.
Once families are separated, it can become difficult for them to be reunited, and it is not at all clear that a child will be deported alongside their parent if the parent loses their court cases.
Mr Nogueres said that he tells it how it is when clients ask if they'll see their children any time soon: He doesn't know, but he tries to get them the opportunity to call the relevant agencies to ask if their kids are OK. But, they often face a confusing, uphill battle and they may have to fight it once they're back home.
"I tell them I hope they'll be reunited, but I know from what they've told me that they will not be reunited immediately," Mr Nogueres said. "The children are sent god knows where. The parents are cent to a processing centre in McAllen. ... I have to tell them to mentally be prepared to be deported without their children, because I know that it has happened and that when they get to their country to immediately go to the authorities, to go to the state department of the country, to go to the US embassy, and to find a reporter from a newspaper. That's the best I can do for them."