Hundreds of Immigrant Children Have Been Taken From Parents at U.S. Border


The data was prepared by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services that takes custody of children who have been removed from migrant parents. Senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which processes migrants at the border, initially denied that the numbers were so high. But after they were confirmed to The Times by three federal officials who work closely with these cases, a spokesman for the health and human services department on Friday acknowledged in a statement that there were “approximately 700.”

Homeland security officials said the agency does not separate families at the border for deterrence purposes. “As required by law, D.H.S. must protect the best interests of minor children crossing our borders, and occasionally this results in separating children from an adult they are traveling with if we cannot ascertain the parental relationship, or if we think the child is otherwise in danger,” a spokesman for the agency said in a statement.

But Trump administration officials have suggested publicly in the past that they were, indeed, considering a deterrence policy. Last year, John F. Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff, floated the idea while he was serving as homeland security secretary.

If approved, the plan would have closed detention facilities that are designed to house families and replaced them with separate shelters for adults and children. The White House supported the move and convened a group of officials from several federal agencies to consider its merits. But the Department of Homeland Security has said the policy was never adopted.

Children removed from their families are taken to shelters run by nongovernmental organizations. There, workers seek to identify a relative or guardian in the United States who can take over the child’s care. But if no such adult is available, the children can languish in custody indefinitely. Operators of these facilities say they are often unable to locate the parents of separated children because the children arrive without proper records.

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A woman was reunited with her 7-year-old daughter in Chicago in March after they had been separated for four months in immigration detention.

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Hope Hall/Aclu

Once a child has entered the shelter system, there is no firm process to determine whether they have been separated from someone who was legitimately their parent, or for reuniting parents and children who had been mistakenly separated, said a Border Patrol official, who was not authorized to discuss the agency’s policies publicly.

“The idea of punishing parents who are trying to save their children’s lives, and punishing children for being brought to safety by their parents by separating them, is fundamentally cruel and un-American,” said Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, an advocacy group that conducts interviews and monitoring at immigration detention centers, including those that house children. “It really to me is just a horrific ‘Sophie’s Choice’ for a mom.”

Mirian has pinballed across Texas, held at various times in three other detention centers. She is part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of many immigrant parents seeking to prohibit family separations at the border.

Her son’s name, along with Mirian’s surname, are being withheld for their safety. But in a declaration she filed in that case, she said she was never told why her son was being taken away from her. Since February, the only word she has received about him has come from a case manager at the facility in San Antonio where he is being held. Her son asked about her and “cried all the time” in the days after he arrived at the facility, the case worker said, adding that the boy had developed an ear infection and a cough.

“I had no idea that I would be separated from my child for seeking help,” Mirian said in her sworn statement. “I am so anxious to be reunited with him.”

Protecting children at the border is complicated because there have, indeed, been instances of fraud. Tens of thousands of migrants arrive there every year, and those with children in tow are often released into the United States more quickly than adults who come alone, because of restrictions on the amount of time that minors can be held in custody. Some migrants have admitted they brought their children not only to remove them from danger in such places as Central America and Africa, but because they believed it would cause the authorities to release them from custody sooner.

Others have admitted to posing falsely with children who are not their own, and Border Patrol officials say that such instances of fraud are increasing.

As the debate carries on, pressure from the White House to enact a separation policy has continued. In conversations this month with Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, Mr. Trump has repeatedly expressed frustration that the agency has not been aggressive enough in policing the border, according to a person at the White House who is familiar with the discussions.

Officials presented Mr. Trump with a list of proposals, including the plan to routinely separate immigrant adults from their children. The president urged Ms. Nielsen to move forward with the policies, the person said.

But even groups that support stricter immigration policies have stopped short of endorsing a family separation policy. Jessica M. Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, one such group, said that family separation should only be used as a “last resort.”

However, she said that some migrants were using children as “human shields” in order to get out of immigration custody faster.

“It makes no sense at all for the government to just accept these attempts at fraud,” Ms. Vaughan said. “If it appears that the child is being used in this way, it is in the best interest of the child to be kept separately from the parent, for the parent to be prosecuted, because it’s a crime and it’s one that has to be deterred and prosecuted.”

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On the Border With the National Guard: An ‘Extra Pair of Eyes and Ears’


At another watch post farther down the river, male and female soldiers were also focusing their binoculars intently on the brushy river banks, and the landscape beyond.

Across the river, a Mexican neighborhood hummed with life. Children waded into the water at the river’s edge and a man fished near a smoky barbecue grill. A rooster crowed as a soldier wiped smudges from the lenses of his binoculars with his uniform. A white car peeled out on the Mexican side and then sped out of the neighborhood; one soldier noticed that it was the car’s third pass-through that afternoon.

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A National Guard briefing. Officials have taken steps to demilitarize the look of their operations on the border.

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Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

“Hey!” a man on the Mexican side shouted at the troops.

The soldiers ignored him, and kept their binoculars trained ahead.

At the observation posts and at the Guard’s armory headquarters in the nearby town of Weslaco, the troops could be seen embarking on two seemingly contradictory missions: standing out, and blending in.

Up high on the edges of the river, the troops were meant to be seen and feared. They were heavily armed, dressed in battle fatigues and equipped with military vehicles. The chatter from their radios filled the air.

But out on the streets of the South Texas cities they traveled through, they were all but invisible as they sat in ordinary civilian pickup trucks. Many people still associate the calling-up of the National Guard with disasters and riots, and the troops’ lack of visibility in border communities is an attempt to soften their presence. Aiming to allay criticism that the deployments turn border cities into militarized zones, officials have taken steps to demilitarize the look of their operations.

At one point on Tuesday, troops in a minivan and Ford 4×4 pickup trucks sat for a long time at a four-way stop as a group of high school students got off a yellow school bus. Many of the students crossing the streets did not look twice at the waiting vehicles. They had interrupted a military convoy that was cutting through their town, but didn’t know it.

In Texas, the National Guard had already been deployed on the border as part of a state-ordered call-up, and this low-key visibility in border cities has helped ease any worries that the military was invading.

“They were just embedded so efficiently that really you couldn’t tell that they were out there,” said Pete Saenz, the mayor of the border city of Laredo who supports the new deployment of troops. “If they do it the way it’s been done, using the National Guard the way it’s been done in the past, I think it’s acceptable.”

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Discarded ladders used by immigrants to scale a border fence near the Rio Grande.

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Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

As part of the president’s order, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that Texas would deploy more than 1,000 troops to the state’s 1,200-mile border with Mexico, adding about 300 troops a week to the current contingent of about 250 troops. Mr. Trump said he expects a total of 2,000 to 4,000 troops along the southwest border, including additional deployments in New Mexico and Arizona.

In an interview on Fox Business on Tuesday, Mr. Abbott said the Guard presence on the border has no end date in sight as the Trump administration seeks to complete a border wall.

“They’re going to be there, I perceive, for a long time — years — because if you just look at what the president said, he said that this is a gap filler until he gets funding for the wall and greater border security,” the governor said. “We are prepared for the long run to have National Guard presence there, to make sure we’re doing everything we can to better secure the border.”

Gov. Jerry Brown of California said on Wednesday that his state, too, will accept federal funding to add about 400 National Guard troops, to help combat transnational criminal gangs, human trafficking and the smuggling of drugs and weapons along the border.

California presently has about 250 Guard members employed in such operations, including 55 along the Mexico border.

“But let’s be crystal clear on the scope of this mission,” Mr. Brown said in a statement. “This will not be a mission to build a new wall. It will not be a mission to round up women and children or detain people escaping violence and seeking a better life. And the California National Guard will not be enforcing federal immigration laws.”

In South Texas, the observation posts are the front lines of the stepped-up border operation.

At the cliffside post that spotted the raft (it was unclear whether it was carrying people or cargo), the soldiers’ headquarters had four big wheels: a green Humvee. Mounted on top of the vehicle was not a machine gun but a giant optic system — effectively a boxy, superpowered pair of binoculars — and next to a rear tire, a red portable cooler. The cross-saber insignia spray-painted next to the driver’s door was left over from a different mission. One soldier was operating the Humvee’s optic system, while the others paced back and forth on the cliff, watching. They wore sunglasses, combat fatigues, canteens and steel-plated body armor. One had a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. Some were in their 20s; others, their 40s and 50s.

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A Border Patrol officer talked with a member of the Texas National Guard. Officials say the troop presence is freeing up Border Patrol agents to focus on apprehensions.

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Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

The majority seen Tuesday were Hispanic. Here, the visible face of the president’s deployment to thwart illegal immigration is made up of men and women of Mexican-American heritage whose relatives were immigrants themselves. They are citizen soldiers, on loan in a sense from their jobs and their families.

“When I’m called up to do my duty, I’m a Texan helping Texans, and I’m sure that the majority of the troops feel the same way,” said the captain, who is Hispanic.

Texas has maintained a continuous and costly National Guard presence on the border since 2014. Rick Perry, then the governor, sent 1,000 troops to the border in July of that year and his successor, Mr. Abbott, kept the troops there, though in smaller numbers. About 100 troops were stationed on the Texas border when Mr. Trump ordered the new deployment.

Officials say the troop presence is freeing up Border Patrol agents to focus on apprehensions. The soldiers are prevented from detaining immigrants trying to illegally cross into the United States. A Defense Department deployment memo stated that National Guard personnel “will not perform law enforcement activities or interact with migrants or other persons detained” without the approval of the secretary of defense, and are to be armed only in “circumstances that might require self-defense.”

Yet such deployments are costly, and have not been without controversy in tax-conscious Texas.

The use of civilian rental vehicles illustrates the expense of border deployments, both in the state-run mobilization and the new one ordered by the president. The rentals prevent wear and tear on military vehicles, and also help troops blend into civilian communities. In 2016, Texas National Guard documents obtained by NBC 5 in Fort Worth showed that the Guard had spent $1.8 million on rental cars at that point. One van was rented for $1,100 but driven only 47 miles; another was driven only nine miles at a rental cost of $1,300.

By 2017, the total price tag for the state-ordered Guard deployment and other border-related Texas Military Forces expenses was nearly $63 million. Officials estimate that the state deployment lately has been running a tab of about $1 million a month.

State officials and Guard leaders defend the costs, and say the state deployment has been a success. “The addition of National Guard on the border has proved to have a meaningful impact to reduce the flow of people and illegal activities coming across the border,” Mr. Abbott said in a statement.

Political opponents, especially those in border communities, are raising questions nonetheless.

“That money could be better used,” said State Senator Juan Hinojosa, a Democrat whose district includes Mission and other border towns. “I think there’s no doubt that we want to secure our border, that we as a nation have a right to defend our border and define our border. But let’s do it in a smart way,” he said. “We have the tools and the resources to do that without getting the military involved. This is not a war zone.”

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Trump Says He’s Sending the National Guard. On the Border, Many Aren’t Sure Why.


Earlier this week, on the day White House officials announced that President Trump planned to deploy the National Guard to the southern border, Ms. Salinas was one of about 170 newly released immigrants who were assisted by the center. The day before, the number was about 140.

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Immigrants are given envelopes by the Catholic Charities relief center with bus departure times written on one side, and a note that reads “Please help me. I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take? Thank you for your help!” on the other.

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Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

Mr. Trump on Thursday railed again at the flow of undocumented immigrants across the border but took credit on Twitter for reducing such crossings to a 46-year low. “We’re toughening up at the border,” Mr. Trump told an audience in West Virginia. “We’re throwing them out by the hundreds.”

There was little evidence of that this week at the border, where a steady flow of immigrants made their way out of the detention center, through the relief center, and from there, onward to cities around the country. Border apprehensions have slid significantly over the past year, but the Department of Homeland Security announced Thursday that illegal border crossings had surged in March: The 37,393 individuals apprehended on the Southwest border was a 203 percent increase over the same period in March 2017, though the number was lower than in 2013 and 2014.

“The number of illegal border crossings during the month of March shows an urgent need to address the ongoing situation at the border,” Tyler Q. Houlton, the department’s press secretary, told reporters in Washington. “As the president has repeatedly said, all options are on the table.”

Three of the four governors in the states that share a border with Mexico — Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas — have expressed support for Mr. Trump’s plan to mobilize the National Guard to help secure the border. The Democratic governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, has said that if asked, she would refuse to deploy any Guard troops.

But here in the Rio Grande Valley at the southern tip of Texas, one of the busiest corridors for human smuggling and illegal entry into the United States, the issue takes on a far more nuanced tone.

The Trump administration’s immigration policies were rarely mentioned in the dining room and lobby of the McAllen respite center. Although the center was busy, no one working to help handle the flow seemed to think they needed help from the National Guard. These immigrants were mothers and fathers, teenagers and infants — men with baseball caps changing their child’s diaper, mothers and daughters brushing their teeth for the first time in days at the bathroom sink, men eating bowls of chicken soup.

Many of the other Americans who live here — those who legally call the border home and have done so for years, sometimes generations — appeared to share the same view: There is no security crisis, only the daily challenge of meeting the basic needs of migrants who keep filling downtown McAllen.

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A security wall near the border in McAllen, Tex. The Department of Homeland Security announced Thursday that illegal border crossings had surged in March.

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William Widmer for The New York Times

“We’re not in a position where military zones are needed in our communities,” said Sergio Contreras, the president of a regional business group, the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. “It’s not something that’s helpful. We want to showcase that there’s other means of securing the border.”

At the relief center on Wednesday, Lilian Morales Gonzalez, 22, tried to soothe her crying 2-month-old baby, a statue of Jesus behind her. She came from Guatemala — “so my son can grow up with his father,” she said — and was apprehended on Monday morning. She said Mr. Trump and his policies had no effect on her decision.

Ismelda Cruz, 28, also came from Guatemala. She, her husband and 7-year-old daughter crossed the Rio Grande at Reynosa, Mexico, fleeing the criminals she said were trying to recruit her husband. Asked if the presence of National Guard troops would deter people from making the journey from Guatemala, Ms. Cruz replied, “They’re always going to find a way through.”

Migrants who were recently apprehended, longtime residents and local officials in McAllen and other cities in the Rio Grande Valley said that with or without the National Guard, and with or without the White House’s increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric, people would keep crossing. They worry that a deployment of troops would hurt the region’s economy and add to the inaccurate perception that Texas’ border cities were unsafe.

“We’ll get the bad publicity,” said Tony Martinez, the mayor of Brownsville, an hour’s drive to the east. “Nobody is sitting around here locking their doors and taping up their windows. It’s not a matter of security. Immigrants don’t want to migrate. They have to. This charade that Washington, or Trump more particularly, is imposing on the border is nothing more than empty rhetoric.”

A show of military force on the border in this part of Texas would be nothing new.

The Texas Republicans who lead state government have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on increasing border security, deploying heavily armed river patrol boats, purchasing a high-tech surveillance airplane and posting state troopers in the highway medians near the border, and previous United States administrations have on occasion dispatched National Guard units. In 2014, former Gov. Rick Perry ordered 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, in a state-ordered mobilization that Gov. Greg Abbott continued after he took office in 2015.

For the most part, the troops assisted local and federal law enforcement, in an approach officials described as “referring and deterring” — aiming to deter illegal activity with their physical presence, and to refer those suspected of being illegal immigrants to law enforcement officials. Some of the troops lived in motels; the cost for the deployment, as estimated in 2014, was $12 million a month.

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Lilian Morales Gonzalez with her baby at a church in Alamo, Tex.

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Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

These days, for all the emphasis on border security, the Rio Grande Valley displays few signs of an outright militarization. The binational culture of the region — Texas license plates are visible on cars, as are plates from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas — has frayed in recent years, but remains intact. Business leaders in the valley say construction has increased, but they worry about a recent decline in retail sales tax, which they attribute in part to fewer shoppers coming from Mexico.

“We just did a binational run into Matamoros, Mexico,” Mr. Martinez said. “We were in Matamoros and we all had nice breakfasts. We had 800 runners from both sides. We’re doing a lot of wonderful things in spite of what’s going on in Washington.”

In McAllen, a majority-Hispanic city of 142,000, the migrants are largely invisible, except for when they walk to and from the bus station or the relief center.

The center — a storefront that blends in with the Tex-Mex restaurants, nightclubs and clothing stores — has become a hub of activity on the quiet downtown streets.

With insufficient space to detain everyone, federal authorities for years dropped off immigrants who had promised to appear in court at the bus station downtown. Sometimes they had a bus ticket, purchased by their relatives, but sometimes they did not. The immigrants were on their own to sort out their travel arrangements. Many of them were hungry, tired, confused.

In stepped Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. She opened the center at Sacred Heart church near the bus station, and then moved it last year to the current storefront building. Since 2014, the center has assisted nearly 100,000 immigrants.

“We try to guide them as best we can,” Sister Pimentel said. “There have been times where we have been busier. But for the most part, the numbers have not stopped. They wave up and down, and right now we’re in a wave up.”

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Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. “We try to guide them as best we can,” Sister Pimentel said of the immigrants.

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Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

On Wednesday afternoon, there were so many parents with children in the center’s lobby that it looked as if a P.T.A. meeting was about to begin. Toddlers played with toy cars; the parents clutched manila envelopes containing their bus tickets and official release orders.

Sister Pimentel stapled a sheet of paper to their manila envelopes with a message to help them at the bus station: “I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take?”

Ms. Salinas and her two boys were released from detention on Wednesday morning, and they sat staring at Ms. Salinas’s ankle bracelet, which she was concerned was too tight. She said gang violence was the main reason she fled El Salvador: Gang members had killed a 22-year-old relative and she feared for the safety of her 11- and 15-year-old sons.

“I was worried now that he’s older, he’s going to be a target,” she said of her oldest son. “They look for kids his age.”

Ms. Cruz, the woman from Guatemala here with her 7-year-old daughter, took a seat in front of Sister Pimentel. She was apprehended with her husband, but he remained in detention. She did not know where he was, or when he would be released. She had a bus ticket to Phoenix, Az., where her mother lives and where she has a court date next week.

Sister Pimentel looked through her paperwork and asked Ms. Cruz a simple question. It was a question heard many times in the Valley, but it took Ms. Cruz by surprise, because it seemed the first time anyone had asked it of her on this day.

“Como estas?” Sister Pimentel said with a smile. “How are you?”

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Trump Says DACA Is ‘Dead,’ and Calls On Mexico to Enforce Border Security


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Border Patrol agents apprehended illegal immigrants last week near the United States border with Mexico along the Rio Grande River.

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Loren Elliott/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Trump repeated his calls on Monday for Mexico to enforce border security laws and prevent immigrants from coming to the United States illegally, and said that a plan to protect young immigrants here from deportation was “dead.”

In a series of tweets Monday morning, Mr. Trump again referred to “large ‘Caravans’ of people” headed toward the United States.

The “caravans,” a popular topic on Fox News, are a group of hundreds of Central Americans who have been traveling through Mexico with the goal of crossing into the United States to seek asylum, or sneak across the border. A BuzzFeed reporter has been traveling with the group and chronicling the experience.

Mr. Trump’s tweets were a continuation of his Easter Sunday Twitter posts in which he blamed Democrats and the Mexican government for the illegal flow of immigrants into the United States.

Mexico’s foreign secretary, Luis Videgaray Caso, responded on Twitter on Sunday and defended his country’s cooperation with the United States on border security.

The president on Monday blamed Democrats for weak immigration policy and called on Congress to act, tweeting that “our country is being stolen.” The House and Senate — both controlled by Republicans — are in recess and return next week.

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U.S. Says It Can Pay for 100 Miles of Wall on 2,000-Mile Border


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The existing border wall in San Diego this month. President Trump has made the border wall a focus of his campaign against illegal immigration.

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Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said on Friday that it could immediately fund 100 miles of new and replacement border fencing, a first step in the president’s plans for building a wall on part of the United States’ nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

The replacement fencing includes 28 miles in the San Diego region and a new 30-foot-high barrier in Calexico, Calif., that extends for two miles. In New Mexico, the Border Patrol will replace 20 miles of barriers that are intended to stop vehicles with new fencing to prevent people from crossing into the United States.

Ronald D. Vitiello, the acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, described the construction as part of a new wall system because it would replace older, outdated barriers. Customs and Border Protection is the parent agency of the Border Patrol.

A mix of barriers — like chain-link fences, steel walling and beams — already stretches across more than 650 miles of the border. Ultimately, Mr. Vitiello said, the administration aims to cover 1,000 miles on the border with fencing or a wall.

President Trump has made the border wall a focus of his campaign against illegal immigration that he says will stop drugs, terrorists and transnational gangs like MS-13 from coming into the United States. The wall is projected to cost $25 billion over the next 10 years.

This year, the administration asked for $1.6 billion to build a border wall in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. But Congress rejected that request in the spending bill it approved last week. Instead, lawmakers provided nearly $1.6 billion for border security — including new technology and repairs to existing barriers — in what the administration has since described as a down payment on a wall.

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