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.

Credit
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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Matter: All by Itself, the Humble Sweet Potato Colonized the World


Some agricultural experts are skeptical. “This paper does not settle the matter,” said Logan J. Kistler, the curator of archaeogenomics and archaeobotany at the Smithsonian Institution.

Alternative explanations remain on the table, because the new study didn’t provide enough evidence for exactly where sweet potatoes were first domesticated and when they arrived in the Pacific. “We still don’t have a smoking gun,” Dr. Kistler said.

The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is one of the most valuable crops in the world, providing more nutrients per farmed acre than any other staple. It has sustained human communities for centuries. (In North America, it often is referred to as a yam; in fact, yams are a different species originating in Africa and Asia.)

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A chromolithograph of Christopher Columbus arriving at the Caribbean.

Credit
Louis Prang and Company/Getty Images

Scientists have offered a number of theories to explain the wide distribution of I. batatas. Some scholars proposed that all sweet potatoes originated in the Americas, and that after Columbus’s voyage, they were spread by Europeans to colonies such as the Philippines. Pacific Islanders acquired the crops from there.

As it turned out, though, Pacific Islanders had been growing the crop for generations by the time Europeans showed up. On one Polynesian island, archaeologists have found sweet potato remains dating back over 700 years.

A radically different hypothesis emerged: Pacific Islanders, masters of open-ocean navigation, picked up sweet potatoes by voyaging to the Americas, long before Columbus’s arrival there. The evidence included a suggestive coincidence: In Peru, some indigenous people call the sweet potato cumara. In New Zealand, it’s kumara.

A potential link between South America and the Pacific was the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s famous 1947 voyage aboard the Kon-Tiki. He built a raft, which he then successfully sailed from Peru to the Easter Islands.

Genetic evidence only complicated the picture. Examining the plant’s DNA, some researchers concluded that sweet potatoes arose only once from a wild ancestor, while other studies indicated that it happened at two different points in history.

According to the latter studies, South Americans domesticated sweet potatoes, which were then acquired by Polynesians. Central Americans domesticated a second variety that later was picked up by Europeans.

Hoping to shed light on the mystery, a team of researchers recently undertook a new study — the biggest survey of sweet potato DNA yet. And they came to a very different conclusion.

“We find very clear evidence that sweet potatoes could arrive in the Pacific by natural means,” said Pablo Muñoz-Rodríguez, a botanist at the University of Oxford. He believes the wild plants traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific without any help from humans.

Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez and his colleagues visited museums and herbariums around the world to take samples of sweet potato varieties and wild relatives. The researchers used powerful DNA-sequencing technology to gather more genetic material from the plants than possible in earlier studies.

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A sweet potato farmer in in Papua New Guinea. The plant arrived there long before humans, scientists reported.

Credit
Infocusphotos/Alamy

Their research pointed to only one wild plant as the ancestor of all sweet potatoes. The closest wild relative is a weedy flower called Ipomoea trifida that grows around the Caribbean. Its pale purple flowers look a lot like those of the sweet potato.

Instead of a massive, tasty tuber, I. trifida grows only a pencil-thick root. “It’s nothing we could eat,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

The ancestors of sweet potatoes split from I. trifida at least 800,000 years ago, the scientists calculated. To investigate how they arrived in the Pacific, the team headed to the Natural History Museum in London.

The leaves of sweet potatoes that Captain Cook’s crew collected in Polynesia are stored in the museum’s cabinets. The researchers cut bits of the leaves and extracted DNA from them.

The Polynesian sweet potatoes turned out to be genetically unusual — “very different from anything else,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

The sweet potatoes found in Polynesia split off over 111,000 years ago from all other sweet potatoes the researchers studied. Yet humans arrived in New Guinea about 50,000 years ago, and only reached remote Pacific islands in the past few thousand years.

The age of Pacific sweet potatoes made it unlikely that any humans, Spanish or Pacific Islander, carried the species from the Americas, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

Traditionally, researchers have been skeptical that a plant like a sweet potato could travel across thousands of miles of ocean. But in recent years, scientists have turned up signs that many plants have made the voyage, floating on the water or carried in bits by birds.

Even before the sweet potato made the journey, its wild relatives traveled the Pacific, the scientists found. One species, the Hawaiian moonflower, lives only in the dry forests of Hawaii — but its closest relatives all live in Mexico.

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Different varieties of sweet potato on display at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. The sweet potato originated in the Americas and spread across the globe.

Credit
Robert Scotland

The scientists estimate that the Hawaiian moonflower separated from its relatives — and made its journey across the Pacific — over a million years ago.

But Tim P. Denham, an archaeologist at the Australian National University who was not involved in the study, found this scenario hard to swallow.

It would suggest that the wild ancestors of sweet potatoes spread across the Pacific and were then domesticated many times over — yet wound up looking the same every time. “This would seem unlikely,” he said.

Dr. Kistler argued that it was still possible that Pacific Islanders voyaged to South America and returned with the sweet potato.

A thousand years ago, they might have encountered many sweet potato varieties on the continent. When Europeans arrived in the 1500s, they likely wiped out much of the crop’s genetic diversity.

As a result, Dr. Kistler said, the surviving sweet potatoes of the Pacific only seem distantly related to the ones in the Americas. If the scientists had done the same study in 1500, Pacific sweet potatoes would have fit right in with other South American varieties.

Dr. Kistler was optimistic that the sweet potato debate would someday be settled. The world’s herbariums contain a vast number of varieties that have yet to be genetically tested.

“There are more than we could look at in a lifetime,” Dr. Kistler said.

For his part, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez plans on searching for more wild sweet potato relatives in Central America, hoping to get more clues to how exactly a thin-rooted weed gave rise to an invaluable crop.

Working out the history of crops like this could do more than satisfy our curiosity about the past. Wild plants hold a lot of genetic variants lost when people domesticated crops.

Researchers may find plants they can hybridize with domesticated sweet potatoes and other crops, endowing them with genes for resistance to diseases, or for withstanding climate change.

“Essentially, it’s preserving the gene pool that feeds the world,” Dr. Kistler said.

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