Translation – Zero Tolerance
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: One small thing before we get stared: I want to ask you a big favor. This is our second season as a part of the NPR family and we want to know more about you, our listeners. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been listening for years or if this is the first time you’ve come across this podcast. We need to know about you so we can keep getting better. Please, head to radioambulante.org/encuesta to tell us a little about yourself. It won’t take very long but it’ll help us a lot.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Last Tuesday we ended our season. But then we heard this:
[Boy]: [Crying] Daddy.
[Girl]: Can I just call my aunt so she can come pick me up? And… and so my mom can get here as soon as she can?
[Boy]: [Crying] First I want my dad. First my dad.
[Girl]: They let me give you the number.
[Daniel]: I’m sure you heard it too. ProPublica is an independent media outlet that does investigative journalism and on Monday, June 18th, they released a recording of detained children, separated from their families at the southern border of the United States.
[Journalist]: Hundreds of immigrant children have been separated from their families at the Mexico—US border under the “Zero Tolerance” policy announced last month.
[Journalist]: President’s Trump’s government confirmed today that there are already 2,000 children separated from their parents at the border.
[Daniel]: And we decided no, we can’t end the season without talking about what’s happening at the border between the US and Mexico. The news has moved quickly around here, especially since the audio from ProPublica came out.
[Journalist]: With each passing minute indignation at the global level is increasing.
[Journalist]: UNICEF has condemned this policy and has urged authorities at the White House to promptly revise their strategies.
[Journalist]: Utah senator Orrin Hatch stated that the way this situation is being handled is not acceptable and that whatever is necessary should be done to keep families together.
[Daniel]: On Wednesday, June 20th —the day we were going to finish this episode— after arguing for a week that there was nothing he could do and that laws signed by the democrats were responsible, President Trump…
[Donald Trump]: We’re stuck with these horrible laws. They’re horrible laws.
[Daniel]: Signed an executive order that, at first glance, prohibits the separation of children from their families.
[Donald Trump]: I consider it to be a very important executive order. It’s about keeping families together, while at the same time, being sure that we have a very powerful, very strong border.
[Daniel]: Then, many media outlets reported that the order put an end to the family separations. But some critics pointed out that no, in fact, it says that the government will keep families together —quote— “where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.”
In other words, there are cases in which families may be separated. And perhaps the most worrying aspect is that the order appears to permit the indefinite detention of whole families seeking asylum.
And according to reports, in the past 6 weeks, more than 2,300 immigrant children have been separated from their parents. Trump’s executive order does not solve the problem of what to do with these children or how to reunite them with their parents. Nor does it address how to solve the broader immigration crisis: the crisis that has contorted US politics in recent years.
But then, what happened? And why?
It’s all a little complicated, so we’ll try to explain it clearly. There is a legal process for seeking asylum in the US, like in any other country.
In this case, we’re talking about parents who came seeking refuge, asylum, and upon being detained, the authorities took their children. And we’re talking about very small children. According to ProPublica, more than 100 are younger than 4 years old; in some cases, babies. In the recording you heard at the start of this story, you can hear some of them.
President Trump started his campaign saying that Mexicans were rapists and criminals. For many of us living in the United States —especially those of us who pay attention to these issues— it’s not hard to draw a straight line from that speech to what we’ve been seeing in the past few days.
That was candidate Trump.
Now that he’s in power, his administration has been quite consistent with its constant rhetoric against Latinos in particular, and against immigration generally.
John Kelly, the current Chief of Staff at the White House was previously the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security or DHS. In May of 2017, Kelly said that he was considering separating children from their parents as a way of keeping more immigrant families from coming to the US.
[Wolf Blitzer]: If you get… some young kids who were coming in… manage to sneak into the United States with their parents, our Department of Homeland Security personnel’s gonna separate the children from their moms and dads?
[John Kelly]: Yes, I am considering… In order to deter, ah, more movement along this terribly dangerous network, I’m considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents.
[Daniel]: These statements generated a lot controversy. However, in May of this year, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ratified this new policy:
[Jeff Sessions]: I have put in place a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry, ah, on our Southwest border. If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you. And that child may be separated from you, as required by law.
[Daniel]: What Sessions is saying here is that if you cross the border in an irregular way, they’re going to prosecute you. It’s that simple. And if you bring a child —and he uses the word “smuggle”— the government is going to prosecute you and you and your child will certainly be separated.
We should clarify that since that first interview with John Kelly and Jeff Session’s announcement —and even now with the signing of the new executive order on June 20th— the law has not changed. What’s more, the last time there was a serious change in immigration laws in the United Stated was more than 10 years ago, in 2005.
So, what the Trump administration changed was their approach to this law: the separations, that is new.
Before, under Obama, when a family was detained, they weren’t separated unless the parents were accused of a serious crime.
What normally happened was that the parents and their children were brought to a detention center, together, for a limited period. In many cases, they were deported, but without being separated; or they were released and given a date to appear before an immigration court if they were applying for asylum.
In the past few weeks, under this new zero-tolerance policy, parents were detained and separated from their children immediately. The parents were brought to an adult detention center. And the children were considered unaccompanied minors, despite not having arrived on their own. They remained in the custody of border agents and were brought to often improvised detention centers. Often far from their parents. Without any contact. Without any plan to reunite them at the end of the process.
So, a few hours before President Trump signed his executive order, I spoke with…
[Ginger Thompson]: My name is Ginger Thompson and I’m a reporter at ProPublica.
[Daniel]: Ginger is the journalist who received the audio we heard earlier, which was recorded at a detention center…
[Ginger]: The first step after someone is detained at the border is that they are brought to a detention center. And there, at these centers, that’s where they separate parents from their children. And these children, according to my source, had been in the detention center less than 24 hours.
[Daniel]: Now, one of part of the audio that is so… so impacting, I mean, terrible to listen to, is a girl repeating her aunts telephone number, right? And you had the… the task of… speaking with the aunt. What… what did she tell you?
[Ginger]: That girl is, uh, 6 years old and she’s from El Salvador. She and her mother had crossed through Guatemala, Mexico and the US border together. Last week they arrive at… at the US border and when they crossed, the border patrol, uh, found them and brought them to this center.
The aunt told me she did received a call from that girl with the help of a consular authority and that the girl was screaming and begging “take me away from here, I’ll be good. Please, take me away from here. I’m alone.”
[Daniel]: Then the aunt told ProPublica that at moment, the moment she got the call from her niece, was the most terrible moment of her life. Because there was nothing she could do. Her immigration status is also at stake and she was worried that if she went to claim the girl, her asylum process could be put at risk. Because another thing that has changed is that the Trump administration no longer considers asylum claims in cases of domestic violence, and has made the process of seeking asylum from gang violence more complicated.
Meanwhile, the aunt is the only person in contact with the girl and her mother. In other words, the mother and the daughter cannot speak directly, but they can both speak with the aunt.
Ginger has a lot of experience reporting in Mexico and on immigration issues, so I asked her how are things different now. What was she seeing as a reporter.
[Ginger]: Look, uh, Obama also had a, uh, historic role in terms of deportations, in other words, he deported the most people in recent history of the country. And they were desperate to find a way to stop, uh, this wave of immigration arriving at the border, especially young people. But he never, never, decided to, uh, separate families, uh, especially parents and children. They tried to process them together because they thought that separating children was… too cruel a measure.
[Daniel]: Of course. So, do we know the number of children that have been separated from their mothers or father in the past… six weeks, give or take, since… the zero-tolerance policy was implemented?
[Ginger]: So far, the government had separated more than 2,300 children from their parents. Even more, uh, impacting or surprising is that in many cases they deport the parents without their children. The government has not planned or put in place measures to reunite them after… their cases have been processed.
So, now we’re seeing a lot of cases of parents who have been deported and their children are still here… And it could take months or more to reunite them. And I think the next step in the crisis we are going to see is that separation without a clear end.
[Daniel]: What do we know about the conditions the children are in now? In other words… What are the shelters like? We’ve heard that they are Walmarts converted into detention centers in some cases. But, in general, what do we know about the conditions for the children?
[Ginger]: The bad thing is we know very little. In the initial centers, that is, the places where the families are taken for a few days at the beginning of their stay here in the country, conditions are very austere. They’ve given us very controlled tours of the centers. So, it’s hard to really know how the people there really are, because they don’t allow cameras, or if they do, uh, access is very restricted.
There are no beds. There are a few, uh, paper blankets, more or less. And there are some Walmarts, large stores, that are separated with cages: a cage for the men, a cage for the women and a cage for the children. And from there, the children are brought to shelters that at least have better conditions.
[Daniel]: The Trump administration has responded to the criticisms with just that argument: conditions for the kids are good. This is Kirstjen Nielsen, the current Secretary of Homeland Security.
[Kristjen Nielsen]: We have high standards, we give them meals, we give them education, we give them medical care. There are videos, there’s TVs…
[Daniel]: On June 18th of this year, a journalist asked if the conditions the children are being kept in could be considered child abuse. Nielsen said no, because they were giving them food, medical care, education and they had TV…
[Ginger]: But, what about psychiatric services for these children who have suffered so much trauma? I mean, how well trained are the people who work in these centers? I mean, have they been trained to care for children? We don’t know these things.
[Daniel]: I’m happy that you mentioned those questions you have because that’s one of the… the things I want to know: As ProPublica, as a team of investigative journalists, what questions do you have to clarify what’s going on at the border?
[Ginger]: If we’re going to separate these children from their parents and take responsibility for caring for them, how are we caring for them? Right? Are we taking good care of them? Are we meeting their basic needs in a dignified way? The government says we are, but they aren’t giving us any proof of that. We’re we’re looking for the answers to these questions ourselves.
[Daniel]: And now you’re going to Texas?
[Daniel]: And what’s your plan there?
[Ginger]: To see it firsthand, to talk to the people who work in these centers, to see if we could get, uh, more information about how these families are doing. In other words, my questions is: How are these families? How are these children? So, any way we can deepen our understanding of… of how they are… that’s my plan. I mean, that’s…that’s why I’m going.
[Daniel]: You’ve seen how the audio you shared from ProPublica has gone viral. How would you uh… describe the… coverage that there’s been of the issue.
[Ginger]: The coverage has been overwhelming. Uh, media outlets all over the world have called us to see if they can, uh, publish the, uh, recording. We’ve gotten… I can’t even count how many: thousands of people have called to see what they can do to help these children. Yes, I think we have touched something inside.
I can be honest with you too: I have… received a lot of, uh, messages from people who criticize the parents for having brought their children to the… border this way. And who say, uh: “If the parents have decided to take these risks, then they also have to accept the risk of being separated.”
So, that shows that there are divisions in the US over how to deal with this enormous immigration system we have, a system that doesn’t work, that hasn’t worked well for a long time. And part of the reason we haven’t been able to make it work is that we haven’t agreed as a country on what to do.
[Daniel]: Ginger, I just want to thank you for sharing your time with us and… and that’s it, I hope we see each other when you get back and… keep talking, ok?
[Ginger]: It’s a pleasure and thank you very much.
[Daniel]: Ginger Thompson is a reporter with ProPublica.
But how is this news, which is causing so much turmoil in US politics, being taken in Central American countries. To get some perspective on this, I spoke with Karla Rivas, from la Red Jesuita con Migrantes [the Jesuit Immigration Network].
I asked Karla if the news of parents and children being separated at the US border was the news of the day there and she told me that, in Honduras, where she lives, not really. That they’re talking more about soccer instead.
[Karla Rivas]: Right now, in Honduras, the World Cup is on the front page. Uh, the second story that’s important in Honduras right now is the election for the Attorney General. And the issue with the migrants comes in third place.
[Daniel]: Which is surprising, isn’t it? But Karla has an explanation for that:
[Karla]: These media outlets —the biggest ones in the country— belong to a small elite and right now they don’t care that people are worried about, uh, 2,000 children who are being detained in cages.
[Daniel]: According to Karla, the little coverage there is a result of foreign media’s interest in the issue. Besides, to her, seriously covering this situation would entail putting responsibility on the government of Honduras and that’s not something the media wants to do.
[Karla]: Uh, outside of the country this is being viewed as a crisis because evidently there is a situation of serious vulnerability in terms of human rights, but in the country that is still, lamentably, not at the level you would expect to be able to end up causing any kind of reflection.
[Daniel]: We said at the start that this story was complicated. And it is. One of the things Karla told me, which was hard for me to process, is this:
[Karla]: Here there was a kind of propaganda, let’s say, advertising in these networks that traffic people, these coyote networks, saying that if a relative went with a boy or a girl, well: there’s a better chance they’ll let you through if you’re with a minor.
[Daniel]: Some coyotes even came to offer taking children free of charge, only adults had to pay. A kind of 2 for 1, as if they were talking about a deal at the supermarket. And the relationship to the minor didn’t matter: uncle, aunt, mother, father: it’s all the same.
[Karla]: The important thing was that it be an adult with a child. People in the communities knew about those promotions and in response people tried to take advantage of those promotions, in quotes.
[Daniel]: I confirmed this with immigration lawyers in New York and they told me, yes: some Central American migrants had arrived that way, but that it was a small minority of those applying for asylum. Now, little by little, news of the separations at the border is filtering its way to the people who are considering migrating.
[Karla]: They know it’s going to happen, but they still go.
[Daniel]: So, why are people migrating. If they know the dangers, if they know the risks…
To explain it to me, Karla told me the story of an 11-year-old girl named Susanita who lived in a neighborhood in San Pedro Sula.
[Karla]: This girl had already done the migratory route and when we met her she had already been deported. And she told us everything she had been through, all of the suffering she had experienced.
[Daniel]: Her parents had already made the journey before her and had made it into the US. And they sent money from the US to support their daughter. While they figured how to bring her to them, Susanita lived with her grandma. And, yes, she did have more money than her friends or a lot of people in her neighborhood—because of the money her parents were sending—, but, that didn’t mean much. Susanita said:
[Karla]: Here I have this gold chain, I have a watch, I have shoes. But I can’t wear those things. I can only wear them here in the house, if I leave my house, they’ll steal them from me.
[Daniel]: The neighborhood where Susanita lives is very dangerous and violent. It’s controlled by gangs. So, her parents…
[Karla]: Ordered to build a fence around the whole house. They hired a cousin to take Susanita to school, wait for her at school and bring her home. In other words, they built a prison where that girl is trying to find a way to live without her parents, with just her grandma, with the riches her family may be able to give her, material riches, that is, but locked away.
[Daniel]: Karla, who hears stories like this every day, is in a moral, ethical and professional dilemma.
[Karla]: I can say “don’t go” but I can’t say either “don’t stay” because I or the institution… I don’t have anything to offer them.
It’s conditions in the country that need to change because people want to work. People want to study. People don’t want to leave, but the conditions, uh, the poverty and inequality, impunity are forcing people to leave the country.
[Daniel]: Karla Rivas lives in El Progreso, Honduras.
The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, met with the vice-president of the US, Mike Pence, on June 20th. The White House press release about this meeting doesn’t mention any specific discussion of how children are being treated at the border.
Many questions remain in the wake of the executive order signed by President Trump. The zero-tolerance policy is still in effect: everyone crossing the border without papers will be prosecuted. But now, at least we hope, in most cases, families will be detained together and for an indefinite period of time.
And there are still more than 2,300 children who were separated from their parents in recent weeks. What will happen to them? None of this is clear.
This is a story that Radio Ambulante will certainly continue to cover when we return in September. This isn’t ending any time soon. And it’s not a problem that began yesterday either.
This story was produced by the Radio Ambulante Editorial Team, which includes Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas, Luis Fernando Vargas and me. Andrés Azpiri and I did the mixing and sound design. Rebecca Press is the fact-checker.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Moseley, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. Our interns are Lisette Arévalo and Victoria Estrada. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
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Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
For more episodes and to learn more about this story, visit our webpage, radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.