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Border Report: On Family Separations, Advocates Want to Know 'What the Hell Is Going On'

Border Patrol agents will be given new power to evaluate initial asylum claims, the Trump administration can continue sending asylum seekers to wait in Mexico and more in our biweekly roundup of border news.

A young girl holds her belongings as she waits with a group of Mexicans preparing to leave the Casa del Migrante shelter for the San Ysidro Port of Entry to seek asylum in the United States. / Photo by David Maung

A legal challenge in San Diego’s federal courts is seeking to provide the public with a comprehensive look at Trump administration’s family separations at the border.

The Children’s Advocacy Institute of the University of San Diego School of Law jointly filed the lawsuit with the firm Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton LLP. (Disclosure: Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton has represented Voice of San Diego in public records disputes.) They allege several U.S. federal agencies, including the Administration for Children and Families and the Department of Homeland Security, failed or refused to provide documents to a June 2018 Freedom of Information Act request.

“We want to know where they are and what they’re doing with them, what records they have and what their procedures are,” said Robert Fellmeth, the executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Institute. “We need to bring the government into compliance with basic law, basic constitutional and refugee law.”

The Children’s Advocacy Institute submitted three separate but effectively identical records requests to the Administration for Children and Families, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S.  and Border Protection seeking a breadth of information about people who had been detained along the border between January and June 2018.

The requests seek documents showing the number of adults and minors detained or arrested while trying to enter the United States, and evidence those minors may have been separated from a family member or guardian. They are also seeking copies of policies and procedures that detail the care and treatment of minors who were separated from parents or another accompanying adult. It also asks for information, like language spoken, country of origin, medical conditions and more.

Another case filed last year by the ACLU case, Ms. L v. ICE, sought to force the government to produce the children. At the end of April, the Trump administration asked U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego for two years to identify all the children who had been separated from parents or other adults. Instead, Sabraw gave them six months.

Sabraw had stopped the Trump administration’s practice of separating families in June 2018, giving the administration 30 days to reunite more than 2,000 migrant children in its care. Most of those children have since been reunited, but in January a government watchdog released a report indicating thousands more may still be separated from their parents.

In April, the government said that it could apply a statistical analysis to about 47,000 children who were referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for the minors held in custody and is part of the Administration for Children and Families, The New York Times reported. It could then manually review the records of those children who appeared to have a high chance of being among those separated from their parents. Why would the government impose such an arduous process? Because, as the government noted in court documents, U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not collect specific data on migrant family separations before April 2018.

The new lawsuit wants to not only know the number of children who remain separated, but whether and how they were categorized by the government, their medical treatment, how they are being educated in the meantime and more.

“They have to have records for people they are caring for,” said Fellmeth.

The government hasn’t coughed up much: a memo from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlining his reasoning for prosecuting every person who crosses the border illegally — otherwise known as “zero tolerance” — and another procedural document that is already public.

“They are basically saying ‘fuck you’ in terms of the law,” Fellmeth said.

Though most plaintiffs don’t take advantage of it, Fellmeth said, FOIA allows them to depose the people most knowledgeable about the documents being sought. That’s something he wants to do.

“I’m going to make sure the world knows what the hell is going on,” Fellmeth said.

Lots of Asylum Changes at the Border

The 9th Circuit of Appeals said the Trump administration can force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for court hearings while the policy is challenged in court. (Los Angeles Times)

In a new push to restrict asylum claims, Border Patrol agents will be given new power to evaluate initial asylum claims and the administration is taking some discretion away from trained asylum officers. (Los Angeles Times)

Asylum officers say they’re worried they’re being forced to send some Central Americans to wait in Mexico, where they may face danger or persecution. (Vox)

The AP finds 13,000 migrants on lists waiting in Mexican border cities for their turns to request asylum in the United States. Many people voiced concerns about migrants’ safety in these cities in a different AP story.

In a memo, the Trump administration instructed the U.S. attorney general and Department of Homeland Security to come up with proposals for several additional changes to the asylum process, including requiring those submitting asylum applications to pay fees. (Union-Tribune)

More Border News

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