As First Lady Melania Trump made her second trip in a week to look at the conditions in which youngsters separated from their parents are being held, it was reported some children have been told to appear before judges. The government has admitted nearly 2,000 youngsters were separated from their families since April, when the Trump administration started criminally charging all migrants who crossed the border illegally, resulting in families being broke up.
As activists, lawyers and officials scrambled to try and reunite the children and their families after Donald Trump signed an executive order to halt the policy, it was reported the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), which oversees the deportation of unauthorised immigrants, has been ordering the youngsters to appear.
“We were representing a three-year-old in court recently who had been separated from the parents. And the child – in the middle of the hearing – started climbing up on the table,” Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Centre in Los Angeles, told Kaiser Health News (KHN). “It really highlighted the absurdity of what we’re doing with these kids.”
She said parents had usually been tried along with young children and have explained the often-violent circumstances which led them to seek asylum in the US. Most of the migrants arriving at the US’s southern border have come from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, three nations with some of the deadliest gang violence in the world.
Yet as a result of Mr Trump’s new “zero tolerance” policy, they are facing immigration proceedings without their parents alongside them.
“The parent might be the only one who knows why they fled from the home country, and the child is in a disadvantageous position to defend themselves,” she said.
Ruby Powers, the founding immigration lawyer with the Houston-based Powers Law Group, said her company had been interviewing parents who had been split from their children.
She said in some cases, the adults preparing for what is called a “credible fear” interview with a judge to explain why they feel they cannot return to their own country, either did not know what had happened to their children or had learned just a day or two earlier.
“I don’t think these people are in the right mind set [for an interview] if they only recently found out where their children were,” she told The Independent.
Jennifer Elzea, an ICE spokesperson, directed questions to the Department of Justice. Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the DoJ’s Communications and Legislative Affairs Division, confirmed that toddlers were appearing in court without their parents.
“Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) records show that there are respondents in removal proceedings who are juveniles, some as young as three -years-old, who do not currently have any attorney of record on file,” she said in a statement.
“Please note that this does not mean that these children will appear before an immigration judge alone or will be unrepresented during their proceedings. All immigration judges provide a list of pro bono legal service providers to respondents during the initial hearing and many of the respondents who are initially unrepresented obtain representation as removal proceedings progress.
She added: “Additionally, child respondents may be in proceedings with a parent or guardian who is also in proceedings. Moreover, unaccompanied children may either have a sponsor, guardian, or “Friend of the Court” with them during these proceedings. Friends of the Court help the respondent navigate courtroom procedures.”
This is not the first time that youngsters have had to appear before immigration courts without their parents.
Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and a judge in Los Angeles, said unaccompanied minor cases were given special attention. She told KHN judges who dealt with such cases were trained during Obama administration on children’s developmental stages, impulse control and making sure the proceedings were understood by them.
“This is not traffic court. A mistake on an asylum case can result in jail, torture or a death sentence,” she said. “We are a nation of laws. We value fairness, justice and transparency.”
Mrs Trump is among all four current or surviving first ladies who had urged the president to change his hardline approach after images of distraught immigrant children dominated headlines and drew condemnation in the United States and worldwide.
“She’ll continue to give her husband her opinion on what her thoughts are on family reunification,” her spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told reporters travelling on her plane, according to Reuters.
Ms Trump stepped off her plane from plane in Tucson at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base at 10am Arizona time. She was wearing a black top with three-quarter length sleeves, white trousers and tennis shoes. There was no sign of the Zara jacket bearing the words ‘I really don’t care, do u?’ which she wore last week on a visit to see detained children and which sparked further outcry.
“I want to thank you for all your hard work that you do,” she told local police, border guards and officials.
“And I know how dangerous and difficult your daily jobs are. I really appreciate all you do on behalf of the country and I’m looking forward for our discussion....I’m here to support you and give my help, whatever I can for behalf of the children and the families. Thank you for having me.”
Michael Humphries, the US Border Patrol’s assistant director of field operations at the Tucson field office, told her there were a “lot of misconceptions about the separations of families”.
He said child separations were typically short and claimed migrants were well cared for.
“We give the utmost care...We had a female that was 16 years old, was raped on the journey up from central America,” he said.
“She had the baby here in our custody. We took her to the hospital, stayed with her the whole time.”
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