Two years ago, the US government separated hundreds of immigrant children from their mothers and fathers. Many of the parents were deported – no trace of them to this day.
border between USA and Mexico near El Paso. Photo: Øle Schmidt/ Adveniat
"No one knows where they are.", says Erika Pinheiro, director of the only binational nongovernmental organization in Los Angeles and Tijuana that provides free legal advice to refugees stranded at the border. And if the boss of "Al Otro Lado" is already does not know the whereabouts of the parents of the 545 refugee children, then who, please?
"Many will be somewhere in Mexico desperately trying to see their children again in the U.S., even though that is impossible. Others will be in hiding in Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador. And then there will certainly be some who have been murdered", says Pinheiro.
If U.S. President Donald Trump was the border guardian who bragged about keeping immigration in the U.S. to a minimum, Pinheiro is the guardian and protector of the people who want to cross that very border. It has always been a David vs. Goliath battle, but in recent years it has become much more unequal.
Donald Trump's hard-hitting immigration policy
Trump had put a cap on refugees entering the country of 110.000 people in Obama times to a historic low of 18.000 lowered. Since July 2018, he had ensured that no one could apply for asylum who had not traveled directly to the U.S. from their home country – in effect, only Mexicans. And Trump, with his zero-tolerance policy against illegal immigration, had not shied away from separating parents from their children. While mothers and fathers waited in special prisons for their asylum hearings, some children were even put in cages.
After fierce protests at home and abroad, Trump ended the inhumane practice – after six weeks. But not all families could be found again afterwards. No wonder, according to research by the New York Times, a total of 5500 children have been separated from their parents.
Finding fathers and mothers is like looking for a needle in a haystack, in part because U.S. immigration authorities often did not document who the parents were. Pinheiro often has only a name and the country as a clue. "We are working with office contact information here that is over two years old", she sues.
Human rights organizations file lawsuit against family separation
"Al Otro Lado" translates as "the other side. On both sides, including the U.S., the non-governmental organization is well connected. She works closely with the ACLU together, the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. Their attorney, Lee Gelernt, has filed a lawsuit against family separation by the U.S. government. For him, the events of two years ago will forever remain a stain on the history of the United States.
"President Trump's horrific practice of ripping young children away from their parents is one of this administration's biggest stains. These families need to be reunited and those responsible held accountable. Some of the children were babies when they were snatched from their parents. We will not stop looking for the families until we find everyone, no matter how long it takes. "
How much could Joe Biden reform immigration policy?
60 children were younger than five years old at the time of separation. After all, Joe Biden has announced that if he becomes president, he will use a task force to reunite all families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"While Biden will definitely change immigration policy, it would take a concerted effort with the help of many experts to also undo the damage the Trump administration has done", explains Erika Pinheiro. The human rights activist has her doubts about the new administration: "I'm not sure Biden has the political will to do it."
The daily fight against the coronavirus in Tijuana
Pinheiro and her posse of hundreds of "Al otro lado" volunteers will keep the pressure on – and continue their engagement in the Mexican border city of Tijuana: continue to provide free medication to the refugees, provide psychological care to those who have suffered violence in their flight – and assist people in the daily Corona struggle.
"The local Mexican health care system has collapsed due to the pandemic. It's already difficult for Mexicans to get a test; for refugees, it's virtually impossible. Nobody knows how many of them are infected here now", says Pinheiro "we have seen migrants with pre-existing conditions die here in Tijuana, as well as small sick babies, because hospitals have refused to admit them."
Her greatest happiness, says Erika Pinheiro, is when she manages to reunite families. Maybe Joe Biden should have a word with the director of "Al otro lado" call, because she could give the possibly new U.S. president some tips on what he needs to do now at the border. "I would reunite all families separated by unjust immigration policies and give them asylum in the U.S. And bring all those responsible for the worst human rights violations to justice."