Laurie Melrood is a family services consultant to southern Arizona immigrant support organizations, including the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. She co-edited a family unity manual for immigrant parents detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and co-wrote the procedures for immigrant parents detained in ICE facilities with children in Arizona state custody.
She conducts social service tours for social workers and attorneys to Nogales, Sonora, and coordinates a committee for practice improvements regarding immigrant families with the Pima County Juvenile Court.
Melrood sat down with The Imprint in Tucson to discuss the separation of immigrant parents from their children.
When we talk about the separation of immigrant families, who do we mean?
I think there are two populations of separated families: one is the family that has resided in the U.S., and it’s becoming much more common for parents to get separated from their children at the point of arrest both in the border areas as well as inside the country. So we’re talking about, potentially, 5.5 million parents who are impacted, and then those children (but we don’t know numbers – we just know the numbers are going up for those families who live inside the country).
The other large population is children separated from their parents because they either left their children behind, in their countries, and then sent them here, or some are starting to be separated from their parents at the point of apprehension by Border Patrol.
The ones that I deal with most are almost exclusively families within the country who are separated and are in detention. Children are either in child welfare or living elsewhere in the community, and 80 percent of those children are U.S. citizens.
What’s the typical legal process for these families, when the point of contact is through immigration? Has this changed in recent years?
That very much depends on what occurs at the point of apprehension. If the primary caretaker is taken by ICE, they are entering a deportation process. They may be told to report to an ICE facility, or they may be detained depending on if they have, for example, an illegal entry or any kind of criminal activity in the past, which could be as slight as a traffic violation or a broken headlight. So if ICE or Border Patrol deemed that they are to be detained, then they go into a facility and the children will then be either cared for by extended family or they’ll go into the foster care system, probably much more the former than the latter.
If the parent is not detained, the parent will report to ICE periodically while continuing the deportation process – and fighting their case – to its logical conclusion, which could be deportation or it could be some other humanitarian option or some other political asylum option, in very few cases.
But until now, those parents would not have been deported in the short run. Now we’re seeing a big change where those same parents may be deported at the point of reporting to ICE, so that’s the change over the last 12 months.
Generally people who have an attorney are much more likely to find a solution than parents who don’t have an attorney, because they’re really relying on the goodwill of the system, and there’s less and less of that.
What is the critical thing that could really change things for these families in terms of the legal process?
Appointing an attorney in the short run, because a lot of these families don’t have attorneys and they can’t defend their interests and they’re very vulnerable. Also ending the policies that punish parents and divide them from their children – or at least softening the policy.
We had something called prosecutorial discretion that was much more prevalent up until the last six to eight months, which would allow an ICE official and/or a judge to dismiss a parent’s case or postpone the consequences on the theory that the person was needed to take care of a child. That had to be proven with some documentation, but now we’re seeing much less of that. Prosecutorial discretion has been pretty much set aside.
You need an attorney. The whole system is very unjust as far as the separation of families.
And the child welfare system needs more education in terms of reaching across to the immigration system so there’s more integration. Parents are facing a case in the child welfare system when their children are taken, and they’re also facing an immigration case that they have to fight, whether in detention or in jail. Those two processes are not synced up.
Some critics would say that when families are separated, that parents have made decisions that ultimately result in their separation from their kids. What do you think about that stance?
I have a lot of things to say about that. One is that you can’t look at immigration as an isolated event that has occurred acontextually, so the questions is, what has driven parents to have to make these decisions?
They make them very unwillingly. These are not parents who want to see their children separated from them. These are not parents who want children to go on a thousand-mile journey to seek questionable safety, but what are the circumstances that created that?
What is the situation in the countries of the northern tier of Central America that has created so much violence, so much doubt and threat and individual families being threatened that they are forced to find a desperate solution for their children?
Imagine yourself a parent having to make a horrible decision like that.
That’s on the sending end, but within the country where there are parents who have lived here for many years, when they came many of them were seeking a better life for themselves, a better life economically, for themselves, their partners, sometimes their children and it used to be that that was a much simpler process, that in fact adults could go back to their families in Mexico.
But now they can’t. We’ve made policies whereby it’s almost impossible for families to come up here to find some work to return [to their home countries] periodically and come back in. There are no laws providing for that, other than visa categories – there are some visa categories that permit that – but by and large if a parent goes back [home] and attempts to come back in [to the U.S], the likelihood of their being apprehended is pretty high.
If you meet some of these parents, or adults, they’ve gone back to see a child, or a sick child, or to go to the funeral of a parent, and they come back up and are busted.
To lay the blame on the individual rather than the circumstances and the macro-context I think is irresponsible. I think we always have to look at the larger picture that forces those unfortunate kinds of decisions, rather than blaming the victim that they made a stupid choice. It’s convenient to blame the immigrants themselves rather than address what drove them to these decisions in the first place.
Do you have a sense of why we are seeing an increase in family apprehensions at the border in recent months?
That’s a cycle, I think. It’s a matter of what’s happening in the sending countries that’s pushing people. Whenever there are rumors circulating about what gaps there might be in the system, people pack their stuff and start coming up.
For example, coyotes, who often are from the same communities, will come and say “well, Trump is doing this,” or “we see an opening here, we can get you through this certain part of the country,” and people are so unaware of the enormity of the risk and the possibility of what will happen to them. They come believing that they will find some relief or some refuge, and that happens cyclically.
At the holidays we saw a huge increase of children and families coming in and that’s not usually when you see people coming up. Whatever the rumor is, it’s a source of misinformation that people grab and then come up and think they’re going to be safe, and usually that’s not the case. They’re apprehended.
As far as [those immigrants] in the country I think people are at much higher risk than they used to be. Children are afraid to go to school, parents are afraid to go to work, because at this moment they don’t really know what’s out on the street, and they’re fearful about just being out and about, or of reporting to ICE, or going to a courthouse. ICE is everywhere now.
With so much polarization around the topic of immigration in the U.S. right now, what are people not understanding about the reality of immigrant families?
First of all, that this isn’t new. In economic hard times, whether in sending countries or in this country, there’s always been an uptick in migration. There’s always a tendency to blame the victim out of fear, I think, that many people, for example in Arizona, are so fearful of people outside their culture that they believe that the immigrants are going to be responsible for a lot of the social ills that we see in the country.
Like the MS-13 is a really good example – a president can pick out one troubling element of a migrant population and apply that to the entire picture, and many people don’t have experience outside their own small circles, and tend to take that information in and believe it.
Who’s counting how many kids are entering child welfare due to parental deportation?
Nobody is counting that. It’s a problem. You need to ask DCS [the Arizona Department of Child Safety] why we’re not counting this.
Now there is a sense that if that population is reported in any definitive way that there will be repercussions, so some of us who are in the child welfare system are saying, “why don’t you have numbers” and we’re also saying we’re not sure where any data might go and whether it might end up in the hands of immigration authorities.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.