A Look Back at the Human Cost of Immigration Enforcement in 2018

It doesn’t take much effort to find examples of the incomprehensible pain and suffering the unapologetically anti-immigrant environment in the United States has caused.

[Photo: A young child holds sign at protest against zero tolerance policy that reads,
Public health researchers and advocates are only just beginning to frame the trauma experienced by families as a direct result of immigration enforcement, including family detention, as a public health crisis. Frederic J Brown / Getty Images

Nearly two years have passed since President Donald Trump issued his executive order essentially making everyone in the United States without authorization deportable. The order, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” emboldened the federal immigration agency to seek out and detain 158,581 people—the number of  “administrative arrests” that occurred in 2018, according to newly released data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The administration found those undocumented immigrants in “civil violation of U.S. immigration laws,” to use ICE’s own language. Put another way, these 158,581 people who resided in the United States had no legal recourse for remaining here—where in some cases they’ve lived for decades, if not for nearly their entire lives—because the “pathway” to citizenship didn’t exist for them.

It doesn’t take much effort to find examples of the incomprehensible pain and suffering the unapologetically anti-immigrant environment ushered in by the Trump administration has caused vulnerable immigrant populations in 2018. In May, just days after former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions finally confirmed the family separation policy at the border, Honduran asylum seeker Marco Antonio Muñoz strangled himself while in federal custody after immigration officials separated him from his wife and 3-year-old son. News outlets could barely keep his story on front pages because the atrocities over the summer didn’t begin or end with his death.

At least two young children have died as a result of immigration enforcement. This spring, 20-month-old Mariee Juárez died after her release from the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, where ICE held her with her mother. And just last week, on December 8, a Guatemalan child, Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, died in Border Patrol custody reportedly from dehydration, shock, and liver failure—at the age of 7.

Over the past year, we’ve covered a number of cases illustrating the human toll of immigration enforcement. Public health researchers and advocates are only just beginning to frame the trauma experienced by families as a direct result of immigration enforcement, including family detention, as a public health crisis, but there is still a lot that is unknown. As we continue to grapple with the complexities of these experiences, we offer a look back at our 2018 coverage of this massive issue.

Family Separation

While border policies under previous administrations also ripped families apart, the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy went unmatched in its calculated cruelty and resulting chaos, which continues to this day. The policy also failed at its intended purpose, as crafted by the Trump administration, which was to deter Central American asylum seekers from migrating to the United States—this, according to Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) own numbers.

Audio of sobbing children crying for their mothers shocked the U.S. public, but less attention has been paid to the lasting effects of the policy, even as reporters and advocates continue to unearth new, terrible findings, like the long-term “catastrophic harm” to these families. The Trump administration has failed to meet multiple family reunification deadlines, and some families remain separated, including grandmas and sisters who are the legal guardians of the children they migrated with. In some instances, ICE has deported these family members without the children they raised. In other instances, ICE has detained the sponsors of young children who remain separated from their loved ones.

While family separation is a natural byproduct of the immigrant system, advocates have worked to push the U.S. public to expand their understanding of “family separation” to encompass the myriad ways immigration enforcement harms families. This includes family members targeted in “silent raids” or the ways immigration officials deport parents while putting their children in foster care or in the custody of adoptive U.S. parents without the biological parents’ consent. Or the ways parents are forced to take sanctuary at a local church, or are separated from loved ones because the Trump administration has terminated the immigration statuses that had allowed them to lawfully reside in the United States, such as Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Enforced Departure.

Public Services

A number of advocates have raised concerns about the Trump administration’s proposed regulations to what is known as the “public charge” rule, a portion of U.S. immigration law dating back to 1882 that enables the country to deny immigrants admission based on certain criteria, primarily their likelihood of becoming a “public charge,” defined as “a person who receives certain public benefits above certain defined threshold amounts or for longer than certain periods of time.” This criteria is considered alongside an immigrant’s age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education, and skills, according to DHS. The proposed rule change would bar those seeking to migrate to the United States from being able to enter, and deny lawful permanent residents the ability to further adjust their status and naturalize, simply for accessing services for their families to which they are legally entitled.

Advocates say the proposed regulations would harm some of the nation’s most vulnerable immigrant populations, including children in need and people with disabilities. The goal of the changes, according to advocates, is to “starve them out,” essentially forcing immigrants to choose between feeding their children and one day adjusting their status.

Additionally, immigrants who have resided in the United States for decades, legally working and paying taxes, have expressed serious concerns about what happens to the benefits they are owed should ICE detain and expel them from the United States following immigration enforcement changes. This is the case for TPS recipients like Juan Yanez, who has worked multiple jobs for almost 20 years, paying taxes and paying into social security. The Trump administration initially ended TPS for El Salvador, where Yanez is from, but a federal judge recently ruled unconstitutional the administration’s decision to end the program for certain countries. The judge did not include TPS recipients from Honduras in the ruling, leaving those recipients wondering the same questions Yanez had: “What will happen to the benefits owed to us, the benefits we have been paying for? What happens to our money?”

Reproductive Rights

Although Scott Lloyd recently transitioned into another role within the administration, pregnant minors will feel the impact of his “anti-choice fanaticism” while he ran the Office of Refugee Resettlement for years to come. Lloyd spent 2017 attempting to block undocumented minors in ORR custody from accessing abortion care, even when those minors did everything required of them to access reproductive health-care services. And as if picking up where Lloyd left off, in 2018 the administration ushered in more nefarious attacks on the reproductive rights of immigrants, affecting people both within and outside of federal custody.

Tucked away in the appendix of the Trump administration’s proposed 2019 budget were new restrictions for undocumented people in ICE custody who may want to access abortion care. If the Trump administration got its way, individual ICE agents could hinder undocumented people who are funding their own abortion from accessing care if the agent has religious or “philosophical” reasons for not wanting to facilitate the abortion by providing transportation.

ICE also verified earlier this year a new directive allowing agents to single-handedly increase the number of pregnant people in ICE custody. The policy, which we first reported on back in 2017, enables agents to make a “case-by-case custody determination taking any special factors into account” when processing pregnant detainees. ICE officers are also to treat pregnant detainees as they would “any other.” Given ICE’s track record of “medical neglect,” involving multiple in-custody deaths this year alone, advocates are concerned about the kind of health care pregnant people are receiving while detained.

Advocates also raised concerns about the Trump administration targeting reproductive justice advocates for immigration enforcement. An immigration judge recently denied humanitarian parole to Alejandra Pablos, an immigrant rights and reproductive justice advocate, ordering her deported. Pablos fears for her safety as an abortion storyteller should she be deported to an area of Mexico where abortion is illegal.


After an April immigration raid in Tennessee, the largest workplace raid in at least a decade, more than 500 children didn’t attend school the next day. The children came from mixed-status families and the administration had either targeted their parents, or their family members were afraid they would be next.

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric clearly has bled into the education system.

Elsewhere, administrative officials in Florida are denying undocumented students the ability to attend public high schools and funneling them instead into adult schools where they cannot earn a high school diploma. Adding to the administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and political climate, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said earlier this year that schools should be able to choose whether they want to report undocumented students to ICE.

Schools have already found ways to funnel immigrant children into federal custody, as we reported earlier this year. On Long Island, New York, schools are becoming increasingly unsafe for young, Central American migrants, where wearing fashionable clothing or flashing a peace sign in a Facebook picture has triggered accusations of gang membership. Due to a policy implemented by Lloyd during his time as ORR director, these accusations have led to the prolonged detention of minors and in some cases, their deportations.

LGBTQ Rights

Nothing quite illustrates the deadly consequences of immigration enforcement for vulnerable LGBTQ migrants like the recent revelations regarding the in-custody death of Roxsana Hernández. Federal immigration authorities had detained Hernández on May 13 after she arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a caravan of approximately 1,500 asylum seekers. She was one of several dozen trans women in the caravan who were fleeing persecution in their countries of origin. While in federal immigration custody, Hernández reportedly spent five days in what many migrants call CBP’s “hieleras,” or “ice boxes,” holding facilities known for their frigid temperatures. By this time, according to advocates, Hernández had already shown “signs of medical distress,” including HIV-related complications and pneumonia. She was admitted to a hospital and died May 25; according to ICE, the 33-year-old’s preliminary cause of death was cardiac arrest.

Last month, however, an independent autopsy revealed she endured physical assault and abuse while in custody, according to the wrongful death tort claim. “Specifically, forensic evidence indicates she was handcuffed so tightly as to cause deep tissue bruising and struck repeatedly on the back and rib cage by an asp or similar instrument while her hands were restrained behind her back.”

LGBTQ migrants continue to migrate to the United States as conditions in their countries of origin become increasingly inhospitable, due in part to increased enforcement as a result of U.S. foreign policy. Once here, reports suggest they are likely to face inhumane conditions in detention centers.

No one knows this better than migrants like Udoka Nweke, a gay Nigerian asylum seeker who spent nearly two years inside the deadly Adelanto Detention Center. While in ICE custody, Nweke attempted suicide after being denied asylum and access to mental health services. In an interview with Rewire.News after he left Adelanto, thanks to a groundswell of advocacy efforts, Nweke said he “sees no difference between detention and prison in the United States.” He said, “They used to handcuff me and put me in segregation for days. They lock us up. I think they want us to die in there.”