Before Jeff Sessions Separated Immigrant Families, Obama Did It

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Before Jeff Sessions Separated Immigrant Families, Obama Did It

Tina Vasquez

A program that detains male Mexican migrants near the border and repatriates them far from their area of origin ramped up under the Obama administration—and often led to family separation.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a law enforcement conference on Monday confirmed the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said at the conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

Sessions’ comments were the first time an administration official confirmed the policy first considered last year. Since October, more than 700 children have reportedly been taken from their parents, including more than 100 children under age 4, the New York Times reported in April

Advocates with immigrant and human rights groups have registered their outrage. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas said in a statement that Sessions “reaffirmed his commitment to discredited criminal justice policies over common sense and, most importantly, over the best interests of children seeking refuge in this country.”

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The American Immigration Council (AIC) called the policy “unconscionable.”

This policy could mean that even if a family is seeking asylum, parents can be criminally prosecuted, and their children will be taken away from them, to be placed in a shelter where they face deportation proceedings alone,” AIC Executive Director Beth Werlin said in a statement.

Werlin said any policy that “prosecutes parents and separates families to send a message to others is cruel and un-American.” But separating immigrant families is quintessentially American, and a natural byproduct of the immigration system. The practice of separating immigrant families at the border isn’t new.

The Alien Transfer Exit Program 

The United States since 2008 has had a policy called the Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP), which detains male Mexican migrants near the border and, instead of repatriating them to their area of origin, leaves them hundreds—and sometimes thousands—of miles away at the opposite end of the U.S.-Mexico border. They are often released from custody at unusual times of day in completely unfamiliar areas where they have no family or other support system. The practice is supposed to deter further border crossing attempts, but instead it subjects migrants to crime and danger.

In 2011, the Alien Transfer Exit Program affected an estimated one-fifth of migrants detained by Border Patrol along the southwest border. That’s because ATEP ramped up under the Obama administration as a way to handle the spike in Mexican migrants attempting to enter the United States.

These were Mexican men like Luis Montes, who was was first detained by Border Patrol while crawling through a field after crossing the Rio Grande, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2011. The 32-year-old was put on a plane, flown halfway across the country, then bused to the California-Mexico border. At 2 a.m., federal immigration authorities escorted Montes to a gate leading to Mexicali. While he was back in Mexico, Montes was roughly 1,200 miles away from where his journey began.

“Under the transfer program, many immigrants who are caught in California are flown to Texas border cities, and the flights return west filled with immigrants caught in Texas. In Arizona, immigrant groups are divided, with some deported through Texas and others through California,” the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

Federal immigration agencies have long claimed that ATEP “breaks the smuggling cycle by physically separating aliens from the smuggling organizations that will repeatedly attempt to bring guide them into this country,” but the program—called “cruel and unusual punishment” by human rights’ advocates—has separated families. 

‘Lateral Repatriation’ Is Family Separation

While ATEP targets Mexican men attempting to enter the United States, the program doesn’t just nab men traveling alone. Men migrating with their families are separated from them, detained, and transported to an unfamiliar place in Mexico, while their partners and children are left to languish in detention centers. In 2011, during the height of ATEP, almost none of the reporting about the program focused on family separation.

The Arizona-based organization No More Deaths refers to ATEP as “lateral repatriation,” noting that the program often separates family members and purposely sends them to cities far from one other. Families aren’t notified of where each member ends up, leaving them unaware of where their partners and children are.

When it was first reported in December 2017 that, as U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary, John Kelly had considered separating immigrant families at the border, Mary Small, policy director of Detention Watch Network, told Rewire.News that the United States takes a paternalistic approach to migrant parents, “assuming it knows what’s best for immigrant families, while criminalizing them for wanting to give their families a better life and then harming immigrant families in the process.”

“There’s certainly a patronizing lens with the United States,” Small said. Sessions’ speech Monday, more concerned with law and order than human lives, was vastly different than the tone Kelly took as head of DHS. In February 2017, Kelly made an appearance on Guatemalan television to warn potential migrants of the “very, very dangerous” things that can happen when attempting to migrate to the United States.

“Many Guatemalans, and for that matter irregular migrants from any country, who make the journey north find themselves tortured, beaten, starved, raped or sold into the sex trade,” Kelly said at a press conference with Guatemala’s foreign minister, Carlos Morales.

“With women, we pretend [enforcement policies] are to protect them from the dangers of migrating north. It is very gendered. We treat women migrants as if they’re not making informed decisions on behalf of their families in light of the circumstances they’re facing in their home countries and the only way to help women understand this is a harsh punishment when they arrive [in the United States],” Small said. “For men, the public narrative is that they are dangerous and need to be deterred from entering the U.S. The common root of both is that immigrants make poor choices for themselves and their families and they are people not to be trusted. They are dangerous men and hapless women.”

The hyper-criminalization of immigrant men is not exclusive to the Trump administration. President Obama infamously said his administration was targeting “felons, not families. Criminals, not children.” This glossed over inconvenient facts, including that immigrants with criminal records can be parents. Or that those attempting to re-enter the United States to reunite with their family after a prior deportation are slapped with a felony, thus making them felons and a priority for deportation. Or that the Obama administration brought back the practice of family detention and fought to be able to detain children in unlicensed facilities at reduced standards for indefinite periods of time.

Inhumane Policies Are Not a Deterrent 

Both Democratic and Republican administrations have operated as if detainment, deportation, and family separation will deter economic refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants from attempting to enter the United States. The fact that none of the United States’ inhumane policies have managed to stop the unauthorized flow of migrants only speaks to the circumstances that force people to migrate. Whatever “cruel and unusual” punishments the United States is willing to implement are worth the risk in migrants’ eyes because the conditions they are attempting to flee are that dire.

“This question about whether or not the implementation of cruel and horrific things work [to stop the flow of migrants] is the wrong question. If separating families at the border did work, it doesn’t make it right. ATEP is the perfect example of this. ATEP routinely broke up families migrating together and it made it a logistical nightmare for a couple to find each other again. Imagine a weeks- or months-long ordeal in which you didn’t know where your husband was, and he didn’t know where you and your children were,” Small said.

Like many federal immigration agencies, Border Patrol has a history of skewing facts to make its efforts seem more effective, but the agency’s claims regarding ATEP’s recidivism rates have been especially egregious. In 2013, the Congressional Research Service found that ATEP had “one of the worst track records at discouraging people from trying [to cross the border] again,” according to the Associated Press. Of the 102,000 Mexican migrant men funneled into the Alien Transfer Exit Program in the 2012 fiscal year, 24 percent were caught again. But in an end-of-year report for fiscal year 2012, Border Patrol said ATEP enabled the agency to “achieve specific positive border security outcomes” and called the program an “essential enhancemen[t].”

The data being used by the Trump administration to justify the separation of families at the border is equally shaky. Vox’s Dara Lind reported there’s a “fake statistic” at the heart of the Trump administration’s case for prosecuting immigrant parents who migrate with their children:

From July to November 2017, the administration tested out a “zero tolerance” policy for parents in the El Paso sector of the border, covering western Texas and eastern New Mexico …. The administration claims that after the pilot, illegal crossings of family members in El Paso dropped by 64 percent …. The federal government generally uses Border Patrol apprehensions as a proxy for illegal border crossings themselves (on the logic that the more people come through, the more of them will get caught). Customs and Border Protection reports how many members of family units — adults who arrive with one or more children — are apprehended at each border sector each month. According to those statistics, in July 2017, 231 family-unit members were apprehended in the El Paso sector. In November 2017, that figure was 379.

That’s a 64 percent increase in apprehensions — the opposite of what the administration’s statistic suggested.

To advocates like Small, the administration’s shaky justification for separating children from parents at the border is frustratingly familiar.

“The conversation around ATEP [among officials] was always about how effective it was at reducing recidivism, but there was no evidence of that at all, and it’s clear that was the wrong issue to focus on. The fact that it carelessly separated families that were migrating together should have taken the policy completely off the table and it should have never been considered an option,” she said. “But it didn’t, and now history is repeating itself.”