When Michelle Brané visited the immigration processing center known as Ursula in McAllen, Texas, to monitor a group of migrant children being held there, she asked to see a 4-year-old girl on her list.
“I can’t find her,” an agent told her plainly.
Brané, who works with the Women's Refugee Commission to make sure facilities like Ursula are adhering to legal standards, says that the only person who could find the girl was a fellow detainee, a 16-year-old who had met the toddler three days earlier and been caring for her. “She would put this child to sleep and comfort her when she would cry. She changed this kid’s diaper,” said Brané. “No adult, no official in the facility, ever stepped in. All of this in a facility where they sleep on the floor, and the lights are on 24 hours a day.”
Brané's is one of many horrific stories that have surfaced in the weeks since the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy was enacted on April 6, an unprecedented move to criminally prosecute every unlawful entrant to the U.S., including asylum seekers. The practice has resulted in the separation of more than 2,000 children from their parents, many of whom have little information about their kids’ whereabouts. On June 20, Trump signed an executive order ceasing family separations at the border—but many migrants children in custody have yet to be reunited with their parents.
Activists on both sides of the aisle have expressed disgust at how families have been forcibly broken apart.
These are some of the fearless women on the ground—lawyers, organizers, advocates—seeking to put them back together.
Allegra Love, Founder of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project
“They, in a lot of cases, have no idea where their children are,” said immigration attorney Allegra Love, who represents fathers detained at the U.S. border and placed in a federal criminal prison in New Mexico, when we spoke to her in June. The pleas she hears are always the same: “You have to help me find the kid.” But Love has little time with these dads, who are transferred into ICE custody soon after she meets with them. Often, she said, the only thing she can do to help clients locate their kids while still in detainment is hand out flyers with the number of a hotline on them.
“Our job is trying to get them the hell out of the prison so that reunification can happen,” she said. “If we can get them out and avoid deportation, they can be the ones to pull their kids out of ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] custody.”
Love was drawn to her line of work after visiting a makeshift detention center erected in her home state in 2014, where “the average age was 6. It was a horrific environment,” she said. “I immediately started volunteering as a lawyer in that detention facility to get it shut down.” Unfortunately, another, more permanent one sprung up in its place.
What Love wishes more people understood is that detaining immigrants is not a new practice. “I have been involved personally in [fighting] detention of families since Obama revived the policy in 2014,” she said. “I think that one of the points that a lot of people are missing. But what the Obama administration would do is detain families together. Now, they’re using prosecution for illegal entrance to split up families. They’re saying, ‘This isn’t working, this isn’t cruel enough to deter refugees.’”
Robyn Barnard, Immigration Attorney with Human Rights First
Robyn Barnard, a Los Angeles-based immigration lawyer who represents several parents who are detained and separated from their kids, said that the biggest challenge to her cases is simply getting in touch with clients. “They have to pay for any phone calls they make at a high rate,” she told us in June, pointing out that many detainees come to the U.S. with very little money and need to cold call multiple organizations to find legal council. “I heard this asylum seeker yesterday give this analogy: When you have money on your commissary account, you have to make a decision—do you use that money so you can get some food for the day, or do you use that money to call your loved one or your lawyer. It's a pretty tough choice that they're faced with.” At the same time, she said, “there's no way for us to call the detention center and say ‘Hi, can I speak to ... We have to go in person or we could send a letter.”
One of Barnard’s clients, a mother of two from El Salvador, was separated from her sons—one under the age of 10, the other under 5—in May and hadn't seen them at the time of our interview in late June. She’s currently being held in a California detention center. “The first time I met with her she had been detained for about three weeks, and she had been told the state that [her kids] were located in but was not given a chance to speak to them,” said Barnard. “Every time I speak to this mom, her questions are, ‘Where are they? Are they safe?”
Barnard’s client entered the U.S. through an official port of entry in Tijuana to seek asylum. “She wanted to do it the way she’d been told is correct, but even that is being shut off to asylum seekers,” said Barnard. In such cases, Barnard said, there’s no reason U.S. officials should choose to criminally prosecute. “Under international and U.S. law, asylum seekers should not be punished for the way that they come to the country to seek protection. Security checks can be done in a quick way upon apprehension. Once they’ve confirmed their identity and that they have an asylum claim, they should be released into the community, which is more cost effective and humane. This allows families to stay together.”
Swapna Reddy, Co-Director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project
"I come from a family of immigrants who have had the great privilege of moving back and forth across borders," said Swapna Reddy, who co-founded ASAP in 2015 with three of her law school classmates. "We had gone down to South Texas to volunteer in an immigration detention center that holds thousands of asylum-seeking women and kids—including babies who are still breastfeeding and little toddlers. That’s where I met Suny and her 7-year-old son, ASAP’s first clients. [They were] separated from their husband and father for more than five months. We represented Suny for her trial in detention, and she won her case. Rather than celebrate, she urged us to find a way to represent other families like hers, even if we had to do so from a distance."
Reddy's answer? ASAP. "We provide emergency legal services at a distance to asylum-seeking families facing imminent deportation who live in areas with few or no local legal resources. We also have an online community with over 2,700 asylum-seeking mothers, where members share stories and strategies, access expert attorneys, and build community power."
And their track record speaks for itself. "Thanks to Suny, we’ve prevented the deportation of more than 400 asylum seekers in over 30 states, and connected more than 2,700 families to legal help online," Reddy said.
Jennifer Anzardo Valdes, Director of the Children’s Legal Program at Americans for Immigrant Justice
“I started working with unaccompanied minors in 2008 when I volunteered as a Spanish interpreter for a child being represented by my law school. I was amazed to discover that unaccompanied minors do not have a right to government appointed counsel,” said Jennifer Anzardo Valdes of the Americans for Immigrant Justice, which represents immigrant children in custody and recently released in the South Florida area. Anzardo Valdes, a Miami native and the daughter of refugees, immediately knew this would be her life’s work.
“After the zero-tolerance policy was announced, we began encountering younger children in need of representation. We are currently representing a 3-year-old girl who fled to the United States with her father. Her mother is deceased. The girl and her father were separated at the border, and the father has since been deported,” Anzardo Valdes said. “When we met with her, the only information she could tell us was that she was 3 years old by holding up her three little fingers. This child is now expected to present her case before an immigration judge."
Trump’s executive order ending family separation is not the finish line for these children, Anzardo Valdes warned. “You often hear that the Flores settlement”—which the White House has sought to reverse in the name of keeping families together—“is a loophole in the law that encourages children to enter this country illegally.” That is a mischaracterization, she said. “The fact is that the Flores settlement was put in place to set minimum standards for the humane treatment of children in detention. These key protections that were put in place to shield children from additional harm upon arrival in the US are now in jeopardy.”
Christina Fialho, Cofounder of Freedom for Immigrants
“When I was in law school, one of my friends was a victim of home raid,” recalled Christina Fialho. “ICE came to her home in the middle of the night and took her father. It was horrific trying to locate her father. It was only after he was deported to Mexico that we were able to be back in touch with him.” Fialho, who also comes from a family of immigrants, now works to help detained parents get released, locate their children, and reunite their families.
“People are demanding an end to the practice of separating families at the border,” said Fialho, but her goals are more radical. “The bigger question is why we need to imprison immigrants in the first place. Imprisoning asylum seekers is a relatively new phenomenon.” Not only have immigrants in community-based incarceration alternatives shown up to court hearings, but such programs are also more cost-efficient for the U.S.
Instead, the current system leads to heartbreaking cases like that of Fialho’s client whose 1-year-old child was taken away from her for weeks. “She talks about how it was like trying to adopt her own child trying to get back in touch with him.”
Fialho’s organization, Freedom for Immigrants, monitors abuse at detention centers and runs a free hotline for imprisoned immigrants. “Through our hotline we’ve documented hundreds of sexual assaults in immigration detention,” Fialho said, but the vast majority go uninvestigated. “A young girl under 18 who was detained at one of the facilities in Texas, there was a medical examination done on her that showed vaginal scarring and an STD, but the sexual assault complaint was still marked unfounded, which is just crazy.”
Michelle Brané, Director of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission
“I come from a family of refugees—my mother left Hungary during WWII, and my dad’s from Argentina,” said Brané. “So I grew up with refugee stories. It hit home for me.” After stints as a human right officer in Bosnia and at the Justice Department, she joined the Women’s Refugee Commission. “We're the people who have access to go into the facilities, who understand what they're required to do by law, what the child welfare protocols should be. We also visit the border patrol stations and the processing centers where the actual separation are happening.”
The commission’s main objective is to monitor facility conditions. “When journalists call me, or when congressmen call me, and say, ‘How to fix this?’ I can say, ‘Here's what the problem is. This is a better way to do it.’
And there is a much better way to do it, Brané assured. She calls some of the scenarios she’s observed “child neglect. Any normal circumstance of that, that would be criminal action.”
The 4-year-old she checked up on in Ursula, Brané said, was eventually reunited with her aunt. “I’m not sure what they will do in the long run,” she said. “At least they know now that the child is there.”
Jessica Morales Rocketto, Political Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance
"On Father’s Day, we organized a vigil outside of the largest processing detention center in McAllen, Texas, where 1,174 children are being detained. We wanted to send a message on Father’s Day to the children inside that they are not alone,” said Jessica Morales Rocketto, who chairs the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s feminist immigration campaign. Having read about the lack of toys where young immigrant children are being held, "Leah, a 12-year-old girl who traveled [to the vigil] from Miami, tried to deliver stuffed animals and messages of love and support to the children inside with [former] Secretary [of Housing and Urban Development] Julian Castro,” but they were not let inside. “Our hearts stopped when a bus full of children passed in front of us. They were being sent away from their families at that moment.”
The NWDA has been campaigning against family separation at the border “ever since Arizona wanted to pass one of the country’s worst immigration laws in the country back in 2010,” Morales Rocketto said. "As an organization dedicated to and led by domestic workers, the issue of immigration is not new for us because the majority of our members and leaders are immigrant women. As a Latinx woman, I am always aware that my own immigration status is based on pure luck. My grandfather was deported as a young child, despite being a U.S. citizen as part of a government sponsored program. I don’t want any family to go through what my family did."
“We are organizing a national mobilization to keep families together," Morales Rocketto told us ahead of the Families Belong Together protest that took place on June 30. "In less than 24 hours, we’ve had 40,000 people signed up and counting."
This story was originally published on June 19 and has been updated.