Family separation policy demands reparations, government apology

Illustration of a mother and child separated by a border fence
Vivian Du/Staff

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Sept. 15 marked the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month. As a Hispanic American born and raised in the beautiful state of California, I am grateful to live in a state that values diversity and protects immigrants. There are many things that Hispanic Americans should be proud of, but at this moment in our country’s history, we must also face the fact that Hispanics have been disproportionately impacted by the president of the United States through the family separation policy. We must demand that people harmed by this policy receive a formal apology from the government and restitution for the harm they suffered.

On Sept. 19, 2019, a lawsuit was filed in Arizona on the behalf of five mothers and their children who were separated by U.S. government officials under a cruel government policy of family separation. At the time of their forced separation, the children were all between five and 12 years old.

The lawsuit portrays the dire consequences of electing a president who espouses blatantly lawless, racist and xenophobic rhetoric. In July 2017, the government started a pilot program in Texas, where government officials detained parents who crossed the border with their children, forcibly took their children away from them and designated the children as unaccompanied minors despite the fact that they had arrived with their parents. As if the pilot program had not inflicted enough trauma, the government went on to mandate a nationwide practice of family separation under the “zero tolerance” policy. Government officials they failed to track separated families, indicating that reuniting families wasn’t a priority. Consequently, the Office of Inspector General concluded that the “total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown.

Every person living in America should learn the stories of the parents who were forcefully separated from their kids by government officials. If their stories do not motivate you to vote against the leader of the Republican Party in 2020, I do not know what will. To provide a glimpse of the trauma that was inflicted on at least 2,654 children who were separated from their parents, here are the details of the two and a half month separation of C.M. (the mom) and B.M (her son), as described in the recently filed lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, in 2018, C.M. entered the United States with her then 5-year-old son after fleeing violence in Guatemala. Immigration officers apprehended them and took them to a detention center. Promptly after arriving at the facility, an immigration officer informed C.M. that she would be separated from her son and that she would be deported to Guatemala. The officer laughed at C.M.’s shocked reaction and stated, “Happy Mother’s Day.” Less than two days later, an immigration officer took B.M. to another room so he could bathe, but because he was crying so hard, the officer told his mother C.M. to bathe him because B.M. would be taken to a children’s shelter. C.M. begged the immigration officer not to separate her from her child because he was 5 years old and only spoke Mam, a Mayan language. C.M. pleaded to be sent back to Guatemala with her son, instead of separated. The immigration officer laughed, made fun of her indigenous accent, and said “it’s not that easy.” After C.M. assured B.M. that she would not go back to Guatemala without him, B.M. sobbed and clutched her. The immigration officer forcibly pried B.M. away from his mother as he cried and grabbed at her clothes. C.M. was heartbroken, she cried constantly, did not sleep, became disoriented, had no appetite and began suffering from chronic headaches. C.M. had to relive the trauma of separation every time she watched immigration officers take other children away from their parents at the detention facility. B.M. was transported to a shelter in New York and spent his birthday without his mother. C.M. spent her son’s birthday crying. B.M. was placed in a foster care family in New York but was removed from that home after B.M. and another child reported that the foster care mother had hit both of them. No government official informed C.M. that her son had been abused while in foster care. It took two and a half months for C.M. and her son to be reunited.

The U.S. government inflicted emotional distress on asylum-seeking parents and their children, such as C.M. and B.M, to deter other families from seeking asylum in the United States. In other words, taxpayer dollars contributed to inflicting trauma on innocent asylum seekers. It took more than 40 years for Japanese Americans to receive a monetary restitution and an official government apology for their forced internment during WWII. It should not take decades for victims of the family separation policy to receive restitution. In the coming months, presidential candidates will be asking us to vote for them in the California primary. We must demand that they commit to providing a government apology and restitution to C.M., B.M. and every other person that was harmed by the family separation policy. It is up to us to demand justice and accountability.

Francesco Arreaga is a second year at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and Chinese from UCLA.