Restoring human dignity after family separation

In the summer of 2014, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV), under the leadership of Sister Norma Pimentel, established a Humanitarian Respite Center as a response to the substantial increase in families seeking asylum at the U.S./Mexico border. Since then, more than 150,000 individuals, including separated and reunified families, have been welcomed at the center by volunteers from all over the United States.

Over the past summer, a federal district court ordered the administration to reunite the estimated 2,600 families separated during the “zero-tolerance policy.” This reunification occurred in two phases during July 2018, with children under age 5 being reunified with their parents during “Phase 1” and children ages 5-17 being reunified with their parents during “Phase 2.” CCRGV – with the support of the local Catholic Church, the local community and numerous groups of volunteers from other Catholic Charities – had the privilege of assisting, on a charitable basis, the families reunified and released during Phase 2. In fact, CCRGV and its partners served the largest number of reunified and released families.

Because of the sensitivity of the cases, CCRGV received these families at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valley. Upon arrival, the families were welcomed and given a hot meal, clothes, a warm shower, a room in which to rest, and assistance with travel coordination to their final destinations in the U.S. In addition, CCRGV provided each family with a cell phone in order to assist with post-departure case management. CCRGV is thankful it could provide assistance and comfort to these families.

“On the first night we welcomed families, I recall walking a mother and daughter to their room,” Sister Pimentel said. “The little girl, who was about 7-years-old, turned around and told me: ‘Hoy no voy a llorar’ (Tonight I am not going to cry). ‘Why?’ I asked. She said: ‘I have been crying every night for the past month, but tonight I sleep with mom.’”

While critical and deeply rewarding, the work serving the separated families was not without its challenges. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) contractors dropped families off at the Basilica during all hours, including during the night. This contributed to parents and children being disoriented and fearful of being separated once again, and the trauma these families had suffered was substantial. After being separated, the majority of the children had been placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelter facilities or foster homes in a different state than where their parents were detained by other agencies. In one case, a father was detained by DHS at the Port Isabel Detention Facility in Texas, while his 8-year-old son was placed into ORR foster care in New York. The father said: “I felt like I was never going to see him again, like I couldn’t keep living without him.”

It is important to remember that not all families who were separated have been reunited. DHS had already deported a significant number of parents prior to the court order requiring reunification. As a result, some children remain in ORR care as their deported parents have expressed a desire for them to continue to seek protection in the U.S.

Having seen the trauma and distress families faced as a result of the zero-tolerance policy, CCRGV supports the recommendations made by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in its report “Serving Separated and Reunited Families: Lessons Learned and the Way Forward to Promote Family Unity.” In addition to halting the practice of family separation, the recommendations include suggestions to prioritize the unity and safety of families in future immigration policies and operation, as well as using post-release services as an alternative to family detention.

While Phase 2 of the family reunification process formally ended on July 30, 2018, a large number of families continue to be welcomed at the Humanitarian Respite Center daily. If you would like to support this effort, please visit our website.

[By Sister Norma Pimentel, Executive Director, and Staff]