A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words

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On June 12, 2018, award-winning photographer John Moore snapped a picture of two-year-old Yanela Sanchez screaming as her mother Sandra endured a search executed by U.S. Border Patrol agents. Moore has been photographing the U.S. migrant crisis for Getty Images since the George W. Bush administration and has decades of experience in conflict zones all around the world. When asked about this particular photo, he described kneeling in the dust, surrounded by the desert night, the detainees lit by the searchlights of Border Patrol vehicles. “I just wanted her to stop crying,” he said, thinking of his own son, a toddler of similar age safe at home. He wanted to pick her up (‘I wanted to stop her crying’: The image of a migrant child that broke a photographer’s heart’).

Photographers work to capture images that convey complex emotions. We all know that an image speaks a thousand words and the fear experienced by a child apprehended at the border screams from the page. Yanela has become the face of the refugee crisis, of the thousands of children separated from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico.  Time Magazine picked up the image for its July 2, 2018, issue, juxtaposing the image of Yanela with a menacing Trump towering over her. “Welcome to America” is the title of the image.

As usual, the partisan debate over immigration rages. I see inaccurate histrionics on both sides of the aisle as people share information that triggers their emotional centers. As always, I waited for the story to unfold and the facts to become apparent. Here they are. (This is, by necessity, an overview. This is complex stuff! I have provided links for those who want more information.)

The Trump administration points to the Flores Settlement as the impetus to separate families at the border, and their sympathizers have uncritically accepted that explanation. What is the Flores Settlement and what does it actually say?

Flores v. Reno was settled in 1997 and passed two statutes into law. First, the law establishes that unaccompanied migrant children must be placed in protective custody immediately, preferably with family or friends of the family. Second, if no one is available to take them, children that remain in custody must be housed in the “least restrictive conditions.” (For complete documentation see Reno v. Flores.) All children are required to be in protective custody within twenty days, whether they are unaccompanied or not. (Flores came about because of inhumane treatment of migrant children. See Flores Agreement.)

As is always the case, laws are interpreted by the administration in power. Unaccompanied minors who arrive at the border have traditionally been the ones most impacted by Flores. When apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol, the policy has been to place them in protective custody as quickly as possible: law stipulates that children must be relocated from immigration detention centers to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the organization in charge of overseeing the placing of children in protective custody. This is supposed to occur within three days of the minor arriving at the border.

Previous administrations – Clinton, Bush, and Obama – treated families with children differently. If the family asked for asylum they were typically moved into the queue for hearings and released into the U.S. The only reason for breaking this protocol was if a family member was found to be carrying drugs or other contraband, or if it could be proven that a family member was an offender or known to be dangerous. In that case, the person of concern was typically detained but the rest of the family would be allowed to enter. (For a good breakdown of the differences between the previous and current administrations see “What Obama did with migrant families vs. what Trump is doing”.) For those not requesting asylum, the family could be detained as a unit, remanded for a deportation hearing, and scheduled to appear before a judge.

So, bottom line: under previous administrations, removing children from their parents was not standard practice. Typically, the only cases when children were taken away was when their adult guardians were found to be carrying drugs or convicted of other crimes. Children could be detained, but with their families if the individuals did not request asylum.

All that changed in April 2018. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the Border Patrol to adopt a zero tolerance policy. Here’s exactly what that means: entering the country illegally is a misdemeanor. (For a more detailed explanation see All Law). In most cases, misdemeanor charges are filed upon arrest and then the person is given a court date and released. However, previous administrations did not even arrest a lot of people – if they requested asylum they were given a hearing date and released without arrest. If they did not request asylum, then release was complicated by a number of factors. Has the person attempted to cross the border or been deported previously? Have they been convicted of a crime in their home country or the U.S.? In these cases the person or family could be detained but they were not separated. (For more detail see “The remarkable history of the family separation crisis”.)

The zero tolerance policy means that everyone caught trying to cross the border is now arrested, charged, and detained. It no longer matters whether or not they request asylum. Furthermore, because law prohibits children from being held in prisons (due to the Flores settlement), they started being separated from their parents. The law still requires them to be placed into custody with a family member, friend of the family, or protective services (prioritized in that order) – again because of Flores – but now there are a huge number of children to deal with because they have been separated from their parents.

It turns out that Yanela Sanchez was not separated from her family at the border. Her mother was searched for about two minutes and then she picked up her daughter and gave her some water. They were fleeing Honduras, a country known for violence and the rape of women. It is unclear as of this writing if the family were in danger. The exact reasons for their departure from their home country remain unknown.

Upon discovering that Yanela remained with her mother, numerous news agencies, including Time Magazine, posted correction stories. Trump administration officials and sympathizers crowed with victory, delighted that the face of the migration crisis was actually a child not separated from her mother.

But here’s the point: IT DOESN’T MATTER. That Yanela was not separated from her mother is wonderful news. But more than two thousand children have been torn from their families. Those children were not picked up by a loved one and given water. They were remanded to border control detention centers and placed in chain link cages, often on bare concrete with only foil blankets. Their shoelaces and jewelry were removed. Some of them were likely forcibly drugged. Because the process of placing these children in protective custody (as required by Flores) is onerous, they are removed from the detention centers – law requires them to be moved after three days – and taken to detainment centers where they are supposed to remain no more than twenty days. There are so many children that temporary housing is being constructed, resulting in “tent cities.”

At this point, I’ll spare readers my anarchist rant about national borders being arbitrary constructs designed to keep rich people rich and keep people in line by pitting us against one another. Instead, I’ll just say this. Detention and deportation is very problematic, racist, and results in lasting trauma to those impacted. Family separation is a new low of inhumanity, but the U.S. has been deporting people for a long time. Some of those people, returned to countries torn by violence and crime, have died, sometimes horrifically. Many people, most often women and children, have been reporting abuse and rape by Border Patrol agents and in detention centers for a long time and it’s only gotten worse under this administration. If recent events can serve as a wake-up call, maybe we can work toward a long-term, humane, solution. But that will not happen under the Trump administration.

Catlyn Keenan