Seven members of Congress arrived at the Elizabeth, New Jersey, immigrant-detention facility around 9 a.m. Sunday. It was Father’s Day and Rep. Adriano Espaillat of Manhattan noticed that the waiting room was crowded with women and young children celebrating Dads as best they could.
The representatives were there to meet with fathers, too — specifically, fathers who’d been separated from their families due to President Donald Trump’s new zero-tolerance immigration policy. These days in America, illegal border crossers are referred for criminal prosecution and minors are detained separately.
In Elizabeth, the elected officials met with a father from Honduras who said his young daughter was pulled from his arms during the night by federal agents. Another man also from Honduras requested asylum at the border with his 7-year-old brother, who he and his wife had raised as a son, according to materials provided to the lawmakers from the detainees’ lawyers, who helped coordinate the visit. Though the man said his life was in danger and the two approached border patrol at a port of entry, the boy was taken. Another father was separated from his 12-year old daughter, who was apparently being held somewhere in foster care in New York.
During the conversations, Espaillat and fellow Spanish-speaker, New Jersey Rep. Albio Sires translated for their colleagues because no translators were allowed to accompany them (they’d also had to wait an hour and a half for access). Multiple detained fathers broke down in tears.
What was striking to Brooklyn Rep. Hakeem Jeffries was how little information some of the fathers had about their children’s whereabouts. Children who might not speak the language and “were in a foreign land and had no idea . . . what the state of their mothers and fathers had been upon crossing into the U.S.,” Jeffries said. “That’s a complete disgrace.”
A “Myth vs. Fact” fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about the “zero-tolerance” policy says that the agency works “to facilitate communication between detained adults and minors” in custody, including through telephone and video-conferencing. The message doesn’t appear to have been entirely received in Elizabeth, where some of the fathers hadn’t spoken to their children since detention.
After the interview with the fathers, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement representative showed up and gave the officials a briefing. “The answers were few and far between to some degree,” says Jeffries. When asked why southern border detainees were shipped all the way to New Jersey, the staffer noted an “absence of capacity” along the border. The lawmakers weren’t able to get a full breakdown of the number of zero-tolerance family members held at the Elizabeth facility.
We do know that thousands of parents and minors are in custody nationwide.
Stark details from children’s detention centers in Texas continue to emerge — mesh fences, kids lying on space blankets on the ground. The taped sounds of kindergartners wailing. But it’s not a faraway problem. On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote an op-ed about a nine-year-old separated from his mother and held in a federally-contracted facility in New York. The Elizabeth facility is a short drive from the ferry to Ellis Island, where previous generations of parents and children tried to enter America. And of course, the voters who elect the representatives who either support or decry the administration’s policy — they aren’t faraway either. They’re us.