US asylum seekers with children face wrenching, Solomonic choice

Tijuana (Mexico) (AFP) –


Yolany Reyes is adamant about one thing: no one is going to separate her from her three-year-old son.

"It would be like taking away part of me," said the 26-year-old Honduran.

Reyes and her child have traveled across Mexico by train, bus and on foot with a migrant caravan, and now she's at the US border hoping to gain asylum.

Along with 150 other Central Americans, they have been camped out since Sunday in a little plaza in Tijuana that abuts a border crossing into southern California.

Across the frontier beckons the US city of San Diego. But to get there, they must navigate a nerve-wracking asylum process that can separate mother from child.

It will begin with their arrest when Reyes presents herself to an immigration officer without a visa.

She will then undergo a screening to determine whether she has a "credible fear" of political persecution or violence, says Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell University.

"They then proceed to a full asylum hearing on the merits before an immigration judge," he says. "An asylum applicant doesn't have to be detained at that point in the process, but often is, because the government wants to make sure they show up for their hearing."

And in that process, children can be taken away from their parents.

According to The New York Times, about 700 children have been separated from their parents at US border stations since October 2017, 100 of them under the age of four.

The government also detains many asylum seekers to try to deter other potential asylum applicants from coming to the United States, says Yale-Loehr.

Critics say separating families is a cruel policy pursued by a hostile administration to deter the arrival of undocumented people.

Tyler Houston, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), denies that charge: "There is no policy of separating families on the border for deterrent purposes."

"DHS has an obligation to protect the best interests of children crossing our borders and occasionally this results in separating them from the adult they are traveling with if a parental relationship cannot be confirmed or if we think the child is in danger," he said.

- 'Horrific' practice -

Reyes doesn't know what to do: She says she can't be separated from her child and she can't go back home to Colon, Honduras, where she says her father, a farmer, was killed for political reasons.

"We have suffered many tragedies," said the young woman, who says she will only be safe in the United States, where her husband arrived a month ago. "I am in danger."

The number of detentions at the border have soared -- 90,033 between January and March 2018 compared to 62,525 in the same period of 2017, according to government figures.

US President Donald Trump, who campaigned in the 2016 US elections on a harsh anti-immigration platform, has pointed at the Reyes' caravan as justification for building a big border wall.

Tom Homan, acting ICE director, told Fox News Tuesday the caravan is "an attack on the sovereignty of the nation."

"They take advantage of the loopholes in the system," he said, adding: "Some have good cases (for asylum), but many do not."

James Jones, an immigration attorney in Chula Vista, California, crossed the border to offer members of the caravan free consultations about the asylum process and its risks.

"Many are more afraid of going back home," he explained.

"While there is a possibility of being separated from their children, there is a greater chance that they will die there," he said, referring to their home countries.

That's how it is for Johana Magaly. She has five children aged three to 14.

She is prepared to be separated from them temporarily if it means they can enter the United States, and not go back to Guatemala, where she says, without going into details, that a man threatened to kill her.

"As long as we're better off than in my country and I can have them with me later," she said.

It's a Solomonic choice that has caused a lot of heartache.

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued over the case of a Congolese mother who was fleeing violence and was kept in detention thousands of miles from her daughter, aged seven.

In the end, the woman was released.

But "there remain many other families who have been separated, and we will continue to attack this horrific family separation practice,? said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU?s Immigrants? Rights Project.