Felipe turned 11 years old in a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children this year, thousands of miles away from his parents. He had not arrived to the United States alone, but the U.S. government took him from his parents and sent them to a U.S. Marshals prison in Texas. Felipe was not able to speak with his parents on his birthday. The following day he told his mother, Victoria, by phone, “If there’s no cake, there’s no birthday.” Victoria told her son that they would celebrate when they saw each other next. Months later, that day has still not come.
Today, the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) launched a campaign to demand that the Biden administration reunite Felipe with his parents before the December holidays. Join us to take action.
The family’s tragic separation story is detailed in a new article in the Texas Observer by reporter John Washington and Anna-Catherine Brigida. In September, NIJC filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and with the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General asking for an investigation into the separation of Felipe from his parents. Months later, the family continues to suffer irreparable pain and trauma from the ongoing separation. To date, no DHS or DOJ official has informed NIJC of any action taken to reunify the family, as the months of agonizing separation continue.
The family was initially separated in May 2022, after Victoria and her husband Anton arrived with Felipe at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking safety in the United States. Border Patrol agents arrested Victoria and Anton near the border, and referred them for criminal prosecution for a misdemeanor offense of failing to report at a border crossing point.
Victoria and Felipe were initially detained together in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility. But after an officer interrogated Victoria, CBP officials took Felipe away. Victoria was not able to say goodbye and a few hours later was taken to a U.S. Marshals facility without any knowledge of her son’s whereabouts. CBP designated Felipe as an “unaccompanied minor” and he was flown more than a thousand miles away to an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter facility in Illinois.
Felipe told NIJC in September 2022: “I have been away from my mom and dad for around four months. I do not understand why I cannot be with them. I am filled with sadness. I have been so worried and felt so alone … I began seeing a doctor because of this. I do not understand why I cannot be with my parents. I feel like I am being punished but I did not do anything wrong. I deserve to be back with my mom and dad. I want to live with them again so they can give me hugs and cook for me, and we can do other things together. We always used to play together and now I cannot even see them.”
CBP has pending detainer requests for both Victoria and Anton. This means that even when their time in U.S. Marshals custody ends, DHS may decide to transfer them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention rather than allow them to reunite with Felipe. NIJC is calling for the administration to release Victoria and her husband on humanitarian grounds so they can be reunited with Felipe and pursue their asylum claim without obstruction.
To date, neither DHS nor DOJ has provided Victoria or her attorneys with any written explanation as to the basis for the separation, nor have any charges been brought against her other than the one relating to their manner of entry. NIJC attorneys submitted multiple pieces of evidence to DHS demonstrating that the parents do not have any criminal background.
The complaint filed by NIJC on behalf of the family requests an investigation into the alleged rights violations that continue to cause extreme trauma and pain to Victoria, Anton, and young Felipe. It discusses how the separation was aggravated by U.S. Marshals officials, who refused to facilitate regular communication between the family, restricted Victoria from communicating with her immigration attorney, and obstructed her access to legal counsel, hindering the family’s ability to pursue their asylum claim and reunification.
Human rights experts and legal scholars found that the intentional harm behind the Trump administration’s policy of separating families constituted government-sanctioned torture. The Biden administration officially rescinded the policy and established an interagency Task Force to reunify families separated as a result of Zero-Tolerance or “any other related policy, program, practice, or initiative.” Nevertheless, families continue to suffer from separations resulting from deterrence programs carried out by the Biden administration.
In Fiscal Year 2021, CBP reported on 227 recorded family separations, “marking a 252 percent increase” from the year prior. U.S. Health and Human Services reported that another 131 separations have taken place so far in Fiscal Year 2022 (through July 2022). These are merely the cases that are recorded, and do not account for the cases that go undocumented, such as Felipe’s case.
The alarming increase in numbers of separations and the refusal by the government to reunify Felipe with his parents merit urgent investigation and action. Four years after the devastation of the Zero-Tolerance family separation program, it is unconscionable that the U.S. government continues to tear families apart. To date, DOJ and DHS officials have failed to implement many of the basic recommendations issued by oversight and watchdog agencies in the wake of Zero-Tolerance, such as allowing for parents to communicate with the child from whom they have been separated and ensuring prompt reunification. The United States government continues to ignore its obligations to uphold the basic rights - and recognize the fundamental integrity - of immigrants and asylum seeking families. This case tragically illustrates that the government is repeating the pain and suffering of family separations with little scrutiny.
Jesse Franzblau is a senior policy analyst at NIJC.