A mother and father who were separated from their 11-year-old son six months ago after the family came to the United States to seek asylum are asking the Biden administration to reunite them in time for the holiday season.
The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) is representing Victoria and Anton, who have asked the Biden administration to allow them to reunite with their son Felipe when they are released from U.S. Marshals custody this month, instead of transferring them to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention.
The family’s separation story is detailed in a new article by John Washington and Anna-Catherine Brigida in the Texas Observer. Today, NIJC launched a campaign to demand that the Biden administration reunite Felipe with his parents immediately.
“Felipe is languishing in a shelter that is meant to provide short-term care to unaccompanied immigrant children, but he is neither unaccompanied nor has his stay been short. He counts each day that he has been separated from his parents. He is an amazing, kind, resilient child, but his hope for the future and his well being are really deteriorating under these circumstances,” said Marie Silver, NIJC managing attorney and Felipe’s representative.
“Victoria and Anton fled to save their and Felipe’s lives with evidence in hand to prove their asylum claim. Assured by an immigration official they would be released from custody one day, the opposite happened. Victoria and Anton’s indescribable suffering swells each day not knowing when they will be able to hold their son again,” said Colleen Kilbride, NIJC senior attorney and Victoria and Anton’s representative.
Victoria and Anton were initially separated from Felipe in May 2022, after they arrived together at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking safety in the United States. Border Patrol agents arrested Victoria and Anton 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 CBP officials took Felipe away. Victoria was not able to say goodbye to her son 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.
In September, NIJC filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and with the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General asking for an investigation into the separation of Felipe from his parents. To date, no DHS or DOJ official has informed NIJC of any action taken to reunify the family.
Felipe told NIJC in September: “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.”
The U.S. government has failed to provide Victoria, Anton, or their attorneys with any written explanation as to the basis for the family’s separation, nor have any charges been brought against the parents other than the one relating to their manner of entry. CBP has pending detainer requests for both Victoria and Anton, meaning that even when their time in U.S. Marshals custody ends, DHS may decide to transfer them to ICE detention rather than allow them to reunite with Felipe. NIJC is calling for the Biden administration to release Victoria and her husband on humanitarian grounds so they can be reunited with Felipe and pursue their asylum claim as a family, with community support and safety.
Background: Family separation and the Biden administration
Human rights experts and legal scholars have found that the intentional harm behind the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” 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 227 recorded family separations, “marking a 252 percent increase” from the year prior. U.S. Health and Human Services reported that another 131 separations took place from October 2021 through July 2022. However, an unknown number of cases, including Felipe’s separation from Victoria and Anton, were not accounted for in the government’s data.