Attorneys for more than a dozen immigrant fathers currently being held at a Texas detention center say their clients were re-separated from their children last week as punishment for protesting their treatment at the hands of the government.
In a conference call organized by Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), three of those men and one boy told reporters that the unexplained re-separation was a terrifying indicator that their court-ordered reunification can be ended at any time, and for any reason.
“I could not imagine being separated from my child again, without being able to say goodbye,” one father said tearfully in Spanish, through an interpreter. “It was as if we were criminals.”
The incident began around midday on Wednesday, when armed officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began arresting fathers currently detained at the Karnes Family Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. The Karnes facility currently houses roughly 630 immigrant men and their sons who were separated under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, before being reunited by order of a federal judge.
Sixteen fathers in total were handcuffed, re-separated from their children and were taken to the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, Texas, more than 90 minutes away.
“They told me ‘hands up’ and handcuffed us as a criminal, as if I was ‘El Chapo’ Guzman,” one father said, in reference to the infamous kingpin of the Sinaloa drug cartel. “They took us out without giving us any information—they waited for our kids to be in the school to do this to us.”
Some of the fathers told reporters that they were not told where they were going, or what was happening to their children.
“I was told, ‘no more questions for you,’” another father said.
Meanwhile, the men’s children were placed in two separate rooms, with no information about where their fathers had been sent—or whether, only weeks after being reunited, they would ever see them again.
“I cried the whole day, and I knew that my dad was crying,” one boy, under ten years told, told reporters through an interpreter. “I saw the other kids crying, and they knew that their dads would be crying as well.”
All of the men who were re-separated are currently pursuing legal resident status in the United States, including many who have sought asylum status. Illegally entering the United States to pursue an asylum claim is not grounds for dismissing such a claim.
When RAICES attorney Ryan Clough demanded to know why the fathers had been re-separated from their children, he was initially told that the men and their children didn’t want to “go with the flow.”
“We originally just got an email from an ICE officer... saying it was due to quote unquote ‘disruptive behavior,’” Clough told reporters, which purportedly included refusing to participate in activities, eat meals and attend classes.
Nine of the 16 fathers who were re-separated from their children were allegedly planning to go on a hunger strike in protest of their conditions and in the hope of expediting their immigration and asylum cases, with some of their sons planning a similar protest by refusing to attend school at the detention center.
“A handful of the dads that were transferred were the dads that were most vocal with their distrust and dissatisfaction with the situation that they were in,” said RAICES legal assistant Maria Osornio.
Others, RAICES legal assistant Casey Miller told reporters, were merely relaxing in their rooms after a morning of English classes. “They were in their rooms, just laying on their beds,” Miller said of two fathers who were handcuffed and re-separated from their sons.
In that context, the unexplained re-separations “strongly seem to suggest for retaliation for otherwise perfectly lawful peaceful protest,” Clough said.
Three weeks after the expiration of a federal judge’s deadline to reunite hundreds of immigrant families who separated in violation of their due-process rights under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, those still being held in government custody have begun protesting the slow pace of their asylum cases. At the beginning of the month, hundreds of men detained at Karnes announced that they would go on strike in hopes of expediting their asylum and immigration cases. ICE has characterized the strikes as a few “sit-ins.”
“ICE has consistently claimed that family detention facilities are humane and civil in nature, even comparing them to summer camps,” said Osornio. However, she noted, “summer camps do not get stormed by armed guards who arrest their campers and separate them from their children solely to retaliate against non-violent protest.”
In a statement provided to The Daily Beast, ICE spokesperson Nina Pruneda said that roughly 40 men at the Karnes detention facility “were involved in a disturbance,” and that it had deployed law enforcement “to control the situation.”
After noting without elaboration that 16 adult residents were held overnight at Pearsall, ICE stated that the fathers have since been reunited with their children, and that “no one was injured during this incident.”
But the trauma of separating the families a second time, RAICES lawyers cautioned, may already be done.
“It’s very difficult to see grown men crying,” Miller told reporters. “Everyone I met, the men at some point broke down in tears… there’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of sadness, and there’s a lot of anger.”
Each of the three fathers on the call ended their stories with a plea to the American people: help us.
“It’s unjust,” one father said. “Please, whatever authority you have, please help us.”