The world has watched in horror as photographs, footage and reports have emerged from the Mexico-US border, showing children forcibly separated from their families by border control and kept in crowded cages. Recordings of children as young as one and two crying out for their parents have left those who have heard them stunned and heartbroken, and the captured voices of guards on site making quips about the “noise” have been equally shocking. Quotes such as “That’s quite an orchestra – we need a conductor” regarding crying, caged children have left many asking what year this is, with American citizens and observers from abroad equally appalled.
Thankfully, several groups have mobilised, and are doing more than just watching. Whilst President Trump has passed an Executive Order to prevent future family separations on the border, the chaos of repairing the damage remains – the crisis is far from over. This is where RAICES – the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services – has stepped up to the plate.
Founded in 1986 as the Refugee Aid Project by community activists in South Texas, RAICES has grown to be the largest immigration legal services provider in Texas. With offices in Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, RAICES is a front-line organization in the roiling debate about immigration and immigrants in the world.
When news broke about events at the border, RAICES were quick to act, and they are now deeply involved in trying to untangle this unhumanitarian mess: “Reuniting the families separated by the current administration’s “Zero Tolerance Policy” has become essentially a game of hide and seek,” Jonathan Ryan, Executive Director at RAICES. “We have had to resort to becoming private investigators to find these families and reunite them, whilst ensuring they have access to pro-bono legal representation.” This shows the level of inefficiency and lack of care taken at the border. The idea of separating children from their families even temporarily without making records to ensure their safe return is unthinkable. It implies either a complete lack of organisation and regard, or that there was no solid intention to reunite these families at all.
Reports from journalists who have managed to visit the sites have said that some parents were told that their children were being taken for a bath. Directly lying to parents whilst taking their children by force equates the treatment of these groups to the treatment of criminals, or far worse. Children have been kept in crowded cages – literal cages – without toys, books or even the comfort of an explanation. Left without assistance, these children were seen caring for babies, comforting toddlers and even showing each other how to change diapers. The regard being show to them and their parents portrays a view of immigrants as less than human.
The complications for these detainees go further than merely lost information, too. As RAICES explains, “Parents separated from their children at the border (and other immigrants placed in detention) can’t get released from ICE custody to reunite with their families until they pay the full amount of their immigration bond. Bonds are set at a MINIMUM of $1500, and are usually in the range of $5-10K, even for asylum seekers without any criminal history.”
Organizations are trying to help, but it isn’t enough. “DHA is deploying public health officers to assist these families through the OPR process, when what these families really need is an immigration attorney to represent them.” In the wake of such treatment, and the legal fears that come with it, RAICES are working to provide individuals with whatever legal support they can.
The RAICES website has this to say about the charity: “As an organization that combines expertise developed from the daily practice of immigration law with a deep commitment to advocacy, RAICES is unique among immigration organizations. A diverse staff of 130 attorneys, legal assistants, and support staff provide consultations, direct legal services, representation, assistance and advocacy to communities in Texas and to clients after they leave the state.”
To fully understand what RACIES are doing to help, we need to break down the events in hand. Over a thirteen-day period in May this year, 658 children were separated from their parents at the Texas-Mexico border. The previous month, Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of Administration for Children and Families for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported that ORR ‘lost’ nearly 1,500 children in their system. RAICES and many other organizations who represent unaccompanied children after they are released from ORR custody were informed that the Trump administration was ending funding for the representation of thousands of released, unaccompanied children. Before this funding ended, last year 76% of the children in immigration court in Texas still went unrepresented.
In light of this information, and the current border chaos, RAICES’ Legal Representation, Education, and Advocacy Fund (LEAF) has been raising funds in a pledge to provide universal representation for all released unaccompanied children in Texas. Last year, the charity closed 51,000 cases at no cost to the client. Now, they are seeking to fill the gap that the ending of government funding will cause – and to pick up the gap of those who were meant to receive representation but didn’t!
On top of this, the charity is running a National Families Together Hotline to offer advice and support to those who don’t know what to do next, and to assist in their “private investigator” efforts to track down and reunite relatives: “The National Families Together Hotline will be staffed by volunteers from 9am- 5pm CST, but callers will be able to call and leave voicemails 24 hours a day. Volunteers have been trained to gather the information necessary to reunite families, including searching for a parent with all known variations of their names and other indicators.”
“Once a parent is located, the volunteer will confirm the parent is being detained there with the relevant detention centre. RAICES staff will return phone calls with locations to determine next steps, including referral to pro bono legal services, and support with release from detention and reunification.”
Reuniting families in this way has been RAICES’ focus for the past 30 years, so they are seasoned and well-equipped at stepping up the challenge. In the face of such confusion and an overwhelming sense of adversity, it is life-changing for separated families to have a group like this to turn to –during the current crisis, and beyond:
“Families belong together, families deserve equal access to justice, and families will deserve support and respect long after this current crisis has passed. RAICES has been here, we will be here now, and we will stand with families in whatever comes next.”
You can support RAICES’ work, learn more about what they are doing, or find out how to volunteer with the charity at www.raicestexas.org