Families Are Still Being Separated at the Arizona-Mexico Border

Evelin Satuye and her children at Casa Alitas in Tucson, Arizona.
Evelin Satuye and her children at Casa Alitas in Tucson, Arizona. Photo courtesy Evelin Satuye

Last fall, a Honduran couple and their four young children fled their home country and the violent gang threatening them to try and seek asylum in the United States.

The couple had sold street food for a living while giving the local street gang, also referred to as the maras, a cut of their income every month as a "war tax." But in August 2020, they came up short, and gang members beat up the father and threatened to force their oldest son into their gang.

"Since we didn't have the money for the extortion, they requested that we bring our oldest child as a soldier of the maras in exchange," Evelin Odelsa Flores Satuye, 35, told Phoenix New Times in Spanish through a translator in late July. "I wouldn't allow for my son to be part of the maras because what I wanted was for my son to study."

Fearing what the gang might do next, the whole family quickly left Honduras and headed north. They spent the next 10 months trying to get to the United States by moving between various regions of Mexico, during which they sold candy in the street to get by. While they were living in the Mexican state Chiapas, Satuye gave birth to a baby. In Culiacán, the capital city of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, she conceived another child with her partner.

Finally, on June 15, the family arrived full of hope at the port of entry in Nogales, Sonora, and presented themselves as asylum seekers to American immigration officials.

Satuye was released with her kids. Her partner was promptly detained for having previously been deported when he tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in 2014. He was taken to La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, a privately-run facility that houses Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees. Satuye and her children stayed at Casa Alitas, a shelter in Tucson, for the next five weeks. The original plan was to go to Miami, where her partner has family. But Satuye, who is pregnant, wouldn't leave without him.

"It’s been hard for the kids because every time a bus gets there at Casa Alitas, they think their father might be there, so they run to see who is coming on the buses," she said, sobbing. "He’s not showing up."

Satuye's predicament reflects a precarious, yet common, situation that asylum seekers face. While the Biden administration is attempting to reunite migrant families that were separated under the Trump administration's notorious "zero tolerance" policy, which resulted in thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents, family separation is still occurring at the Arizona-Mexico border.

As the Biden administration has allowed more asylum seekers to enter the U.S., reports have emerged in recent months of immigration officials increasingly separating migrant families at ports of entry in Arizona. In some instances, husbands and fathers are being detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials at ports of entry while mothers and children are released. Similarly, childless adult couples who are seeking asylum are being separated; wives and female partners are among those being detained. Family members are being detained for weeks or months.

"This year we have seen more family separation than in past years," said Beth Strano, asylum seekers and families coordinator with the International Rescue Committee, which operates a shelter for asylum seekers in Phoenix. "Spousal separation, anecdotally — it feels like it’s at an all-time high. We probably have as many husbands waiting for wives here as we have wives waiting for husbands."

She added that regional shelter operators have been seeing so many separated families at their facilities that staffers created a group chat on Whatsapp back in March to share information "every day" about the whereabouts of asylum seekers' detained family members.

"We have been seeing in the last month and a half or so more cases where the father — adult male of the family — has been sent to detention, and the wives, in some cases pregnant wives, [and] minor children, are taken into the U.S.," said Ana Sofia Cabello, a senior legal assistant at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project who works with detained migrants. "Those type of family separations where the children and wife are living in shelters for weeks — we have been seeing that more lately."

The practice of separating families who are seeking asylum at ports of entry by detaining select family members is not new. The Department of Homeland Security — the parent agency that houses ICE and CBP — has broad authority under the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act to detain undocumented immigrants, even those who are admitted to seek asylum. When migrants present themselves as asylum seekers at the border, CBP officers can choose to release them into the United States or refer them to ICE for detention, where they have to make their case for asylum while incarcerated. As a result, asylum seekers can end up spending months in ICE custody and family units end up separated. The practice has endured under various presidential administrations, including the Obama administration.

"It’s completely up to the discretion of the CBP officers whether to parole somebody or detain somebody else," said Benjamin Wiesinger, a Phoenix-based immigration attorney who frequently represents asylum seekers. "This is something that has been going on for years. This kind of stuff even predates Mr. Trump. Basically, right now, it's 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss.' They are still doing it at the border."

Cabello, with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, said that, lately, most of the detained asylum seekers that she has worked with merely have past deportations on their record and lack a significant criminal record.

"I have male [clients] who have been sent to jail for having a criminal history but the majority of cases are not that. We’re talking about years-ago contact with immigration — people that just tried to enter the U.S. 10 years ago," she said. "It’s hard to say that they would be a danger to any community."

Matthew Dyman, a spokesperson for CBP, wrote in an email to Phoenix New Times that CBP officials determine the "admissibility" of asylum seekers at ports of entry and generally refer those who have past criminal convictions, an outstanding warrant, or who have been deported from the U.S. in the past to ICE custody.

"Prior removal from the U.S. does not preclude an individual from seeking asylum, however, an outstanding order of removal must be addressed before any other action can be taken," he wrote. "There are other dispositions that may result in non-citizens being detained. Criminal history (if a non-citizen shows up with a homicide conviction on their record), or they have an active warrant (wanted for sexual assault in Iowa). This does not really leave CBP [Office of Field Operations] with the discretion to simply parole the individual into the country with the rest of their family unit."

Immigration attorneys say that this practice unfairly equates migrants who have previously been deported from the U.S. who otherwise lack a significant criminal record with severe violent offenders.

"Just a single order of removal can trigger this and the father goes to detention. Or, it can be a minor crime [or] criminal history from a long time ago that triggers it," said Rocío Castañeda, an advocacy attorney with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. "This is a civil process and whatever history they have was already dealt with. They already paid their fines, they already did their time, and they are being punished again in detention facilities."

Meanwhile, Wiesinger said that CBP officials' rationale for deciding which asylum seekers to detain and which to release in the U.S. seems to lack any specific pattern or framework.

"Historically, and even now, the justification of whether to detain [a family member] or not the other is utterly random," Wiesinger said. "In my 15 years of seeing asylum clients, it is utterly random."

Dyman dismissed allegations that CBP officials are detaining asylum seekers who lack any criminal history as "hearsay."

Asked if it was reasonable to refer asylum seekers to detention for having previously been deported, Dyman replied, "We have to enforce the law, so that’s the concept of the law, you know."

While this type of family separation hasn't garnered the same type of national attention and backlash that Trump's "zero tolerance" policy generated, it is still causing unnecessary grief and trauma for families, advocates say. Husbands, mothers, and children linger at shelters in Arizona with little to no information about where their loved ones are being detained or why. Many are afraid to leave shelters without their detained family members and head to their final destination, which is typically a city or town in a different state where their sponsor lives.

Satuye said that her kids seemed "depressed" and that their appetites were noticeably diminished after they were separated from their father. By late July, she hadn't received any information from federal immigration authorities about when her partner would be released, and her children were having difficulty dealing with the situation. Complicating the situation further is the fact that Satuye, who is pregnant, didn't feel comfortable traveling to Miami with five kids without her husband. And her partner's uncle, who they planned to meet in Miami, didn't want her to come unless her partner came, too.

"The kids have never been separated from the dad," she said. "They can't understand what’s going on and why they are separated and why they haven't released him and why they don't have a date for reunification."

Some asylum seekers, including Satuye, have been telling immigration advocates that CBP officials at ports of entry gave them misleading information about how long their family members would be detained. Satuye said that when she and her family presented themselves in Nogales, they were told by immigration officials that her partner would only be detained for a few days.

"They said that he would stay there two days," she said. "The last time that I saw him was in the processing center. They told him to sit down. He sat down, and they told me continue with my children. The officer at the processing center told me not to worry, it’s not going to take long until he’s going to be out, so I was expecting that the husband would arrive later."

Immigration advocates say that other asylum seekers have reported similar experiences.

"They are not being clear with the families," Cabello said. "That’s what the clients are telling us. They [CBP] are explaining the situation as 'your process is going to take just a few more hours and you will follow your wife to the shelter and then to your sponsor'."

Dyman disputed the allegations that CBP officials have been providing families who are seeking asylum with misleading information, saying "The allegations are unfounded." However, he declined to comment further on the issue.

Now, staff at the International Rescue Committee's shelter in Phoenix are advising separated families to continue on to their final destination without their family members because of the uncertainty surrounding how long they will be detained.

"We have had so many families that waited for weeks and didn't see the release of that family member," Strano said. "If somebody is waiting for their family member and they don't know how long they will need to wait, they aren't moving on."

Other families, she added, are "moving on without a resolution."

Sometimes, detained family members can even been transferred to ICE facilities outside of Arizona, immigration advocates say. When contacted for comment,  Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, a spokesperson for ICE, wrote in an email that decisions regarding where to house detainees are made on a "case by case" basis.

Detained migrants "could be transported wherever there is space to hold them," Dyman said.

Strano emphasized the strain these policies puts on families: "It’s hard to inform our clients about what the next steps will be when we don't know where the person is."

“The number of family units (comprised of at least one adult and one minor), known as FAMUs, coming across the Arizona-Mexico border has steadily increased in recent months. When FAMUs are transferred from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) reviews their cases individually to determine the most appropriate form of release, such as ICE’s Alternatives to Detention or supervised release," Pitts O'Keefe said in a statement.

Pitts O'Keefe declined to comment on the case of Satuye's partner, writing in an email, "We can’t comment on any alleged asylum claim for the obvious security and privacy reasons."

However, Satuye's case appears took a more positive turn recently. She told Phoenix New Times that early last week, staff at the Casa Alitas shelter bought her and her family plane tickets to New York City, where she has family. The plan now is to seek asylum while living with them. Then, on Wednesday, August 4, her partner was released from ICE custody after being detained for over a month. He has since travelled to New York City and is now with Satuye and the kids.

While Satuye's family was able to successfully reunite, the fact that families are still being separated at the border by federal officials leaves some immigration advocates feeling betrayed by the Biden administration, which promised to create a "fair and humane" immigration system.

"People are seeking asylum because they’ve experienced significant trauma in their home communities. Family separation and detention is another level of trauma that their family then experiences, so, instead of the U.S. being a palace of safety and healing, it’s a place of further anxiety and suffering," said Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, a binational aid organization that serves migrants on the Arizona-Mexico border. "What’s deeply hypocritical about it is if the Biden administration campaigned on anything on immigration it was its opposition to Trump’s policy on family separation. But here they are, in a different way, continuing to separate families."
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Josh Kelety was a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety