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Alone at the Border: Why have thousands of migrant children crossing into the U.S. at the southern border been separated from their families?

When pediatrician Dolly Lucio Sevier examined children being held at a border detention facility in McAllen, Texas, this summer, she was shocked by what she saw: Babies with respiratory infections; freezing cold temperatures in the cells where the children were being held; lights on 24 hours a day, preventing sleep; no access to hand washing; and not enough food to eat.

"The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities," Sevier wrote in sworn legal testimony after visiting the Ursula border processing center in June at the request of migrants' rights lawyers.

For about a year and a half, these kinds of conditions have been a reality for thousands of migrant children who have been separated from their families by U.S. authorities after crossing the border illegally. Most are from Central America and have traveled hundreds of miles, seeking safety and better lives.

The number of people trying to cross the southern border has soared recently: More than half a million people were stopped trying to enter the U.S. illegally in the first half of this year--almost double the number stopped during the first half of 2018.

To discourage migrants from coming to the U.S., the Dump administration enacted a strict new policy in April 2018, calling for adults crossing the border illegally to be arrested and charged as criminals. Children were to be separated from adult relatives and sent to youth facilities that officials said would offer play spaces and education and were supposed to be better suited to children than adult detention.

Within three months, more than 2,600 kids had been taken from their families. Many Americans, including some who want tougher immigration laws, were outraged by photos of screaming children being pulled from their parents' arms. In response, the Dump administration announced an official end to its separation policy in June 2018.

But the practice has continued. Over the following year, at least another 900 children were separated from their families and put in detention, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is suing the government to stop these separations.

Many of those removals happened because U.S. policy still lets border agents separate kids if they arrive with relatives other than their parents, or if they come with a parent who previously committed a crime--even something as minor as a traffic violation.

Discouraging Migrants

The separations are part of a broader crackdown against illegal immigration by the Dump administration. Deportations of those in the U.S. illegally have increased sharply. The requirements for being granted asylum have been tightened, and many of those seeking asylum now must wait in Mexico while their claims are considered (see "How Asylum Works," p. 17).

"We are seeing an overall effort to make it difficult or impossible for people seeking humanitarian relief to come to the United States," says Mark Greenberg of the Migration Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C.

Many Trump administration immigration policies are designed to discourage undocumented migrants from even trying to come to the U.S.

"If they feel there will be separation, they won't come," Trump said last year of migrant parents.

Many of those arriving in the U.S. say their lives are at risk in their home countries (see "What They're Fleeing," below), and they're asking to be allowed to stay on those grounds. It's a process called claiming asylum, and the number of migrants arriving in the U.S. who are using it has risen by almost 2,000 percent in the past decade.

President Trump and many of his supporters say this is evidence that the asylum system is being abused.

"There is widespread abuse," says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative group that favors immigration restrictions. "People know that if they say the right things and get into the asylum system that they'll be able to stay in the U.S. for years as they wait for their case to even come up."

But immigration advocates say that none of this justifies separating kids from their families or holding them for long periods of time.

"It's a horrific policy," Greenberg says. "It's hard to think of a policy that would be more destructive and harmful to children."

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras--where most of the current migrants come from--all are rife with severe poverty and intense violence from gangs and drug cartels. The authorities there are famously corrupt and often work with the criminals, so they're of little help in protecting people.

That was the experience of 12-yearold Mateo,* who fled to the U.S. from Guatemala this past summer with his uncle, who had been raising him and his 4-year-old brother.

"We lived in a dangerous neighborhood filled with gangs and drug dealers," Mateo said. So they set out, hoping to reunite with Mateo's mother, who had gone to the U.S. years earlier and was living in Miami.

But when they arrived in the U.S., border officials took his uncle away and brought Mateo and his brother to a youth detention center in Clint, Texas. The facility was built to hold 100 adults. At one point, about 700 kids were there.

"We are housed in a room with dozens of other children--some as young as 2," Mateo said. After spending 13 days in detention, he and his brother had bathed only once. "Our clothes are the same clothes that we had on when we arrived. We have not been given soap," he said.

Will the Separations Stop?

Most of the kids at the Clint facility had had little or no contact with their relatives. Nearly two weeks after Mateo was taken from his uncle, they still had not been reunited. "I do not know where he is," the boy said.

Experts say that removing these children from their families can cause lasting trauma.

"There is no greater threat to a child's emotional well-being than being separated from a primary caregiver," says Johanna Bick, a psychology professor at the University of Houston who studies childhood trauma. "Even if it was for a short period, for a child, that's an eternity."

Under a court ruling known as the Flores agreement, the government isn't allowed to detain migrant children for more than 20 days. Despite this, a recent report by a congressional oversight, panel showed that some kids spent more than a year in custody without their families.

Officials say the immigration system is overwhelmed. So this past summer, Congress passed a bill pledging $4.6 billion to improve conditions at detention centers and boost border security. In July, U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost asked Congress to ensure that kids are housed with their relatives in centers meant for families. "We need to be able to hold families together," she said.

In August, the Trump administration set new rules that would let the government detain immigrant kids for an unlimited period of time. That way, the administration says, children can be held with their parents until their court dates.

But critics say the new rules won't necessarily stop separations. Plus, officials will be able to detain separated children for far longer than what was legal before. Nineteen states are suing the Trump administration to stop the rules from going into effect.

'I Need Comfort Too'

While all this legal wrangling is going on, many children remain in detention facilities.

At the detention centers, teenagers often wind up looking after little kids they don't know. At the Clint facility, Rosa,* 14, who had fled Guatemala after gangs tried to recruit her and her older sister, was caring for two small girls who'd been separated from their families. Rosa had made the journey from Guatemala with her 18-year-old sister, but they'd been separated by guards at the border, and Rosa was worried that her sister would be sent back to Guatemala.

"I don't know where she is, or if she is OK," Rosa said, explaining that she and her sister were hoping to join their father, who lives in California.

Rosa held the two little girls in her lap and tried to comfort them. She herself hadn't been allowed to talk to her father or her sister, and she was upset.

"I need comfort too," Rosa said. "I am bigger than they are, but I am a child too."

With reporting by Miriam Jordan of The New York Times, and by Laura Anastasia.

What They're Fleeing

Migrants from Central America are trying to escape violence and extreme poverty

Families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras now make up most of the migrants coming across America's southern border.


Beset by rival gangs and rampant police corruption, El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. About a third of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank. Money sent home by Salvadorans living abroad (mostly in the United States) accounts for almost 20 percent of the country's GDP.


Guatemala endured a 36-year-long civil war that ended in 1996, leaving more than 200,000 people dead or missing. The country's economy is largely agricultural, with an emphasis on coffee and corn. The nation also suffers from terrible gang violence and high rates of domestic violence.


Plagued by a long history of corruption, poverty, and crime, Honduras is one of the least stable countries in the region. Gang violence is common, and the country has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The economy is heavily dependent on exports of bananas and coffee. Nearly half of Hondurans live in poverty.

How Asylum Works

What are asylum seekers? These are people who come to another country because they fear persecution or violence in their home countries. Traditionally, U.S. law has allowed anyone to apply for asylum at the border or inside the U.S., whether they came legally or not.

How is the process changing? The Trump administration has tightened the rules. For example, those seeking asylum must apply at an official border crossing, not after entering the U.S. illegally, and many applicants must now wait in Mexico, rather than the U.S., for their claims to be processed.

Who actually gets asylum in the U.S.?

Even before the new rules, only a fraction of those applying were granted asylum. For example, 27,000 Salvadorans applied for protection in 2016; about 2,000 were granted asylum. Experts say the new restrictions will mean fewer applications are successful.


NATIONAL PAGES 14-17 Lexile levels available online

Alone at the Border

Why have thousands of migrant children crossing into the U.S. at the southern border been separated from their families?

Before Reading

1 Set Focus: Pose an essential question to guide discussion: What guiding principles should the U.S. government follow when creating immigration policies?

2 List Vocabulary: Share with students some of the challenging vocabulary words in this article (see right). Encourage them to use context to infer meanings as they read.

3 Engage: Ask students to share what they know and what questions they have about migrants arriving at the southern border. After reading the article, have students share whether their questions were answered and what they learned.

enacted (p. is)

rife (p. 16)

cartels (p. 16)

trauma (p. 17)

eternity (p. 17)

wrangling (p. 17)

Analyze the Article

4 Read: Have students read the article, marking the text to note key ideas or questions.

5 DISCUSS: Distribute or project Up Close: Alone at the Border, a dose-reading activity for students to work on in small groups. (Note: The questions on the PDF also appear on the facing page of this lesson, with possible responses.) Follow up with a class discussion. If you're short on time, have each group tackle one or two of the questions. Collect students' work or have each group report its findings to the class.

What is the author's main purpose in the first two paragraphs of the article?

Author's purpose, text structure

(The author's main purpose is to describe some of the conditions at detention facilities where migrant children are being held. This purpose is revealed through details such as "freezing cold temperatures" and "lights on 24 hours a day" as well as through the quote from Dolly Lucia Sevier's sworn legal testimony about the facilities. By beginning this way, the author provides background information for why separating migrant children from their parents has become a hotly debated issue--as discussed later in the article.)

> What policies has the Trump administration put in place as part of its crackdown aqainst illegal immigration?

Summarize, key details

(The policies include arresting adults who cross the border illegally and charging them as criminals, separating children from their parents, deporting more undocumented immigrants, increasing the requirements for asylum, and requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are considered.)

> What does the information in the "What They're Fleeing" sidebar on page 16 add to the main article? Integrate multiple sources

(The sidebar explains the specific conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that migrants are fleeing, such as the high murder rate in Honduras. This information helps explain why migrants feel their lives are at risk in their home countries and why the number of migrants claiming asylum has gone up by "almost 2,000 percent in the past decade," as discussed in the section "Discouraging Migrants.")

> What two points of view about separating children from their families are presented in the section "Discouraging Migrants"?

Central ideas, compare and contrast

(One point of view is that the asylum system is being abused and, therefore, the separation policy is a valid part of discouraging undocumented migrants from coming to the U.S. This point of view is expressed by President Trump when he says "If they feel there will be separation, they won't come." Ira Mehlman also expresses this point of view when saying people know that if they "get into the asylum system" then "they can stay in the U.S. for years." The other point of view presented in this section is that "none of this justifies separating kids from their families.")

> What does the author mean when she says "Officials say the immigration system is overwhelmed"? What details does the author include to develop this idea? Word meaning, cite text evidence

(The author means that border patrol agents are having difficulty processing the large number of migrants arriving at the southern border. To develop this idea, the author gives statistics about the number of people arriving and notes that the border patrol chief asked Congress for help.)

> Who does "I" refer to in the section head '"I Need Comfort Too'"? Who is she comparing herself to? Why does she need comfort?

Word meaning, cause and effect

(The "I" refers to Rosa, a 14-year-old who is in a detention facility in Texas. She is comparing herself to the two little girls she is comforting in the facility. Even though she is older, she also needs comfort because she too has been separated from her family and is being held in the facility.)

Extend & Assess

6 Writing Prompt

What is one question you have after reading the article? Conduct research to answer your question. Then, based on your research, write a new two-to-three paragraph section to add to the article.

7 Video

Watch the video. Discuss how it treats the topic versus how the article does.

8 Classroom Debate

Should the government be able to detain migrant kids for an unlimited period of time if that would prevent family separations?

9 Quiz & Skills

Use the quiz (p. T8) to assess students' comprehension and Be the Editor (online only) to review grammar skills.


Print or project:

* Up Close: Alone at the Border (close reading; online only)

* Article Quiz (online and on p. T8) * Be the Editor (grammar; online only)


* Dangers of crossing the border

Caption: A boy from Honduras and his dad (not shown) are taken into custody in Texas last year. Below: Detained migrants wait at a processing center in McAllen, Texas.

Caption: A caravan of Honduran migrants in southern Mexico, heading for the U.S. in 2018; that year, several huge groups of migrants made their way to the U.S. border, hoping to claim asylum.

Caption: A bullet-pocked truck in Honduras; the country is plagued by gang violence.

Caption: Reunion: A Guatemalan asylum seeker embraces his 6-year-old son, who was separated from him for two months.


Test Your Knowledge

Choose the best answer for each of the following questions about "Alone at the Border." For the analysis section, refer to the article as needed.


1. In the first half of 2019, how many people were stopped trying to enter the U.S. illegally?

a fewer than 10,000

b about 70,000

c nearly 200,000

d more than half a million

2. Under new rules, many of those seeking asylum in the U.S. must --.

a pay a $10,000 fee

b prove they have relatives already in the U.S.

c wait in Mexico for their claims to be processed

d refrain from filing lawsuits against the federal government

3. Over the past decade, the number of migrants arriving in the U.S. who claim asylum has increased by --.

a 10 percent

b 40 percent

c 300 percent

d 2,000 percent

4. The Flores agreement is a_

a new policy tightening the rules for asylum b bill passed by Congress allocating money to detention centers

c court ruling that prohibits the government from detaining migrant children for more than 20 days d document signed by the 19 states that are suing the Trump administration over its immigration policy


5. The author says, "The number of people trying to cross the southern border has soared." Which word does the author use to emphasize the increase in attempted crossings?

a number

b cross

c southern

d soared

6. Which phrase in the first section of the article signals that an effect is about to be stated?

a "For about a year and a half ..."

b "Most are from ..."

c "The number of people ..."

d "In response ..."

7. In the section "Discouraging Migrants," which detail does the author include to help explain why migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras feel unsafe in their home countries?

a "It's a process called claiming asylum ..."

b '"... they'll be able to stay in the U.S. for years

c "The authorities there are famously corrupt ..."

d "... hoping to reunite with Mateo's mother ..."

8. In the section "Will the Separations Stop?," the author says, "Congress passed a bill [to help] boost border security." Which word in the same section provides a clue to the meaning of boost as it is used in the sentence?

a contact

b improve

c held

d suing

IN-DEPTH QUESTIONS Please use the other side of this paper for your responses.

9. What does President Trump say is evidence that the asylum system is being abused? What do immigration advocates say in response?

10. What is the author referring to when she says "all this legal wrangling"?

1. [d] more than half a million

2. [c] wait in Mexico for their claims to be processed

3. [d] 2,000 percent

4. [c] court ruling that prohibits the government from detaining migrant children for more than 20 days

5. [d] soared

6. [d] "In response ..."

7. [c] "The authorities there are famously corrupt ..."

8. [b] improve
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:NATIONAL
Author:Smith, Patricia
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 18, 2019
Next Article:6 MYTHS ABOUT Slavery.

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