While the government struggles to reunite families who have been separated at the border under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, one detained Honduran woman has been organizing mothers behind bars to help find their children. The New Yorker reports that Mabel Gonzales has carefully documented the cases of mothers who have been separated from their children at a detention facility in El Paso, Texas, where she is currently jailed. Gonzales herself was separated from her two teenage sons eight months before the Trump administration announced its “zero tolerance” policy. She records the details of other separated mothers despite not being allowed to have a notebook while detained. She then shares the information with the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso to help separated mothers locate their children. We speak with Linda Rivas, executive director and lead attorney of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, tell us more about this woman you’re describing, Mabel Gonzales, a Honduran refugee who came to this country with her two teenage sons. She’s absolutely desperate to see them again. She was profiled in The New Yorkermagazine with the headline “The Courageous Woman Who Is Organizing Separated Mothers Inside an ICE Detention Center,” and we’ll link to that at democracynow.org. But this is astounding, the story and what she is doing inside.
LINDA RIVAS: Yes, absolutely. She’s incredibly courageous. She, unfortunately, was without representation throughout her asylum case. So this illustrates the other issue I was talking about. This has been going on for a very long time now. She has been detained since September. So she has already gone through the entire process. She went before our immigration courts completely unrepresented, and she finds herself with a deportation order as she has lost her case.
But she does not stop fighting for the other mothers from within. She has told them—and this is how she relayed it to me—she told them, “You need to keep fighting. Even if I get deported, you still need to fight for your kids. Please find yourself representation, work with these attorneys, and continue to demand to see your children again.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And if she is—if Mabel Gonzales is, in fact, deported, will she be deported with her children?
LINDA RIVAS: So, that is an impossible choice that many of these parents are being forced to make. Even after the news of this injunction, which, again, was very, very good news, in demanding that this administration reunify kids in a short amount of time, there’s still now a form being passed out to parents saying, “Would you like to return with your children or not?” We have already heard reports on the ground that they are being presented with this information without an attorney present, even if we have the proper documentation submitted to these deportation officers saying, “We are the attorneys. We are representing them.” They’re still going without—you know, not asking them if they want representation. And they’re saying, “Do you want to go back with your children or not?” That is an impossible choice to make, when they have made that sacrifice. They have fled violence. They came, together with their child. They were ripped away from them. And now have to make a decision: Does my child go back to be in danger with me, after all the sacrifice we made, or do I choose for my child to stay, and potentially never see them again? And it is a decision that Mabel and I have—really still need to explore, because it’s such a difficult decision to make.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what Mabel is doing inside—they’re not allowed to have notebooks, and so she’s writing down—she’s a pastor from Honduras, deeply respected by the women, at first not trusting—you know, could she be a government agent?She’s asking for their information. But one by one—and then Mabel Gonzales handing this information, very well documented, to one of the people you work with, Linda, at the Las Americas Center, the Franciscan sister named Mary Kay Mahowald. Describe this process of getting information out, this underground railroad of information that you’re trying to pass on.
LINDA RIVAS: All right. So, Las Americas, you know, we have a great team. This sister goes out—she’s a volunteer. She goes out to the detention center several times a week, interviews many of, you know, these men and women for possible representation. And she is talking to Mabel, who is seeking help, who desperately needs help. And even amongst the retelling of her own story and seeking help and advocacy for herself, she decides to hand over these loose sheets of paper to Sister Mary Kay and says, you know, “Get this back to the center and see how you can help.”
And frankly, it was such a useful piece of information for us, because, as a nonprofit, exactly what we want to do is help these women. And so, our mission was to speak to every single one. Some of them, luckily, do have attorneys, although, I will say, very few. Once we find out they have attorneys, we go on to the next person. We conduct intakes regarding whether—you know, their eligibility for asylum, what kind of claim they have, how can we help them. But then this facet is added to our work as attorneys and immigration advocates of “Where is your child? Have you spoke to your child? How often are you able to speak to your child? How soon can we get you reunited?”
One of the effects from the injunction is that we’re starting to see more of these people—more of these mothers on this list granted what’s called an ICE bond. And that is, ICE has always had the ability to do this. These women are under the custody of ICE. ICE always has the ability to release them. And they are being granted a bond, most of them in the amount of $2,500. And many of them, we’re trying to pair them up with the resources in order for them to get out. The first thing that has to happen, the most important thing for mothers that are detained, you know, mothers and fathers that are detained, is to get out of immigration detention, so that the reunification process can be possible.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Linda, just to give an idea to people of what kinds of conditions these asylum seekers are fleeing, you know, what you’ve heard from your own clients, the conditions that they’re fleeing in their home countries, and the fact that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last week that—last month that domestic violence would no longer be grounds for asylum—he wrote, in fact, that “claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-government actors will not qualify for asylum.” So, could you talk about, first, the conditions asylum seekers are fleeing, and what the effect of Sessions’ decision will be?
LINDA RIVAS: Almost every single person that we speak to at the detention center is escaping some form of violence. Some vary in the severity, but we see many people—we see many women escaping domestic violence, whether that be through a partner that they are actually legally married to or potentially a live-in partner or a boyfriend, where these people, these women, are viewed as property of these men. They are sexually assaulted on numerous occasions. They are escaping kidnapping and death threats. And they come to this country, many times, after having sought help from their own government, being turned away or seeing that the government is absolutely inefficient in being able to protect them. Again, this is something that we see often. Gang violence and extortion, these are also themes. But domestic violence is something that we here at Las Americas have defended, and defended these claims before the court.
To see this decision, just with one opinion of one person, turn back years, 20 years, of jurisprudence, of case precedent that supports the protection of these women, has truly been an assault on asylum seekers, so, again, goes towards this criminalization of all migration. You know, these people aren’t—now saying these people are not worthy of protection, when it has been deemed within our legal system that they are.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, do you have any sense that all of these children—I believe there are hundreds of children under the age of 5—will be reunited with their families by Tuesday? That is the deadline, and then two weeks later. Do you have any sense of government movement?
LINDA RIVAS: We’re seeing, again, some movement with a limited population of these parents that are now being granted access to a bond. But that’s just the first step, is in them being released. They are not just being released. They are being told they have to pay in order to be released. So, is this going to happen in this amount of time? It’s hard to be hopeful for that, because we’ve already had some people released, you know, just last weekend, and their children are still not returned to them. So, while we are hopeful and we need for this to happen, we just—I don’t see it truly being feasible within the amount of time.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we will continue to follow this very closely. Linda, your thoughts on the DNA testing of the children that’s now taking place on the border, that CNN is reporting?
LINDA RIVAS: So, it’s scary to know that the documentation may not have been happening accurately in the first place, because those were some reports that we were hearing, that people were being documented correctly and that they could—they knew where the parents were going, they knew where the children were going. Now, this is what was told to us, but yet, on the ground, we see people not being able to know where their children are and having trouble with communicating.
So, while these systems that have been presented to us, of the DNA testing, and [inaudible] that they’re being said, it absolutely has a privacy concern for the future. We don’t know how this information will be used in the future. We, frankly, don’t know if some of these parents who end up deported will ever be reunited with their kids, and really, the usefulness of this DNA sampling.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Linda Rivas, we want to thank you for joining us, executive director and lead attorney of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, working with asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border. We spoke to her by Democracy Now! video stream in El Paso.
When we come back, Guantánamo was originally an immigrant detention center. We’ll speak with Andrea Pitzer. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Te Recuerdo Amanda (I Remember You, Amanda)” by the legendary Chilean folk singer Víctor Jara. This week, a judge in Chile ordered 15-year prison sentences for eight former military officers for Víctor Jara’s murder in September of 1973. Jara was tortured and killed, his hands broken—the famous guitarist—after a U.S.-supported coup d’état ousted the democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende and installed the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.