Jose has spent the past month locked in a sprawling immigration detention center in South Georgia. More than a thousand miles away in a government shelter somewhere in Arizona, strangers have his boy.
Jose doesn’t know precisely where his 3-year-old son, also named Jose, is being held. All he has is the shelter’s phone number. The Honduran farmer has called it, but he hasn’t been able to get his namesake on the phone.
The two were separated last month at the end of their two-week-long odyssey to the U.S.-Mexican border. Jose – who asked that his full name not be published because of dangers he could face in his native country – said they fled their homeland for asylum here after someone murdered three of their relatives.
They are among 2,235 families who were split up as part of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy over the past two months. After vigorously defending that policy in the face of international outrage, President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order to keep immigrant families together – in detention. The following day, the Pentagon announced as many as 20,000 immigrant children could be sheltered on four military bases in Texas and Arkansas.
Far from quieting the controversy, the president’s executive order is raising a fresh set of thorny questions: What is the government doing to reunite Jose and other parents with their children? If they are to be detained together, where will that happen, on the military bases or elsewhere? And for how long?
Jose, meanwhile, is scrambling to reconnect with his son as he awaits the outcome of his asylum case at Stewart Detention Center, a privately operated immigration detention center about 140 miles south of Atlanta.
“I can’t sleep. I haven’t been able to eat,” Jose, 27, said by phone through a Spanish interpreter with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is assisting him with his asylum case. “My head has been turning and turning because I have no information — and they don’t give me information.”
How will they be reunited?
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution could not independently verify Jose’s account as the three federal agencies that would know about his case declined to discuss it, citing privacy reasons.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection — the agency that is apprehending immigrant families caught illegally crossing the border — referred The AJC to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that is detaining Jose in South Georgia. ICE also declined to provide specifics about his case, though it confirmed he had previously been encountered at the southwest border and deported.
“ICE is committed to connecting family members as quickly as possible after separation so that parents know the location of their children and have regular communication with them in line with ICE policies and detention standards,” the agency said in a statement.
A third federal agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is holding separated immigrant children like Jose’s son in a network of 100 shelters across 17 states. Between October of last year and April, the agency placed 711 unaccompanied immigrant children with adult “sponsors,” usually relatives, in Georgia. The agency declined to comment about Jose’s case other than to release a statement that it is “awaiting further guidance” about Trump’s executive order.
“Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of unaccompanied alien children, and we are working toward that for those unaccompanied alien children currently in our custody,” said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the agency’s Administration for Children and Families.
Jose’s attorney expressed exasperation about the federal government’s actions.
“There is nothing that the executive order does to impact the situation of the parents and children who have already been separated,” said Michelle Lapointe, acting deputy legal director of the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “It doesn’t address their situation. It doesn’t offer any mechanism to make the reunifications happen.”
Shawn Hanley, chairman of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, said he appreciates that Trump is trying to crack down on illegal immigration. Saying he opposes splitting up families, Hanley applauded the president for signing his executive order and taking the issue “off the table.” Congress, Hanley added, needs to adopt a long-term solution to the problem because America’s national security and stability are at stake.
“When Donald Trump says ‘100 percent enforcement,’ he sees enforcing the laws 100 percent — the existing immigration laws — as a deterrent to people from other countries trying to come in here illegally,” Hanley said. “That’s all he was really trying to do: Let’s enforce the laws. And when they find out that if you break our laws — it is going to be a challenge for you and your family.”
“When Donald Trump says ‘100 percent enforcement,’ he sees enforcing the laws 100 percent — the existing immigration laws — as a deterrent to people from other countries trying to come in here illegally. That’s all he was really trying to do: Let’s enforce the laws. And when they find out that if you break our laws — it is going to be a challenge for you and your family.”
—Shawn Hanley, chairman of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board
The Trump administration is now asking a federal judge to modify a 1997 consent decree – nicknamed the “Flores settlement” – so that immigrant families can be held in detention for longer than 20 days. The government holds unauthorized immigrants in several family detention centers in South Texas.
Federal immigration authorities say those centers serve as an “effective and humane” way to keep families together while their immigration cases are adjudicated. Geraldine Carolan of Peachtree City objects to them. She is among a group of volunteers who traveled to one of those centers in 2015 and provided free legal help for immigrant families.
“Incarcerating children,” said Carolan, a retired attorney who worked for Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, “is just not what we are about as a country.”
‘Seeking protection and a new life’
The Honduran consulate in Atlanta is looking into Jose’s case while warning others they could suffer the same fate if they illegally cross the southwest border. Many Hondurans who have been arrested on the border have been transferred to the same detention center in South Georgia where Jose is being held, said Maria Fernanda Rivera, Honduras’ consul general in Atlanta.
“We are just recommending for them not to come all together because if they come with their children they are going to get separated,” she said.
Jose said he left Honduras with his son after receiving death threats from a member of a criminal group who killed two of his uncles and a cousin. He couldn’t name the killer, but theorized the killings are related to the theft of his uncle’s farmland. They didn’t have enough money to bring his common-law wife.
Since 2010, Honduras has had one of the highest murder rates in the world, according to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. There were 59 homicides per 100,000 people in 2016, the most recent year for which stats are listed. The country is home to about 8 million residents and an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 street gang members, a state department report said. “The 18th Street and MS-13 (‘Mara Salvatrucha’) gangs are the most active and powerful,” it said.
There were 5.3 murders per 100,000 people in 2016 in the United States, according to FBI data.
“There is nothing that the executive order does to impact the situation of the parents and children who have already been separated. It doesn’t address their situation. It doesn’t offer any mechanism to make the reunifications happen.” —Michelle Lapointe, acting deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project
For two weeks, Jose and his son traveled by foot, by car and by bus to the border. They sought asylum at a port of entry in Hidalgo, Texas, according to one of his attorneys. Jose said they encountered no dangers along the way, “Thank God.” They traveled with another Honduran man and child, who were also arrested and separated at the border.
Jose said he is aware of three other men at Stewart Detention Center who have been separated from their children. Asked about his predicament, he offered a simple message for America.
“We are not criminals. We don’t want to come here to ruin the country. We are seeking protection and a new life,” he said. “I don’t want the U.S. to continue doing this to children because they suffer not having the voices of their parents to guide them.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported extensively on the national debate over illegal immigration. In 2013, AJC reporter Jeremy Redmon and AJC photographer Hyosub Shin traveled to Texas and New Mexico for a series of articles, photographs and videos about border security. Redmon returned to South Texas two years later to write about the detention of immigrant families. He has also delivered exclusive reporting on the three privately operated immigration detention centers in South Georgia.