Exhausted from their journey, she fell asleep. When she woke, he was gone.
“That’s when my torment began,” she said.
The mother and son were separated in fall 2017 as part of a trial run of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. More than two years passed before Peren saw her son Yovany again. From mid-2017 to mid-2018, border authorities would subject more than 5,600 families to similar trauma.
But the government’s obligation does not end there. It must also provide the families it forcibly tore apart with the security, services and resources they need to rebuild their lives.
Peren spent seven months in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention before being deported in chains to Guatemala. Yovany, whom Peren was trying to protect from violent threats back home, remained in a shelter in Arizona. Eventually, a lawyer tracked Peren down and informed her that a judge was allowing the return of some deported parents.
Today, the mother and son are reunited and living in Brooklyn. Peren has a job in an upscale bakery. Yovany is entering his senior year at a high school with programs for newly arrived immigrants. He plays soccer with friends from church. Recently, they moved to their own apartment.
They are among the lucky families — a reunification success story. But getting there required a healthy dose of serendipity. Thanks to work by immigrant advocates, mom and son were welcomed to New York by a small army of supporters. An affluent family agreed to act as sponsor and took them into their home. Attorneys took on Peren’s asylum case pro bono, and volunteers helped her find a job. Few families can expect this kind of support.
But even Peren’s story is far from resolved. Under measures established by President Biden’s task force on reuniting families, deported parents are allowed back into the United States for just three years. After that there are no guarantees — so families exist in legal limbo. Peren worries constantly that she will again be separated from Yovany, detained and deported. For parents who were separated from their children and never left the United States, the path to permanent lawful status is equally elusive.
Meanwhile, these families struggle to establish a stable foothold. Lawyers who work with them say they constantly field calls from desperate clients unable to pay their rent or feed their children. Many cannot afford child care or medical treatment. In a recent report, even the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged families’ pressing circumstances.
The challenges are compounded by the traumatic effects of separation. An advocate at Seneca Family of Agencies, which links reunited families with psychological services, told us some parents cannot work because their children remain too frightened to leave their sides.
Until now, it has fallen to private organizations to address families’ needs. But as public interest in the plight of these families has dwindled, nonprofits’ budgets are running dry.
What separated families deserve is official redress. As the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights found, family separation constitutes torture. The U.S. government systematically designed and deliberately inflicted this violence. It must now fulfill its moral responsibility to repair the damage.
The framework for doing so could come through a settlement of Ms. L. v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2018. Settlement talks began in March, and lead attorney Lee Gelernt says his group is pressing for government remedy beyond reunification.
There are historical precedents. Decades after interning 120,000 Japanese American citizens and residents during World War II, the government authorized compensation and an apology to surviving victims for this “grave injustice.”
Today, migrant families are calling for the same. “We deserve legal status and compensation for the damage they did, for the violation of our rights as parents and human beings,” Peren says. This time, victims should not have to wait four decades.
Separated families have shown astonishing resilience. Peren is a case in point: An indigenous woman who has experienced discrimination throughout her life and a single mom who did not finish elementary school, she has never stopped speaking out, for her son and all separated families. But she and others like her can’t do it alone. The government must assume its responsibility to deliver purposeful and holistic reunification. Otherwise, we inflict new harms on those we’ve already grievously wronged.