The Trump administration again doubled down on its practice of separating families at the border as audio of crying children in a so-called “immigration shelter” generated further outrage over the approach.
“Papa! Papa!” one child weeps as screams and cries of others are heard in an audio clip released by ProPublica, a US-based media outlet, on Monday.
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“Well, we have an orchestra here, right?” a Border Patrol agent is heard saying in the clip. “What’s missing is a conductor.”
According to ProPublica, the clip was obtained from prominent civil rights lawyer Jennifer Harbury who was given the audio by an unidentified individual who recorded the children in a detention centre.
The now-viral clip has driven anger that continues to mount against US President Donald Trump, whose administration has introduced a “zero-tolerance” approach towards migrants and refugees who cross the US southern border without documents.
Part of the policy has been separating children from their parents who are detained.
Inside a detention center last week. Children separated from their parents wail and ask for help.
A Border Patrol agent booms above the crying. “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he jokes. “What’s missing is a conductor.”
— ProPublica (@propublica) June 18, 2018
Last week, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesman said that nearly 2,000 minors were separated from 1,940 adults who crossed the US border without documents between April 19 and May 31.
Administration officials say they are simply following the law, however, there are no statutes that mandate separating children from families at the border.
On Monday, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen faced a number of questions from White House reporters over the practice. She again blamed the policy on politicians, saying that “Congress alone can fix it.”
However, critics point out that the administration can simply end the “zero-tolerance” approach. Rights groups accuse Trump of using the issue as a way to pressure Democrats into pushing through immigration reform legislation that includes funding for his border wall on the US-Mexico border.
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, as well as Democratic Senators Kamala Harris and Tina Smith have called on Nielsen to resign.
‘She says, ‘I’m all alone”
Nielsen told reporters on Monday that she had not listened to the nearly eight-minute audio clip obtained by ProPublica.
In the clip, a six-year-old girl can be heard asking for her aunt, saying the phone number she had memorised.
The aunt told ProPublica that her sister and niece left for the US from El Salvador more than a month ago. When she spoke to the young girl, she said she pleaded with her to come and pick her up.
Imagine getting a call from your six-year-old niece. She's crying and begging me to go get her. She says, 'I promise I'll behave, but please get me out of here. I'm all alone'
“It was the hardest moment in my life,” the aunt told ProPublica. “Imagine getting a call from your six-year-old niece. She’s crying and begging me to go get her. She says, ‘I promise I’ll behave, but please get me out of here. I’m all alone.'”
Prior to the audio clip going viral, Trump said that he would not allow the US to become a “migrant camp”, adding that “it will not be a refugee holding facility. It won’t be.”
‘Nothing short of torture’
Trump’s comments came as many legislators on both sides of the aisle, as well as rights groups, intensified their criticism, with Amnesty International calling his policy “nothing short of torture”.
“Make no mistake, these family separations are a crisis of the government’s own making,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty’s Americas director, said in a statement on Monday.
“This is a particularly cruel policy, where frightened children are being ripped from their parent’s arms and taken to overflowing detention centres, which are effectively cages,” she said.
“This is nothing short of torture.”
The “cages” Guevara-Rosas was referring to are the so-called “shelters” and “detention centres” where individuals, including children, are being housed.
DHS released photos of the centres after a small group of reporters and politicians went on a tour of a facility in Texas over the weekend. The photos show individuals, including children, sitting on mattresses on the floor in chain-link fences.
Over the weekend, protesters also marched to the newly erected tent city in Tornillo, Texas, where hundreds of boys will be housed, according to Congressman Will Hurd, who toured the area.
In February, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report that found that women and children detained by US Customs and Border Protection were regularly held in freezing cells and suffer other harsh treatment.
The report was based on interviews of about 110 women and children who were held in centres in 2015, 2016 and 2017 – under the administrations of both Trump and former President Barack Obama. The majority of the interviews were conducted in 2017.
At the time, Obama officials said the facilities were necessary to deal with an influx in the number of “unaccompanied minors” coming to the US.
The photos outraged the public, as well as immigrants rights groups, many of whom were also staunch critics of the former president’s tough immigration policies.
Local news reports at the time documented stories of children and teens coming home to find a parent detained and eventually deported.
Unlike Trump, however, previous administrations, including that of Obama, did not have a policy of separating nearly all families at the border.
Make no mistake, these family separations are a crisis of the government's own making.
Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy is a departure from the previous precedent that placed those detained in immigration proceedings while their asylum claims were examined or deportation proceedings finalised.
Families were often kept together in centres, or released to await their hearings.
Trump has repeatedly rallied against immigrants since the 2016 presidential election, running on a campaign to build a wall on the US -Mexico border.
He expanded the powers of the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to focus on detaining the majority of undocumented immigrants, including those with no criminal record.
The administration has also ended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for thousands of Salvadorans, Haitians, Nepalis, Nicaraguans and Sudanese.
Trump also attempted to end protections for children brought to the US without documents. That decision has been temporarily blocked by the courts.