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At The Border, Some Families Still Face Separation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Immigration and Customs Enforcement continues to separate families at the border. Months ago, a federal judge in San Diego ordered the government to end the practice, except in specific situations. Julie Small of member station KQED reports.

JULIE SMALL, BYLINE: Nearly 2,700 children were taken from parents at the border last spring under a zero tolerance policy of criminally prosecuting the parents. In June, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to stop. But since then, Border Patrol reports separating an additional 81 children from their parents through the end of November.

That's not necessarily a violation of the agreement. In fact, ICE has been separating children from parents believed to pose a danger to them for many years.

LEE GELERNT: We have always conceded that if there are very serious criminal convictions, then the child and parent need to be separated.

SMALL: Lee Gelernt is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. He says the ACLU is looking into the most recent separations.

GELERNT: We're hearing now that the government is separating families based on vague allegations of past gang membership or minor criminal convictions.

SMALL: That's what happened to a mother from El Salvador earlier this year. She was without her toddler for eight months because of suspected gang ties. A judge recently ordered they be reunified when the allegations proved baseless.

The mom, who asked us to use her middle name, Yvette, because of concerns over gang retaliation, described seeing her son again when they were reunited late last month.

YVETTE: (Through interpreter) He came running towards me, calling, Mama. And he hugged me and kissed me. I was crying. I had felt an emptiness in my heart. But once I was finally with him, everything changed.

SMALL: Yvette says her son was only 3 when he was taken out of her arms by border agents and sent to a shelter for children in Chicago. Yvette was held in detention in Laredo, Texas. A few days after she arrived at the facility, she says an official accused her of being involved with a gang.

YVETTE: (Through interpreter) He shoved me in an office, and he said, I need you to give me information about the gangs in your country. I want you to tell me what you're coming to do here.

SMALL: Attorneys with the National Immigrant Justice Center took on her case. They had to fight to get a copy of a warrant from El Salvador that was the basis for separating her from her toddler. Lisa Koop, who represented Yvette at her asylum hearing, says the warrant alleged that her client was involved with a gang.

LISA KOOP: They had every opportunity to bring any evidence that they had that she was in any way affiliated with a gang, and they had nothing.

SMALL: In late November, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., called the government's separation of Yvette and her son based on the warrant alone, quote, "arbitrary, capricious and punitive." He ordered the government to immediately reunite them.

Psychologists worry about the long-term trauma of separations. Speaking from a shelter in Chicago with her son on her lap, Yvette says the boy stays close to her at all times.

YVETTE: (Through interpreter) When he sleeps, he wants to be hugging me. Whenever I start to move away, he holds on. I think he feels I'm going to leave him again.

SMALL: If the ACLU attorneys find that immigration officials are abusing their power to make an end run around the injunction on family separations, they will ask for the federal judge in San Diego to put a stop to it. For NPR News, I'm Julie Small in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.