Five Central Americans recently came to the U.S. seeking asylum or refugee status, bringing several children and grandchildren with them. They were arrested near ports of entry in El Paso, according to federal court records.
At the time of their arrest, their children were taken from them by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. Those children are now being held in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, but their parents and grandparent have not been told exactly where they are.
The immigrants, who are from El Salvador and Honduras, claim that the government is intentionally withholding information about and access to their children in an effort to coerce them into admitting they intended to enter the U.S. illegally.
In the past, people with children who came to the States with refugee or asylum claims were generally detained together. Often, they were released on their own recognizance with orders to appear at an immigration hearing.
President Trump and Attorney General Sessions have argued that doing so only encouraged people to come to America seeking asylum or other forms of relief in recent years. They vowed to end the practice and it appears they have done so.
In an effort to deter unauthorized immigrants, Sessions has ordered federal prosecutors to increase prosecutions of people who enter the U.S. without prior authorization or legal justification. Illegal entry into the U.S. is a misdemeanor, but a conviction typically results in deportation and removal. It is not illegal to come to the United States seeking asylum or refugee status.
The five immigrants have filed a motion to dismiss the misdemeanor charges against them. Among other grounds, they claim that separating them from their children in an effort to coerce guilty pleas is a violation of their due process rights.
"What would any caring parent do under the circumstances? Would he or she elect to plea in order to put this behind him or her as soon as possible in order to search for his or her minor child? Or would he or she elect to go to trial and delay an opportunity to check on the welfare of his or her child?" reads the motion.
The government's position is that the immigrants are not being coerced because they can ask for trials. Moreover, it argued that granting the motion would create an incentive for unauthorized immigrants to bring their children along when attempting to enter the United States.
A U.S. magistrate judge has denied the motion, although he expressed concern about the government's separation of children and parents. The immigrants have appealed the magistrate's ruling.