US New 'zero tolerance' policy on border creates overflow court hearings in South Texas
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McALLEN, Texas — The government's new "zero tolerance" policy toward undocumented immigrants and its tactic of separating families at the border has taxed the immigration system, from overflowing holding facilities to crammed courts.
Nowhere is this more evident than the 8th floor courtroom of U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas in this border town, the busiest in the nation for illegal crossings.
On Wednesday morning, 72 shackled defendants shuffled into the courtroom, filling nearly all six rows of wooden pews. Handcuffs were removed during the hearing but their ankles remained shackled together.
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They had all been charged with a federal misdemeanor for crossing into the U.S. without papers. Thirteen of them had been separated from their children, some as young as six years old. Another similarly-sized hearing was scheduled for later in the afternoon.
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Before the policy was enacted in May, the court would see about 20 to 30 immigrants a day charged with crimes, said Azalea Aleman-Bendiks, an assistant federal public defender with the court. Today, that number hovers around 150.
"The numbers are just staggering," she said in an interivew with USA TODAY. "I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be able to keep up with this flow."
The Trump administration last month began stepping up criminal prosecutions of people crossing the border illegally, charging nearly everyone who crosses over without proper documentation with a federal misdemeanor. By doing so, under current law, children entering the U.S. alongside adults fall under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, while those criminal cases are pursued.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said the policy is intended to act as a deterrent to others considering crossing illegally into the U.S.
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“We believe every person that enters the country illegally like that should be prosecuted,” Sessions told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday. “And you can’t be giving immunity to people who bring children with them recklessly and improperly and illegally.”
But critics maintain the policy has created a self-inflicted crisis, similar to one in 2014, when more than 70,000 unaccompanied minors flooded over the U.S. southern border with Mexico, overrunning holding facilities and courtrooms.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, Democrat from Texas, spent the past week along the border, meeting with church officials and immigrant advocates. He said he's requested information from the Department of Homeland Security, who oversees immigration agencies, particularly on the status of the children.
"It's a mess," Vela said. "This is essentially an unaccompanied minor crisis manufactured by the president of the United States."
Officials have not released exact figures on how many children are being held alone and how often they're reunited with their parents. The Department of Health and Human Services, who is responsible for the minors, did not reply to several interview requests for this article.
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Since mid-May, Aleman-Bendiks, the federal public defender, said there have been more than 430 children separated from their parents in the McAllen sector alone.
At Wednesday's hearing, she asked each of the 13 defendants who had been separated from their children to stand. None of them had criminal records and only one had been previously deported. One man from Honduras, Freddy Diaz, had been separated from his 9-year-old son. A woman from Honduras, Maria Ramirez, had lost her 6-year-old daughter.
Aleman-Bendiks said she had asked ORR for lists of the children in order to help reunite the families but hadn't received a reply. The defendants were given a phone number to call to inquire about their children but they didn't have access to phones in their holding facilities, she said. She feared some of the parents would get deported without their sons or daughters and urged the court for help.
"This is a tragedy that is happening right before this court," Aleman-Bendiks said.
Magistrate Judge Peter Ormsby said he sympathized with the families but his court didn't have jurisdiction to order the agencies to release information.
"I trust and hope you will be reunited with your family members," he told the defendants. "But I also hope you understand that the reason you were separated is that you violated the laws of the United States."
After the three-hour hearing, the defendants' hands were reshackled and they were led out of the courtroom in small groups.
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