“A life in safety would not mean anything if my children were not here with me”: Joys and Trauma Persist for Refugees Separated from Their Families
Each weekday Josefina* prepares breakfast for her son, helps him begin his school day of remote learning, and greets her babysitter before heading off for work. She loves spending time with her son and is grateful that her supervisors at work are friendly and generous, but laments how expensive rent, groceries, and transportation can be when providing for a family. However, beneath the day-to-day normalcy of childcare and work, Josefina is enduring the traumas of family separation. Despite receiving asylum in 2019 after being forced to remain in Mexico under the now-ended Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), she has not seen or held her two youngest children for more than two years, as she now waits for the government to grant her permission to bring them to safety in the United States.
In 2019, Josefina fled severe gender-based violence in Guatemala with her young son. However, she was afraid to bring her two youngest children on the dangerous journey to the United States and was forced to leave them behind with an elderly family member. Against enormous odds, Josefina and her son were granted asylum, among the fewer than five percent of all individuals who were granted relief in MPP immigration court proceedings. Like the more than 97 percent of people in MPP with completed cases, Josefina did not have an attorney. Although people in MPP without an attorney were 10 times less likely to receive protection, Josefina represented herself and her young son, and they won their case in the fall of 2019.
Despite this remarkable victory, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) forcibly returned Josefina and her son to Mexico and required them to wait there while the government appealed the decision, which blocked Josefina from petitioning to reunite with her other children. Human Rights First helped Josefina enter the United States and find a pro bono attorney. In 2020, she won her case for good and was at last able to begin the process of petitioning to be reunited with her two youngest children.
For people granted asylum, the process to reunite with family stranded abroad is excruciatingly slow. It takes on average between 15 and 29.5 months just to process the family reunification petition. But that is only the first step in the process – it can take more than three years for the petition to be transferred to the appropriate overseas U.S. consulate and for family members to receive an interview and be given permission to enter the United States. Kaitlin Locascio, a staff attorney at Human Rights First, says when working with clients who have received asylum and are petitioning for their children or spouse to join them in the United States: “I usually prepare my clients to wait between four and five years from start to finish.”
Josefina is now living and working in the southern United States and feels safe and secure for the first time in years. Although Josefina enjoys her job as a cook in a restaurant, she continues to face barriers to stability. “The truth is, it is very hard here. In Guatemala, I owned my house, I could harvest. I had animals. Here, it is very hard – if I had not been in the situation surrounding my asylum case that caused me to flee, I would never have left my country.” Josefina is grateful that her son has a stable routine, can attend school, and is “learning [English] little by little.” But she says “Sometimes, I can tell my son has been struggling a lot. Every once in a while, he feels sad about his siblings. And it can be very hard for me to help him get through it.” Most of all, Josefina is desperate to reunite with her children: “My hope for the rest of my immigration case is to have the opportunity to have my children here, with me.”
While the horrific family separations that happened under the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy and MPP have dominated discourse around U.S. border policies over the last four years, a lesser-known family separation crisis grew worse under the Trump administration and continues in the Biden administration.
Today, many asylum seekers like Josefina continue to be separated from family by ongoing backlogs in asylum adjudication and crushing delays in the family reunification process that leave children and spouses often stranded in danger in the countries asylum seekers had fled. Further, the continued use of immigration detention and inhumane border policies like the Title 42 expulsion policy, which has prompted desperate families to send children alone to escape violence, human trafficking, and other dangers in Mexico, lead to needless family separations. Although the Biden administration has strongly condemned the former administration’s explicit family separation policies, these other forms of family separation have yet to receive the same level of attention.
For refugees who have received U.S. asylum protection and managed to reunite with their families in the United States, work still remains to rebuild their lives, heal from their time apart from loved ones, and find ways to thrive in their new communities.
Sayed*, who fled Bangladesh after being detained and tortured for his work as a journalist, has been working to rebuild his relationship with his wife and three children after a years-long separation while his application for asylum was stuck in the asylum office backlog. The delay was unbearable: “My family is everything. They are my survival and my purpose. A life in safety would not mean anything if my children were not here with me,” Sayed said.
But even after Sayed was granted asylum and his family able to join him in the United States in 2019, their reunion was bittersweet. Sayed realized that although he had endured the physical pain of persecution, his family had been forced to carry their own pain during their years-long separation and isolation: “My daughter was an infant when I was imprisoned in Bangladesh, and when I was released, she didn’t recognize me. Then, I was forced to flee the country to save my life while my wife was pregnant. When they came to the United States, my two youngest children had no memories of me,” Sayed said.
Today, Sayed and his family are working to rebuild relationships and recover the years they lost: “Our separation is something we are still trying to heal together.”
Like Sayed, thousands of asylum seekers in the United States are waiting years for the opportunity to present their case to an asylum officer or immigration judge, unable to petition for their families to join them in safety in the United States. These prolonged delays can be an “ongoing stressor” for applicants and their families. Dr. Asher Aladjem, Chief Psychiatrist at the Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture, told Human Rights First that asylum seekers struggle with “the sense that their own lives aren’t only in limbo, but the whole family and the children and the whole [familial] system that they’re part of is impacted.”
One member of a support group at Bellevue for victims of torture, a young father who had already been waiting four years for his asylum interview, felt he had reached a breaking point: “I don’t care if they torture me again. I don’t care if they kill me. I’m just going back to my country… I need to hug my babies. That’s all that matters.” Yet hope remains for thousands of families who have been reunited with loved ones after receiving asylum and whose stories chart a path forward for those still waiting to hold their spouses, children, and parents once again. Another torture survivor in the Bellevue support group who had recently won asylum encouraged this young father: “you can no longer think about your family as the family you left behind. You must see them as the family that is waiting in front of you. They are the reason you must keep pushing forward.”
When Ms. Engochan, who fled persecution due to her political activism in Cameroon, sought asylum at the southern U.S. border in February 2019, U.S. immigration officials transferred her to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jail in Adelanto, California. There she was needlessly detained for six months even though she could have been released to stay with her aunt in Maryland to wait for an asylum hearing. Eventually, an immigration judge granted Ms. Engochan’s request for asylum, she was finally released, and she reunited with her community in the United States. “When I learned I won my asylum case, I felt so excited. It was a light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing that I was finally free – that was an incredible feeling.” When Ms. Engochan reached her aunt’s home in Maryland, she was finally able to feel the embrace of family. “My aunt cooked me a lavish meal of traditional Cameroonian food. Being in a place that felt safe and familiar, surrounded by family, especially after all I had been through, was unforgettable.”
Adjusting to life in the United States has not been easy for Ms. Engochan. But shortly after her arrival in Maryland, Ms. Engochan reunited with a former neighbor from Cameroon who had made the same journey to the United States to escape persecution. “When I first arrived in Maryland to live with my aunt, I felt detached from my community. But over time, one of the things that made me less worried was that I found a familiar community of other African and Cameroonian refugees. One day, by chance, I ran into [a man] I recognized from my city in Cameroon. When we reunited, I realized I could actually build a life and be happy here.”
When Ms. Engochan reflected on her experience in immigration detention in testimony to the U.S. Congress, she told the members, “two things stand out in my memory from this time. One is the bitter cold in my cell. The other is my bitter fear. I had no idea what would happen. For all I knew, I would never be free again.” In her testimony, Ms. Engochan recalled the humiliation of being placed in shackles on her wrists and ankles during her transportation to the detention center, the lack of adequate medical care, over-crowding, and being hungry, tired, and sick due to unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Like many other women detained in her facility, Ms. Engochan had a family member in the United States who could have housed her while she waited for a result in her case: “I applied for parole—and was denied even though I had a sponsor. Other women had more than one sponsor and were also denied parole. There seemed to be no home for me.” Ms. Engochan told Human Rights First that being jailed in U.S. immigration detention after escaping oppression in Cameroon when family members were waiting to receive her was among the most difficult experiences in her life: “My painful past is still with me, and it includes the months I spent locked up in the United States.”
Despite promising to “end prolonged detention” and to “reinvest in alternatives to detention and non-profit case management programs,” the Biden administration continues to detain asylum seekers in immigration jails and to treat asylum seekers at the southern border as so-called “enforcement priorities.” In January 2021, the lowest number of people were being held in immigration jails in over 20 years, but this number has risen by a staggering fifty percent to more than 24,100 immigration detainees as of June 4, 2021. In 2020, asylum seekers who were found to have a fear of return to their home countries were held in detention for more than four months on average, with as many as 3,800 asylum seekers in ICE custody on a given day. Many of these asylum seekers have family or other sponsors in the U.S. who could receive and house them while they wait for their asylum hearings.
Today, Ms. Engochan is rebuilding her life. She is working as a home health aide and studying to be certified as a nurse. “I love to take care of people. It is where I feel most myself. I am glad that I can pursue this as a long-term career.” Ms. Engochan also recently welcomed a baby girl into her family. “My daughter is safe here. She will not face the same discrimination and violence I experienced. But I want her to know how I got here and where I am from. I speak to her in my native language so she will be able to have a close relationship with her grandmother in Cameroon, even if it’s only through video calls. I have so many hopes for her future as a U.S. citizen.”
*Names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of clients.